‘I have today definitely found out that Edward Bransfield was an Irishman born about 5 miles from Midleton, Cork. So good old Ireland discovered the Antarctic Continent!’ – William Speirs Bruce

William Speirs Bruce Portrait

William Speirs Bruce and Edward Bransfield

William Speirs Bruce FRSE (Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) was a Scottish naturalist, polar scientist and oceanographer who organized and led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition (1902-04) to the South Orkney Islands and the Weddell Sea. With leads provided by geologist Tom Sharpe it  has been discovered that Bruce did a lot of research into Bransfield around 1916/17.

The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), of Cambridge University, England hold the only known surviving correspondence between William Speirs Bruce and Henry David Roberts, Director, Public Library, Museums, & Fine Art Galleries, Brighton which occurred between October 1916 to June 1917 concerning the early life of Edward Bransfield and his family history in Cork, Ireland. We have received copies of these letters which are subject to copyright, and present below transcribed extracts of what are consider relevant sections.

These excerpts appear by permission of the University of Cambridge, Scott Polar Research Institute.


To H.D. Roberts 14th October 1916:

‘Do you know of any longer obituary notice of memoir on Bransfield? A am anxious to hear such. I am also desirous of finding any original documents, letters, &c., portraits &c.; for this purpose it is important to find if these (sic) are descendants and relatives of his living in Brighton, and to find out where he is buried. The special interest is that Bransfield I find was the discoverer of the Antarctic Continent, whereas up to now the credit has been given to Captain Palmer, an American. It also his (sic) in fact that this first (underlined) survey of the South Shetland Islands is of very excellent quality considering his equipment and time and weather conditions.’
‘I am therefore specially interested in this subject of Antarctic Research and more so since I am compiling on behalf of the Admiralty an ‘Antarctic Pilot’.

From H.D. Roberts 6th November 1916:

‘………I was endeavouring personally to find some more information about the late Edward Bransfield. Unfortunately I have not been successful.’

He then invites Bruce to visit to him in Brighton.

To H.D. Roberts 29th November 1916:

‘I hope you may have some success in finding out some local information regarding Edward Bransfield. It is surely a feather in the cap of Brighton that the discoverer of the Antarctic Continent should have resided there, and as you say it is likely that his last days were spent in quiet retirement unknown to the busy throng.’

He then goes on to talk about looking for a portrait of Bransfield and how he would ‘covet’ one if it was found. He also says he is having no luck finding any information on William Smith and finishes by saying;

‘and so far he is lost in London, and what a problem it is to find William Smith in London!’

From H.D. Roberts 30th November 1916:

This letter talks of Roberts finding Bransfield’s grave and asking permission to have it photographed for Bruce; apparently as difficult 100 years ago as now!

To H.D. Roberts 2nd December 1916:

He asks Robert to photograph the grave and interestingly also ask him to photograph his house at 61 Lond (sic) Road and gives the following description;

‘it is now subdivided, at least in its lower part, by two shops, but from across the road one gets quite a good view of it giving an idea of what it was before the shops were built.’

He asks for a;

 ‘general photograph of the road it would be interesting because probably before long all that region will be wiped out and rebuilt.’
‘I suppose since you did not mention having found any other local reference to him that you have not been able to come across such? Any detail would be interesting because we know so little about him.’
‘P.S. Ultimately I think we should do what we can to honour Bransfield. Possibly on the centenary of his discovery of the ‘Antarctic Continent’ I would be glad to help.’

1920 would have been the centenary of Bransfield’s discovery.

From H.D. Roberts 6th December 1916:

In this letter Robert describes going to see the grave of Edward Bransfield.

‘It seems the cemetery was only opened in the previous year to Captain Bransfield’s burial.’

He describes the inscriptions of Edward and Annie Bransfield on the couple’s graves, making no reference to the Antarctic. The original inscription has been covered over recently, which now includes reference to Antarctica. Ann’s grave does not appear to have been touched.

‘The grave being an old one was completely covered in ivy but the Superintendent was good enough to have it removed for me…..’

