Benjamin Leigh Smith

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An 1886 portrait of Benjamin Leigh Smith by Stephen Pearce

Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith (12 March 1828 – 4 January 1913)[1] was an English yachtsman and explorer.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Sussex, the extramarital child of Anne Longden, a milliner from Alfreton, and the Whig politician Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith (1783–1860), the only son of the Radical abolitionist William Smith. On a visit to his sister in Derbyshire in 1826, Benjamin Senior met Anne Longden. She became pregnant by him and he took her to a rented lodge at Whatlington, a small village near Battle, East Sussex. There she lived as "Mrs Leigh", the surname of his relations on the nearby Isle of Wight. The birth of their first child, Barbara, created a scandal because the couple did not marry, and within eight weeks Anne was pregnant again. When their son Benjamin was born, the four of them went to America for two years, during which time another child was conceived. After their return to Sussex, they lived openly together at Brown's and had two more children. Subsequently Anne became ill with tuberculosis and died in Ryde, Isle of Wight, in 1834. Ben was only five years old.


The loss of Eira in 1881
Eira Lodge of Benjamin Leigh Smith expedition on Bell Island of Franz Josef Land

Between 1871 and 1882, Leigh Smith undertook five major scientific expeditions to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. He brought back specimens for the British Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens, as well as live polar bears for the London Zoo. By his fourth expedition, Leigh Smith's enthusiasm for Arctic exploration had advanced to the point that he had his own vessel – Eira – specially built.[2]


Eira was built at the Scottish shipyard of Stephen & Forbes at Peterhead as a three-masted, steam-equipped screw barquentine from 1879 to 1880. John and David Gray pioneered steam engine ships and the Eira was designed along the lines of the whaler Hope and Windward[3]. At 125 feet long and 360 tons the Eira was seven feet longer and forty tons heavier that the Windward (built in 1866 with a 30 hp steam engine) but an otherwise close copy. The ships hull was three feet thick and the bow had a thickness of eight feet. After launching the Eira was towed to Aberdeen where a 50 hp steam engine was installed. On June 19, 1880 the ship left Aberdeen with Captain William Lofley captain of the Hull as Ice master, two mates, two engineers, and seventeen men. On the 20th four Shetlanders were picked up at Lerwick for the voyage and exploration of Svalbard. On July 11, 1880 John Gray's Hope and David Gray's Eclipse met up with the Eira and Smith. Photographer W.J.A. Grant took a photograph aboard the Eira that included Arthur Conan Doyle along with Smith, the Gray brothers, and ships surgeon William Neale. This was the Smith exploration of Franz Josef Land that on August 18th resulted in the naming of Cape Flora, Bell Island, Nightingale Sound, Gratton ("Uncle Joe") Island, and Mabel Island.[4]

Smith discovered and named Brochøya, Foynøya, and 31 other points in northeast Svalbard. In 1881, Smith and his crew survived for 10 months in Russian Franz Josef Land after their ship was crushed in the ice at Cape Flora, Northbrook Island. In August 2017 the ship was found by the crew of the research vessel Alter Ego during the Russian Maritime Heritage "Open Ocean 2017" expedition [5] using sonar at a depth of about 20 m (65 feet) off Northbrook Island.[6][7]

Reputation and legacy[edit]

Despite his expertise in the Arctic, Benjamin Leigh Smith's work has received little attention[2] although he received the Patron's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1881.[8]

Ostrov Li-Smita (Leigh-Smith Island), lying east of Hooker Island (Franz Josef Land), is named after Leigh Smith, as are the glacier Leighbreen and Kapp (Cape) Leigh Smith on Nordaustlandet, Svalbard,[9][10]


  1. ^ Freeze Frame, Leigh Smith, Benjamin (1828-1913)
  2. ^ a b Barford, Vanessa; Feeney-Hart, Alison (28 September 2013). "Benjamin Leigh Smith: The forgotten explorer of the frozen north". BBC News Magazine. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  3. ^ [1]- Retrieved 2018-12-29
  4. ^ Capelotti, P.J. (2013). Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The Expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England's Forgotten Arctic Explorer. New York: University of Calgary. pp. 156–162. ISBN 978-1-55238-712-2. Retrieved 2018-12-29.
  5. ^ "Open Ocean 2017". Russian Maritime Heritage Association. Archived from the original on 13 December 2017. Retrieved 2 December 2017.
  6. ^ Gavrilo, M. (2017). ""Krasin", "St. Anna" and "Eira": on the results of the historical and commemorative expedition of the "Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos 2017: Tracing two captains"" (PDF). Russian Polar Studies. 29 (3): 6–8. ISSN 2218-5321. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 December 2017. Retrieved December 12, 2017.
  7. ^ Parfitt, Tom (10 October 2017). "Polar wreck survivors' sunken ship Eira discovered in Arctic Ocean". Times online. Retrieved 11 October 2017.  (subscription may be required or content may be available in libraries)
  8. ^ "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  9. ^ "Leighbreen". Norwegian Polar Institute. Archived from the original on 3 May 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  10. ^ "Kapp Leigh Smith". Norwegian Polar Institute. Archived from the original on 3 May 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  • Capelotti, P. J. (2006). "Benjamin Leigh Smith’s first Arctic expedition, Svalbard, 1871", Polar Record 42 (220): 1-14.
  • Capelotti, P. J. (2008). "Benjamin Leigh Smith’s second Arctic expedition: Svalbard and Jan Mayen, 1872", Polar Record 44 (3): 255-264.
  • Markham C. R. (1881). "The Voyage of the Eira and Mr. Leigh-Smith's Arctic Discoveries in 1880", Proceed. of the Royal Geographical Society.
  • Markham C. R. (1883). "Second Voyage of the Eira to Franz Joseph Land", Proceed. of the Royal Geographical Society.