The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

Robert Falcon Scott

Scott was born at 'Outlands' at Milehouse. His father had owned Hoegate Street Brewery in Stoke, but his grandfather had been in the Royal Navy which is where the money came from to buy the brewery. Scott was determined to follow in his grandfather's steps and join the Navy which he did in 1883. In 1886, he came to the attention of Sir Clements Markham who had already sailed to the Arctic in the 1850s and was putting together a new expedition to sail to the Antarctic and was very impressed to see the young Scott win a yacht race in the balmy conditions of St. Kitts in the Caribbean. It would take another decade and a half before the results of this meeting came to fruition when he was appointed commander of the first British expedition to the Antarctic in 1900.

In the meantime, his family was hit be a series of travails including the forced sale of Outlands due to financial strains on his parents. Scott had been posted to Devonport to the Torpedo school in 1891 and then to HMS Defiance in 1894, but his family had to move to Somerset for his father to take a job as a brewer. Further tragedy ensued when his father died in 1897 and his brother died in 1898. Scott donated a large portion of his meagre income in order to help house and feed his mother. This may explain why he felt compelled to apply for the position of commander of the first British antarctic expedition with its higher than normal pay and conditions.

At the beginning of the 20th Century little was known of Antarctica, whose very continentality was then only conjectured. Scott's formal instructions were to explore to its eastern extremity the ice barrier discovered by Sir James Clark Ross in 1841 and to search for the land believed by Ross to lie to its east. Additionally he was to ascertain the extent of Victoria Land, penetrate its interior, and carry out an extensive programme of scientific research. Lacking all knowledge of the techniques of polar travel, Scott wisely sought advice from the experienced Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Within a year he had completed the recruiting and provisioning required to overwinter in Antarctica, and on 6 August 1901 set sail in the purpose-built, ice-strengthened vessel Discovery.

Scott's official narrative of the expedition, The Voyage of the 'Discovery' (1905), a classic of its genre, tells the story. The ship's officers were predominantly from the Royal Navy, an exception being Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, an ex-merchant navy officer. The five civilian scientists included Dr Edward Adrian Wilson, who was to achieve a reputation as surgeon, zoologist, and artist, and was to become Scott's close friend and confidant on this and his last expedition. The long voyage south enabled Scott to get to know his men and to take on the direction of the scientific work and to master its details. The Discovery entered the pack ice in January 1902 and sailed the length of the Great Ice barrier (now Ross Ice shelf), Scott surmising correctly that this was no glacier but a floating ice mass of vast extent. To the east of the barrier the mountains of what was to be named Edward VII Land were discerned. Scott returned westward and established winter quarters off Hut Point, Ross Island. The Discovery was employed as a base from which to explore the adjacent barrier and mainland: exploration was to take the form of a series of probes, made by sledging parties, to the south and to the west. In the Antarctic spring of 1902 Scott, accompanied by Wilson and Shackleton, achieved the then record southerly latitude of 82*17' S, but the failure of the sledge dogs, incipient signs of scurvy, and the physical collapse of Shackleton compelled Scott to turn back. They reached winter quarters with great difficulty. In January 1903 the Discovery, held fast by ice, was located by the relief ship Morning (Captain W. Colbeck), which enabled Scott to repatriate Shackleton and to continue the scientific work for a second season. Notable among the many sledge journeys made was an expedition to the western mountains, when Scott, accompanied by Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Leading Stoker William Lashly, ascended the Ferrar glacier to the polar plateau at an altitude of 9000 ft and explored the ice sheet in a westerly direction for some 200 miles, a record achievement for that time. In February 1904 the Discovery was finally freed from the ice and, accompanied by the relief ships Morning and Terra Nova, returned home in triumph. With twenty-eight sledge journeys accomplished, the ice sheet explored, and a comprehensive scientific programme completed, Scott, notwithstanding the failure of his dogs (a form of polar traction to which he was to remain sentimentally and steadfastly averse) and his lack of previous experience, had more than proved his abilities as a leader of the first scientific expedition to pass two consecutive winters in a high latitude of Antarctica. In addition, the first extensive land journeys into the interior of the continent had been accomplished.

