Hobart: Gateway to southern lands

As we proceeded down the river Hobart looked its best, with the glancing sails of pleasure craft skimming near the foreshores and backed by the sombre mass of Mount Wellington ……Behind lay a sparkling sea-scape and the Tasmanian littoral; before, the blue southern ocean heaving with an ominous swell.

Douglas Mawson, describing his departure from Hobart to Antarctica on December 2, 1911 in Home of the Blizzard first published by William Heinemann, London, 1915.

The Aurora departing from Hobart (source: unknown)

Tasmania always had strong links with Antarctica, first as part of the super continent Gondwana about 600 million years ago and more recently as a gateway to the Sub- Antarctic Islands of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

Hobart’s southern location, with its deep and sheltered harbour that could take a fleet of ships, as well as its deep-water estuary made it perfect for mounting expeditions to southern islands and the as yet unknown Antarctic continent.

Hobart was first settled by European colonists at Sullivans Cove in 1804. The settlement was named Hobart Town after the British secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Robert Hobart.

It was situated at the boundary between the Mouheneenner and Nueonne people who were ultimately displaced by European occupation. Apart from the large and deep harbour, kangaroos were plentiful and could be used as a food source. James Cook’s voyages of the 1770s inspired sealers and whalers to venture further south and Van Dieman’s land provided harbours for British and American sealers from the 1790s.

Captain John Biscoe circumnavigated Antarctica between 1830 and 1831.  He wintered in Hobart and returned there with a crew suffering from scurvy and near starvation.  He eventually made Hobart his home. Captain Biscoe was assisted in his journey by James Weddell, best known for his discovery of the sea that was named after him in 1833.  He also made the furthest voyage south at the time, reaching 74 Degrees south of the equator. James Clarke Ross and Dumont D’Urville both used Hobart as their base when they mounted rival expeditions in the names of England and France. The Tasmanian Louis Charles Bernacchi was physicist for the Norwegian born Carsten Borchgrevink’s expedition of 1899 -1900, which set out from Hobart and was the first to spend an entire winter on the Antarctic mainland.

During the so-called ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration, in the years leading up to World War I, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) led by Sir Douglas Mawson, departed from Hobart.  It was also from Hobart that Roald Amundsen sent the news to the King of Norway that he had beaten Robert Scott in the race to the South Pole.

Douglas Mawson used Hobart again as the departure point for his British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) in 1930 – 31, which ultimately led to Australia’s claim of 42% of the Antarctic continent.

Hobart was the most appropriate point of departure to the Australian research stations at Macquarie Island and on the Antarctic mainland and in 1981 the Australian Antarctic Division moved from Melbourne to Kingston, Tasmania. The resupply vessels that support the Australian and French expeditions are based in Hobart.

There are a number of tangible reminders of Tasmanian links to the exploration and exploitation of Antarctica that can be found in Hobart. They include, Hadley’s Hotel, the General Post Office, St David’s Cathedral, Salamanca Place and the Mawson’s Huts replica museum.  Venturing as far as Mt Wellington reveals the geological relationship between Tasmania and the frozen continent.

Hadley’s Hotel

Hadley’s Hotel

Hadley’s Hotel on Murray Street was built with convict labour and opened in 1849. It was named after John Clay Hadley, who took it over from former convict John Webb in 1881.  It has hosted numerous famous people in the course of its history and has particular Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic links.  The area around the hotel was popular with sailors of whaling and sealing ships that anchored in the harbour in the 1850s.  In 1898, Carsten Borchgrevink and his men stayed there before their departure to Cape Adare, where they set up a base and became the first expedition to overwinter on the Antarctic mainland. Dr Douglas Mawson hosted a lunch and briefing for his team at Hadley’s just before their departure in 1911.

Perhaps the most famous Antarctic link is that with Roald Amundsen who booked the now called “Amundsen Suite”, rooms 201 and 202, when he arrived after his successful trek to the South Pole.  He arrived in Hobart on the Fram on March 7, 1912.  He was probably somewhat dishevelled when he arrived at the hotel and wrote in his diary that he was ushered to an awful room and was treated like a hobo. He telegraphed the King of Norway, Haakon VII, the following day. He had sold exclusive rights to the story to London’s Daily Chronicle and cabled them a full account.  To ensure that nothing was revealed before news reached the King and chronicle, Amundsen kept his crew on his ship.  When they were finally allowed ashore, they celebrated with a Hadley’s “Christmas” dinner to make up for what they missed during the expedition.  The inhabitants of Hobart knew nothing of their famous visitors until three days after their arrival, after which they were treated as celebrities. The Fram spent two weeks in Hobart. Amundsen gifted 21 of his surviving huskies to the Aurora for Mawson’s expedition.

