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Béchervaise, John Mayston (1910–1998)

by Alessandro Antonello

This article was published online in 2022

John Mayston Béchervaise (1910–1998), writer, schoolteacher, explorer, and traveller, was born on 11 May 1910 at Malvern, Melbourne, second of five children of Herbert Walter Béchervaise, accountant, and his wife Lilian Maude, née Mayston, both Melbourne born. He grew up in the suburb of Murrumbeena, being educated first at the local primary school and then at the Working Men’s College Preparatory School. John’s parents were committed members of the Church of England, and he later described himself as being ‘firmly Christian’ in his youth (Béchervaise 1976). His first job, in 1926, was at the National Bank of Australasia Ltd, but his interests in art and literature led him to join the Victorian Education Department in September 1927 as a junior teacher at Murrumbeena. After topping his year at the Melbourne Teachers’ College in 1930, he was assigned to Mount Eccles State School in Gippsland. From 1932 he worked with George Browne, then vice-principal of the college, to prepare textbooks and revise curricula.

On 3 January 1935 at St James the Less Church, Mount Eliza, Béchervaise married Lorna Fearn Wannan, whom he had met at the Teachers’ College. That year, through Browne’s influence, he was employed as a resident master and art teacher at Geelong College and tasked by the headmaster (Sir) Frank Rolland with developing the House of Guilds, a wide-ranging program of extracurricular activities. Béchervaise was especially enthusiastic about the outdoor program, known as the Ramblers Guild, leading small parties in bushwalking, camping, and what he described as ‘minor exploration’ (Béchervaise 1976).

In 1937 Béchervaise and his wife travelled to Britain. He taught art (1937–45) at St George’s College, Harpenden, studied fine arts at the Courtauld Institute, and explored the British countryside, including as a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District. Lorna and their first child visited Australia in 1939 and were prevented from returning to Britain by the outbreak of World War II. A pacifist, Béchervaise was a conscientious objector during the war and remained in England.

Returning to Australia in 1945, Béchervaise resumed his position at Geelong College. From the Ramblers Guild he formed the Geelong College Exploration Society in 1947, leading students and other members on notable expeditions to Central Australia, including Ayers Rock (Uluru); to Rodondo Island, off Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria; and in January 1949 to south-west Tasmania for the first recorded ascent of Federation Peak. He published expedition narratives in the travel and geographic magazine Walkabout, and his poetry appeared in Jindyworobak Anthology, Southerly, and Meanjin.

In June 1949 Béchervaise resigned from Geelong College and was appointed assistant manager of the Australian National Publicity Association, with writing and editorial responsibilities for Walkabout. He travelled extensively in Australia and the Pacific, both as a solo traveller and with schoolboy and research expeditions, writing of landscapes and industries, and promoting Australia and its tourism industry to national and international audiences.

Béchervaise left Walkabout in 1952 after the director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Phillip Law, recognising his impressive leadership skills, invited him to head the scientific station on Heard Island, the remote and isolated sub-Antarctic Australian territory. Living with twelve other men, between February 1953 and March 1954 he oversaw the scientific and expeditionary work of the base. An avid mountaineer, he led two failed attempts to climb the summit of the island’s 2,745-metre-tall volcano, Big Ben. Following this, he was officer-in-charge at Mawson Station on the Antarctic continent between February 1955 and March 1956, its second year of operation, guiding its rapid expansion and preparing for the International Geophysical Year (1957–58). He returned to Mawson Station as officer-in-charge for the 1959–60 season, further developing the station and welcoming Soviet scientific visitors. During this season a catastrophic fire destroyed the base’s powerhouse.

Between his stints as station leader, Béchervaise worked in the Australian Antarctic Division’s Melbourne headquarters, helping with logistics and promoting the work of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. He used his Antarctic experiences to write major literary works, including The Far South (1961) and Blizzard and Fire: A Year at Mawson, Antarctica (1963), and several educational historical-geographical works.

Béchervaise was an industrious and prolific author, with an earnest style. His main subjects were Australian and Antarctic landscapes, geography, natural history, and local history, including a focus on the Victorian goldfields. He revelled in the travel and research required for his books, particularly enjoying the thousands of kilometres of driving in his Kombi van to prepare the ten short books he contributed to Rigby’s Sketchbook Series in the 1970s. Many of his books were suffused with nostalgia for ‘pioneering’ colonial days, in which rugged men forged the mining and agricultural industries of Australia, and from which Indigenous Australians were absent. While he published many prose works, after some early success his poems rarely found favour among editors, and his applications for support from the Commonwealth Literary Fund (1965 and 1972) and the Australia Council for the Arts (1988) went unrewarded.

Béchervaise was ‘big in stature, deep in voice and blessed with presence’ (Keage 1998, 6), and was described as ‘cultured, witty, unpretentiously wise, instinctively courteous, [and] genuinely charming’ (O’Brien 1980, 67). An insatiable traveller, he sought deep experiences of place, either individually or with small parties, and proudly claimed that he knew Australia intimately. He was appointed MBE in 1960 and was awarded the Polar Medal (1956), an honorary doctorate of letters (1984) from Deakin University, and an OAM (1993). Survived by his wife and their three daughters and son, he died on 14 July 1998 at Newcomb, Geelong, and was cremated. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the final years of his life. Three geographical features bear his name: Béchervaise Island near Mawson Station, Mount Béchervaise in the Prince Charles Mountains in East Antarctica, and Bechervaise Plateau in south-west Tasmania, beneath Federation Peak.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Béchervaise, John. Curriculum Vitae, 1949. Australian National Travel Association records, MLMSS 9150, box 3, item 2. State Library of New South Wales
  • Béchervaise, John. Interview by Suzanne Lunney, 10 June 1976. National Library of Australia
  • Bowden, Tim. The Silence Calling: Australians in Antarctica 1947–97. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997
  • Elliot, Fred. ‘John Mayston Béchervaise.’ Polar Record 35, no. 195 (October 1999): 359–60
  • Jones, Philip. ‘Roving Artist Took on the South Pole.’ Australian, 30 July 1998, 13
  • Keage, Peter. ‘John Bechervaise.’ Independent (London), 2 September 1998, 6
  • Law, Phillip. ‘John Mayston Bechervaise: Antarctic Explorer.’ Age (Melbourne), 30 July 1998, 20
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7972, Papers of John Béchervaise, circa 1860–2001
  • O’Brien, Denis. ‘A Delightful Wanderer of the World.’ Bulletin (Sydney), 29 July 1980, 67–68
  • Times (London). ‘John Bechervaise: Obituary.’ 24 August 1998, 21
  • Walkabout (Melbourne). ‘John Mayston Béchervaise.’ 15, no. 6 (June 1949): 8

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alessandro Antonello, 'Béchervaise, John Mayston (1910–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bechervaise-john-mayston-31937/text39399, published online 2022, accessed online 4 July 2022.

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