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March 2021

Object of the Month

Object Title: Wooden travel chess set
Object Number: 2021.2
Chess set close-up

This small, unassuming wooden chess set is a recent acquisition to the museum. It was owned by Tony Bomford who packed it in his rucksack and carried it with him on an expedition to South Georgia in 1955. This was a small private expedition, part of a bigger project that set out to explore and map the island. It is incredible that all the pieces are still present after being carried up several mountain ranges and across the interior of the island. The object was donated by Tony’s son and has travelled all the way from Sydney, Australia.

The South Georgia Surveys were a series of four expeditions to survey and produce high-quality modern maps covering the entire island, the first comprehensive survey of South Georgia’s interior. The expeditions were led by Duncan Carse between 1951 and 1957. Tony Bomford was one of the surveyors of the third expedition and prepared the final chart. He was awarded the Patrick Ness award “for setting a new standard of survey in Antarctica”.

Although South Georgia had been commercially exploited as a site for whaling and sealing, its interior was generally unknown. Maps of the island were largely based on the original survey by James Cook, who first landed on the island in 1775.

The first expedition of 1951/52 was to produce a topographic survey and for the team to learn more about the island. They used the whaling settlement at Grytviken as the base for the survey, with lodging provided in the gaol at King Edward Point. The survey was funded by the Royal Geographical Society, the Falkland Islands Dependencies and other private supporters. The War Office and Ministry of Supply provided 250 man-days of cold-weather rations, along with a loan of clothing and sledging equipment. Transportation to and from South Georgia was provided on the ships used to supply the whaling stations and ferry whale oil back to market in Europe. The survey members also often rode along on the whaling vessels to survey the coasts of the island and to be dropped off or picked up for inland work.

The third campaign was more ambitious than earlier expeditions and consisted of a larger group of eight men. Carse remained as leader, with K. Warburton as the doctor and deputy leader. The two surveyors were Tony Bomford and Stan Paterson, George Spenceley was the photographer and there were three mountaineers: Tom Price, Louis Baume, and John Cunningham. The party arrived in Leith Harbour on 24 September 1955, on the Southern Opal, a large whaling tanker. Planning before the expedition focused on four areas that had not been adequately covered so far. A secondary goal was to determine the route used by Ernest Shackleton in his famous 1916 winter traverse during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Chess in a tent: Tony Bomford and John Cunningham play chess from their tents

The comprehensive survey of the island over four seasons resulted in the classic 1:200000 topographic map of South Georgia, occasionally updated but never superseded since its first publication by the British Directorate of Overseas Surveys in 1958. Today satellite imagery at British Antarctic Survey is used to compile maps of South Georgia’s interior.

Many of the islands’ features have been named after members of the South Georgia Surveys: Mount Carse, Bomford Peak, Smillie Peak, Warburton Peak, Mount Paterson, Mount Cunningham, Mount Roots, Mount Baume, Trendall Crag, Price Glacier, Heany Glacier, and Spenceley Glacier being some examples of this.

The South Georgia Museum has a number of other objects related to the South Georgia Surveys that are on permanent display in the museum.

Fullerton Room: Equipment from the South Georgia Surveys on display in the museum