R. W. Richards

The Beginning

R. W. 'Dick' Richards was 21 years old in 1914, and had freshly completed a Physics degree at the School of Mines in Ballarat, Australia, and taken a position as Lecturer, when he answered a call for a Physicist to join the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton.

Shacketon intended tomake the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, starting at the Weddell Sea and crossing to the Ross Sea. To do this, he divided the expedition into two parties. The main party, the Weddell Sea party, sailed in the Endurance, a ship constructed specifically for the voyage, to the Weddell Sea. From there six men, including Shackleton, were to sledge across Antractica to the Ross Sea using motorised sledges, a distance of 1700 miles.

The task of the Ross Sea Shore party was to sledge inland along the Beardmore Glacier and lay fuel and food depots for Shackleton's sledging party. The Ross Sea party included Richards and another Australian Physicist, A. K. Jack, who were to make meterological measurements and any other observations they could. For example, a home-made cloud chamber was constructed to measure the air's dust content. They sailed in the Aurora, a ship previously used by Mawson, and refit in Sydney for the new expedition. The ship was under the command of A. L. A. Mackintosh,while E. E. M. Joyce, a well known polar explorer in his own right, was to lead the shore party, which would set up a base from which to sledge out to the depot sites. The Aurora left Sydney on 15 December 1914. From the 21st to the 24th they stopped in Hobart, and after visiting the Australian meteorological station on Macquarie Island, they sailed for the Ross Sea on the last day of 1914. By January 16 they had anchored off Cape Evans, and later went further south,close to Hut Point. The sledging soon got underway, with Joyce and, unexpectedly, Mackintosh leading the team to place the first depot at 80 deg. south.

The Richards Medal
Obverse shows a portrait of R. W. Richards, reverse shows coat of arms of Ballarat College of Advanced Education, later University of Ballarat.


On May the 6th (or the 10th), disaster struck. A blizzard caught the Aurora and drove it beyond sight of land. And then the ice caught the ship, making it unable to return to the Shore Party. Worst of all, the ship had been expedition headquarters, and only minimal supplies had been landed - ten men were stranded on the ice with little food and the Antarctic winter close at hand. Fortunately, Hut Point was named for the hut erected there by Scott on an expedition in 1911, and so they at least had shelter, and they found a useful quantity of food and other goods left by Scott. These things included an acetylene stove, while they had themselves brought a gramophone and a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. With these things, they survied their first winter.

On the other side of the continent, the Endurance had been trapped in ice for ten months - and on October 27th, 1915, crushed. Shackleton had made his way to Elephant Island in the South Hebrides, and then to South Georgia - in nothing more than a modified whaleboat. He then set about relieving the remainder of the Weddell sea party; but the Ross Sea party would have to wait.

As the winter passed, the Ross Sea party began the main effort of putting out the depots, not knowing that they would never be used, and refraining from using the potentially life-saving food and fuel themselves. As their packaged food ran out, their diet more and more consisted of seal meat and penguin meat. Three men died of scurvy, including Mackintosh. Still they put out the depots. At times they sledged for 100 days without ceasing, often hauling the sledges by hand, since the dogs had been overworked early on and many had died. All the men suffered from scurvy in one way or another, and their lives came to depend on the killing of seals, as the creatures provided food and, just as importantly, blubber which could be burned for heating and melting ice for water.


Through the winter of 1916 they carried on, making expeditions to Shackleton's old hut on Cape Royd and searching the snow around the huts for forgotten, frozen foodstuffs. All the while, they wondered about rescue. It had not come in the summer of 1915-16, and they could only assume that the Aurora had sunk or been crushed in the Antarctic ice. January 1917 came. It had been almost two years since they had departed Australian waters and heard any news of the world at large. On 10th January, Richards, who was recovering from an illness brought on by endless weeks of sledging followed by physically carrying an injured companion to safety, left the Hut Point hut after breakfast to find, to his astonishment, the Aurora holding fast off the ice-edge. The ship had made its way slowly to safety, and after a refit had come south again to find the shore party.Shackleton was on the ship, having insisted on sailing south. He described them as '...just about the wildest looking gang of men I had ever seen...'

And while the crew of the Aurora were overwhelmed by the appearance, manner and smell of Richards and the others, the survivors where even more dazed by news of the war in Europe. Before they left, they raised memorials to their own dead. Then they sailed away from Antarctica.

Richards and three others were awarded the Albert Medal in 1923 for their devotion to duty. He was also presented with the George Cross, the highest award a subject of the British Empire could earn without being at war. There is also now an inlet, relatively close to the Beardmore Glacier, known as Richards Inlet.

Richards returned to Ballarat, where he resumed his position as Lecturer in science at the School of Mines and Industries. From 1946-58 he was Principal of the school. He died in 1985. Before his death, he recorded an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Verbatim programme, which can be ordered by mail. In his honour, the award for the best science graduate (all disciplines) from the Ballarat School of Mines and Industries and then the University of Ballarat, is known as the Richard W. Richards medal. It is a pewter medal about 7 cm in diamater. Accompanying it is a slim volume called The Ross Sea Shore Party, 1914-17, which is Richards's own record of the expedition of 1914-17. It is a fascinating document.

References and Links

R. W. Richards, The Ross Sea Shore Party, 1914-17, The Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge 1962.

L. B. Quartermain, South to the Pole: The Early History of the Ross Sea Sector, Antarctica, Oxford University Press, London 1967.

R. Huntford, Shackleton, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1985.

There are also some good Antarctic websites. Here are a couple just on principle:

www.south-pole.com (Especially this page.)

...and here...

Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC.

Scott Polar Research Institute.

Photos of some of the huts and things can be found here.

And the University of Ballarat has a page on the subject here.

Some comments from the University of Ballarat (top) and the cover of Richards's monograph.