The man who bankrolled the Mawson expedition
Karen Barlow reported this story on Saturday, December 24, 2011 08:24:00

DAVID MARK: A sense of adventure alone will only get you so far, money certainly helps and nobody knew that more than the men of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Sir Douglas Mawson may never have set off on his landmark Australasian expedition to Antarctica 100 years ago if he hadn’t been bankrolled by one of Australia’s great philanthropists.

Adelaide businessmen, Robert Barr-Smith, became the patron of the 1911-14 expedition. He even got an Antarctic mountain named after him.

AM’s Karen Barlow caught up with Robert Barr-Smith’s great, great grandson, James Forbes, who only recently found out about the Mawson connection.

JAMES FORBES: Well I’ve always known that he was a pretty extraordinary man who was fascinated by new worlds and new adventures so I imagine that it was consistent with his world view of you know people taking on new territories and new areas in their lives and expanding them and that’s what he did when he moved out from Scotland to South Australia.

KAREN BARLOW: Robert Barr-Smith gave his money to Douglas Mawson late in his life, why did he give so much money away? 

JAMES FORBES: Yeah I mean he did donate large amounts of money to institutions, particularly in Adelaide, but across the board in many different areas and I think it was just another one of those things. 

He used to receive a lot of begging mail. So a lot of people would approach him and my understanding is that Mawson approached him as well. And that approach came via a colleague and they asked him for the funds and initially I understand that he wasn’t forthcoming. So it happened on the second round which always says that persistence often pays off.

KAREN BARLOW: I wonder what swayed him the second time around.

JAMES FORBES: Well yeah it’s a fascinating question and I don’t know the answer to that. It would be great to learn more about what it was that he had to go through but I imagine he was so passionate about the expedition and what he needed to do that he would in a sense stop at nothing in terms of asking philanthropists for support, not just my great great grandfather but others as well. 

So I know that there were others that funded the expedition but not really clear about to what extent. 

KAREN BARLOW: But he is regarded as the patron of the voyage.

JAMES FORBES: Well, and the interesting thing is that Mawson named a mountain after him, Mount Barr-Smith, and I guess that wouldn’t have happened unless there was a very clear connection and that the contribution was substantial.

And so I think again the mountain being a representation of Barr-Smith’s generosity and largesse and helping to make the expedition a reality.

KAREN BARLOW: Not many people can say they’ve got a mountain in Antarctic named after them. 

JAMES FORBES: No, I don’t think so. Or anywhere. 

KAREN BARLOW: Or anywhere. He made much of his wealth from mining. Do you think he had an affinity with Douglas Mawson the geologist? 

JAMES FORBES: I guess so. Again, I’m not sure. I think that it would have been perhaps more the fact that Mawson, I understand, was at the University of Adelaide and he would have been aware of Barr-Smith because of his support of the university.

So I think it may have been more just a simple awareness of you know of identifying those around you that have wealth and influence and can help you and can make a difference and, you know, good on him for picking up the pen and writing to my great great grandfather and asking for support and that’s what people should be doing more of.

In fact the number one reason why philanthropists, when they’re asked why they haven’t given before they’ve given, it’s because they haven’t been asked.

So I encourage anyone to you know ask people who are connected to their charity or their organisation to ask people. You know, all they can say is no.

DAVID MARK: The great great grandson of Sir Douglas Mawson’s patron, James Forbes, speaking there with Karen Barlow.

And Karen will be covering the Mawson centenary commemorations in Antarctica next month for the ABC.

Antarctic Guide
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