Mawson’s historic site consists of four huts and other historical remains.
Nestled on rocks just 60 metres from the shore at the base of Cape Denison, East Antarctica, Mawson’s Huts are the jewel in Australia’s rich Antarctic heritage.
Protected under international and national law, Mawson’s Huts are entered in the Register of the National Estate and the Main Hut and Memorial Cross are recognised as Historic Monuments by the Antarctic Treaty Parties. The Australian Heritage Commission has recommended that the whole of the Cape Denison establishment be recognised as an historic zone.
The site at Cape Denison, is one of just six historic sites which remain intact from the “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration – which stretched from 1897 to 1917. The Mawson’s Huts historic site consists of four huts and other historical remains: The main building comprised the living quarters and a workshop and remains fully intact thanks to the efforts of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation; three other huts were used to conduct scientific observations – two of them, now standing ruins; and a Memorial Cross, erected in memory of the two members of the AAE who lost their lives.
These Huts were used as the main base for two years, by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911-14 led by Dr Douglas Mawson. His was the world’s first truly scientific expedition to the white continent and one of several land based exploratory expeditions from Britain, Norway, France, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Japan and Scotland.
Mawson’s Huts represent the only in-situ evidence of early Australian Antarctic research. Among the many scientific achievements of Mawson’s Expedition was the first use of radio on the Antarctic continent, linking the base at Cape Denison with mainland Australia via the relay station established on Macquarie Island, for the continuous recording and transmission of meteorological observations.
Funds are urgently needed to continue an expensive conservation and maintenance programme that requires regular visit to one of the remotest places on the continent.
The Main Hut
The structure is made of two prefabricated huts providing living quarters and a workshop.
Its survival in the most severe of polar climates attests to the merit of Mawson’s design and its great strength of structure.
The Australian Antarctic Expedition’s winter base is considered the primary historic artefact at Cape Denison. Commonly known as the Main Hut, it combines two prefabricated expedition huts – originally planned for separate locations – into one.
Timber uprights were placed in holes blasted in bedrock, and held in place with rock and ice, before being joined to form a frame and clad with Baltic pine boards. They provide a living hut with a workshop leading off it. The entire structure is still complete but largely ice-filled. The frame building is clad in tongue and grooved baltic pine boards with little or no insulation material added.
The pyramid-roofed hut, measuring just 7.3m square, provided sleeping, kitchen, dining, laundry, storage and darkroom facilities for 18 men. The adjoining hip-roofed hut measures 5.5m x 4.9m and was equipped as a workshop, complete with wireless equipment and generator, lathe, stove and benches for the carpenter, mechanic and scientists. Skylights in the living quarters’ roof provided natural light, while an acetylene generator mixed calcium carbide and water to create the acetylene gas used as artificial lighting.
A 1.5m wide verandah surrounded the structure on three sides. The section surrounding the living quarters stored food and other supplies and biological specimens. Next to the biological store area a structure of benzine cases provided a makeshift aircraft hangar, where Bickerton transformed the AAE’s first wingless aeroplane (damaged before departure) into a tractor sledge. The workshop’s western verandah provided the entrance porch, latrine and trapdoor access to the meat cellar; the eastern verandah housed the sled dogs. An auroral observatory was attached to the northern face of the workshop. During winter, when the hut was encased in drift snow, metres thick, access tunnels were dug from the western verandah to the outside world. Even so, the men were occasionally required to exit the workshop via a trap door in the verandah roof.
The hut is still standing but in poor condition. Originally known as the Astronomical Observatory, the Transit Hut housed instrumentation used to take star sights to determine the exact latitude and longitude of Cape Denison.
Construction of the hut commenced in May 1913. The Oregon timber frame was braced with metal half brackets and lined externally with timbers salvaged from packing crates. The structure was weatherproofed with sheepskin and canvas.
There was a door in the northeast corner, and narrow slots in the roof and upper parts of the north and south elevations to enable observations. The ‘ten-inch transit instrument’, presented to the Australian Antarctic Expedition by the Government Astronomer, was positioned on a square timber pillar and set into the rock inside the hut.
