March 9, 2020

Rev. Arnold Spencer-Smith, clergyman, photographer and Antarctic explorer, died on the Antarctic continent on 9 March, 1916, during the second sledging session of the Ross Sea party of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-continental Antarctic Expedition.

Arnold Spencer-Smith (Queens’ College, Cambridge)

Spencer-Smith was needed for the main depot-laying party in the Antarctic summer of 1915-1916. By late-January, he was suffering badly with black limbs, swollen gums and immobility. It was clear that it was exhaustion, scurvy and possibly another complication. By mid-February, he was unable to leave his sleeping bag and was not only carried along on the sledges by the other but also lifted on and off each day.

Towards the end of January, Spencer-Smith was left behind in his sleeping bag in a tent so that the other men could continue on to Mount Hope to lay the final depot. In an interview with Lennard Bickel in 1976, Richard Walter Richards spoke of their return to Spencer-Smith:

‘[His reaction to the return of the others was] Cheerful, he was always cheerful. I think at that stage it probably dawned on us that we were going to be rather up against it because we knew then that we had to put Smith on a sledge and we had to pull him through 300 miles and that’s quite a proposition.’

Spencer-Smith on the ice (National Library of New Zealand)

His last diary entry was from the day before his death. ‘Glorious weather’, he wrote. It was his sister Frederica’s birthday and he was uplifted by that fact. Kelly Tyler-Lewis has written that Spencer-Smith’s diary is ‘a voluble record of aches and pains, philosophical ruminations, and sledging mileage’ that is littered with quotations and references from his extensive scriptural, literary, theological and philosophical reading.

On the day of Spencer-Smith’s death, Ernest Edward Joyce wrote in his diary:

‘Had a very bad night, cold intense. Temperature down to -29 Celsius all night. Smith was groaning and singing out practically the whole time as he was in pain with gripes for which he was taking opium.’

Ernest Wild wrote on 9 March: ‘Woke up this morning & found poor Smithy dead at 6:00 AM’. The care of Spencer-Smith fell mostly to Wild and Tyler-Lewis suggests that Ernest had a caring inclination due to his many younger siblings. Joyce wrote that ‘Wild is a brick the way he looks after Smithy’ as Wild did as much as he could for his very sickly comrade. As well as keeping him clean (which grew ever more difficult with less hot water as fuel supplies ran ever lower) and fed, Wild also engaged Spencer-Smith’s mind and endeavoured to keep him alert. Spencer-Smith spent an increasing amount of time in a dreamy haze or delusions in which he imagined himself elsewhere, in Cambridge or other familiar places. Wild listened to his rambling and semi-coherent monologues about theological themes or literature.

In the 1976 interview, Richards spoke of Wild:

‘I can’t speak too highly of Wild, because he was in that tent with MacIntosh who was a non-starter because of his condition and Smith, who could not do anything for himself and Wild. So Wild had to cook, he had to do whatever was necessary for Smith and he did this with unfailing cheerfulness all the time. I can never speak too highly of Wild for the way he looked after that man for 40 days, until he died.’

From Shackleton’s ‘South’:

‘March 9, Thursday.—Had a very bad night, cold intense. Temperature down to —29° all night. At 4 a.m. Spencer-Smith called out that he was feeling queer. Wild spoke to him. Then at 5.45 Richards suddenly said, ‘I think he has gone.’ Poor Smith, for forty days in pain he had been dragged on the sledge, but never grumbled or complained. He had a strenuous time in his wet bag, and the jolting of the sledge on a very weak heart was not too good for him. Sometimes when we lifted him on the sledge he would nearly faint, but during the whole time he never complained. Wild looked after him from the start. We buried him in his bag at 9 o’clock at the following position: Ereb. 184°—Obs. Hill 149°. We made a cross of bamboos, and built a mound and cairn, with particulars.’

Richards wrote: ‘We have pulled him helpless for 40 days over a distance of 300 miles.’

Arnold Spencer-Smith was born 17 March, 1883, in Streatham, Surrey, England. He read history at Queens’ College, Cambridge, in 1903, and after first working as a teacher, he was ordained as a minister in 1910.

‘Aurora’ (National Archives of Australia)


See more about Spencer-Smith at the Queens’ College website:

All Saints’ Church, North Dunedin, has commissioned a stained-glass window to commemorate Spencer-Smith and his connections to the Dunedin area. The window was designed by Dunedin artist Jenna Packer and created by stained-glassmaker Peter Mackenzie, of Otago Stained Glass.

Window to commemorate Spencer-Smith, ‘Otago Daily Times’, 6 April, 2019.

Window honours Ross Sea chaplain, ‘The Star’, 31 October, 2019.

These photographic negatives were discovered in Antarctica and wonderfully separated and developed in New Zealand. Though it is not known for certain, it is thought that they were taken by Spencer-Smith.

Jonathan Holmes, Heroism and Tradegy in the Antarctic, Queens’ College Record 2000, mostly abridged from Bruce Montgomery, The Australian, Christmas Weekend Edition 24-26 December, 1999.

Richard Walter Richards interviewed by Lennard Bickel. Recorded on 25 November, 1976, & 3 December, 1976, at Point Lonsdale, Victoria. National Library of Australia, ORAL TRC 495. Available online at:

Huntford, R. Shackleton. London, 2000.

Tyler-Lewis, K. The Lost Men. London, 2006.

Stephen Scott-Fawcett, ‘The Ross Sea Party – Debacle or Miracle?’, The James Caird Society Journal No. 9 (2018).

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