Travels of a travel book

Travels of a travel book
Books from the library of the S.S. Discovery
28 May 2014

Many of the Library’s books are interesting not only because of their subject matter but more so because of their own special histories – who owned them and where they have been. One travel book in the Library’s collection called Travels amongst the great Andes of the equator by Edward Whymper tells the story of a journey through the Andes in Ecuador. However, it is the journey that this particular copy of the book undertook that makes it unique.

Title page of Travels amongst the Andes

Title page of Travels amongst the great Andes of the equator

It is signed by the author Edward Whymper, “Presented to the Antarctic Expedition, 1901 by the author”. This was the British Antarctic Polar Expedition 1901-1904 that carried such Antarctic greats as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first successful journey to the polar region. So Whymper may have presented it to the expedition as a way of wishing them well for their journey. Whymper himself was something of an adventurer. He made first ascents in the Pennine Alps and the Canadian Rockies and had an interest in polar exploration, visiting Greenland. According to his biography on Wikipedia “he proved that the interior could be explored by the use of suitably constructed sledges, and thus contributed an important advance to Arctic exploration.”

Dedication by Whymper

Inscription by the author Edward Whymper

In addition to the dedication from the author, the National Library’s copy of this book also has a book-plate stating that it is from the library of the ship S.S. Discovery of the Antarctic Polar Expedition, 1901-4, and was presented to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library by Sir R. Leicester Harmsworth in 1931.

Bookplate describing the donation

Information describing the donation of the Library's copy

Just imagine as the S.S. Discovery laboured its way through the turbulent seas of the Southern Ocean, this book describing travels in a completely different landscape in South America might have been the evening reading of Scott and Shackleton as they prepared themselves for their own mission of discovery and exploration.

S.S. Discovery anchored to the ice

S.S. Discovery anchored to the ice in Antarctica (1902). Image via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, this book is just one of 49 items from the S.S. Discovery’s library donated by Harmsworth to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library. They included an eclectic mix of natural history, voyages of discovery, history and a few classic literary works (including a 48 volume set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels), plus a map of early Danish Arctic explorations and a manual written for the use of the Discovery’s 1901 expedition.

Other books from the Discovery

Some other books from the Discovery collection 

So, how did Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth obtain this collection of books from the S.S. Discovery and why was eventually donated to us? Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth was the brother of Alfred Harmsworth, a newspaper proprietor who financed an earlier expedition to Franz Josef Land in the Antarctic in 1894-1897, known as the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition, and also contributed £5,000 to fund the British 1901-1904 expedition. Robert worked as director of Amalgamated Press, the publishing company owned by his older brother Alfred.

Perhaps the library of the S.S. Discovery was returned to Alfred Harmsworth after the voyage as one of the expedition’s supporters? Then passed from Alfred to his younger brother Robert - possibly on Alfred’s death in 1922? This would have been logical, as Robert was apparently a keen book collector and advocate of libraries. An article from The West Australian on 12 March 1927 reports that:

“One of the members of the First Edition Club is Sir Leicester Harmsworth, who showed his interest in book collecting by proposing the toast of the International Association of Antiquarian Book sellers at the recent annual dinner of that body. He remarked, in due course of his speech, that 'he did not regret it on general grounds when our fine books passed to the United States, because he 'thought it desirable that that country should base its literary ideals on, and derive its inspiration from, British books. But he did greatly regret that, while the Americans were forming great libraries including rare books, no such libraries, apparently, were being formed in other English-speaking countries. There were one or two, he said, in Australia, but he knew of none in Canada or South Africa.”

This provides a clue to the reason behind Sir Robert’s decision to donate the S.S. Discovery’s collection to Australia. He obviously wished to enhance the collections of libraries in “the colonies”, and given the Australian connection with the Antarctic thought that we would be the most appropriate home for this collection.

Sir Robert also sold a collection of historic documents relating to Australia to the Mitchell Library in 1932, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This post appears in our "Fringe Publishing" blog. To subscribe to future blogposts in this blog add to your RSS reader. To subscribe to all National Library blogposts, use

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