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BENJAMIN LEIGH SMITH, ENGLISH YACHTSMAN & ARCTIC EXPLORER

The cover has four ‘Laureate’ stamps of Victoria, a single and a pair of the green ‘ONE PENNY’ and a single blue ‘SIX PENCE’ which are canceled with a duplex MELBOURNE/ 3H/ NO 7/ 71 VICTORIA.   It is addressed to Benjn Leigh Smith Esq, Oxford & Cambridge Club, Pall Mall, London (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The reverse has a reception postmark of LONDON/-SW/ H ( )/ DE 20/ 71 (Figure 2)

Figure 2

Benjamin Leigh Smith was born in East Sussex, England, on 12 March 1828 into a wealthy and political family. His father Benjamin, was a Member of Parliament for three years and encouraged his children to undertake independent travel as well as thought. Leigh Smith entered Cambridge at twenty, where he was reputed as a good shot and yachtsman. He earned his BA (1857) and Master’s (1861) degrees, and was admitted to the Bar, but did not practice law. Leigh Smith did not marry until age fifty-nine, to Charlotte Seller, some thirty years his younger. They had one son, Philip. Despite the active scientific research practiced on his polar expeditions, Leigh Smith published no detailed account of his expeditions. A very private individual, he published no memoir and was despite his accomplishments he was largely forgotten by the time of his death at Hampstead on January 4, 1913.

Leigh Smith made early geographical surveys of Svalbard (an archipelago of islands north of Norway and half-way to the North Pole) and Franz Josef Land between 1871 and 1881, and was preoccupied with the scientific exploration of the Arctic. A financially independent graduate of Cambridge, he earned a Master’s certificate to gain the competence to sail his own ships. His five expeditions all sought to engage in detailed surveying of uncharted Arctic coastlines, conduct oceanographic research, and gather geological and biological specimens for natural history collections in Britain.


In the summer of 1871, Leigh Smith launched his first Arctic expedition, a geographic and oceanographic exploration of the north coast of Svalbard from the decks of an eighty-five-ton ice-strengthened ketch named Samson. The Samson cleared Bjornoya (Bear Island) and Prince Karls Forland before rounding the northwest corner of Svalbard, sailing across the northern entrance of Hinlopenstretet, and thence along the northern coast of Nordaustlandet (North East Land) as far as a point later named for Leigh Smith. After charting several small islands, Leigh Smith raised his yacht club’s ensign on the flagstaff erected on Parryoya by Pary’s 1827 expedition.


Leigh Smith had Samson fitted out for another voyage to the Arctic in 1872. The expedition left Hull on 13 May and at Jan Mayen Land he mapped several craters. Ice conditions were considerably worse than a year earlier, and Samson was damaged and beached for repairs at Widjefjorden. Leigh Smith was forced to make for England in September, without sailing nearly as far to the north and east as during his first expedition.

In 1873, Leigh Smith chartered James Lamont’s Arctic steamer Diana, and with Samson in reserve attempted to round Svalbard and survey Kong Karls Land (King Charles Land). Before being stopped and forced to turn back by ice at Kapp Platen, Leigh Smith succeeded in relieving A.E. Nordenskiöld’s Swedish expedition, beset the previous year near Mosselbukta. In addition to their pioneering Arctic oceanographic research, these three expeditions were critical in establishing the coastline and eastern extent of Nordaustlandet.

Leigh Smith’s experiences with varying ice conditions north of Svalbard, as well as his apparent desire to see how far north he could force a properly equipped screw steamer, likely factored into the design and construction of Eira. This 125 ft screw barkentine would take Leigh Smith on two pioneering expeditions to Franz Josef Land. Leigh Smith’s plans to explore Jan Mayen Land and the northeastern coast of Greenland in the summer of 1880 were thwarted by fog and ice, as was his attempt to pass beyond Amsterdamoya (a whaling station) off Northwest Spitsbergen.

The expedition charted the shorelines of McClintock, May, Hooker, Etheridge, Bruce, and Northbrook islands (the latter which Leigh Smith named after the late president of the Royal Geographical Society), as well as parts of George Land and Alexandra Land. A striking amphitheater-like natural anchorage was discovered between Bell and Mabel islands and named Eira Harbour. Before returning to Svalbard in September and home to England in October, Leigh Smith surveyed 176 km of coast and extended geographical knowledge of the Franz Josef Land archipelago by 9° of longitude.

The following year Leigh Smith attempted a return voyage to Franz Josef Land. Finding the ice fast around the archipelago, Leigh Smith had a prefabricated storehouse named Eira Lodge erected at Eira Harbour. Leigh Smith intended to search eastwards for the lost American Jeannette expedition, but ice conditions forced him ashore at Cape Flora where, on 21 August 1881, Eira was nipped by the ice and sank in eleven fathoms.

The following June, Leigh Smith and his men in four boats set off through gaps in the pack ice. After a difficult voyage, they gained the beach at Matockkin Shar at Novaya Zemlya, on 2 August. The next day, dressed for the occasion in their best yachting clothes, they were sighted and were rescued by relief ships sent from England to search for them. His active exploration career at an end, Leigh Smith continued to take an interest in the exploration by others of polar regions. He supported whaling expeditions to the Antarctic, and promoted Eira Harbour as the ideal staging area for a British attempt on the North Pole. The latter challenge was taken up, albeit unsuccessfully, by Frederick G. Jackson and the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition of 1894-97. A picture of Benjamin Leigh Smith is seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Benjamin Leigh Smith died at Hampstead, England on January 4, 1913. Among the geographical features named for him are a kapp (cape) and breen (glacier) in Svalbard, a sound in Franz Josef Land, as well as Ostrov Li-Smita (Leigh-Smith Island), lying east of Hooker Island in the Franz Josef Land. The countries around the Arctic Circle and the North Pole are seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4

This paper is extracted from a longer article in Wikipedia, as is the picture of Benjamin Leigh Smith.
 

 
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