18 Aug 2018

Lyttelton historian and Antarctic adventurer farewelled

8:02 am on 18 August 2018

Lyttelton will today farewell a renowned local historian, polar adventurer and recipient of the Antarctic Medal.

Baden Norris.

Baden Norris. Photo: Supplied.

Baden Nolan Norris died in Christchurch on Wednesday August the 8th, aged 91.

Lizzie Meek of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust said his death was a great loss to the Antarctic community.

"A mighty tree has fallen, as we say in New Zealand."

Interviewed by RNZ in late 2017, Mr Norris said he was born in Lyttelton, like his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather before him.

"So I'm Lyttelton material. It was the centre of the universe when I was a child. I never wanted to be anywhere else."

His passion for Antarctica was sparked early on when his father took him to visit Harry McNish from Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition in Wellington Hospital.

He recalled McNish told them, "Shackleton killed my cat."

At 15 Mr Norris went to sea as a deckhand and there met men who had sailed with Scott and Shackleton on Antarctic expeditions.

He later joined the Merchant Navy, serving in the Pacific during World War 2.

By his early twenties he was back in Lyttelton with a wife and child.

He found work on the wharves and, just a few months later, got caught up in the 1951 Waterfront Dispute, which lasted 151 days and involved 22,000 striking waterside workers.

Mr Norris described it as "the blackest period" of his life.

"I had no money, or very little. I had a daughter [who] was in hospital with melanoma. You couldn't get another job."

Listen to Mr Norris' account of the Waterfront Dispute

The Norris family got through these tough times with the help of his chickens and a good crop of potatoes.

"We largely survived on eggs and chips."

With the Waterfront Dispute behind him, Mr Norris became heavily involved in archaeological digs around the region and joined a Canterbury Museum expedition, excavating sites in the Cook Islands.

In 1964 he made the first of 13 visits to Antarctica, when he was selected for the Discovery Hut Restoration Team.

The hut, built by Captain's Scott expedition, had last been used by the men from Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1917.

The Antarctic Trust said experts had thought the hut was empty but the restoration team found a wealth of artefacts.

Mr Norris used his archaeological experience to meticulously record these items and was instrumental in preserving many of them for display in the Canterbury Museum, the Trust said.

Other artefacts were later repatriated to the hut.

Baden Norris (left) with team leader Eric Gibbs.

Listing historic articles found in hut: Baden Norris on left and team leader Eric Gibbs, 1963-64. Photo: Supplied/Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection

He became an Antarctic curator and, later, an Emeritus Curator at the Canterbury Museum and developed the historic displays for its Hall of Antarctic Discovery, opened by Prince Philip in 1977.

Regarded as a specialist in Antarctic History, Mr Norris travelled regularly to the ice, often as the New Zealand Government's representative on tour based expeditions.

He was awarded the New Zealand Antarctic Society Conservation Trophy, the Queen's Service Order for community service and was regularly called upon to participate in interviews and lectures about the continent.

'He would be off on this fantastic journey of stories'

Lizzie Meek, Programme Manager of Artefacts for the Antarctic Heritage Trust, recalled her many conversations with Mr Norris about Antarctic history as "a golden time".

"Oh, it was a huge passion. You barely had to mention anything about Antarctic history to Baden and he would be off on this fantastic journey of stories and information about the place and its history."

Ms Meek considered Mr Norris a personal friend and said he was the first person she would go to for information about the continent.

Baden Norris inside Scott's Hut, 1963-64.

Baden Norris inside Scott's Hut, 1963-64. Photo: Supplied/Antarctica New Zealand Pictorial Collection

She believed he was generally viewed by others with "huge respect and a great deal of affection".

"He was a very low key personality, quite a humble person who preferred to talk about subjects rather than his involvement."

Mr Norris was always trying to find ways to get other people involved and create positive projects for his community, she said.

"I think you always end up respecting people like that so much because it wasn't about him. It was about the place and the possibilities."

'We punched, as is often said, above our weight'

In the 1960s, Mr Norris established and ran the Lyttelton Museum which was later destroyed in Canterbury's September 2010 earthquake.

The museum happened almost by accident when Mr Norris wrote to the then local borough council asking it to establish a place where historic volumes of the Lyttelton Times could be kept safely.

The council's response came as a surprise.

"I got the letter saying, 'Thank you very much for drawing attention to the Lyttelton Times problem and thank you for offering to set up a museum,' which I had not done."

Undeterred Mr Norris pressed ahead, finding his curatorial work at the Canterbury Museum stood him in good stead.

Some exhibits were shared between the two museums, requiring Mr Norris to liaise with himself.

"I was in a ridiculous situation at times, writing letters to myself and then acknowledging myself and thanking myself for my co-operation [in order to] have a paper trail."

The museum contained many unique items including skis and equipment from Captain Scott's expedition to Antarctica, and horse hair fob watch chains made by prisoners at the Lyttelton Jail.

And, after initially opening just one afternoon a week, the museum soon became a popular destination, attracting a large number of overseas and cruise ship visitors.

"We punched, as is often said, above our weight," Mr Norris said.

In later life, Mr Norris continued to share his love of history, lecturing on the Antarctic at Canterbury University and writing several books both on the continent, Lyttelton and Banks Peninsula history.

In 2013 he was awarded the Antarctic Medal by the Governor General.

His name will continue to be heard in Antarctica where the New Zealand Geographic Names Board named the Norris Glacier after him. It flows into the upper part of the Matterhorn Glacier in southern Victoria Land.

Lizzie Meek said she was saddened to learn of Mr Norris' death but also "delighted to have known him".

"I wish I knew him for longer."

Baden Norris will be farewelled at the Lyttelton Arts Factory at 3pm today.