The man who helped thousands to fill the gap

A hiking trip with BSES Expeditions

My own gap year between school and university was a bit messy. Leaving school at the age of 16 to then spend six months immobilised on a hospital bed was not an ideal preparation for the next big step in education. In fact, my two-year gap, while fun in some ways, was very different from the organised fashion in which young people today decide how they're going to explore all that freedom that escape from the classroom seems to promise.

If thousands of students arrive at university feeling that they haven't wasted that gap opportunity it's largely because of the pioneering efforts of ex-Budleigh resident and Antarctic explorer Murray Levick, whose many achievements I learnt about as I helped prepare this year's exhibition at Fairlynch Museum.

It's called, appropriately enough, 'Survival!' Murray Levick's horrific Antarctic experience during Scott's 1910-13 polar expedition, the subject of author Katherine Lambert's talk on 21 February 2011 which I wrote about at provided the seed of an educational idea which germinated 20 years later with the foundation of the longest running and most experienced youth organisation of its kind.

BSES Expeditions, as it is now known, started life as The Public Schools Exploring Society in 1932 with a first trip to Finland, led by Levick himself.

Murray Levick in the 1940s

'The Admiral' as Levick was affectionately called within the Society, was elected its Honorary Chairman and Honorary Chief Leader of its expeditions from its inception.

A year later a second expedition to Lapland took place, described by Murray Levick in a 100-page book entitled Young Pioneers in Northern Finland, published in 1933.

These trips evidently caught the public imagination. The third, in 1934, was the first of ten trips across the Atlantic and was the subject of a book entitled Public School Explorers in Newfoundland.

"The modern young man, he thinks, is in danger of becoming soft amid the luxuries of modern civilisation and is losing his appreciation of keen physical endeavour, of fighting for his existence on terms of equality with the rest of Nature," explained the author Dennis Clarke.

Published a year later with an introduction by Murray Levick the book described not only the pioneering activities of the party but also an account of the train ride from St.John's to Grand Falls, and a baseball match played there.

These public schoolboys were clearly not the most docile of travelling companions, as Levick indicated in an article published in The Geographical Magazine, where he went into more detail about the train ride. "After a moderately good crossing from Liverpool we got to St. John's on the 8th," he wrote. "We reached our railhead, Gleneagles, on the evening of the 9th after nine hours journey in a special train of our own. This was good fun, but next time the members will not be allowed to stroll from end to end of the train on the tops of the carriages (whilst the train was in motion). As it was, there were no mishaps.”

It was this trip that receives a brief mention in Roald Dahl's book Boy: Tales of Childhood. As a recent leaver from Repton School, the future best-selling children's author was given the task of official photographer.

Not surprisingly, in view of one description of the young Dahl as "something of a misfit, inclined to unreliability and rebelliousness" it's been said that a personality clash developed between him and the expedition's leader, and that Levick found himself facing a mutiny.

However Dahl's account of the Newfoundland expedition in Boy makes no mention of any such confrontation and he seems to have looked back on the trip as a positive experience. It was tough, and he remembered suffering from lack of food. "But it was a genuine adventure and I returned home hard and fit and ready for anything," he wrote.

On board the SS Nova Scotia: Levick with the group of 1934 young explorers in Newfoundland. The photo may well have been taken by Roald Dahl

In spite of its earlier name, expeditions from 1934 included young expeditioners drawn from The National Association of Boys' Clubs, Scouts, and other organisations, and some schools other than Public Schools, with guests from the host countries.

Newfoundland was again the destination three years later for a British Schools Exploring Society expedition. Details of the trip were given in an article by Levick entitled 'On The Trail Again', published in the Boy's Own Paper as "the story of a group of British students who, in the summer of 1937, spent over a month in the interior of Newfoundland, camping and exploring the wilderness. Their daily marching rations consisted of 12 oz. of biscuits, ¼ lb. of cheese, 2 oz. of oatmeal for porridge, 2 oz. of margarine, 2. oz. of chocolate, 2 oz. of sugar, 3 oz. of dried reindeer meat, and an ounce of dried peas to boil with it. We drank tea without milk."

