Postal Memories from the Antarctic

Fifty years ago Lewis Juckes, now retired, was a geologist driving a dog sledge among the mountains of Antarctica.  Even in that remote location mailbags played a part in his daily routine.  Here he tells us how that came about.

This story starts over half a century ago, in December 1963 when I was one of twenty or so employees of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who boarded the Kista Dan to sail from Southampton to Stanley in the Falkland Islands and then to our allocated bases.

The Kista Dan unloading in Halley Bay, January 1964.  This was one of the few usable bays in the otherwise continuous ice cliffs that made up the edge of the ice shelf.  The base had been constructed about a mile “inland”, on the flat surface of the ice shelf although by this time the older buildings had become completely  buried by the annual accumulation of snow.

The Kista Dan unloading in Halley Bay, January 1964. This was one of the few usable bays in the otherwise continuous ice cliffs that made up the edge of the ice shelf. The base had been constructed about a mile “inland”, on the flat surface of the ice shelf although by this time the older buildings had become completely buried by the annual accumulation of snow.

In Stanley, and a few days later on the island of South Georgia, most of us bought souvenir postage stamps.  I just followed what the others seemed to be doing and bought a series of stamps working up through the values from the lowest of ½d.  Our understanding was that the Post Office there, and in Britain, was not permitted to frank stamps simply to record the date and place for collectors.  Its job was to deliver mail.  Thus I stuck my stamps on to an envelope, leaving a space in the middle for my own name.  Now I could hand my envelope over the counter, where the assistant would accept it as a piece of mail being posted.  After franking the stamps he would deliver it by handing it back, and no rules had been broken.

The standard rate for a letter between the bases and the Falkland Islands was 1d (one old penny) in the mid-1960s.  It was not an airmail service but often these envelopes were the only ones to hand.

The standard rate for a letter between the bases and the Falkland Islands was 1d (one old penny) in the mid-1960s. It was not an airmail service but often these envelopes were the only ones to hand.

Not all of these sets were full ones, up to the top value.  Leaving out the top two values of £1 and 10s cut the price of the investment by almost three quarters and still left an attractive selection of stamps on the envelope.

A full set of stamps of the Falkland Islands Dependency of South Georgia, dated 9th February 1966.  The last whaling station there had closed a few months earlier but the stamps still reflect that era.

A full set of stamps of the Falkland Islands Dependency of South Georgia, dated 9th February 1966. The last whaling station there had closed a few months earlier but the stamps still reflect that era.

Onward, then, to our main objective: the scientific base at Halley Bay, on the Brunt Ice Shelf on the eastern side of the Weddell Sea.  After a frantic six days of unloading, the ship left and we were on our own for a full year.  Until the next relief all communication with the outside world would be by radio, with the more confidential official messages going in diplomatic code.

A full set of British Antarctic Territory stamps on a letter posted to South Africa from Halley Bay on 30th January 1964.

A full set of British Antarctic Territory stamps on a letter posted to South Africa from Halley Bay on 30th January 1964.

Although the base was also officially a Post Office there was no special building or even an allocated room for it.  The Base Leader automatically held the title of Assistant Colonial Postmaster but he normally delegated the tasks involved so that during my time there it was a meteorologist named Chris Miller who actually sold stamps and franked letters.

After the ship had left, Chris only opened the Post Office once or twice in the next year.  That means he brought out his stock of stamps, his equipment for franking and his cash box from where they were stored in the safe in the Base Leader’s office and he set them up on a table in the lounge.  Midwinter, our biggest celebration of the year, was the main occasion when he set up shop so that we could buy souvenir stamps and have them franked with the date.  In 1965 Chris sold £70 worth of stamps at Midwinter, an impressive sum when one remembers that there were only 32 people at the base.  As for genuine mail items, far more came down for us than we ever sent out and we had a very different use for some of the surplus mailbags that were thus available.

A full set of Falkland Island stamps franked in Stanley Post Office, 15th February 1966.  The ink-pad was probably due for renewal!

A full set of Falkland Island stamps franked in Stanley Post Office, 15th February 1966. The ink-pad was probably due for renewal!

I was there as a geologist which meant that during the summer I would have to spend more than six months in the field, away from the base and travelling with a sledge and dog team.  The main items carried on this sledge were a tent, what we called “manfood”, and dog food.  There were also personal items such as a sleeping bag, a sheepskin to put beneath that, and an inflatable mattress to keep it all off the chilly groundsheet.  Each man had a small kitbag that we called a “P-bag” (for “Personal bag”) holding items like spare garments, reading matter, diary, toilet bag, repair kit and so on.  At night the P-bag also served as a rather bumpy pillow.

Tony Baker and Lewis Juckes drinking in the New Year of 1965 by the light of the midnight sun, about 300 miles east of Halley Bay.  One of the mailbags makes up the front of the sledge load.

Tony Baker and Lewis Juckes drinking in the New Year of 1965 by the light of the midnight sun, about 300 miles east of Halley Bay. One of the mailbags makes up the front of the sledge load.

What was the best container to hold these personal items?  A large sack would be ideal, and it would need to sturdy enough to withstand months of rough use.  As it happened, our Postmaster had a good supply of just such bags.  Our standard dog-sledging routine involved two men per sledge, and our idea of a well-distributed load had one of these mailbags at each end – as can be seen in many of the photographs that we took at the time.

I must admit that I sometimes pictured a British Post Office with a notice on the wall warning against misuse of Post Office property and the severe penalties for such an offence, and wondered whether it might apply to us.  But then, Antarctica has no government and no laws!

All photographs copyright Lewis Juckes

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