The Transit Hut has been repaired numerous times. Recent repairs entailed re-fixing loose boards and bracing members with stainless steel screws. However, wind-induced vibrations and other movements have caused the screws to fatigue and fracture. The wind has also eroded the hut’s timbers to the point that the integrity of the building is marginal. Experts believe the installation of new timbers will not improve the situation, and the hut is now considered to be a standing ruin.
Located some 310m northeast of the Main Hut, it is still intact and largely ice free. It housed the delicate equipment that continually measured variations in the Earth’s magnetic field near the South Magnetic Pole.
The hut was purchased in kit form and in March 1912, explosives were used to clear a suitable construction site. After wind gusts demolished the first construction attempt, the rectangular oregon frame was rebuilt and lined with baltic pine tongue-and-groove boards and tarpaper using copper nails salvaged from the Clyde, a schooner the AAE had found wrecked on Macquarie Island.
The team spent two days heaping some 30 tonnes of rock around the building, creating a weatherproof barrier that kept the temperature inside the hut relatively constant. The hut’s double porch (with three doors, including one from the Clyde) and roof-covering of sheepskin and hessian also helped to regulate the temperature. A copper ventilator in the roof over the porch provided air flow.
Eric Webb (the chief magnetician from the 1911-1914 expedition) collected records from the Magnetograph House at least once a day, every day, regardless of the weather conditions. During blizzards and winter nights, when visibility was almost zero, he navigated his way to the hut and back by dead reckoning, keeping a constant bearing on the wind coming from the south. “I have the greatest admiration,” wrote Mawson, “for the unfailing manner in which [the scientists] carried out their duties under such difficult conditions.”
During the summer of 1997-98 the Mawson’s Huts Expedition replaced damaged external cladding on the roof with new Baltic pine boards coated with a protective varnish. This new cladding, and repairs to the external southern and western walls, has proved largely successful in keeping the hut interior free of snow and ice.
Absolute Magnetic Hut
Located some 52m south of the Magnetograph House, the hut is now in ruins. Used to collect measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field. These measurements were then used to calibrate the records collected from the Magnetograph House.
Measuring just 1.8m x 1.8m, the hut was constructed during February 1912 with remnant timber and tarpaper, and copper nails salvaged from the shipwrecked Clyde.
Copper was preferable to steel because as a non-ferrous metal, it would not interfere with the magnetic measurements. However, archaeologists have discovered that steel nails were used when the supply of copper nails ran out! No-one actually entered the hut – the scientific instruments inside were set into rock and accessed from outside via small sliding doors.
After the departure of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, this hut and the Magnetograph House were reused by the French Antarctic Expedition, which made magnetic observations in 1951 and 1959, and by New Zealand researchers in 1962. The weather has since inflicted considerable damage on the hut, tearing off some boards and eroding others to a fraction of their original thickness. In 1997-98 the Mawson’s Hut Expedition salvaged boards from the ice surrounding the hut and reattached them. Today the Absolute Magnetic Hut is considered a standing ruin.
The Memorial Cross was erected in November 1913 in memory of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, the AAE members who perished during the notorious 1912-13 sledging journey that Mawson himself barely survived.
The Cross was built by Bickerton and Hodgeman with Oregon Pine (Douglas Fir) timbers salvaged from broken radio masts.
“Strength was essential in order to brave the hurricanes”, Mawson noted. “The several parts were bolted together and bound with heavy strips of brass. When completed it appeared solid enough to last for a hundred years even in that strenuous climate.”
However, the position of the Cross, high on Azimuth Hill, means that it has borne the full brunt of the winds. The crossbar has blown off on numerous occasions: in 1931 it was reattached by the BANZARE; in 1978 by AAD personnel; and in 1997-98 by the Mawson’s Huts Foundation expedition using a purpose-built stainless-steel bracket. The original plaque, inscribed by Hodgeman, was returned to Australia for conservation in 1970.
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The Foundation is a not for profit charity seeking funds to promote and encourage public interest in the nation’s Antarctic history including the conservation of Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison, East Antarctica.
The Mawson’s Huts Foundation is a registered Deductible Gift Recipient with all monetary donations tax deductible.
Conservation & Restoration
Since its establishment in 1996, the Foundation has funded and organised 14 major expeditions to the Mawson’s Huts historic site at Cape Denison. The expeditions have saved the main building from imploding and being blown into the Southern ocean, just 60 metres away.