A 1938 edition of the Boy's Own Paper, a popular publication which was keen to report on Levick's activities with his young explorers

The Society was registered as an Educational Charity in 1938, when members of the public were invited to subscribe to an Endowment Fund with Trustees nominated by the Royal Geographical Society. This Fund still exists.

In total, up until his death on 30 May 1956, Murray Levick took part in the first nine expeditions - 1932 to 1939 inclusive and the first post-war one in 1947- as expedition leader and was actively engaged in the organisation of a total of 17 expeditions to places as diverse as Lapland, Iceland, Norway, Canada and Newfoundland. Levick was re-elected to the offices of Honorary Chairman and Honorary Chief Leader of the Society's expeditions up to his retirement in 1948, at which time he was elected the first President of the Society until his death on 30 May 1956.

His wife Audrey had been elected honorary secretary and a Council member of the Society at its inception, and she went out in advance of 11 expeditions with all stores and equipment - to Finland, Newfoundland, Northern Quebec and Northern Norway. On most expeditions she went far into the wilds to select and establish the base camp. From 1948 she became vice-president of the Society (now re-named the British Schools Exploring Society) and handed over the secretaryship to Commander Nigel Waymouth, RN (retd).

Between 1952 and 1957 she was honorary deputy chairman as well as vice-president, but soon after her husband's death, when the presidency was transferred to Murray Levick's old Antarctic colleague Sir Raymond Priestley MC, she stepped down from the vice-presidency but retained an effective link with the Society as patron and ex-officio member of the Council. In 1967 she retired from being an ex-officio member.

Although the original name of the Society had been changed to make it less exclusive the non-public schoolboys and guests from the host country on expeditions were not eligible for membership of the Society until 1963, when retrospective action was taken by the Society's Council to rectify the situation.

Girls joined the expeditions for the first time in 1980 and subsequently were admitted as full members of the Society.

Since its early days BSES has gone on to organise over 130 expeditions and visited all seven continents. Gone are the days of male-only expeditions, gin and cigarette rations and standard issue BSES prayer books, but many of the values and traditions of the society can still be experienced today. The construction of ‘Fires’ and the structure of expeditions are just two of the traditions that help make BSES membership such a special privilege.

Based at The Royal Geographical Society in London, BSES Expeditions now provides opportunities for young people of all abilities between the ages of 16 and 23 to take part in adventurous expeditions that involve scientific research in wilderness areas. "Scientific exploration is essential if we are to continue to develop our understanding of science," as Professor Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to HM Government, has said. "That is why the British Schools Exploring Society is vital for equipping young people with the skills, knowledge and inspiration to become tomorrow's scientists."

For more information about BSES Expeditions see

BSES members measure a caiman, a type of small crocodilian
Photo credit:

"BSES gives those young people with a dream the chance to explore some of the world's most remote regions," says Bear Grylls, British explorer, Chief Scout and the face behind Channel 4’s 'Born Survivor.' "With that exploration, I have found, so often comes a sense of pride and achievement - and that is the real magic of BSES. It builds the champions and explorers of the future."

As rebellious and as unreliable as the young Roald Dahl as I was in my teenage years, with an inbuilt hostility to something like the Scouting movement, I'm sure that in different circumstances I would have benefited from the experience provided by BSES Expeditions. Budleigh Salterton should be proud of its association with the founder of such a great organisation which has fostered so consistently a spirit of exploration and enterprise in young people.

"A truly great Englishman" he was called in his obituary, published in The Times of 1 June 1956. I suppose such language is politically incorrect nowadays. And our iconoclastic age enjoys finding the flaws in supposedly great men, and women. But I'd like to think that the town where Murray Levick settled will feel that his story is worth telling for posterity.

Ready for the Antarctic challenge: our model of the polar explorer 1910-style, as seen at Fairlynch Museum.
We called him 'George.'

Murray Levick and the Fairlynch exhibition 'Survival' are featured in the April issue of Devon Life. The exhibition opened on Sunday 10 April and will run until the end of September 2011.


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