An Antarctic joke and the journey to Australia

Alice Margrison

Raymond Priestley's Australian diary, 1935
Raymond Priestley’s Australian diary, 1935. Raymond Priestley collection, 1973.0079.00002

Antarctic explorer and University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Raymond Priestley (1886-1974) kept a meticulous diary detailing his daily activities. This entry comes from the first volume of his “Australian diary” (item no. 1973.0079.00002), covering his activities on Wednesday January 30, 1935. The diary is typewritten, on one side of each page. It appears that Priestly added his own page numbers in handwriting in the top right-hand corner of each page. He also seems have been having trouble with his typewriter, as words have been corrected by hand, with blue ink, replacing letters skipped by the typewriter or cropped by the pages’ edges.

At the time of writing this entry, Priestley was in the middle of a sea journey from Liverpool to Melbourne, having left the stopover at Cape Town some days prior. He records some of daily life aboard the ship; such as defeating his wife Phyllis at quoits (“she has to go some way before she can beat me”),[1] who then escaped a game of deck-tennis, thanks to some rain. Priestley played quoits again in the afternoon, against the Captain, and beat him “which is rather unusual”.[2] He also describes his attempts at photography, including an albatross, a sunset, parts of the ship, and the Captain playing tennis. It seems that the Captain spent a lot of time socialising with the ship’s passengers. Overall, the diary contains a detailed account of life aboard the sea-passage to Australia, at least for the well off.

Priestly also recounts how he reluctantly gave a lecture at the request of the Captain, choosing the subject “The Causes of the Scott Disaster”, using slides from a lecture he had already given in England. 1339 of these slides are available in the University’s archival images collection.[3] The slides were displayed on a magic lantern made by one of the ship’s engineers. The lecture was well received by the audience and Priestly “heard the Captain laugh several times when the Adelie penguins were occupying the stage.”[4] Afterwards, the Chief Engineer offered the home-made magic lantern to him as a souvenir; Priestley notes that this “is very good of him as it has two reading glasses in its composition which belong to members of the engineering staff”.[5] One wonders if the staff were consulted about this generous gesture beforehand.

What I found particularly intriguing was the handwritten note, displayed above. On the previous pages, Priestly recounts a couple of amusing anecdotes, one from a book he is reading, and one from his childhood in Tewksbury. Then he notes that he heard that the Chief Officer had been in Archangel during the winter of 1914-15; and that he “must tell him…about the story of the Shackleton boots, but I will not put it down here for it is not quite polite.”[6] On the opposite page, in blue ink, is written what appears to read, “Why haven’t you got on your Shackleton boots my man?” “Bugger Shackleton I’m giving me arse a rest”.[7] Which is likely the story he refers to, or at least a part of it. I am sure this is supposed to be the joke, however I am not familiar enough with the Shackleton expedition, (the 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition to the Antarctic that Priestly had been involved in) to understand this punch line—if indeed that is what this is.

For the expedition, Shackleton had adapted pairs of army boots for the Antarctic conditions; these were considered iconic enough to be included in the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects. And today, “Shackleton boots” is a generic term for any type of sturdy, practical boots for cold weather. This information, however, does not explain the joke. Nevertheless, Priestley’s curious aside will no doubt continue to amuse future generations who read the diary of the University of Melbourne’s first Vice-Chancellor.


[1] Raymond Priestley, Australian Diary [volume] 1: Part 1, 107/89.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Priestley, 98/80-99/81.

[4] Priestley, 109/91.

[5] Priestley, 108/90.

[6] Priestley, 112/94.

[7] Priestley, 112/null.

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