Editing Modernism in Canada


October 9, 2014

Death in the Barren Ground

We here at the George Whalley project are pleased to announce the availability on the George Whalley website of a section of one of Whalley’s most riveting broadcasts, “Death in the Barren Ground.” This 30-minute audio drama was aired on CBC radio’s Wednesday Night on 3 March 1954, and was re-broadcast on the same program in June 1954, by CBC’s International Service in December 1957, and on CBC’s The Human Condition in  April and June 1967. It appeared on television over still photographs on CBC’s Explorations on 28 October 1959, and was repeated in this form on CBC TV’s Q for Quest on 6 June 1961. It is one of the many professional broadcasts Whalley prepared for the CBC between 1953 and 1971, the full bibliography of which can be found here.

“Death in the Barren Ground” tells the dramatic story of the last journey of John Hornby (1880-1927), an English explorer best known for his travels in the Northwest Territories. The story begins with the discovery of the bodies of Hornby and his travelling companions Edgar Christian and Harold Adlard—all of whom, as the CBC Times description puts it, “died slowly and painfully of privation … in what explorer Samuel Hearne called ‘The Barren Ground’”—by a party of geologists traveling the Thelon River in 1928.

Death in the BG - CBC program page

The drama unfolds on a framework provided by Edgar Christian’s diaries, which were found in the stove of the ill-fated party’s cabin on the Thelon. These diary excerpts carry the bulk of the narrative, with a narrator and some invented speech from both Hornby and Christian filling it out. A number of other important historical documents are woven throughout: a diary of Hornby’s (reported in Christian’s own), Hornby’s will, unsent letters from Christian to his parents, and the 1929 report of the G-division commanding officer of the RCMP on the burial of the bodies and the collection of the documents.

Whalley’s interest in the last journey of John Hornby and in Edgar Christian’s role as its de facto historiographer was longstanding. In 1962, Whalley would publish a biography of Hornby, titled The Legend of John Hornby.

legendofjohnhornby cover

This was the first published text to include the letters Christian wrote to his mother and father as he was dying, in which he implores “Please don’t blame dear Jack.”

In 1980 this biography was followed by Death in the Barren Ground: The Diary of Edgar Christian, a newly edited version of Christian’s diary, which had previously been published in 1937 as Unflinching: The Diary of Edgar Christian.

Unflinching title pUnflinching pages

unflinching title page

Whalley’s reading of the 1937 Diary was the inspiration for the radio and television broadcasts, as well as his later work on Hornby and Christian. In 1971 Whalley took a trip to the Hornby cabin and visited the sparsely marked sites where the bodies of Hornby, Christian, and Adlard are buried.


Find the full audio version of “Death in the Barren Ground” here. In this version from CBC’s Wednesday Night, the narrator is Frank Paddy, Edgar Christian is played by Douglas Rain, John Hornby by Alan King, and Inspector Trundle by Jim McRae. Happy listening!


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