The South Georgia Museum was very pleased to receive a donation of a very significant Polar Medal that was awarded to Reginald James, the Endurance Expedition physicist who survived the wreck of Endurance during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917. The Endurance Expedition was led by Sir Ernest Shackleton and is one of the greatest stories of survival against the odds and is strongly linked to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.  

Endurance become trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea and eventually broke up and sank, forcing the men of the expedition to take to the ice where they set up camp. James played an important part in saving the expedition members by calculating the drift of the ice floe they were on so they had some idea of their location; information vital for when they were forced, by the breaking up of the floe, to take to the boats and sail to find land. James was later awarded the silver Polar Medal for his contributions to the expedition. James’s Polar Medal has now been donated to the South Georgia Museum by the James family as part of a larger donation of items belonging to Reginald James.

Following the Endurance Expedition James married and soon after, in 1937, moved to South Africa. There he became Professor of physics at the University of Cape Town; going on to serve as the University’s Vice Chancellor. He died in Cape Town in 1964 at the age of 73.

James’ sons, Viv and John, decided the South Georgia Museum was the best place to house their father’s Polar Medal; but how best to get it safely there? The Captain of Swan Hellenic’s expedition ship SH Diana was able to assist. Captain Kai Ukkonen kindly agreed to act as a courier. The medal was handed to him in Cape Town by Viv James. The ship then sailed to South Georgia where, on 2 December 2023, the medal was safely handed to the South Georgia Museum in a short ceremony in the church at Grytviken in front of the ship’s guests.

Captain Kai Ukkonen hands the medal to SGHT Director South Georgia Deirdre Mitchell, Grytviken Church
Reginald James’ Polar Medal, Dress Medal and the Royal Mint envelope

At the ceremony, SGHT Director for South Georgia Deirdre Mitchell said: “I am delighted to accept Reginald James’ medal on behalf of the South Georgia Museum. James played a key role in the Endurance Expedition, as shown by the fact that he received a silver polar medal – a mark of the esteem in which Shackleton held him. It feels appropriate that that medal has now come to South Georgia – from where James departed on Endurance in 1914, and where his expedition leader, ‘The Boss’, Sir Ernest Shackleton now rests.  We will be hugely proud to display this medal in the South Georgia Museum, and we look forward to sharing James’ story with future visitors to South Georgia.”

Two other items made up the full donation. Along with the Polar Medal and a smaller dress medal (still in the original Royal Mint envelope), there is a copy of Shackleton’s book ‘South’ with a message to James and a signature in the flyleaf from Shackleton reading:  “To Jimmy with all good memories from “The Boss”  E.H. Shackleton 1920″; and a typed copy of James’ diary from 1914 to July 1915. This diary includes his account of the time the shipwrecked men spent on Elephant Island and is considered to give the best insight into what conditions were really like for the men left there. The diary has James’ corrections and edits written in pencil in it, and small drawings too, and is described by the South Georgia Museum Curator Jayne Pierce as being “Just gorgeous”. The two books are well used so the Curator is investigating whether they would benefit from some conservation work before they too are carried down to the island.

This is the second very significant donation made to the South Georgia Museum by the James family. They previously donated the James Caird almanac – one of the highlights of the Museum Collection.
Reginald James working aboard ‘Endurance’
Inscription to Reginald James from Shackleton in the book ‘South’
Reginald James’ Endurance Diary