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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Captain Scott's polar party team

Quite a few of you have asked to know more about the four men who sadly perished with Captain Scott, shortly after reaching the South Pole in 1912, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this week’s blog post. I’ll look to write more complete biographical entries on these four men in due course, as I can’t do them justice in today’s space.

From left to right: Capt. Oates, Capt. Scott, Dr Wilson, Lt. Bowers, P.O. Evans

Captain Lawrence Oates
He was born in Putney, London. Having been the adjutant of his regiment (the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons) in India, he effectively accepted a demotion to become the only member of Captain Scott’s crew to have served in the army (not the Navy). His left leg was shorter than his right, from an injury sustained in the Boer War. He was tasked with tending the horses on the Terra Nova Expedition. The one ornament he took to Antarctica was a small print of Admiral Nelson. Remembered for his stoical reserve, he described the Antarctic climate as bring ‘healthy although inclined to be cold.’ He uttered the famous laconicism, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time,’ choosing to die through self-sacrifice when he felt he would otherwise burden his sledging companions.

Dr Edward Wilson
Born in Cheltenham, Dr Wilson was a conscientious medical doctor who set high standards of self-discipline for himself. After working hours, he would offer medical assistance to slum children around the Battersea university settlement area, and he also taught them on Sundays. Noted for his gentle manner and strong Christian faith, Dr Wilson was anti-imperialist. A natural polymath, he served on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions as zoologist, medical officer and artist. He also acted as Captain Scott’s confidant and spiritual counsellor. His penetrating zoological insights and his pellucid watercolours set benchmarks for future Antarctic endeavours.

Lt Henry Bowers
Born in Greenock of Scottish descent, he was raised by his mother after his father died when he was 3. He first went to sea in the merchant navy, before joining the Royal Navy. Having previously commanded a Royal Indian Marine gunboat on the Irrawaddy he, too, effectively accepted a demotion to join Captain Scott’s Terra Nova team as storekeeper. He stood out for his prodigious memory, excellent navigation skills and physical strength. His pacific Christian faith and straightforward, kind nature made him popular with the other crew members. He had dreamt of visiting Antarctica from the age of seven.

Petty Officer Edgar Evans
He was born in Middleton, Wales. Like Captain Scott, he enlisted in the Royal Navy at 13 and they both served on HMS Majestic. P.O. Evans went on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions and his equanimity and charm saw him through difficulties – for example, they helped to overturn his dismissal (for a minor infraction) from the Terra Nova Expedition. He was valued for his physical strength and ingenuity in modifying equipment to suit needs ‘in the field’. On the Discovery Expedition, he fell into a crevasse, but dealt with it with characteristic equanimity. His plan was to open a pub, upon return from the South Pole.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

HMS Terra Nova

 HMS Terra Nova (‘New Ground’) is rightly best remembered for conveying Captain Scott’s crew to Antarctica for his second and final expedition there. But ships, like people, typically have messy, uneventful stretches of life, punctuated by one or two defining experiences.  What else was HMS Terra Nova involved in?
In 1884, HMS Terra Nova was built in Dundee shipyards, renowned for turning out hardy whalers and sealers. The ship was pressed into ten years of sealing service in the Labrador Sea, part of the North Atlantic. She cut her teeth as a relief vessel in 1897, when the Jackson-Harmsworth survey crew required rescue. This expedition was founded on the belief that land extended to the North Pole, but its mapping exercises established that the Arctic region is archipelagic; the Northern-most island at 81°N. Shortly after, the ship was bought by a Liverpool shipping company, operating from Newfoundland (Bowring Brothers Limited). It resumed its sealing functions.
HMS Terra Nova setting sail from Cardiff in 1910 (Picture credit: BBC)

In 1904, HMS Morning was sent to relieve Captain Scott’s Antarctic icebound HMS Discovery with coal supplies for the voyage home. To Captain Scott’s dismay, an unwelcome second relief ship was sent, HMS Terra Nova, because the government of the day were anxious for the Discovery mission to be ended conclusively, and there was no way of knowing from afar if the Discovery would remain icebound. Expenses had spiralled out of control. Had HMS Terra Nova not been dispatched, too, Captain Scott had intended to overwinter for another year, since food supplies would easily last that long.
In 1909, HMS Terra Nova was purchased for the British Antarctic Expedition (the Terra Nova Expedition). Seven feet of oak reinforcement from bow to stern was installed in anticipation of icy conditions. Laden with about 500 tonnes of provisions, she set sail from Cardiff on 15 June 1910. Such a generous proportion of private sponsorship came from Cardiff that HMS Terra Nova that Captain Scott re-registered Cardiff as her home port and she flew the Welsh flag all the way to Cape Evans, Antarctica.
HMS Terra Nova's masthead, as it was displayed in Roath Park, Cardiff (Picture credit: BBC)

60 000 people joined Captain Scott’s widow and son welcomed the ship at Bute Dock when it returned. In 1913, HMS Terra Nova was repurchased by Bowring Brothers Ltd and returned to sealing. In 1942, she was chartered to convey supplies to base stations in Greenland, but unfortunately, the following year, she was damaged and sank by ice off Greenland. The crew were safely evacuated by the US Coast Guard
It’s estimated that 800 000 seal pelts were caught from HMS Terra Nova’s deck, all in all -  a gruesome tally to the vegetarian likes of me. The binnacle is preserved in the Pierhead Bulding, Cardiff Bay, from where Captain Scott set sail in 1910. The figurehead was removed in 1913 and is in storage at the Museum of Wales . The bell (removed in 1913) was given to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and used as a tea bell – rung five times in the morning and eight times in the afternoon, in the naval tradition.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Captain Scott Centenary Concert - 29th Sept 2011

