Here in the Royal Society Library we’ve been busy cataloguing a collection of papers relating to the Society’s expedition to Antarctica in 1955-58.

The expedition was undertaken as part of the International Geophysical Year 1957-58, which was planned to coincide with an approaching period of maximum solar activity. The purpose of the IGY was to undertake collaborative research across nations, spanning 11 earth sciences and 67 countries. The idea was proposed by scientists, including Sydney Chapman FRS, to the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 1950. ICSU set up a special committee for planning the IGY and the Royal Society acted as the UK representative on that committee.

By far the Royal Society’s biggest contribution to the IGY was the establishment of a research station off the Weddell Sea coast in Antarctica, named Halley Bay in honour of Edmond Halley FRS, since the 1956 main mission coincided with the tercentenary of his birth. The Royal Society has a long and illustrious history of funding scientific exploration, including Halley’s own geomagnetic survey and Captain Cook’s famous voyage to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus.


Sea-ice formations in the Weddell Sea, 1956 (photograph by George Hemmen)


In November 1955, the advance party of the Royal Society’s expedition to Antarctica sailed on the MV Tottan. The party consisted of 10 men whose main task was to build the research station, consisting of wooden huts, and to start some basic scientific observations. This was followed by the main party of twenty-one men, who sailed on the MS Magga Dan in November 1956. They were accompanied by a separate party from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE). The main party took over responsibility for the station when they arrived.


The Halley Bay Research station


The MS Magga Dan in pack ice, 1956 (photograph by George Hemmen)


While stationed at Halley, the team collected a vast quantity of data including meteorological and dewcel readings, ozone observations, and studies in geomagnetism and seismology. They also completed regular forms for the Air Ministry: radiosonde height computation sheets and frequency/time graphs, and radar wind data and reduction sheets. This collected data forms a large portion of the newly catalogued Halley Bay collection and presents a fantastic opportunity for researchers to undertake study on meteorological conditions in the Antarctic during that period.


A Halley Bay photomicrograph showing ice crystals, 1956


The newly-catalogued collection also contains material on the logistics and practicalities of planning a large scale expedition such as this one. The paperwork includes details on the recruitment of expedition members, hiring ships, gathering food supplies, and buying equipment. We have copies of committee minutes from various organisations involved in the expedition and working group activities which took place in the UK.

The collection, while being rich in data and evidence of planning, also contains more personal material recorded by members of the expedition. We have several base diaries, including one by David Dalgliesh, who headed the advance party’s expedition. The collection contains copies of handwritten menus created for occasions such as Christmas and Midwinter Day. These menus give an insight into the humorous side of life at the base, including lyrics written about Halley Bay to the tune of well-known songs.

Another highlight of the collection is the inclusion of issues of the ‘Halley Comet’, a light-hearted magazine put together by the expedition staff to document their time at the research station. It includes pieces such as ‘A mysterious orb seen in the sky’.


The front cover of the 1958 Christmas edition, ‘The last Halley Comet’


The Halley Bay midwinter 1958 menu


The original Halley Bay base built by Royal Society team members was handed over to the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (now the British Antarctic Survey) in 1958, and was eventually abandoned in 1968. However, the name has stuck – there have been six Halley Research stations so far, successively abandoned when they were engulfed by snow. The most recent Halley was built on giant skis so it can be dragged to new locations!

This fantastic collection has been catalogued as part of our ‘Expeditions’ series [EXP/11] and can be accessed at the Royal Society Library. Please contact us on in advance if you wish to come and view this collection.


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