Antarctic wonder

Antarctica's first book

Title page of Aurora Australis, showing '1908-09', the title, and a drawing of an aurora.Title page of Aurora Australis. Record page

The Aurora Australis (1908) is one of the wonders of the Antarctic region. It was the first book to be written, printed and bound in the Antarctic, and was a product of wintering over at Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound and the Shackleton Expedition of 1907-1909. Around 90-100 copies were printed, but not all have survived.

Detail from imprint page of Aurora Australis, showing a trade mark with penguins.Detail from the imprint page of Aurora Australis (1908). Alexander Turnbull Library copy 1.

When preparing for the expedition, Shackleton realised he would need to find something for his men to do over the long winter months and one idea was to produce a book. Consequently, expedition members wrote, typeset, and printed the text for the Aurora in the cramped quarters of the Cape Royds hut; the illustrations also created onsite and printed on an etching press.

The type case and printing press used for the production of the Aurora Australis in the cramped quarters of  Ernest Joyce and Frank Wild’s cubicle known as ‘The Rogues’ Retreat’The type case (centre) and printing press (lower right) used for the production of the Aurora Australis in the cramped quarters of Ernest Joyce and Frank Wild’s cubicle known as ‘The Rogues’ Retreat’, Cape Royds hut, Antarctica. Shackleton, Heart of the Antarctic (London, 1909), vol. 1, facing p.222. Ref: REng SHAC Heart 1909.

Printing this book was not an easy task given the freezing conditions. The intense cold meant that a lamp had to be kept under the type case to keep it warm enough so that the men could handle the cold metal, and a candle had to be moved back and forth under the inking plate so that the ink did not freeze. Dust from the seal-blubber and coal stove filled the air and settled on the paper as the text was being printed, and traces of salt in the water affected the sensitive aluminium plates used to reproduce the illustrations. Despite all this a book of astonishing quality was produced. Even the bindings were constructed on the spot using venesta board from expedition packing cases and horse harness leather for the spines.

Venesta board and horse harness leather used in the construction of the bindingVenesta board and horse harness leather used in the construction of the binding of the Aurora Australis (1908). Alexander Turnbull Library copy 1.

‘Julienne Soup’ and ‘Beans’

Two of the copies held at the Alexander Turnbull Library are known as the ‘Julienne Soup’ and ‘Beans’ copies. These are the words stencilled on the insides of their wooden covers, indicative of what the packing cases originally contained. Many other copies around the world are also identified in this manner.

Inside the lower cover showing the stencilled word ‘Beans’Inside the lower cover showing the stencilled word ‘Beans’. Alexander Turnbull Library copy 2.

The ‘Beans’ copy was acquired by the Library’s founder, Alexander Turnbull, possibly in 1912 from the London bookseller Edward Francis, and the ‘Julienne Soup’ copy entered the Library as part of the large Kinsey bequest in 1936. Sir Joseph Kinsey, a keen Antarctic follower, was the Christchurch attorney for both the Scott and Shackleton expeditions.

The new addition to the Turnbull Library

The Turnbull Library recently received a third copy of the Aurora Australis. Why a third copy? Apart from the Antarctic being one of our main collecting areas, copies can vary and there is much interest in documenting these differences. Being able to view more than one copy side-by-side is also a bonus for the researcher.

The new addition is known as the ‘Truscott Copy’ after G. Wyatt Truscott, its first owner and Lord Mayor of London 1908-1909. A hand-written note inside indicates that this was a presentation copy from Shackleton to Truscott. The volume also contains Truscott’s bookplate.

Hand-written note in the Truscott copy.Presentation copy from Shackleton to G. Wyatt Truscott. Alexander Turnbull Library, copy 3. Photo by Ruth Lightbourne.

Subsequent provenance shows that this copy was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London on 29 November 1990, but in a damaged state and with some leaves missing. At some point after this, conservation work was carried out and all the leaves were secured and a tear repaired, the leather backstrip and hinges replaced, and eight clearly labelled facsimile leaves were inserted to replace the missing leaves.

It was then purchased in 2002 by a private collector from the East Coast of the USA. From there it probably moved to the bookdealer, Waverly & Rugby Books, in Pinehurst, North Carolina, USA, a dealership specializing in scholarly books in philosophy, history of science, and the history of ideas, founded in 1999 by two retired teachers. It was from here that the Turnbull Library made its purchase in May 2013.

Other copies held in New Zealand and elsewhere

Most extant copies are held in the United Kingdom, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition to the copies in the Turnbull Library, the only other known institutional copy in this country is held at the Canterbury Museum. The copy formerly held at the Hocken Library, Dunedin, was returned to the family of its original owner, Wellington lawyer Leonard Tripp, in 2005.

There is at least one copy currently known to be in private hands near Hastings (the existence of two other copies privately held near Wellington is currently unconfirmed).

Other copies known to have been in New Zealand at some time in their history include a copy presented by Shackleton to the actress Belle Donaldson in 1910 and formerly held by the Skellerup family of Christchurch. This was sold at a Sothebys auction in 1970 and now resides in a private collection in Ireland. The Ernest Joyce copy, consigned to auction by a member of the Joyce family was auctioned in 1992 by Webb Galleries in Auckland and was bought by a private collector in New Jersey, USA.

Australia has 11 institutional copies and two confirmed copies in private collections. An up-to-date census of locations for the Aurora Australis with further information on each copy is maintained on the Antarctic Circle website.

Digitised copies

Several institutions have digitised their copies, thus allowing researchers and other interested parties to view these remotely online from anywhere in the world, either individually or side by side. Differences which can be observed between copies include the order in which the un-numbered leaves were bound; the final printed leaf ‘A giant tick was investigating the carcase’ may or may not be included; leaves may be upside down; some illustrations are tipped in rather than presented as originally printed on the full-size page (perhaps due to damaged margins); and most significant, in many copies, leaf 63 was reprinted to include an additional eleventh plate and reset text.

Digitised copies in the Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand:

Digitised copies in Australia:

Viewing the originals

The physical copies are also available for consultation onsite in the Turnbull Library's Katherine Mansfield Reading Room. Readers must be registered with the Library, and will need to make an appointment with me by calling 04 4 474 3023 or emailing

By Ruth Lightbourne

Curator, Rare Books and Fine Printing

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field

Be the first to comment.