Charles Turnbull Harrisson (1866–1914)
Charles Turnbull Harrisson (known as “Chas T”) was born into the Kingston farming family of Eleanor Horne Turnbull and Charles Harrisson, not far from today’s Australian Antarctic Division building that bears his name. He grew up surrounded by the beauty of plants and animals, which he was to study and capture in paint and pencil, making his work as an artist and biologist a logical progression.
Achievements in Antarctica
Through paintings and sketches, Harrisson recorded the daily life of the Western Base party, living in “The Grottoes” and the beauty that surrounded them. His biological work included constructing the winch and traps he used to obtain specimens from the depths.
In addition to his specific tasks, Harrisson was responsible for the lamps and taking his turn to cook. Along with Kennedy and Jones, Harrisson constructed an igloo to be used as a magnetic observatory, and later assisted to rebuild it when the 160 km/h winds of May 1912, wreaked havoc.
Harrisson completed various sledging journeys. Accompanying geologists Hoadley and Watson, Harrisson went south to photograph, search for seals, and examine icebergs. He joined Wild, Hoadley, Dovers and Watson on the trek to Icy Cape, finding a path to the sea-ice and discovering a spectacular cave. Harrisson and Watson had a narrow escape on 31 July, when a mass of hard snow fell from above them, missing the men and cracking the sea ice.
Harrisson was among the six-man sledging journey which lay a provisions depot of a sledge and provisions, 135 km from The Grottoes. This would be used in summer exploration. While Dovers measured and Watson collected geological specimens, Harrisson sketched until his fingers were frost bitten, in the −26°C conditions. On one particularly hazardous part of the trek, 160 km/h winds and avalanches were encountered. Harrisson was lifted into the air and carried six meters. They were forced to shelter for five anxious days, sheltering from the powerful winds and crashing snow.
Harrisson was among Jones’ depot laying party, which when overdue was searched for by Wild. Wild discovered that rough terrain and a 17 day blizzard delayed them, and they were unable to lay their depot, but all made a safe return.
Although Wild’s intention come summer was for Harrisson and Moyes to remain at The Grottoes to continue work in meteorology and biology, Harrisson accompanied Wild’s party with a support sledge and dogs. Harrisson intended to make a lone trek of 160km to return to The Grottoes. However, Wild discovered that the sledge previously left at the depot had blown away, so they were in need of the sledge brought by Harrisson. Without his sledge, Harrisson was unable to return to The Grottoes as planned, so he stayed with the eastern exploration party. Unfortunately, this led Moyes to believe Harrisson had perished on his solo journey. Wild’s party had all suffered falls down crevasses, Harrisson having fallen 4.5 metres on one occasion. When Moyes calculated Harrisson’s food supply to have run out, he searched for him for six days before returning to The Grottoes, where he had been alone for nine weeks. When the party returned, including Harrisson, Moyes demonstrated his ecstasy by standing on his head.
Tragically lost, aged 48
On his return from Antarctica, Harrisson became a biologist, conducting research for the Commonwealth Department of Fisheries. In this capacity, he was aboard the Endeavour, which resupplied the meteorological station established by Mawson’s 1911–1914 expedition.
Departing Macquarie Island on 3 December 1914, the Endeavour was expected in Hobart on 9 December. Delays in searching for the vessel were twofold: initially the delay was possibly due to the ships party conducting scientific trawling, and secondly, Australia’s shipping resources were directed to the war effort. However, with difficulty, the Federal Government, under Mr. A. Fisher as Prime Minister, did send the steamer Werribee, under Captain Bolger’s command, to search for the Endeavour later joined by the Government chartered Grantala. The New Zealand Prime Minister sent the Tutanekai to search the Snares, Auckland and Campbell Islands. There was no wreckage and supply depots for the shipwrecked were undisturbed. J K Davis, commanding the Aurora, was unsuccessful in his attempt to locate the Endeavour.
Thoughts of finding survivors were abandoned after 42 days of hoping. The Marine Court of Inquiry found that the Endeavour had sufficient crew, coal supplies, stores and emergency equipment, and was completely seaworthy. The gales and tremendous seas of 5 December claimed the ship and its company of 21.
Married to Annie Caroline Butler with children, Charles and Mary, leaving for the unknown may have brought mixed emotions: excitement at the prospect of exposure to previously undocumented flora and fauna; and sadness at sacrificing experiencing his children’s milestones. Thoughts of returning to family fed his courage and determination to survive the most harrowing of Antarctic sledging times.
Harrisson was well liked by all who knew him. The Field Naturalists Club presented him with a thermos, a sheath knife and steel, and a compass before he left on Mawson’s 1911–1914 expedition; they wanted to ensure he would find his way home again. Mr A L Butler, chairman of the club described him as “a most ardent naturalist” and always “willing to share his knowledge.” Harrisson had sailed on the Edna, and was considered one of the most hard-working by those on board. Moyes’s joy at Harrisson’s safe return is testament to the high regard felt for him by fellow expeditioners.
Written by K Quinn