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Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters

By The Siberian Times reporter
07 October 2017

Murky underwater videos suggest wreckage of Eira is finally rediscovered off Cape Flora on Franz Josef Land archipelago, where it sank in 1881.

Eira the steam yacht. Picture: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

The name of Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith may not seem too familiar among Arctic explorers, but it should be.

The intrepid explorer born into a radical English family named the cape where his vessel sank after being trapped between two giant icebergs after his famous relative Florence Nightingale, known as 'The Lady with the Lamp' for tending the wounded in the Crimean War, an English social reformer and statistician who is seen in her country as the founder of modern nursing. 

On his fateful voyage which culminated in the fateful sinking of his elegant steam yacht, the Eira, a remarkable photograph records a meeting at sea with two other ships from Peterhead in Scotland, the Hope and the Eclipse.

Leigh Smith invited on board the Eira the captains of both these ships and an historic picture records the occasion. 

Look closely, and on this photograph to the right of Leigh Smith is the surgeon of the Hope, one Arthur Conan Doyle, later to be the famous writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes. 

Please note that most of the images of Eira were taken from the Leigh Smith family website, for which The Siberian Times is truly grateful.

Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters
From left to right are: David Gray at the helm (Capt. Eclipse), Benjamin Leigh-Smith (Capt./owner Eira),  Arthur Conan Doyle (Surgeon Hope), John Gray (Capt. Hope), Dr.Walker and Dr.Neale, and William Lofley (ice master Eira) right at the stern. Pictures: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland


After the Eira sank, the crew built a shelter - Flora's Cottage, made from driftwood, rocks and ship masts - and somehow survived six months of total darkness, intense cold, and bone cracking gales in the Arctic winter thanks in no small measure to ship's dog Bob.   

They were rescued the next summer after a perilous journey in storm force winds in the Eira's four lifeboats - with sails made of table cloths purloined from the sunken vessel -  to the waters off Novaya Zemlya where they were found by an expedition sent from England to rescue them.

For years researchers have sought to locate the wreck of the Eira, which had been specially built as an Arctic vessel for Leigh Smith. 

It is now revealed that in August 2017, the expedition 'The Open Ocean: Archipelagos of the Arctic' during a survey of the seabed at Cape Flora discovered 'an object' the size of the Eira.

Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters
Sinking of Eira, the crew hunting walruses, the Flora lodge and the only enterntainment during months of darkness - the music box. Pictures: personal archives of Christopher Leigh-Smith,   www.leigh-smith.org


Underwater video suggests it is indeed the wreckage of this vessel, important to the histories of both Russia and Britain. 

'We saw and found the vessel of British explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith, the Eira. I am 100% sure of that, although, of course, we did not do any special research as this was technically impossible, but all the information about the scene of the wreck and certain specific features leave no doubt that it's her,' said expedition co-head Alexander Chichyaev. 

'The research conducted this year is a good sign that gives us hope for successful work and an efficient expedition next summer,' said his colleague Alexander Kirilov.

He is optimistic that Leigh Smith's intrepid vessel has been finally found although he acknowledges the 'object' on the seabed might yet not turn out  be this famous ship which sank on its maiden Arctic voyage. 

Eira means snow in both Welsh and Finnish, and is the name is Norse goddess. 

Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters
General View of the Cape Flora, and Cape Flora marked on the world map. Pictures: Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology


Leigh Smith - or Ben Smith as her preferred to be called  - was the son of a radical politician, also named Ben, who was instrumental in the campaign to abolish slavery. 

His parents were not married and his mother was hat maker Anne Longden, who died of tuberculosis when he was just five.  

Between 1871 and 1882, the explorer undertook five hazardous scientific expeditions to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, bringing back specimens for the the British Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens -- and even live polar bears for London Zoo.

Yet in 2013 he was rightly called Britain's 'forgotten explorer of the far north' by the BBC, even though in 1881 he had received the Patron's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and Ostrov Li-Smita (Leigh-Smith Island), east of Hooker Island (Franz Josef Land), is named after him, as are glacier Leighbreen and Kapp (Cape) Leigh Smith on Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. 

He had a legal education - and an early career that saw him as a barrister campaigning for women's rights. Yet he also possessed 'a first class scientific mind' and 'in 1872 foresaw the dangers of global warming', according to his grandson Christopher.

His unachieved aim was to reach the North Pole.

"In 1871 and 1872 he explores virgin regions North of Spitzberg. At a shallow depth of 457 metres in very deep waters he discovers a current having a high temperature of 0.6 C., and corroborates his theory that there was a means of forging a passage across the Arctic through the Barents Sea as well as his fears over global warming,' wrote Christopher. 

Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic watersShipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters


Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters

Ben Leigh-Smith (portrait of 1883) and with wife Charlotte. Pictures: Stephen Pearce, Personal archives of Christopher Leigh-Smith, www.leigh-smith.org


Benjamin's maritime and overland discoveries as well as his observations on the local flora, fauna and minerals were universally acclaimed by the world's leading scientists and brought him many decorations for his work. 

