Daring tales of an Arctic explorer

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Charlotte Moore certainly has some interesting relatives in her closet.

In her recent talk, she detailed the life of her great, great, great uncle, Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith.

Ben had a rather unconventional family, as his working class mother and wealthy father had five children but never married.

Ben is viewed as a villain by his family as well as an Arctic hero, as he tried to prevent his niece marrying Charlotte’s great grandfather and did not speak to her for 20 years when she defied him.

Ben, a wealthy landowner, married at the age of 60, to an eighteen year old Frenchwoman and they had two children.

Having trained as a lawyer, Ben became an Arctic explorer with the wealth gained after both his wealthy father and uncle died. The North Pole had not been reached yet. Ben’s early trip was just for sport, but on his second, he became more scientific and he studied how warm currents affected ice and collected plants, birds and fossils which went to Kew and the Natural History Museum and even live polar bears which went to London Zoo.

He was the first to go to Franz Josef Land and named bays and capes after his family. On one expedition he rescued a stranded Swedish expedition and it seems odd he has not achieved a celebrity status, but Charlotte believed this was because he was a shy person who did not enjoy publicity. He also failed to write up his expedition and as someone who was illegitimate and a Unitarian dissenter, he was unlikely to be in line for a peerage!

On his fourth expedition, sailing in the Eira (Welsh for snow), a ship he had built to his design, photos including ones of the skinning of polar bears were taken in the Arctic which was something new. On this trip they linked up with another ship on which Arthur Conan Doyle was the ship’s doctor. They did not reach the North Pole on this occasion, but they did manage to get further than others had at that point.

Ben’s fifth and final voyage was dramatic, as the Eira was crushed between the land mass and the ice-flow in August. They had just two hours to collect provisions before the Eira sank. They saved four longboats which they hoped to use in June the next year when the ice broke up again. They built a refuge which they called Flora Cottage and were fortunate to have saved many cans of food and drink including 72 bottles of champagne, which they preserved for the journey back and existed mainly on polar bear! Bob, the ship’s dog, proved invaluable in luring in polar bears. A musical box also proved invaluable for dancing and amateur theatricals were popular.

Ben proved to be a disciplined leader and they all survived, including Bob, the dog. White damask tablecloths proved useful sails and when they linked up with a rescue party, they had travelled for 45 days and covered 500 miles. They were all black from dirt and weather and there was a ‘strong smell of fish about them’.

Back home, Ben’s hand was badly injured in a collision with a London cab and although restless to return to the Arctic he never did. He developed dementia in his 80s, died in 1913 age 85 and is buried in the churchyard at Brightling .