George Wilkins collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, 1921-1922 (leader Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton), the Wilkins-Eielson Arctic Flights, 1926-1928, the Wilkins-Herst Antarctic Expedition, 1928-1929 (led by Wilkins), and the Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition, 1935-1936 (leader Lincoln Ellsworth). The collection also contains mention of the British Expedition to Graham Land, 1920-1922 (leader John Lachlan Cope).

Administrative / Biographical History

George Hubert Wilkins was born in Australia on 31 October 1888. After training at the State School and School of Mines in Adelaide, he reached Europe as a stowaway and spent four years wandering in Europe and America, eventually serving as an official photographer to the Turkish army during the Balkan war of 1912. In 1913, he joined Vilhjalmur Stefansson's expedition to the Canadian Arctic spending three years in the field as photographer and correspondent for the London Times. Returning to Britain in 1916, he enlisted with the Royal Australian Flying Corps as air and field photographer. He saw service in France, was wounded and awarded the Military Cross with bar. In 1919, he attempted to fly back to Australia as navigator in an air race, but the aircraft crashed in Crete and he returned to England.

Wilkins joined the British Expedition to Graham Land, 1920-1922 (leader John Lachlan Cope), which initially promised opportunities for flight and aerial photography in the Antarctic Peninsula. However, insufficient finance curtailed the expedition, and Wilkins and Cope withdrew. Homeward bound in Montevideo, he encountered Sir Ernest Shackleton, who invited him to join his Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, 1921-1922, as naturalist and photographer on board the expedition ship Quest. When Shackleton died on South Georgia in January 1922, the expedition continued for a few months under Frank Wild, briefly exploring the South Sandwich Islands and the Weddell Sea before returning to Britain. While he was working on the specimens brought back by Quest in the Natural History section of the British Museum, Wilkins was selected by the trustees to lead a collecting expedition to northern Australia between 1923 and 1925.

Returning to the Arctic, Wilkins spent the next three years making pioneer exploratory flights with Carl Ben Eielson as pilot. After two preliminary seasons based in Barrow, Alaska, on 16 April 1928, he flew with Eielson in a single engine aircraft across the Arctic Ocean from Barrow to Spitsbergen via northern Ellesmere Island, a flight of over 4000km in just over 20 hours. For this and earlier Arctic achievements, Wilkins was knighted and awarded the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

On return to the United States of America, Wilkins organized the Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition, 1928-1929, which aimed initially to fly from the South Shetland Islands to the Ross Sea. His flight from Deception Island on 16 November 1928 with Eielson as pilot was the first-ever flight by powered aircraft in the Antarctic region. After several more preliminary flights from Deception Island, Wilkins took off with Eielson for his main exploratory flight on 20 December. They flew over 960 kilometres to the base of the Antarctic Peninsula, a major achievement in aviation that demonstrated both the possibilities and limitations of aerial exploration in the Antarctic. Leaving the aircraft behind on Deception Island, Wilkins left for the United States, returning to Antarctica the following season to lead the British Expedition, 1929-1930. Again snow, ice and weather conspired to make the long flight to the Ross Sea impossible, but Wilkins achieved several shorter flights along the Peninsula.

In 1931, Wilkins formed a consortium with Lincoln Ellsworth, a wealthy American mining engineer, and others, in a plan to reach the North Pole by submarine, under the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean. The expedition was beset by bad weather and damage to the vessel's diving gear, and the submarine Nautilus made only minor forays under the ice north of Svalbard, collecting much scientific data. In 1932, Ellsworth and Wilkins again formed a partnership for a further attempt to fly across West Antarctica. A series of three expeditions, one from the Ross Sea and two from West Antarctica were undertaken. Wilkins was responsible for the administrative details at the bases and on board Wyatt Earp. In August 1937, he helped in an aerial search of the Arctic basin north of Alaska and Canada, seeking a Russian aircraft reported missing on a trans-Arctic flight (pilot Sigismund Levanevskiy), but after several months of searching, no traces were found of the missing aircraft or men.

In 1938, Wilkins joined Ellsworth in a fourth Antarctic expedition, this time to Princess Elizabeth Land. As operations manager, Wilkins remained with the ship, taking several opportunities to raise the Australian flag on coastal islands, reinforcing his country's claim to the territory.

During the Second World War, Wilkins was based in Washington, where his advice was frequently sought in connection with Arctic problems. From 1942 to 1952, he served as consultant to the United States Military Planning Division, and from 1953, he continued this work as geographer in the United States Department of Defence. He continued to travel and visited the South Pole in 1957 as a guest of the United States government. He died in the United States on 2 December 1958.

Published work, Under the North Pole: the Wilkins-Ellsworth submarine expedition by George Hubert Wilkins, Brewer, Warren & Putnam, New York (1931) SPRI Library Shelf (3)91(08)[1931 Wilkins] Flying the Arctic by George Hubert Wilkins, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, London (1928) SPRI Library Shelf (3)91(08)[1926-28]

Biographical work Sir Hubert Wilkins: his world of adventure by Lowell Thomas, Arthur Baker London (1961) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Wilkins, G. H.] Sir Hubert Wilkins, enigma of exploration by John Grierson, Robert Hale London (1960) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Wilkins, G.H.]


The collection is split into four sub-fonds relating to the Antarctic and Arctic expeditions and correspondence.

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 Sir George Hubert Wilkins by B.B. Roberts in The Polar Record (May 1959) volume 9 number 62 p489-491 and Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) ISBN 0471986658 SPRI Library (7) and Robert Keith Headland Antarctic Chronology, unpublished corrected revision of Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events, (1 December 2001) Cambridge University Press (1989) ISBN 0521309034

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.

Related Material

The Scott Polar Research Institute holds a number of photographs, film and other illustrative material in the Picture Library, some of which covers the expeditions Wilkins was involved with. The catalogue can be searched on line by going to the Picture Library Database and selecting the Enter Polar Pictures link.