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John Riddoch Rymill (1905–1968)

by John Béchervaise

This article was published:

John Riddoch Rymill (1905-1968), by Broothorn Studios, 1939

John Riddoch Rymill (1905-1968), by Broothorn Studios, 1939

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 9115

John Riddoch Rymill (1905-1968), polar explorer and farmer, was born on 13 March 1905 at Penola, South Australia, younger son of Robert Rymill, farmer, and his wife Mary Edith, daughter of John Riddoch. In 1906 his father was killed in a motor accident. John was educated by tutor at home, at school in Adelaide, and in 1917-22 at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. Hampered by dyslexia, he was reserved and introspective, yet decisive. In the care and management of animals and in practical crafts he showed unusual ability and he became fascinated by polar literature.

Their mother accompanied her sons to England in 1927. John prepared himself for polar exploration: at the Royal Geographical Society in London, studying surveying and navigation; at the de Havilland Aircraft Co. Ltd, Hendon, where he qualified to fly; and at the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, under Professor Frank Debenham. With alpine experience in Europe, two visits to Canada (1928-29) and courses in social sciences, commerce and cooking, his qualifications were as impressive as his physique; strikingly handsome, he was 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm) tall.

The young, renowned, Arctic traveller H. Gino Watkins appointed Rymill to the British Arctic Air Route Expedition to Greenland (1930-31) as surveyor and pilot. They gathered physiographic and meteorological information essential to great circle polar flights between Europe and North America. Rymill revealed versatility and leadership qualities; he excelled in skiing, sledging with dogs and in the servicing and maintenance of the two aircraft. When Augustine Courtauld, a companion, was lost on the Greenland Ice Cap and his camp was buried by snow, Rymill's route-finding enabled Courtauld's location and relief. With W. E. Hampton, Rymill made a notable 400-mile (640 km) crossing of Greenland, using sledges transporting kayaks, from the base near Angmagssalik to Holsteinborg on the west coast.

Watkins took Rymill as second-in-command on a four-man Greenland journey in 1932-33; during it, Watkins drowned while fishing. Rymill, F. Spencer Chapman and Quintin Riley maintained the project, recording information to assist polar aviation. Rymill determined to continue polar exploration and to fulfil Watkins's ambition to mount an Antarctic expedition to South Graham Land and the Weddell Sea south of Cape Horn, South America.

His British Graham Land Expedition (1934-37) attracted several of his Greenland comrades including W. E. Hampton, pilot and second-in-command. In an old three-masted topsail schooner renamed Penola, which was captained by Lieutenant R. E. D. Ryder but largely manned by an amateur crew (the unpaid expeditioners), two bases were established along Graham Land's west coast. Contrary to Sir Hubert Wilkins's deductions of its insularity from his pioneer flight of 1928, Rymill's party proved that Graham Land was part of a continental extension (now the Antarctic Peninsula). They discovered a southern, permanently frozen channel, later named King George VI Sound, islanding Alexander I Land (now Alexander Island) and extending to the Bellingshausen Sea. Rymill allotted southern sledging in the sound to A. Stephenson, Rev. W. L. S. Fleming and G. C. L. Bertram, while he and Dr E. W. Bingham surveyed unknown territory high on the peninsula over the Weddell Sea, where Shackleton's Endurance was crushed in 1915.

The B.G.L.E. logistics were innovative in Antarctica. Outstanding sledging with dogs, especially over sea ice, was backed by air support and depot laying; the use of a motor launch probing ahead to plot a route for Penola through uncharted, rock-strewn waters, was original and successful. The Penola covered 26,896 miles (43,283 km) mostly under sail.

Honours bestowed on Rymill included the British Service Polar Medal with Arctic (1930-31) and Antarctic (1934-37) bars; the Murchison grant (1934) and the Founders' medal (1938) of the Royal Geographical Society and the David Livingstone Centenary gold medal of the American Geographical Society of New York (1939). The citation for this award reads, in part, 'The survey work of this expedition constitutes probably the largest contribution of accurate detailed surveys of the Antarctic Continent made by an expedition'. Yet in 1934 the B.G.L.E. was by far the cheapest expedition of its size and duration ever to visit the Antarctic. A bay, a cape and a coast in British Antarctic Territory are named after John Rymill, and in Australian Antarctic Territory a peak in the Prince Charles Mountains.

On 16 September 1938, after completing Southern Lights, the official account of B.G.L.E., Rymill married in England, with Anglican rites, Dr Eleanor Mary Francis, a geographer and graduate of Girton College, whom he had met at Cambridge. They went to live at and manage their half of the Rymill property (now Old Penola Estate) and collaborated in surveying and irrigating the land and improving the pastures. Rymill was a Penola district councillor and belonged to various agricultural and horticultural societies. In World War II he was commissioned in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Patient, with a keen sense of humour, he was popular with children and supported the Penola Pony Club and the Equestrian Federation of Australia. Like his father he died as the result of a car accident (6 May), on 7 September 1968. His wife and their two sons survived him and he was buried in New Penola cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. S. Chapman, Northern Lights (Lond, 1932)
  • F. S. Chapman, Watkin's Last Expedition (Lond, 1934)
  • Geographical Journal, vol 91, Apr 1938, p 297, May 1938, p 424, June 1938, p 508, vol 96, Sept 1940, p 167, vol 134, pt 4, Dec 1968, p 621, vol 151, pt 2, July 1985, p 155
  • South Eastern Times (Millicent, South Australia), 19 Oct 1954
  • John Rymill papers, diaries of expedition members (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge).

Citation details

John Béchervaise, 'Rymill, John Riddoch (1905–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Riddoch Rymill (1905-1968), by Broothorn Studios, 1939

John Riddoch Rymill (1905-1968), by Broothorn Studios, 1939

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 9115

Life Summary [details]


13 March, 1905
Penola, South Australia, Australia


7 September, 1968 (aged 63)