'By way of Royal recognition, Cape Leigh-Smith was named after him as well as much of Spitzbergen and Franz-Joseph Land. Nightingale Sound after his niece Florence, the Lady of the Lamp.'

Leigh Smith had set out on 14 June 1881 on the Eira, with 25 crew, a cat, a canary and Bob the dog.

His key interest was deep sea currents, as well as seeking new territories in the Arctic. His ship reached Franz-Josef Land but sank in only two hours after being crushed between the icebergs. 

'Anticipating the long winter months ahead, they build a solid hut made from rocks, earth and wood, on a green patch, 20ft above sea level,' wrote Christopher.

'They also built other huts to store the fish and meat they would need to kill and preserve. Bob the dog was invaluable in this and without his unremitting courage none of it would have been possible. 

'On several occasions during fishing and hunting expeditions one or even several men would fall into the icy waters. 

'Bob the dog always managed to save them, sometimes even running back to the camp for help.'

In fact, the scheme of Flora Cottage - built in haste from anything the crew could find to weather the harshest Arctic winter - shows he led an heroic mission of survival. 

'His leadership was so successful that the veteran Arctic whaling captain David Gray was moved to call him the very model of 'quiet, cool, thoroughbred English pluck',' wrote Peter Capelotti, author of Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The Expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England's Forgotten Arctic Explorer.

flora cottage
Scheme of Flora shelter. Picture: Personal archives of Christopher Leigh-Smith, www.leigh-smith.org


Capelotti says Leigh Smith 'always begged off' attempts in his lifetime to award him with medals. The only entertainment was a musical box retrieved at the last minute from the sinking ship.

One of the ships that rescued him and his crew from the icy Arctic waters off Novaya Zemlya was the Hope, by now with a different crew. 

An article on the BBC website is revealing about Leigh Smith and his relative obscurity in Britain  despite his achievements exploring the Siberian Arctic. 

'He was one of the most intrepid explorers of the 19th Century, leading five expeditions to the Arctic and surviving for 10 months after his ship was crushed between two ice floes. But 100 years after his death, Benjamin Leigh Smith is now largely forgotten,' wrote Vanessa Barford and Alison Feeney-Hart in 2013.

'The likes of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Henry Morton Stanley were superstar explorers, men who earned great renown and who had sought great renown.

'On the other hand, Leigh Smith was a modest man. The cape and adjacent glacier bearing his name (Kapp Leigh Smith and Leighbreen) are some of the few lasting tokens of his historic expeditions.'

Shipwreck of heroic but unsung British explorer Ben Leigh Smith is 'found' in Arctic waters

Eira the steam yacht. Picture: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Unlike his contemporaries and 'even unlike today's explorers, he never sought fame for discovering new places. He didn't publish any detailed account of his explorations and he shunned public appearances, often sending someone else in his place'.

Had Queen Victoria wanted to see his pictures from the Arctic, he would have sent someone else, he told his brother in law. 

'He saw and mapped areas and islands that were being observed for the first time,' said Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University.

'The high Arctic had much more sea ice a century ago than it does now, which made navigating through it difficult.

'He received the Patron Gold Medal - one of the two highest awards the Royal Geographical Society gives - for his achievements, so was hugely eminent.'

And yet also unrecognised, although perhaps the rediscovery of  his intrepid vessel will finally change this. 

Another relative, great-great-great niece Charlotte Moore, said: 'He was both establishment but also separate because he was illegitimate and from a dissenting family, so he never received a knighthood or got that kind of honour, which is probably a factor in why his story is not better known.'

This may soon change if Russians inspired by his story have found his vessel, as they believe.

Comments (4)

As a shipwreck diver and researcher that collects Post Cards of Australian shipwrecks, I now have collected photos of a bell from Australian shipwrecks and lately of foreign shipwrecks and make them into post cards. They now number over 100. I have a photo of the EREBUS bell, ESMERELDA bell (of 1485 Vasgo da Gamas ship), and ROEBUCK bell, Dampiers shipwreck. Besides the EREBUS wreck that was only found a few years ago, the HMS TERROR, lost nearby was still being looked for since. I comment to others that I only have about 1,000,000 bells from a shipwreck to do in the future. I have found that over ten bells are actually fakes that some persons have had made to make a quid! Surprising to learn many bells are acquired by some collectors and they are hidden away. Even a number have been stolen and they are hidden or worse, they have been turned into scrap metal !
John Sumner, Sydney, Australia
17/10/2017 11:53
0
0
OMG
游阿弘, 湖口
14/10/2017 10:02
1
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I have not heard about this but now I will get more information and I thanks for this article.
Carina, Sweden
10/10/2017 16:13
7
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An excellent, informative article. Although I'm British, and have read fairly widely about Arctic exploration, I too had never heard of Leigh- Smith's achievements.
Simon Robinson, Blackburn, England
09/10/2017 15:08
11
0
1

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