A criticism levelled against Sir Clements Markham, Scott's mentor, that he erred in selecting a naval officer and non-scientist as leader of the Discovery expedition, whose prime objectives were scientific, seems in retrospect to be unjustified. In the course of his career Scott had demonstrated a keen interest and expertise in all matters technical. The historian Hugh Robert Mill wrote of him as 'a man not only born to command but sympathetic with every branch of scientific work'. Scott's powers of leadership may be debated but those who served under him in a scientific capacity all spoke highly of his unfailing interest and encouragement in their work.

On his return to England Scott was feted as a national hero; he lectured, he socialized, and he laboured at his book. The navy promoted him captain, which brought a welcome rise in pay. His numerous honours included appointment as a CVO, the award of the polar medal, and the patron's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society, all in 1904. In 1905 he was awarded honorary degrees of DSc from the universities of Cambridge and Manchester. Other honours numbered the gold medal of the Scottish Geographical Society, membership of the French Legion d'honneur, and awards from Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and the USA.

In August 1906 Scott returned to active service, commanding in turn the Victorious (1906), the Albemarle (1907), the Essex (1908), and the Bulwark (1909). Finally in 1909 he secured a home posting, as naval assistant to the second sea lord. His professional career seemed assured, yet plans to return south to continue the work of the Discovery expedition, long dormant, were to be reactivated by rumours of rival expeditions, and more immediately by Shackleton's return to Ross Island in 1907 and his near attainment of the south pole in 1908. By then Scott had married, on 2 September 1908, the artist Kathleen Bruce (1878-1947), the eleventh child of Revd Lloyd Steward Bruce, canon of York, and his wife, Janie, nee Skene. Kathleen, like Scott, was a complex character. Their early courtship was tortured by mutual self-doubt, he thinking himself unworthy of her, she fearing that her own unconventional lifestyle would ill suit the structured routine of a naval officer. The birth on 14 September 1909 of a much desired son, Peter Markham Scott, was to change everything, prompting Kathleen to observe that the happy event was the cause of her falling for the first time 'gloriously, passionately, wildly in love with my husband'. The diary which she later kept for Scott during his absence in the Antarctic provides convincing evidence for the strength of her feelings for him. She was an ardent supporter of his plans to return to Antarctica; the day before his son's birth he publicly announced his intention to plant the union flag at the south pole.

In contrast to the Discovery expedition, Scott's last British Antarctic expedition was a private venture for which he alone was responsible. His reputation as an explorer attracted some 8000 volunteers, from whom he chose several former Discovery men, including Wilson, whom he appointed chief of a civilian staff of nine. While achieving the south pole, following Shackleton's uncompleted route, was a prerequisite of fund-raising, for Scott (who loathed begging for money) an ambitious programme of science was to be 'the rock foundation of all effort'. Desperately short of funds, the expedition left England on board the Terra Nova and reached Ross Island on 22 January 1911; winter quarters were established at Cape Evans. With the scientific programme under way and the Terra Nova sent east to land a party on King Edward VII Land, Scott set about the laying of One Ton Depot, a cache of fuel and food to be located on the barrier at lat. 80* S in preparation for the attempt on the pole. However, deteriorating weather and the failure of the pony transport compelled Scott to deposit supplies at lat. 79*29' S. On the return route he received a message from Victor Campbell, then leading a geological party to Cape Adare, reporting the presence of Amundsen in the Bay of Whales preparing a raid on the south pole using dogs. Already aware of the Norwegian's intentions via a telegram received in Melbourne--'Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic, Amundsen' (Huxley, Scott, 600) and possibly interpreting the message as an intention to land on the opposite, Weddel Sea coast, Scott's immediate reaction was 'to go forward and do our best for the country without fear or panic' (Scott, Scott's Last Expedition, 1.186). Nevertheless, this news, following the loss of a number of his ponies, was a severe blow to morale.

