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'The few descriptions of Irkutsk had spoken of it as the Paris of Siberia'
Mrs John Clarence Lee, 1914

Fragment of 19th century Scottish rum flagon proves Arctic wreck is famous explorer’s vessel Eira

By The Siberian Times reporter
26 October 2018

Major discovery of Ben Leigh Smith’s vessel which sank off Franz Josef Land in 1881 sandwiched between two giant icebergs.

One is a fragment of an alcoholic flagon inscribed ‘Robert K….Wine & Spirit(s) - Peterh(ead)’. Picture: Vladimir Melnik/Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos

A Russian scientific team has confirmed the discovery of the wreck of the Eira, seen as one of the most important vessels in 19th century Arctic exploration.

The first dives to the wooden-hulled icebreaker, an elegant steam yacht with a 50 horse power engine, produced artefacts from the sea floor which establish beyond doubt this is Scottish-made vessel.

One is a fragment of an alcoholic flagon inscribed ‘Robert K….Wine & Spirit(s) - Peterh(ead)’.

This is surmised as a rum container from a local merchant in the eastern Scottish town where the Eira was specially constructed for explorer Ben Leigh Smith.

Another ceramic fragment - for use in a laboratory - had an inscription ‘London’, confirming the British origin of the vessel off Cape Flora, named after the explorer’s legendary cousin Florence Nightingale, who nursed wounded soldiers during the Crimean War 1853-56.

Search expedition


Search expedition


Search expedition

In all 13 dives were made this summer, lasting 336 minutes, and involving six divers. Picture: Vladimir Melnik/Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos

‘Such ceramics are typical for all the specialised scientific ships, which, in fact, Eira was,’ said archaeologist Mark Stepanov.

‘The result of the studies is that we can confirm 100% this is the Eira,’ he announced.

The divers - operating in treacherous Arctic conditions - took sizes and noted specific features of the vessel’s unique structure and decorations. 

All those features confirmed the ship’s origin after a 12-years search, said Stepanov.

Lead diver Sergei Kovalev said: ‘We had very little time.

‘The visibility was very bad, but still we fulfilled the task.’

In all 13 dives were made this summer, lasting 336 minutes, and involving six divers. 

Underwater view


Underwater research

‘The visibility was very bad, but still we fulfilled the task.’ Pictures: Picture: Vladimir Melnik/Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos

Some 45 small artefacts were collected ‘including ceramic pieces of laboratory dishes and tableware, elements of ship’s decorations, details of the ship’s equipment and mechanisms, rifle cartridges’.

The bow and stern of the vessel are missing, presumably destroyed by the ice crush that led to the Eira’s sinking.

Intriguingly the site of the wreck is now seen as a ‘natural’ as well as an ‘historical’ treasure trove. 

‘During almost 150 years the Eira shipwreck has become an underwater oasis developed among the surrounding sand desert bottom seascape,’ said a statement from Association ‘Maritime Heritage: Explore & Sustain’ which staged the expedition.

As such the wreck is of strong interest to marine biologists, it is understood.

‘An archaeological survey conducted by the Association of Maritime Heritage on the Eira shipwreck in Franz Josef Land appears to be the first ever underwater archaeological work in the Russian Arctic.’

Stepanov said: ‘The ship is now like an oasis on a sandy desert bottom. 

‘The wreckage that remained is overgrown with algae, on which thousands of different organisms live… 

’It is now not only a monument of archeology, but also a monument of nature.'

Eira artifacts


Eira artifacts


Eira artifacts


Eira artifacts


Eira artifacts

Some 45 small artefacts were collected ‘including ceramic pieces of laboratory dishes and tableware, elements of ship’s decorations, details of the ship’s equipment and mechanisms, rifle cartridges’. Pictures: Vladimir Melnik/Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos, Vesti-Kaliningrad

Unusually, the Eira did not have its name displayed - except on the ship’s bell which had been taken by the crew when they abandoned her when the vessel became caught in dangerous ice floes.

Items recovered from the Eira have been passed to the Museum of the World Ocean in Kaliningrad.

While ‘largely forgotten’ today as a  polar explorer in his homeland, Russians salute his  ‘great input into the discovery and early exploration of the Franz Josef Archipelago’.

The intrepid explorer 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. 

But they were forced to spend ten months including a bitter winter in the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic. 

Known as Britain's 'forgotten explorer' because he shunned the self-promotion of Victorian rivals, he led his men the following year in four lifeboats with sails made from salvaged tablecloths on a  perilous crossing to Novaya Zemlya where they were rescued by a British search party. 

Scottish rum flagon


Ceramic fragment with inscription ‘London'


Bronze items

Items recovered from the Eira have been passed to the Museum of the World Ocean in Kaliningrad. Pictures: Museum of the World Ocean

En route to the Arctic, a remarkable photograph records a meeting at sea with two other ships from Peterhead.

Leigh Smith entertained the senior crew members on board the Eira, including Arthur Conan Doyle, then the ship's surgeon on the Hope, which with a new crew would be one of the vessels that rescued them in 1882.

After the Eira sank in just two hours, the crew built a shelter - called Flora's Cottage - to survive the harsh winter, made from driftwood, rocks and ship masts. 

In this bleak Arctic outpost, they survived six months of total darkness. 

Leigh Smith 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. 

Yet he shunned the limelight back in Britain, refusing to personally see Queen Victoria to tell her of his adventures. 

He had a  legal education and his early career that saw him as a barrister campaigning for women's rights. 

He possessed 'a first class scientific mind' and 'in 1872 foresaw the dangers of global warming', according to his grandson Christopher Leigh Smith.

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.

Eira the yacht


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

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

A decade before he was shipwrecked he had explored the virgin regions north of Spitzbergen. 

At a depth of 1,500 ft in much deeper water he discovered  a warm current, corroborating 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", said he grandson.

Between 1871 and 1882, Leigh Smith 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.

'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.

Capelotti says Leigh Smith 'always begged off' attempts in his lifetime to award him with medals.

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


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

Bottom, 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

The explorer’s grandson Christopher wrote: 'Anticipating the long winter months ahead, they built a solid hut made from rocks, earth and wood, on a green patch, 20ft above sea level.

'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. 

Comments (4)

Leigh- Smith's amazing trip in lifeboats is similar to Ernest Shackleford's trip after his ship was crushed by ice in Anarctica. They sailed to S Georgia Island
Aarky, Ft Smith, USA
06/11/2018 22:15
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just do not publish the exact coordinates. so no scalpers and illegal bounty hunters will dive there and disturb everything.
Benedikt MORAK, Moscow
29/10/2018 07:16
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It is interesting that Climate Change was generally a big deal, during the 1800s. (This explorer was partly chasing his Global Warming theory.)

Books from the 1800s, about Climate and other matters (including Siberia), can be downloaded in webpage/HTML format, from the "WWW dot Gutenberg dot Org" project.

Drastic, dire previous Climate-regimes were the discovery that established Geology. Indeed, the hair-raising understanding that Europe had been covered by massive ice-sheet, during the time of Early Humans, electrified the Public and Governments ... and contributed heavily to the general elevation of Science as a prestigious institution.

It can be quite surprising, how contemporary the books & explorations of previous centuries seem. Go wander on Gutenberg for awhile...
Ted Clayton, Forks, USA
27/10/2018 21:41
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Félicitations. Christopher Leigh-smith, l'unique descendant de Benjamin Leigh-Smith n'a pas eu la chance de vivre assez longtemps pour connaître ce grand moment.0249
Le fel-- Leigh-smith, suisse
27/10/2018 13:57
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1

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