We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
British Antarctic expedition (act. 1910–1913)
 British Antarctic expedition (act. 1910–1913) by Herbert George Ponting, 1911 British Antarctic expedition (act. 1910–1913) by Herbert George Ponting, 1911
, under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN, began disembarking from their ship Terra Nova at Cape Evans on 4 January 1911, with the dual aims of conquering the geographical south pole for the British empire, and conducting extensive scientific research. The shore party of thirty-three men, chosen from 8000 volunteers, bore the imprint of these twin aims. Scott was the last of a line of polar pioneers from the Royal Navy, which included James Cook, John Franklin, John Ross, James Clark Ross, Leopold McClintock, George Nares, and Albert Markham. Albert's cousin Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society, had propelled Scott into the public eye at the head of the Discovery Antarctic expedition (1901–4), which Clements had been determined would be led by a naval officer.

The Terra Nova had set sail from Cardiff on 15 June 1910. Its crew, divided between ‘officers’, ‘scientific staff’, and ‘men’, expressed a web of personal, professional, and institutional relationships, in which the Royal Navy and the University of Cambridge featured prominently. Five of the shore party's seven officers came from the Royal Navy. The Terra Nova's second-in-command was an ambitious young lieutenant, Edward (Teddy) Evans, who was persuaded by Clements Markham to abandon his own Antarctic plans and join forces with Scott. Evans was joined by the old Etonian Lieutenant Victor Campbell and two Royal Naval surgeons, (George) Murray Levick, educated at St Paul's School and St Bartholomew's Hospital, and Edward Atkinson, who trained at St Thomas's Hospital. Twelve of the shore party's ‘men’ were either serving or had served in the Royal Navy, including petty officers Thomas Crean, Edgar Evans, Thomas Soulsby Williamson (1877–1940), and chief stoker William Lashly who had been with Scott on the Discovery, and petty officers Frank Browning (b. 1882), Robert Forde (1877–1959), and Patrick Keohane (1879–1950), who had served under Teddy Evans on HMS Talbot. The prominent Royal Naval contingent was in contrast to the largely civilian crews of the Nimrod (1907–9) and Endurance (1914–17) Antarctic expeditions organized by Scott's colleague on the Discovery, the former merchant seaman Ernest Shackleton.

Scott had been stung by criticisms of the Discovery's scientific results, and so appointed seven professional scientists with academic qualifications, who derived an income from education or research. The staff were led by Scott's closest confidant, his old friend from the Discovery Edward Wilson. Educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and St George's Hospital, Wilson was a muscular Christian, who worshipped God by observing the wonders of his creation. A talented artist, he shared Scott's voracious and wide-ranging curiosity about the natural world. Wilson was joined by a biologist from Plymouth marine laboratory, Edward William Nelson (1883–1923), educated at Cambridge; the meteorologist George Simpson, educated at the universities of Manchester and Göttingen, who was granted leave from the Indian Meteorological Office to join the expedition; and the geologist Raymond Priestley, who had studied at University College, Bristol. Priestley was recruited late, when the Terra Nova stopped in Sydney. Scott worked hard, although with limited success, to drum up financial support from the colonies. He highlighted the appointment of the Cambridge-educated Canadian physicist Charles Seymour Wright (1887–1975) and the geologists Frank Debenham and (Thomas) Griffith Taylor, both graduates of the University of Sydney, to emphasize the expedition's imperial character.

The scientists and naval seamen in the shore party were joined by an eclectic collection of specialists. Cecil Henry Meares (1877–1937) was one of the most intriguing, a seasoned global adventurer who journeyed to Siberia to select ponies and sledge-dogs for the expedition, and also brought back the Russian dog-driver Dmitry Gerof and the groom Anton Omelchenko. Meares had met a photographer of growing renown, Herbert Ponting, during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and encouraged him to apply to the expedition. Ponting's images continue to shape our visualization of Antarctica.

Scott appointed two more officers: Lieutenant Henry Bowers of the Royal Indian Marine, who served as quartermaster, and the old Etonian Captain Lawrence Oates of the Inniskilling dragoons. Seeking a new challenge, Oates brought his cavalry officer's experience to the care of the expedition's ponies. Like Oates, the Wykehamist and the only Oxford graduate in the shore party, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, cousin of Scott's publisher Reginald Smith, offered £1000 to join the expedition. Scott turned him down, but was impressed when the young landowner donated the money in spite of his rejection, and Cherry-Garrard signed up as assistant zoologist. The shore party was completed by a Norwegian ski expert, Tryggve Gran (1889–1980), recommended by the great explorer Fridtjof Nansen, and the mechanic Bernard Day (1884–1934), who worked on the motor sledges that Scott hoped would give him an edge in the race for the south pole. Only a few days after the shore party disembarked, the Terra Nova encountered a rival Norwegian expedition led by the polar veteran Roald Amundsen, confirming reports they had received in Australia.

