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50 Treasures: Great Barrier Reef Expedition Photo Albums

Our forty-eighth treasure, from the Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection, is the Great Barrier Reef Expedition Photo Albums.

Trisha Fielding answers the question "why is this significant?"

In July 1928, a group of British and Australian scientists led by Dr (later Sir) Charles Maurice Yonge, of Cambridge University, embarked on a year-long expedition to investigate the biological and geological complexities of the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef Expedition Albums, Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection. Photograph: Michael Marzik.

Based at Low Isles, near Port Douglas, the ground-breaking expedition included a surprising number of women, including zoologists Sheina Marshall, Elizabeth Fraser and Sidnie Manton – who were all highly accomplished in their respective fields. There were also women among the expedition group who were not scientists themselves, but were collaborators on their husbands’ research. This was particularly true of Anne Stephenson, who is credited as co-author with her husband T.A. Stephenson on two articles resulting from the research at Low Isles. And Dr Mattie Yonge, wife of C.M. Yonge, was officially the expedition’s medical officer, but she also assisted with practical fieldwork.

Four small albums, containing 370 photos that document six months of the expedition at Low Isles, are held by JCU Library Special Collections. Most of the photos were taken by the expedition’s deputy leader, Frederick Russell, or his wife, Gweneth Russell MBE.

Frederick and Gwen Russell, 26 May 1928. Great Barrier Reef Expedition Photo Album 1, Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection. 

The expedition party left England in May 1928 and photos at the beginning of the first album chart their sea voyage from England to Australia. They broke their journey at the ports of Naples, Colombo and Perth, before arriving in Brisbane. From there, the group travelled by train to Cairns, before being transferred to Low Isles at the end of July.

The 1928-1929 Great Barrier Reef Expedition made an outstanding contribution to coral science, and the research conducted under Yonge’s leadership is still regarded as basic reference material. 

Sir Charles Maurice Yonge, in the laboratory at Low Isles, 1928. Great Barrier Reef Expedition Photo Album 2, Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection.

Importantly, the albums document the day-to-day activities of the members of the expedition and illustrate living conditions at the research station. There are images of station buildings, laboratories, equipment and scientific experiments, as well as photos of coral specimens and other marine life. The unspoiled natural environment of Low Isles and surrounding reefs, along with other locations throughout north Queensland, feature heavily. 

The majority of photos are captioned in Frederick Russell’s handwriting and many photos are precisely dated. The inclusion of descriptive captions and dates adds significantly to the value of the albums as primary source records for researchers of early reef exploration.
A page from Great Barrier Reef Expedition Album 3, 1928, Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection.

In December 1928, the Russells left Low Isles and began the long journey home. They continued to document their adventure, photographing every port of call along the way, including Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Pompeii.

* The Great Barrier Reef Expedition Photo Albums were generously donated to JCU Library Special Collections by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in 2018.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Trisha Fielding is an historian and writer whose published works include the books Neither Mischievous nor Meddlesome: the remarkable lives of North Queensland’s independent midwives 1890-1940Queen City of the North: a history of Townsville, and the history blogs North Queensland History and Women of the North. She holds a Master of History degree from the University of New England and a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction from the University of Southern Queensland. Trisha also works part time in JCU Library’s Special Collections.


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