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date: 09 December 2023

Scott, Robert Falcon [known as Scott of the Antarctic]free


Scott, Robert Falcon [known as Scott of the Antarctic]free

  • H. G. R. King

Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912)

by Herbert George Ponting, 1911

© Popperfoto; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Scott, Robert Falcon [known as Scott of the Antarctic] (1868–1912), naval officer and Antarctic explorer, was born on 6 June 1868 at Outlands, Milehouse, near Stoke Damerel, Devonport, the third of the six children of John Edward Scott (1830–1897), a brewer, and his wife, Hannah, the daughter of William Bennett Cuming, a Lloyd's surveyor.

Education and early career

Invariably known as Con by his immediate family, Scott seemed destined from the start for a naval career. His paternal grandfather and the latter's three brothers were all naval officers, and his uncle Henry Cuming became a vice-admiral. As a very young child he was taught at home by governesses. At the age of eight he attended Exmouth House School, Stoke Damerel, and later, aged eleven, was sent to Stubbington House, Fareham, to be crammed for the Royal Navy. When he was thirteen he joined the training ship HMS Britannia, and he passed out in 1883 with first-class certificates in mathematics and seamanship. Between 1883 and 1887 he served in turn aboard the Boadicea, the Monarch, and the Rover. In this last ship, while on the West Indies station, he was noted by Sir Clements Markham, secretary and later president of the Royal Geographical Society, as a likely candidate for the leadership of a future Antarctic expedition.

In 1887–8 Scott studied and qualified for his lieutenancy at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, with high honours, and was then appointed sub-lieutenant in the Spider. In 1889 he was posted to the Daphne and then to the Amphion for service on the Pacific station at Esquimalt, British Columbia. In 1891 he returned to England to serve briefly in the Caroline in the Mediterranean, from which he transferred to the Vernon (shore establishment) to specialize in torpedo work. He qualified as torpedo lieutenant, first class, and in 1893 was appointed to the Vulcan. Aged twenty-five and an expert in his field, Scott was growing in confidence and keen for promotion; but a sequence of family crises put his prospects in jeopardy. His father's bankruptcy in 1894 obliged the family to move to Holcombe House, Shepton Mallet, Somerset. From 1895 to 1896 Scott served in the torpedo school Defiance and from 1896 to 1897 in the battleship Empress of India, where he again encountered Markham. His father's death in 1897, followed by that of his brother in 1898, left Scott as sole provider for his mother. Then in June 1899, while on leave from the Majestic, he again chanced on Markham and from him learned of maturing plans for a British national Antarctic expedition. Scott promptly applied for the command, despite, as he later put it, having 'no predilection for Polar exploration' (Scott, Voyage, 1.32). On 9 June 1900 a joint committee of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society agreed to appoint Scott as leader. Shortly afterwards he was gazetted commander.

First Antarctic expedition, 1901–1904

At the time 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°17ʹ 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' (Mill, Siege of the South Pole, 409). 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.

Naval career and marriage

On his return to England Scott was fêted 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 Légion 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) [see Scott, (Edith Agnes) Kathleen], the eleventh child of Revd Lloyd Steward Bruce, canon of York, and his wife, Janie, née 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' (L. Young, 108). 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.

Scott's last expedition, 1910–1912

In contrast to the Discovery expedition, Scott's 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' (Scott, Last Expedition, 1.167). 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°29ʹ 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, Last Expedition, 1.525), 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°25ʹ 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' (ibid., 1.544). 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' (ibid., 1.546).

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. It is of course easy to be judgemental; what captured and still captures the imagination of the public are the oft quoted words of the 'Last Message':

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

ibid., 1.607

Aftermath and reputation

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, sent to relieve Scott, was held up by a blizzard at One Ton Depot and forced back to Cape Evans. Eight months later, on 12 November 1912, a search party led by Dr E. L. Atkinson, by some miracle, discovered the tent entombing the frozen corpses along with Scott's journals and papers and the precious rocks. The bodies were buried where they lay under a snow cairn at lat. 79°50ʹ S; a commemorative cross was later erected on Observation Hill, Ross Island.

News of the tragedy reached London in February 1913, and a memorial service was held in St Paul's Cathedral. Scott's widow was granted the rank, style, and precedence of the wife of a knight commander in the Order of the Bath. A memorial fund launched by the lord mayor of London raised £75,000, using which the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge was founded and the scientific results of Scott's journey published.

Not perhaps a born leader, Scott nevertheless came to earn the friendship and loyalty of those closest to him. Loyalty characterizes the narrative accounts published in the aftermath of the Terra Nova expedition, such as E. R. G. R. Evans's South with Scott (1921), H. G. Ponting's The Great White South (1921), and Griffith Taylor's With Scott: the Silver Lining (1916). A. Cherry-Garrard's classic narrative The Worst Journey in the World (1922), while staunchly upholding Scott's qualities as a leader, was openly critical of his organization. The first professional biography, Stephen Gwynn's Captain Scott (1929), is incomplete and essentially an act of hero-worship, perhaps intended to counterbalance J. Gordon Hayes's Antarctica (1928), which, while giving due praise to Scott's science, laid the blame for the pole disaster at the door of Scott's misplaced loyalty to outmoded naval tradition. A decade later George Seaver took up in detail the theme of Scott's personality in his Scott of the Antarctic (1940), using family papers and Scott's journals to demonstrate how the explorer came to recognize the flaws in his own nature and sought to remedy them in the testing environment of Antarctica.