The activities of the crew and their relatives spanned the globe in a striking expression of Britain's imperial reach. Scott's brother Archie, for example, had served as aide-de-camp to the governor of the Gold Coast in the 1890s; Oates's uncle Francis Oates was one of the first Europeans to see the Victoria Falls; and Wilson's uncle Charles William Wilson commanded the forward relief party that had reached Khartoum two days too late to save General Gordon from the mahdi in January 1885.

Scott believed Shackleton had broken his promise by establishing the Nimrod's base camp near the Discovery's old hut, and was galled when Shackleton was fêted after marching within 97 miles of the south pole in 1909. But Scott's decisions first to take two Nimrod veterans, Day and Priestley, and, second, to appoint Debenham and Taylor, both taught by the Nimrod's geologist Professor T. W. E. David, who had fallen out with Scott before the Discovery expedition, demonstrated a commitment to scientific excellence over personal animosity.

The unique pressures of Antarctic life generated intense relationships. Both Wright and Taylor later married sisters of Raymond Priestley. The bond between Cherry-Garrard and the two muscular Christians, Bowers and Wilson, solidified during their famous winter journey to Cape Crozier in search of emperor penguin eggs. Wilson and Bowers were popular with all, but others aroused irritation. In passages cut from his published journal Scott criticized the ‘dilletantish’ Nelson and idle Tryggve Gran, although Gran later earned his respect. Both Scott and Cherry-Garrard were particularly disparaging about Teddy Evans.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Scott chose not to include Teddy Evans in the final polar party, selecting instead his friend Wilson, the powerful seaman Edgar Evans, the indefatigable Bowers, and Captain Oates to represent the army. Equipped with the latest technology, the expedition reaped a rich scientific harvest, but the attempt to conquer the south pole for the empire failed. Motor sledges proved of limited use, while too few dogs and ponies were available to save the British from the dreadful ordeal of man-hauling their sledges, the fateful legacy of Clements Markham's Antarctic obsession. The Norwegians, in contrast, had succeeded in bringing 110 dogs to the Antarctic. Scott reached the south pole on 17 January 1912, only to discover that Amundsen's party had arrived a month earlier. All five Britons perished on the return. A search party found the bodies of Scott, Bowers, and Wilson on 12 November 1912, together with the letters and journals that told their story. News of their fate was cabled to London in February 1913.

The search party had chosen to look for Scott rather than a northern party led by Campbell, which had been stranded in Victoria Land. The six men of that party constructed an underground igloo in which to shelter during the Antarctic winter, drawing a line down the middle to separate the officers, Campbell, Priestley, and Levick, from the men, George Abbott (d. 1926), Frank Browning, and Harry Dickason (1885–1943). After surviving six months in the igloo, they marched 230 miles to Cape Evans in early November 1912. The imposition of naval discipline during the expedition has been criticized, but routines familiar to the large Royal Naval contingent probably helped preserve sanity in appalling conditions.

The Edwardian spirit of duty and sacrifice that pervaded the expedition found tragic expression during the First World War, in which almost every member of the shore party served. Teddy Evans was criticized by Cherry-Garrard, Ponting, and others for taking centre-stage after the Terra Nova's return. But any stain on his reputation was removed in 1917 by his command of the destroyer HMS Broke, which, alongside only one other ship, successfully fought off six German vessels intent on bombarding Dover.

Scott's story resonated powerfully between the wars, guarded by his widow, Kathleen Scott, who married the politician Edward Hilton Young in 1922. Many of the shore party forged distinguished careers. Simpson, for example, became director of the London Meteorological Office, while Teddy Evans was promoted admiral. Although many of the crew shared Kathleen Scott's belief that Ponting had made a fortune from the Antarctic, his claim that he lost money on the expedition is supported by the record of his wealth at death, which amounted to only £815.

The expedition's most tangible legacy was its promotion of Antarctic science, particularly in Cambridge. Twenty-five volumes of findings had been published by 1925. And, largely thanks to Debenham's efforts, the remaining balance of the Scott memorial fund set up in 1913 was directed to establish a Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge in 1920, with a new memorial building opened in 1934. As director of the institute Debenham, in conjunction with Priestley, a fellow of Clare College and university administrator, and one of Shackleton's Endurance scientists, James Wordie, a fellow of St John's College, made Cambridge the centre of polar research in Britain. The culture of exploration that emerged in this period, and the tensions between those who served with Scott and Shackleton, await further investigation.

Max Jones


R. F. Scott, Journals: Captain Scott’s last expedition, ed. M. Jones (2005) [incl. bibliography and brief biographies] · biographical notes compiled for catalogue of manuscripts related to members of the British Antarctic expedition (1910–13), accessed through the Archives Hub, www.archiveshub.ac.uk, accessed on 5 Nov 2007, Scott Polar RI · E. Wilson, Diary of the Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic, 1910–1912, ed. H. G. R. King (1972) [incl. biographical appx] · E. Huxley, Scott of the Antarctic (1977) [incl. biographical appx] · M. Jones, The last great quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic sacrifice (2003)


H. G. Ponting, carbon print, 1911, NPG [see illus.]