Priestley was born, on 20 July 1886, into a Methodist family in Tewkesbury, England. His father was headmaster of the local grammar school. While studying geology at Bristol university he was recruited to Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to Antartica (1907-1909). He was also a member of Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition in 1910-1912, and subsequently wrote Antarctic Adventure. He entered Cambridge University, but when the war intervened, he served as adjutant at the Wireless Training Centre, and then with the 46th divisional signal company in France. During the war, he married Phyllis Mary, and they had two daughters. After the war, he completed his studies, as well as writing several books: Breaking the Hindenburg Line, The Work of the Royal Engineers, 1914–19: the Signal Service, and a work on glaciology. He also helped set up the Scott Polar Research Institute in the University of Cambridge in 1920.
From the 1930s, Priestley held a series of academic and government administrative posts in England, and then in Australia, in particular becoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne (1935-1938), and then Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University (1938-1952). In 1944, he spent several months in the West Indies with a committee from the UK tasked with investigating the possibility of setting up a university in the region. He was knighted in 1949, and retired in 1952, but continued to work in different capacities (including, for example, being president of the Royal Geographical Society from 1961 to 1963). He died in 1974. Further information can be found at the Australian Dictionary of National Biography, University of Birmingham or Wikipedia.
Priestley kept a diary throughout his life, from his Antarctic expedition days to his chancellorship of Birmingham University. He based his first book - Antarctic Adventure - on the diary he kept while with Scott’s expedition. Published by Fisher Unwin in 1914, first editions of this book can sell for over £1,000; however, it is also freely available online at Internet Archive. Although Priestley says, about half way through the narrative, that he has tried to avoid the diary form as much as possible, he then says ‘it is impossible to give a lifelike description of our routine, our thoughts, and our feelings during this abnormal life without the help of some extracts from the records written at the time’. Thereafter, he quotes liberally from his own diary.
The diaries Priestley kept while in Australia were published by Melbourne University Press in 1998 and again in 2002 as The Diary of a Vice-Chancellor: University of Melbourne 1935-1938. A review can be found at Don Atikin website. And, an excellent and detailed summary of all 14 of Priestley’s diaries held by Birmingham University, from 1938-1954, can be found on the university’s website, as can a photograph of one of the manuscript diaries. Furthermore, The University of the West Indies website offers two links to the text of a diary Priestley kept in 1944 while visiting the region. (However, at the time of writing, the links do not seem to work.)
Here, though, are several extracts from Priestley’s diary as found in Antarctic Adventure.
22 February 1912
‘The worst of a wind is that you can do nothing to it. If you are being annoyed by a man or an animal bigger than yourself, you can at least get on the other side of a fence and throw stones at him or it, but here we are hung up by an infernally cold wind and able to do nothing against it whatever, while it is gradually tearing our tent in pieces. We are all getting less physically fit and feeling the cold more, and this is showing itself by the continual presence of cold feet, and by constant attacks of cramp in different parts of the body. It is to be hoped that the ship is all serene and not blown out north by the wind. Before the gale commenced Levick and Abbott reported that they saw a trail of smoke off the ice tongue, and we therefore think that she may be sheltering in Relief Inlet, but at times like this all of us have strong imaginations. We are all suffering very much, and myself in particular, from an almost intolerable itching of the feet when circulation is restored after they have been very cold. The barometer isn’t much use to us nowadays. As far as I can make out if it goes up it means the gale is going to be stronger, if it goes down the wind is going to increase. When the barometer remains steady the gale remains steady too. Cheerful, isn’t it?’
7 May 1912
‘While still in bed this morning we heard the gale blowing hard outside, and when we got up we found we were snowed in as we have never been before. During the morning Dickason and I tunnelled through the drift and have managed thus to extend the roof of the shaft for about 6 feet in length. We found a regular hurricane outside, but no drift. Levick and Browning have butchered three of the Emperors, and Campbell and Abbott have therefore been cooking under great difficulties, for the galley is full of meat and carcasses, and there is a bad backdraught down the chimney. We had a lot of Emperor penguin meat and blubber in the hoosh to-night. The meat has been a great success, but the blubber has made the gravy pure oil, and has beaten some of us, though I am thankful to say not myself. The Emperor blubber itself has a very delicate flavour. As a treat this morning Campbell gave us each a small strip of Emperor’s breast done as a filet-de-boeuf, with a small piece of fat on top, and it was an excellent change after the unvarying stews we have had for months. I am reading my diary of last year in monthly parts for the amusement of the company. We all find an especial, though a tantalizing pleasure in the few descriptions of meals I have entered as part of our routine at Cape Adare. We still feel the monotonous diet, but are otherwise quite reconciled to our fate.