Roald Amundsen

The Fram. (source: Tim Bowden)

Roald Amundsen with his dog Pan and ship Fram near his home at Svartskog, Norway in the days before leaving for the secret expedition to attempt the South Pole near his home at Svartskog, Norway.
(Source: Photographer Anders Beer Wilse, June 1910, courtesy Fram Museum)

The General Post Office

Hobart General Post Office

The Hobart General Post Office was erected on the corner of Elizabeth and Macquarie Streets in 1905.  It was from this building that Roald Amundsen telegraphed the news that his expedition was the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen swore the Director of Telegraphs, Frank Bowden, to secrecy until the news became general knowledge on March 11, 1912.

St David’s Cathedral

Source: gilbertscott.org

St David’s cathedral, at the corner of Macquarie and Murray streets, is the principal Anglican church in Tasmania. The foundation stone was laid in 1868 and it was consecrated in 1874.  A service was held in the cathedral prior to the departure of Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition in 1911.  Similarly, a special service was held on March 17, 1912, to celebrate the success of Amundsen’s expedition and to pray for the men on Scott’s ill-fated journey.  The demise of Scott and his companions, about two weeks after this service, was not discovered until the following summer when his tent was found with the three frozen bodies of the expeditioners inside.  Scott’s sister, Ettie McCartney, was married to the Tasmanian Governor and was present at the service.

Salamanca Place

Salamanca Place today

Salamanca Place c. 1950 (Source: ABC)

Better known today for its weekly market, Salamanca Place was named after the Spanish city of the same name where the English were victorious in a battle with Napoleon’s armies. A row of warehouses was built there in the 19th century as the port become more important as a centre associated with sealing and whaling. The warehouses also were used to resupply the ships used by Dumont D’Urville and James Clark Ross before they set out for Antarctica.

 Mawson’s Huts Replica 

Mawson’s Huts Replica at Hobart

The original Main Hut at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica, which was made up of two prefabricated wooden huts.

Photograph taken inside Mawson’s Huts showing Charles Laseron’s Bunk 

Image of bunks in replica hut with Charles Laseron’s bunk on the upper left of the image.

Most people will never have the opportunity to travel to the Antarctic mainland to visit the site of Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911-14. Instead, it is possible to walk into a faithful replica of the Main Hut that was constructed for the Cape Denison expedition party at Commonwealth Bay, about 200 metres from where the expedition departed.  It was completed in 2013 by heritage carpenters who used hundreds of photographs and measurements to ensure that it has exactly the same dimensions as the original. Baltic pine was sourced from the same region in Finland as the original and bought from the same Melbourne merchant that supplied Douglas Mawson.

Mawson had been invited to join Scott’s party in the race to the South Pole but instead decided to mount his own expedition. The essential purpose of the AAE was its scientific program. One of the main reasons for the choice of Cape Denison was because it was the perfect location for a study of terrestrial magnetism as it was north of the South Magnetic Pole. The 18 members of the team built a series of huts at the site, including a living hut and workshop, a transit hut for astronomical observations, an absolute magnetic hut and a magnetograph house.  The replica huts copy the combined living and workshop huts and contain historically accurate objects that Mawson and his party would have used during the period of occupation.  Many of the original objects are still to be found inside the huts at Cape Denison, often in the positions in which they were left when Mawson and his party departed the site after a second unplanned year at the site.  The expedition was meant to only include one winter but Mawson’s sledging journey across the ice was marred by the loss of his two companions, Mertz and Ninnis.  He had a terrible journey back to the huts and missed the Aurora, which could not wait as it had to retrieve a Western party that had set up camp on sea ice, which was going to break up in the summer months.  A small group of six men had stayed behind to search for the missing expeditioners and Mawson spent the second year in the huts at Cape Denison with them, continuing his scientific program. The huts are testimony to the endurance of these expeditioners.

For more on Mawson’s Hut, please click here to listen to our Thinking Traveller podcast.

Mount Wellington

The organ pipes, Mt Wellington

The geology of Mt Wellington provides evidence of Tasmania having once been part of the Gondwana supercontinent.  The dolerite “Organ pipes” are comparable to those found in Victoria Land on the Antarctic continent and are very rare in other parts of Australia. The view from the summit of the mountain has been admired by many Antarctic explorers, such as Durmont D’Urville, Borchgrevink and Sir Douglas Mawson.

Explore Hobart with Dr Estelle Lazer

Exploration of Hobart, includes visits to Port Arthur,  MONA, TMAG, and Bruny Island limited places available for our February 2022 tour . More information >

Dr Estelle Lazer

Dr Estelle Lazer is an archaeologist with an international reputation for her work on the human victims of Pompeii. Her PhD studied the site’s human skeletons, and her current project is to CT scan and X-ray the unique casts of these victims. Estelle’s book, 'Resurrecting Pompeii', was published by Routledge and her work forms a core part of the Ancient History syllabus for the NSW Higher School Certificate. Estelle is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney. In October 2017, the University of Sydney and the Pompeii Archaeological Park signed an historic Memorandum of Agreement to partner in an important new scanning project led by Estelle. Her research has received considerable media attention in print, radio and television, with two documentaries (one for the BBC and Smithsonian, and another in production for Britain’s Channel 5) ensuring a wide audience for her fascinating findings.


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