A man with a decided prejudice against camels.
In 1941, Sir Douglas Mawson wrote:
‘Harold Fletcher was one of the staunchest members of the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Expedition of 1929-31.
He is of splendid physique and excellent temperament for meeting unusual and trying conditions and he has the gift of maintaining contact with all and sundry on amicable terms.
He is conscientious and able in all his undertakings. His long scientific training should be useful in all and very valuable in many avenues of military operations.’
Unsurprisingly, this glowing reference was successful, and from December 1941, Harold Fletcher served with the Anti-Aircraft Brigade until his return to work at the Museum on 6th August, 1943.
Mawson’s judgement of Harold was shared by Dr C.T. Madigan, leader of the 1939 expedition to the Simpson Desert, who considered him ‘… a strong, resourceful man, not easily put off by any sort of adversity.’ Madigan was so impressed that he chose Harold to be second-in-command of the expedition.
And this seems to have been the general opinion of Harold Oswald Fletcher, who started work at the Australian Museum in 1918 at the age of 15, and went on to become Curator of Fossils in 1941 and Deputy Director in 1957. After 48 years at the Museum, he retired on 26th February, 1967.
Harold studied for his undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, and for his Masters at University of New South Wales. He was Honorary Palaeontologist to the Department of Mines from 1937 and was elected a member of the Council of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1946.
Harold liked to get out of the Museum and into the field, so ‘… whenever [he] heard of a chance to join an expedition [he] used to try to be in it.’
He participated in the following major field trips:
1922 – Lake Eyre
The party, led by hydrographer Mr. G.H. Halligan, encountered a lake that was almost dry and consisted of ‘treacherous mud and salt marsh’. The water was never more than two or three inches deep, so the boats they had so hopefully carried along for transport, proved useless.
However, even though they were unable to carry out the main aim of the expedition, which was to discover more about the hydrography of Lake Eyre, they took a number of water samples for the Melbourne University, and studied the bird life at Lake Letty and the aboriginal carvings at The Haunted Shack.
1929 – Mt Kosciuszko
Harold travelled to the Kosciusko plateau with his colleagues William Boardman and Anthony Musgrave, who was on annual leave at the time. Their aim was to collect insects, spiders and earthworms. They returned to Sydney via Quidong in order to examine and collect fossils from the rocks.
1929-31 - British-Australian-New Zealand Antarctic Expedition
This expedition was led by Sir Douglas Mawson, and Harold considered it one of the highlights of his working life. For his efforts he was awarded a King's Polar Medal and Bar.
At age 91 he recalled the terrible storms at sea on the journey to Antarctica, when their vessel, the Discovery '… would plough through waves that swept the ship’s entire length’. Harold had enormous respect for Mawson, of whom he observed: ‘… he was always prepared to do the work that he asked us to do’.
1933- Central North NSW
Cuddie Springs is the only site in Australia that contains clear evidence of the coexistence of mega fauna with humans. Among the specimens discovered by the expedition were bones from the Diprotodon and the Phascolonus (giant wombat).
1936 – Northern Territory and Queensland
Harold and his colleague Mr. W. Barnes travelled north through Central Australia in order to collect fossils from the MacDonnell Ranges, and trilobites and brachiopods in the Northern Territory and North Queensland.
1939 - Simpson Desert
This expedition, led by Dr C.T. Madigan from the University of Adelaide, was another of Harold’s career highlights.
Unfortunately the party encountered unusually heavy rain, and had to give up at Marree due to the flooding. They used a string of 19 camels as transport. This experience led Harold to observe: ‘One always finishes an experience with camels with a decided prejudice against them …’
1952 - Australian Museum Scientific Expedition to Central and NW Australia
Harold led the expedition, which crossed central Australia to the Kimberleys and returned via the Northern Territory and Queensland. The aims of the expedition were to study Permian marine fossils in the country south of Darwin, and to collect some of the more unusual Australian animals.
1954 - Mootwingee near Broken Hill
Harold accompanied Oliver Chalmers, who wrote of ‘the magnificent aboriginal engravings, stencilled hands and paintings’, as well as the Petroglyphs found in the area.
1956 - Canowindra
Harold travelled to Canowindra with his colleague Mr. K. Mayfield, Preparator at the Museum, and Mr. E.O. Rayner, Geologist of the Geological Survey of New South Wales. Their aim was to view the fossil slabs from the Devonian Period, turned up during road work. With help from the locals, several slabs of quartzite rock were loaded up and taken to the Museum, where Museum Preparators carefully and methodically removed the covering matrix on some of the specimens to more clearly reveal their interesting features.
Harold was author or co-author of 16 articles in the Records of the Australian Museum and 35 articles in the Australian Museum Magazine. These articles shed light on his many field trips, as well as dealing with his main area of study, which was marine invertebrate fossils, particularly those of the Permian geological period.
For more information:
Fletcher, H, 1984. Antarctic days with Mawson, Angus & Robertson
Nash, Brian, Jan-Mar 1990. Explorer of the Antarctic and the Outback: Harold Fletcher, Australian Geographic No 17
Willis, Paul; Thomas, Abbie, 2005. Digging up Deep Time: Fossil, Dinosaurs and Megabeasts from Australia’s Distant Past, ABC Books
Woodford, James, 17th Sept 1994. Adventurer Harold puts his Antarctic Return on Ice, Sydney Morning Herald
Ms Prue Walker , Volunteer archivist