Incredible story of intrepid explorer buried in Brightling

7th October

On a recent trip to Brightling Church, I came across the ‘leaping board’ grave of Benjamin Leigh-Smith.  The line ‘Five times he sailed the Arctic Sea and for his Country’s good, braved countless hardships and perils’ caught my eye.

And so it was interesting to discover that ‘He was one of the most intrepid explorers of the 19th Century’.

Benjamin was born in 1828 in Whatlington, near Battle, to non-conformist, unmarried parents who held very modern and radical views.  He qualified in law and was called to the bar in 1856 but never practised.  

Benjamin’s grave

His first exploration trip took place in 1871, surveying the Svalbard Islands between Norway and the North Pole.  Further trips followed, delivering supplies and collecting specimens – including some for the British Museum and Kew.  He even brought back live polar bears for London Zoo.

As well as his advances in scientific exploration, Benjamin was at the centre of a survival feat that is arguably a match for the later exploits of the much more famous Shackleton.

In 1881, his purpose-built research vessel the Eira was crushed in the ice and sank off Russian Franz Josef Land, north of Siberia.

The crew survived for 10 months in makeshift huts, living off provisions salvaged from the ship and hunting walrus and polar bear. Benjamin then led a voyage of escape in boats with sails made from table cloths, before they were ultimately rescued.  Every single man survived.

On board their ship the ‘Eira’ – Benjamin second left

He also named places he mapped after friends and family.  Mabel Island was named after a niece, Amabel.  And the hut the 25 shipwrecked crew made out of driftwood, rocks and masts of ships on his last expedition was named Flora Cottage after his cousin Florence Nightingale.  It was said, however, that he was never acknowledged by his famous cousin due to his illegitimacy.

Smith was awarded the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his discoveries and was elected an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge.


Benjamin died in 1913 and is buried in Brightling alongside his suffragette sister Barbara – an equally amazing and inspirational person – who appears in my next piece for The Heathfield News.

This story was written by local historian and author Nicola Walker.