Charles Sandell

Charles Sandell 1

This article about local Esperance personality Charles Sandell was originally published in the Esperance Tide. It’s part of the 5 Minute History series, on local Esperance history. 

In December 1911, the Australian Antarctic Expedition departed from Hobart, under the direction of Douglas Mawson. As teams from Norway and Great Britain were racing to be the first to reach the South Pole, Mawson was instead set on an expedition devoted to scientific research. On this extremely gruelling trip, Mawson’s team was the first to visit the Magnetic South Pole. They also visited the unexplored area of Antarctica directly south of Australia, and collected important research data from the area. One of the members of the expedition was young electrician and radio operator Charles Sandell. Esperance locals may be familiar with this name, as Sandell later became a prominent Esperance figure.

Charles Sandell was born in Surrey, England, in 1886. He studied electrical engineering, and came to Australia in 1909. Sandell joined the Commonwealth Branch of Telephony in Sydney. In 1911, because of his practical experience as a Telegraph operator, as well as his background as an electrician, Sandell applied and was accepted to join Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition. Sandell was stationed on Macquarie Island, which is half way between New Zealand and Antarctica. Sandell was part of a five man crew, who were given the brief to make a complete survey of Macquarie Island, including the geographical features, birds, animals and marine life of the island. They also kept meteorological records and maintained contact between Mawson’s party in Antarctica and the mainland of Australia, a vital link in such hostile conditions. The five men lived for the two years of the expedition in a hut that measured 7 metres by 5 metres, officially (and perhaps ironically) named ‘King V Villa’.

Travelling in the ship Aurora, Mawson’s party reached Antarctica in January 1912. They made camp at a place Mawson named Cape Denison, at the head of Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica. Unknown to the party, Cape Denison is possibly the windiest place on earth, with wind gusts regularly exceeding 240 kilometres per hour. Building a radio tower was a priority for the expedition. The radio tower was built, but soon blew down again. Over the next year, several parties left on expeditions to explore the area, including Mawson himself, with two other men, on the ‘Far Eastern Trek’. On the ill-fated expedition, one of the men, with a team of dogs and a sled full of provisions, was lost down a deep crevasse in the ice. Mawson and the other man, Xavier Mertz, headed back to Cape Denison with very few supplies. Mertz died on the way back to the Cape, and Mawson almost suffered the same fate, before finally arriving back in February 1913, just as the Aurora was leaving for the season. Mawson caught a glimpse of the ship as it headed towards the horizon. The six men who had remained behind to look for Mawson’s party were overjoyed to see him. They radioed the Aurora, but due to weather conditions, the ship was unable to return. The remaining men had to wait out another winter at Cape Denison.

Back on Macquarie Island, the other radio operator was taken ill and evacuated back to Australia, leaving Sandell in charge of the radio equipment. The men made a significant survey of the island, naming significant landmarks for men in the party, such as Sandell Bay. Sandell got an opportunity to travel to Antarctica on the Aurora when she returned to collect the men who had remained behind at the end of 1913. Mawson’s expedition had taken the first airplane to Antarctica, although due to issues such as the fuel freezing, the plane never flew, and was abandoned. Sandell dug the propeller of the plane out of the snow, and kept it, with Mawson’s blessing. The entire group returned to Australia in 2014, where Mawson received a knighthood for his contributions to science and exploration.

Charles Sandell joined the Coastal Radio service, and was stationed to Esperance as a radio operator. He met Amy Daw, daughter of Esperance pioneers Francis and Polly Daw, and they were married in 1918. The couple had three sons, Doug, Eric and John. Sandell opened the first garage and service station in Esperance, Willy’s Garage, which was situated on the Esplanade. While the family moved away from Esperance for a time, they returned again, with Sandell retiring in the seaside town. He was well known for swimming in the ocean all year round, even in the coldest temperatures. He was known to quip that the only cold swim he had ever had was with Mawson’s expedition in the Antarctic. He had actually experienced swimming in the icy water of Antarctica, having volunteered to dive into the water to rescue a piece of equipment that had fallen overboard. “With bits of ice floating everywhere, the water was a bit on the cool side,” Sandell said. “But it only took a good tot of rum to get me warm again.” In his retirement, Sandell maintained his connection to his previous occupation by repairing broken radios. He was a well known and well loved Esperance personality right through to his death in 1979 at age 94.

The Sandell family donated a collection of Charles Sandell’s personal effects from the Antarctic expedition to the Esperance Museum. These items, which include the propeller that he took from the airplane in Antarctica, can be viewed at the Museum.

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