Imagine yourself a young man of twenty-five in the early 1911, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Having dropped out of high school at 14 to work at smelting iron to then became a self-taught photographer living in Sydney Australia (so we can only assume you are artsy and have a kicking bod, the complete package?), you learn of an expedition mounted by geologist Dr Douglas Mawson to Antarctica on a ship with the sufficiently stoic name of The Endurance. What would hold you back from writing to Dr Mawson yourself to become the official photographer for this manly expedition, what could attempt to interfere with your job application? Only an attempt of professional sabotage by your own mother.
On the 29th of September 1911, amateur photographer Frank Hurley wrote his letter of interest to join Dr Mawson in what he saw as a career-making journey. One week later on the 6th of October 1911 Frank Hurley’s mother, Mrs M.A. Hurley also wrote to Dr Mawson, pleading for him to deny her son’s request to join the expedition (I recommend reading both original letters by clicking this link to the NSW State Library website, it is quite sweet). Mrs Hurley proceeded in her letter to tear apart all the valuable qualities that Frank Hurley had talked himself up with to Dr Mawson in his letter (and for anyone who has ever written a cover letter, we all know the liberties and exaggerations you sometimes take, but you never expect your mother to be the one to dash them). She said that her son suffered an internal complaint (good to see that even in 1911 diarrhoea was used as an excuse to get out of stuff), that her son wasn’t strong enough for the expedition (that one hurts a bit, mum), and that he had never roughed it, in any sense of the word, in his life (mum, I already told them I can rough it in my job interview!). Mrs Hurley’s attempted evisceration of her son’s future concluded in her asking a favour of Dr Mawson: that they kept this little exchange hush hush, just between themselves.
In the end Dr Mawson asked Frank Hurley to pass some medical checks, which he did, and offered Frank a position on the expedition. Frank Hurley in his six trips to Antarctica took some beautiful photos of the icy continent and what life was like there during these early expeditions (one expedition ended with peril that maybe I will write about later, so don’t go looking it up yourself).
Frankly (pun!), the more I read Mrs Hurley’s letter the sweeter it becomes. It appears that she is just a nervous mother who was worried about her foolhardy son. My own mother would (half) jokingly say she wanted to talk to my primary school principal when I was in grade six because she didn’t think her baby was old enough to go to high school and should go back to prep. My father also (always willing to story top me), when he was in his twenties, and had a motorcycle delivered to the family home, and my grandmother pleaded with the burly bikies who where delivering it to take it back (a delivery these guys apparently said was the hardest they ever made).
There is however, something undeniably hilarious to think of that, during this age of stereotypical manly man-ness, behind these adventuring males, were mothers writing to their bosses to tell them: my son can’t go exploring in Antarctica because he is just a baby.
Happy (early) Mothers Day!
State Library of New South Wales, Hurley’s Antarctica: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/discover_collections/natural_world/antarctica/hurley/index.html. It also has a collection of Hurley’s fantastic pictures, check it out.
Alexander, Caroline 1999, ‘Endurance’, in Natural History, Natural History Magazine, Inc., New York, p98-100.