Benjamin Leigh Smith collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the British Exploring Expedition, 1871 (led by Smith) to Svalbard, the British Exploring Expedition, 1881-1882 (led by Smith) to the Russian Arctic [Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa] and correspondence by Smith

Administrative / Biographical History

Benjamin Leigh Smith was born on 12 March 1828 at Whatlington, Sussex. He was educated at the Nonconformist Bruce Castle School and, in 1848, was elected a pensioner of Jesus College, Cambridge, becoming the first dissenter to receive a BA degree. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1856, but never practised.

Smith embarked on his first voyage to the Arctic in 1871 when he sailed in the ketch Samson to Svalbard on the British Exploring Expedition, reaching latitude 81° 24 minutes North and making accurate surveys of several small islands for the first time. He returned to Svalbard in Samson the following year, first visiting Jan Mayen where the expedition made a brief survey before proceeding to the northwest coast of Spitsbergen to hunt whales. In 1873, Smith took the steamer Diana on the British Exploring Expedition to explore in waters north of Svalbard. After delivering supplies to Nils Otto Gustaf Nordenskild's expedition at Mosselbukta, Diana was beset for a short time off Kapp Platen, thus preventing further progress. The expedition returned to Dundee in September with a variety of natural history collections and observations.

Smith made his next voyage to the Arctic in 1880 when he took the screw barquentine Eira to Svalbard and Russian Arctic waters, exploring 176 km of new coast in Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa. He returned to extend the exploration of Zemlya Frantsa-Iosifa on the British Exploring Expedition, 1881-1882. After Eira was nipped in the ice and sank off Mys Flora in August 1881, the crew lived in a makeshift hut for ten months, setting out in the ship's four boats in June 1882 and reaching Novaya Zemlya, where they met Hope commanded by Allen Young. The expedition sailed back to Aberdeen in August 1882. Smith was awarded the Patron's medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his discoveries and was elected an honorary fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge in 1882. He made no further Arctic expeditions but continued his interest in polar exploration and the whaling trade. He died on 4 January 1913 at Hampstead.


The collection is split into three sub-fonds comprising of expedition material and correspondence respectively

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland Garland Publishing, London (1994) and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills San Diego and Oxford, 2003 and 'Benjamin Leigh Smith a forgotten pioneer' by Arthur G Credland in The Polar Record volume 20 number 125 May 1980 p127-145 and 'Smith, Benjamin Leigh' by A Jones in Dictionary of National Biography Missing Persons, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1994)

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


Further accessions possible