British explorer's washed clothes a mystery

  • 09/01/2016
Mawson's Huts Foundation conservator Michelle Berry examines clothing (AAP)
Mawson's Huts Foundation conservator Michelle Berry examines clothing (AAP)

By David Killick

The discovery of a dead man's clothing washed and neatly folded in a remote Antarctic field hut has created a mystery more than a century after he disappeared down a crevasse.

British Army officer Belgrave Ninnis, 25, died while on a sledging journey with Douglas Mawson on December 14, 1912.

Archaeologist Jodi Steele noticed a label in a bundle of clothing in an outbuilding during a brief visit to the Mawson's Huts Historic Site at Cape Denison, Antarctica, in 2009 and tipped off conservator Michelle Berry.

This week Ms Berry removed the shirt, jumper, trousers and thermal underwear from the spot they had lain for more than 100 years for closer examination.

Labels and a tailor's receipt found in a pocket confirmed they belonged to Ninnis.

Ms Berry said it was puzzling why someone had washed the clothing, neatly folded it, removed it from Ninnis' bunk in Mawson's Hut and carried it to the Magnetograph House, a building that housed scientific equipment, several hundreds of metres away.

"Finding Ninnis' clothing in the Magnetograph House is really surprising. For years people have assumed the clothing belonged to Eric Webb who worked there," she said.

"If you look around Mawson's Hut there is abandoned clothing all over the place, there are socks on the floor, there are caps, there are piles of knitted jumpers.

"The way that this particular clothing has been washed and placed in the Magnetograph House they clearly weren't happy to abandon this cache of clothing. It has some significance."

The appearance of the clothing is at odds with Mawson's letter to Ninnis family: "All of Lieutenant Ninnis' effects have been well packed and returned to you," he wrote.

"Ninnis' gear would have sat in the hut for the second year of the expedition after his death," Ms Berry said. "It's speculation but they may have washed it and packed it up and decided at the last moment not to send it.

"They also didn't want to dispose of it - to throw it out the door with all of their other rubbish.

"Nobody talks about it in their diaries. It's a sad moment in time for these men who are left with the memories of their friend."

The loss of Ninnis on the sledging journey doomed his best friend, Xavier Mertz, who died from the combined effects of malnutrition and vitamin A poisoning from eating dog livers three weeks later as he and Mawson tried to reach their base 500km away with half their supplies gone.

Mawson staggered back just hours after his ship departed - leaving him stranded for another year.

Ninnis was aware of the risks he faced as he left on his final sledging journey.

His last diary entry reads: "I must close my writing for now, maybe for two months, maybe for good ... I hope we shall pull through alright."

A team of six expeditioners from the Mawson's Huts Foundation is carrying out conservation works at Cape Denison this summer.