It's coming along nicely - I hope to see you there! Please click on the image above for further details. Book tickets by emailing

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Admiralty Interview Board

Last week, the other 7 remaining shortlisted candidates (for the last place on the Captain Scott centenary sledging party) and I went down to Gosport, Hampshire for further selection tests. We were guests of the Royal Navy at HMS Sultan, where the Admiralty Interview Board (AIB) is held. This is the officer recruitment process for the navy, with a 30% pass rate. The navy kindly modified the AIB format to accommodate the 8 of us, so we were spared the quizzes on maximum speeds of different sea vessels, mercifully!

It was appropriate that this penultimate selection event was again on a naval dry dock (we had first all met at HS Raleigh in April), given that Captain Scott himself was marinaded in and moulded by naval ways. His first preparations to join the navy were made at 13, when he entered a crammer. HMS Sultan itself was of historical interest. The site encompasses four forts built by the War Office in the 1850s; the grassed-over roofs of which are now maintained by rescue goats.

It was walking a curious tightrope; to compete against friends, but the reunion aspect of our time at HMS Sultan definitely added levity to an intense arrangement. I’m going to keep this blog post short, because I doubt the navy would appreciate if I spilled the beans, peas and other pulses on the tests they sprang on us.

Photo credit: Christopher Pledger; The Telegraph

Suffice to say, we ran, swung, carried, built, balanced, led, cooperated, planned and improvised our way through a battery of tasks. It was fantastic fun, and oddly engrossing, even though a large imaginative element had to come into play in the fictional scenarios we were set in a converted aircraft hangar. A visiting delegation of services clergymen watched us with dinner plate eyes. Out tests ended shortly after 10 am on the Friday, with what I can best describe as an amiable interrogation of our understanding of a planning exercise – we were kept on our toes.

Four people will progress to the final round, a training expedition in Norway late next month or in early November. It’s been a tremendously exciting thing to be involved with, up until now. I’m surprised and grateful to have made it even this far. The next shortlist will be announced in The Telegraph next Saturday. In the meantime, here's their take on last week.

Monday, 5 September 2011


Food was important to Captain Scott’s team in numerous ways. Most obviously, it was essential sustenance. Although they couldn’t have known this at the time, their sledging rations were not planned to be calorific enough. On a typical day, a sledger would be allocated 4600 (kilo)calories in biscuits, pemmican (a mix of dried meat, fat and cereal), butter, cheese, sugar and cocoa. The crew generally preferred cocoa to tea, which they would drink from aluminium pannikins, pre-warmed to avoid frostbite. Modern ice explorers aim to consume 7000 (kilo)calories a day, which is the maximum the human body can absorb, though more than that can be expended in keeping warm. Sadly, in Captain Scott’s time vitamins had not yet been isolated or identified, so they did not aim to replenish micronutrients, except in a vague way, e.g. they worked out that fresh seal meat would keep scurvy symptoms at bay. In fact, Thursday was known as ‘Scurvy Day’, because it was the only day when they wouldn’t eat seal meat, when not sledging. In a nose-to-tail way that would please the Heston Blumenthals of the world, they would eat every part of the animal, and one seal could last the Discovery crew of 46 for two days.

One of Captain Scott's sledging parties (Terra Nova Expedition) stops for a meal, 7 Feb 1911. Picture credit: H Ponting; Getty Images Gallery'

When on the boat or based at more permanent camps (the huts), the crew ate well. On the Discovery expedition, they took with them 16 tons of 12 kinds of meat – mostly tinned – including veal, rabbit, partridge and duck. These provisions were kept in an ice cabin, which sadly did not keep it all from spoiling.

Secondly, food acted as social glue and an aid to regular time-keeping. Regular routines helped to keep motivated the men disorientated by the lack of daylight. Indeed, a significant part of their daily routine involved food preparation. Once they had landed on the Antarctic mainland, they had daily trips to cut out blocks of ice to melt for drinking. Strict Edwardian mealtimes were observed, which must have been especially important in the bleak winter months. For example, they would have their lunch at 1300 hours, followed by grog (a mixture of rum and water), served from a tub. This naval practice was only abolished in 1971. Captain Scott’s crew were not actually keen drinkers, which is why much polar archaeology involves preserving the bottles of booze they left behind at the huts.

Thirdly, food was a motivating factor and source of pleasure. Although luxurious feasts were put on for special occasions, such as Midwinter Day and Christmas, standard fare could be quite unappetising, e.g. ‘hoosh’, a mixture of pemmican, ground biscuits and water. Improvisatory variants of hoosh would include raisins and curry powder. Captain Scott was well aware that 3 years of bottled fruits and concentrated foods with Huxley-novelistic names (e.g. plasmon, somatose, tropon and serin) would affect his crew’s morale, so he paid close attention to the quality of his cook’s output. He dismissed two cooks on the Discovery expedition alone, but was happy enough with Charles Clark’s service to retain him until the end. Clark was tasked with baking bread every day; a surprising luxury to me, since I rarely have freshly baked bread.

Captain Scott even tried to initiate Antarctic farming practices. His first successes were with cress and mustard crops.

About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.