To H.D. Roberts 8th December 1916:

‘…… I hope in the end we may be able between us to ferret out his life history, and possibly some of his original records which are missing at the present time especially his Log during his voyage aboard the Brig ‘Williams” to the South Shetlands. I was deposited in the Hydrographic Office on the 1st November 1820 but is not at the Admiralty, Public Record Office, or British Museum at the present time.’

From H.D. Roberts 6th March 1917:

This letter just describes Robert getting the photos of the grave for Bruce.

To H.D. Roberts 6th March 1917:

‘In the meantime I have got in touch with a relative of Edward Bransfield in Midleton, Cork, and find that Edward Bransfield was born within five miles of that town and was an Irishman.’

The rest of the letter is urging Robert to keep digging for any information on Edward Bransfield.

To H.D. Roberts 8th March 1917:

This letter is sent because there was a cross-over of letters and talks about the photographs of the grave and getting a photo of a house in London Road Brighton without shops on the ground floor to show what his house looked like. He says;

 ‘I hope that you succeeded in getting the gravestone clear and it will be kept clear……..’

He also says he thinks he is ‘on the track’ of William Smith who seems to have moved to London from Blyth after the Bransfield Expedition.

From H.D. Roberts 6th March 1917:

A letter acknowledging payment received for the grave photos.

To H.D. Roberts 8th March 1917:

In this short letter, the last in the series, he continues to urge Roberts to keep looking for information on Bransfield. He also mentions a paper he had just published on the Weddell Sea in the ‘Scottish Geographical Magazine’.

Postcard for Bruce to R. N. Brown, Bruce’s biographer

5th March 1917:

‘I have today definitely found out that Edward Bransfield was an Irishman born about 5 miles from Midleton, Cork. So good old Ireland discovered the Antarctic Continent! I have also more particulars re Wm. Smith but it comes out dead slow. I hope I won’t be dead first’

Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory

This is a series of three letters on headed paper ‘Scottish Oceanographical Laboratory’ all address to Maurice Bransfield of Main Street, Midleton.

To: Maurice Bransfield Esq, 27th January 1917:

‘I should be extremely obliged if you could tell me if you are in any way related to William Bransfield of Cork’
‘I would like to be able to see……….any photographs, Logs, documents etc., that Edward may have left to William and his family.’
‘……….Mr. John Fawcett, Librarian of University College Cork, who was good enough to give me your name……..’

To: M. Bransfield Esq, c/o John J. Bransfield & Co., Midleton, by Cork, 5th February 1917:

‘Dear Sir, I am extremely interested to receive your note as the first descendant I have been able to get in touch with of (sic) Bransfield’
‘While I regret to hear that you have no documents or photographs belonging to him possibly you would be able to put me in touch with other relatives…… tell me perhaps where Edward was born, which was apparently during the year 1785 according to his…tombstone and his obituary notice. It would be interesting to me as a Scotsman to know whether Edward Bransfield was an Irishman, because everybody is anxious to Anglicise the credit for the discovery of the Antarctic Continent to England, instead of Ireland. We in Scotland know what this means.’
‘P.S. May I ask whether the two people I have addressed myself to in Midleton, namely Mr Maurice Bransfield and Mr John P Bransfield is a confusion between your name and the mane of your firm, or is there still another Bransfield in Midleton?’

To: M. Bransfield Esq, Mesers John J. Bransfield & Co., Midleton, Cork, Ireland, 6th March 1917:

‘I am very much obliged for your interesting letter of the 1st March duly received yesterday. The information you give me regarding Edward Bransfield is particularly useful and I sincerely trust that you may be able to see your way to continuing enquiries whenever you have an opportunity with any member of the Bransfield family………and see if we could any detailed information from the parish of Mogeely. Do you know what business Edward Bransfield’s brother was in, whom John Moore remembers? Perhaps it (sic) spite of his age he may with time be able to other incidents.’

We need to find this letter!

‘It is of particular interest that William Bransfield was married and had children at least in 1851. It is surely not too far back yet to trace out what has become of these children who actually lived in the Parish of Midleton. Can you tell me your exact relationship to Edward Bransfield? It is so interesting to record anything in connection with your notable family.
Believe me,
Dear Sir,
Yours truly Wm. Bruce.’