The winter of 1911 was spent at Cape Evans, preparing equipment and laying plans for the forthcoming pole journey. A 'University of Antarctica' with specialist lectures was instituted, and Scott encouraged and contributed to the South Polar Times, an expedition magazine initiated on the Discovery expedition.

On 1 October 1911 Scott set out from Cape Evans at the head of the main pole party, preceded by two experimental motor sledges, both of which broke down in a matter of days. The first stage of the journey across the barrier was accomplished by a combination of dog and pony transport and man-hauling, depots being laid en route for the returning parties. All went well until the end of November, when snowstorms followed by blizzards at the approaches to the Beardmore glacier held up progress for several days, inducing in Scott one of his periodic bouts of depression. But, once on the Beardmore glacier with the last of the ponies shot for food and the dogs returned to base, Scott's favoured method of transport--man-hauling--could be indulged. Aged forty-three, and the oldest member of the party, Scott contrived ever to be in the lead. With the aid of skis the treacherous ascent to the polar plateau was accomplished without accident. On 22 December the first returning party was dispatched and the final stage of the pole journey commenced. By 30 December, cheered by the fact of having 'caught up Shackleton's dates', Scott was mercifully unaware that only 100 miles away Amundsen's party was on the homeward trail. On 3 January Scott made the fateful decision that five rather than four men should go forward to the pole, namely Scott himself, Captain L. E. G. Oates, Lieutenant H. R. Bowers, Wilson, and Petty Officer Edgar Evans. On 4 January the last supporting party was dismissed, and five days later Shackleton's farthest point south was passed, at lat. 88*25' S. On 16 January Bowers observed one of Amundsen's black marker flags, silent witness to the victory of the Norwegians. Finally, on 17 or 18 January, the vicinity of the pole itself was observed. 'This is an awful place', wrote Scott in his journal, 'and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority'. Following the discovery of Amundsen's tent, with its note for Scott stating that he had achieved his objective on 14 December 1911, the dejected Britons began their return journey--'800 miles of solid dragging--and good-bye to most of the day-dreams'.

Robbed of their victory, short of rations, and suffering progressively from the effects of exposure, for Scott and his companions the return proved indeed a via dolorosa. The Beardmore glacier was reached on 7 February and time found to collect 35 lb weight of fossil rocks, vital clues to the geological history of Antarctica. Then at the foot of the glacier Evans collapsed and died. Once back on the barrier, Scott, Wilson, Oates, and Bowers struggled on, physically deteriorating in the face of low temperatures, adverse winds, and shortages of food and fuel. On 16 March Captain Oates sacrificed his life for his companions. On 19 March the three survivors pitched their tent for the last time. With Scott incapacitated by a gangrenous foot Bowers and Wilson planned a forced march to One Ton Depot, only 11 miles distant, but never left their tent. With no fuel and only two days' food in hand the end was inevitable. On or about 29 March Scott, probably the last to die, ended his journal with these words: We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more ... For God's sake look after our people ... (Scott, Last Expedition, 1.595) It is a measure of Scott's vitality and strength of will that even in extremis he could maintain his journal, write twelve perfectly composed letters to family, friends, and next of kin, and leave a 'Message to the public' outlining the causes of the disaster. Here he blames inability to achieve the safety of One Ton Depot on the appalling weather without reference to his inability to locate it at lat. 80*S as previously planned. Nor is there mention of his last minute addition of a fifth man to the pole party. Both these factors must have contributed to the absence of any margin of safety in matters of food and fuel.

The Scott Monument commemorates the ill fated expedtion and prominently greets maritime visitors to the City from its perch at Mount Wise. The money for it was raised by well wishers who contributed to the fund that also paid compensation to all the families concerned and helped finance the Scott Antarctic Institute. The monument includes the final, stirring quotation from Scott's journal:

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

Journals: Captain Scott's Last Expedition

You can listen to a podcast about the life and exploits of Robert Falcon Scott from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

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by Stephen Luscombe