Found - Lost Antarctic explorer

Lesley Richmond, Archive Services, University of Glasgow; John Faithfull, Hunterian Musuem, University of Glasgow; and Reto Tschan, Back of Scotland Archives

(First published in Dunaskin News, February 2004)

News of one of our new accessions has caused great excitement with our colleagues in the Hunterian Museum, especially within the geology section. The papers of Glasgow University alumnus, David Ferguson, mining engineer and foreign prospector, turned out to be the lost papers of David Ferguson, Antarctic explorer. The Museum’s largest single collection of Antarctic rocks, several hundred specimens from South Georgia, the South Orkneys, South Shetlands, Dancoland and elsewhere, were collected on private geological survey expeditions mounted by Ferguson for the Scottish company, Christian Salvasen between 1911 and 1915. Glasgow University staff, especially Professor J W Gregory, and G W Tyrrell, scientifically described the rocks.

Relatively little was known of Ferguson as a geologist or of the expeditions themselves, and no primary archival material was known to survive until the Bank of Scotland Archives gifted this collection to us. The Bank’s Archive staff were unsure as to why the collection was in their archives and have hypothesised that the Bank had acted in trust for Ferguson’s estate and when he died the bank was left with his papers. It was inappropriate for this collection to stay with the Bank’s corporate archives and as the surveyor and mining engineer was a former Glasgow student the collection was offered to GUAS. Museum staff immediately made the connection but had been unaware that Ferguson had studied Geology and Mineralogy as a mature student of 48 between 1905-1907.

The collection consists of notebooks and other materials and includes at least some of his Antarctic notebooks. They are badly water-damaged, but the writing and diagrams are mostly clear and comprehensible. This is a very historically significant addition to the University’s important Antarctic collections, and there is the potential for a lot of fascinating background information on these early Antarctic geological expeditions. We shall be working closely with the Museum to explore ways in which conservation of the notebooks might be funded, and to see how a project of describing and perhaps transcribing these notebooks might be undertaken.

A description of the material in greater detail follows:

The collection consists of 4 letter books; 40 notebooks; and 6 items, dating from 1890-1936 and has been arranged into three series.

  • Series 1 consists of wet copy letter books, some trivial, but many describing geological findings from surveys, samples, specimens etc. Dating from 1919-1936 the volumes contain copies of Ferguson’s business correspondence, including many letters to Howard Spence and J P Llewellyn of Peter Spence & Sons Co, Manchester, and a holograph statement of David Ferguson’s will and a statement of assets, 20th August 1926.
  • Series 2 consists of 40 notebooks dating from 1891-1925 containing notes on visits to South Georgia Island, South Shetland Island, the Falkland Islands and the Belgiac Strait (1912-1915), Zambesi and Bulawayo (1901-1903), Iran (1891), Newfoundland (1894), plus mining surveys in Scotland (Paisley, Ayrshire, Kirkcudbright); notebooks which appear to be notes from university lectures on geology, chemistry and electrical engineering (1906-1907); and several other miscellaneous notebooks.
  • Series 3 contains various miscellaneous items dating from 1900-1930, comprising J W Broomhead, Round the Rand: Present Position and Prospects of the Principal Rand Mining and Finance Companies. 1909; annotated Ordnance Survey map of Dreghorn and surrounding area [n.d.]; map published by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society showing the track of the Scotia during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition 1902-1904, to accompany a lecture given by W S Bruce, 14 December 1905, at the Athenaeum, Glasgow; address book [n.d.]; photograph of Halverfordwest map and guide [n.d.]; paper on underground surveys written by Ferguson [?] 1888.

There is also some related Ferguson material at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. It is hoped, however, that these re-discovered papers of David Ferguson will give back a place in history to this unsung and relatively forgotten figure in early Antarctic exploration.