The cave is keeping quite warm at present, and of course the insulation is much improved by each wind with drift. All the sea ice beyond the bay has gone out again, and the Drygalski Ice Tongue and the moraines are hidden by dense drift, which is just missing us except in the strongest gusts. Dickason and I were both blown down once or twice when we were standing at the entrance to the shaft.’
25 May 1912
‘Westerly wind with heavy drift continues, and we have been drifted up all day. This afternoon we had to do away with the blubber fires because of the smitch, for the drift kept on filling the chimney and preventing the draught from flowing. Afterwards Dickason started the hoosh over the primus, and this rapidly used up our limited supply of oxygen. First of all the reading-lamps went out and refused to be lighted with a flaring spill, and then the spill went out and could not be relighted at the primus. Next the primus went out and could not be relighted because the matches would not burn. By this time we were opening up the chimney and the drift at the entrance to the shaft, and Campbell drove his ice-axe through the latter with immediate relief to everybody. Since then things have gone pretty well, but we all have had bad headaches, which we had put down to the smitch, but which were more probably due directly to lack of oxygen. It is a great nuisance this new danger having arisen after we thought we had avoided the utmost malice of the weather, but it is lucky we were not caught at night and all asphyxiated in our beds. I suppose that the coating of ice which has formed on the inside of the snow-roof has spoiled the ventilation. After dinner Campbell and Abbot cleared the drift from the mouth of the shaft and pushed the flagstaff down the chimney.’
14 June 1912
‘Half a gale blowing. Clear, and stars shining. Another day in bed. Rather smitchier than usual. We have just had a word who should go out and clear the chimney and cut away a projecting piece of sealskin in our passage roof which is a constant menace to our eyes and noses, and which has perhaps been the cause of more hasty language than any other individual thing about the camp. I have not yet mentioned one essential portion of our equipment - the toothpick. Campbell is the only member of the party who still possesses a toothbrush, and the present diet is eminently suited to cause the collection of small shreds of meat between our teeth. In spite of this we are able to keep them in as good condition as we can at home by the judicious use of bamboo toothpicks with sharp points to remove the meat and of pieces of soft wood to rub the front of the teeth. These latter instruments are made from the white wood of the Fry’s chocolate boxes, and their blunt chisel ends are moistened and chewed first to secure pliability. They are rather better than a toothbrush. The hard biscuit, of course, looks after the grinding surfaces for us. I think at present that I am looking forward to a good bath and a clean up as much as I am to a good meal of bread, butter, and jam, which is saying a good deal. Another tin of oil was finished this morning. We have every reason to be satisfied with the oil consumption, which is becoming less and less, while Dickason watches over his primus like a hen over her chickens. The men are just finishing off their private sewing, and then they start work on their tents. The day after one has been messman is always the pleasantest of the three, for one feels one has earned the right to a day in bed.
To-day has been a great day of controversies. First Levick and myself found ourselves at variance about the chocolate ration, and the amount of chocolate left at Cape Adare. The second argument was whether or not one of the expedition fruit-cakes would freeze at spring sledging temperatures, and this was followed by two lengthy battles between Campbell and Levick on points of national ethics and imperial politics respectively. Finally we had a three-cornered battle as to which is the most economical and soul-satisfying way of eating one’s single biscuit. We are all three set in our own way: Campbell eats his at breakfast, Levick part at breakfast and part in each hoosh, and myself part when I feel the want of it, about midday or a little earlier, and part at dinner.’
6 July 1912
‘The worst of our day as messman is the infernal crick we get in our backs from never being able to stand upright. Mine is at present aching terribly, but the pain soon passes off in our bags.
Levick is too broad for our inner door, and we have just spent an amusing five minutes watching his attempts to get through with a joint of meat in one hand and a cooker in the other. Luckily, as a rule we run to slimness, and no one else has much trouble.
The atmosphere is becoming tolerable again, but we have ruined the pure white of the roof and wall until a few more smitchless days enable pure crystals to form over the dirty ones.
Browning has slight indigestion and Dickason has complained of a bad stitch in his side, but otherwise we are in excellent health.
We are running out of penguins and of bones for the fire, and shall be short of sea ice in a day or two, so I hope for fine weather, for the penguins especially make all the difference between palatable and monotonous hoosh.’