With the death of Lady Scott (then Lady Kennet) in 1947 Scott's biographers had free rein. Reginald Pound's Scott of the Antarctic (1966), a full-length biography based on family and official papers, was distinguished by its completeness, accuracy, and balance. Two years later Scott's private journals were published in facsimile manuscript as The Diaries of Captain Scott (1968), exposing for all to read the full nature of his inner struggles. Elspeth Huxley's Scott of the Antarctic (1977) explored in more detail Scott's relationship with his wife, and portrayed him as a hero, albeit a reluctant one. Less charitable was Roland Huntford's controversial double biography Scott and Amundsen (1979), which sought to topple the Briton from his heroic plinth, charging him with incompetence and the perversion of his literary talent for the purpose of exculpating himself from blame for the disaster. This interpretation was hotly contested by Wayland Young in his article 'On the debunking of Captain Scott' (Encounter, May 1980, 8–19). A decade later Beryl Bainbridge's incisive novel The Birthday Boys (1991) suggested that, to the bitter end, Scott could command not merely the loyalty but also the love of his companions, and successfully restored the heroes to the status of human beings. In 2001 Susan Solomon used detailed, modern meteorological data to suggest that the polar party did indeed suffer abnormally severe weather on the return journey, as Scott himself had claimed, though this did not wholly account for their difficulties. She further suggested that Wilson and Bowers chose to remain and die with the badly frostbitten Scott rather than take advantage of the abating blizzard to reach One Ton Depot.

Cinema, stage, and the television screen have all reflected the ebb and flow of criticism. The Ealing Studios' film Scott of the Antarctic (1948), with magnificent music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and with John Mills portraying Scott, was conventionally patriotic and stiff upper-lipped, in stark contrast to Trevor Griffith's screenplay for Central Television, The Last Place on Earth (1985), which, iconoclastic to a degree, was intent on demolishing heroic myth in the larger context of British imperial decay and national decadence. More convincing was the American playwright Ted Tally's Terra Nova, first staged in Britain in 1980, which portrayed Scott undergoing mental catharsis by means of imagined dialogues with his wife, Kathleen, and his alter ego Amundsen.

Of the many memorials erected to commemorate Scott, the statue by Kathleen Scott in Waterloo Place, London, is the best-known. Behind the heroic image which it portrays lay a complex and contradictory individual. Of medium height, not physically strong yet possessed of impressive stamina, Scott was by nature insecure and self-doubting, the victim of depressive moods and bouts of indolence. Yet he was ever alert to these disabilities and strove to triumph over them, supported by a deep-rooted sense of justice and a trust in the dispensations of providence.

Scott represented in his personality and in his prose an extreme form of the late-Victorian concept of the English gentleman: ‘manly’, straightforward, stubborn, unimaginative, and gentle. He sensed his iconic role, and his death in 1912 was soon felt strangely to have foreshadowed the fate of many of his class in the First World War.


  • R. F. Scott, The voyage of the ‘Discovery’, 2 vols. (1905)
  • R. F. Scott, Scott's last expedition, ed. L. Huxley, 2 vols. (1913)
  • R. F. Scott, The diaries of Captain Robert Scott: a record of the second Antarctic expedition, 1910–1912, 6 vols. (1968)
  • A. Cherry-Garrard, The worst journey in the world, 2 vols. (1922)
  • G. Seaver, Scott of the Antarctic: a study in character (1940)
  • R. Pound, Scott of the Antarctic (1966)
  • E. Huxley, Scott of the Antarctic (1977)
  • R. Huntford, Scott and Amundsen (1979)
  • W. Young, ‘On the debunking of Captain Scott’, Encounter, 54/5 (1980), 8–19
  • D. James, Scott of the Antarctic: the film and its production (1948)
  • T. Tally, Terra nova: a play (1981)
  • B. Bainbridge, The birthday boys (1991)
  • G. Taylor, With Scott: the silver lining (1916)
  • E. R. G. R. Evans, South with Scott (1921)
  • H. G. Ponting, The great white south (1921)
  • J. G. Hayes, Antarctica (1928)
  • S. Gwynn, Captain Scott (1929)
  • T. Griffiths, Judgement over the dead: the screenplay of ‘The last place on earth’ (1986)
  • D. Preston, A first rate tragedy: Captain Scott's Antarctic expeditions (1997)
  • L. Young, A great task of happiness: the life of Kathleen Scott (1995)
  • H. R. Mill, The siege of the south pole (1905)
  • S. Solomon, The coldest March: Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition (2001)


  • BL, diaries, Add. MSS 51024–51044
  • British Columbia Archives and Records Service, corresp.
  • CUL, corresp.
  • NMM, corresp. and papers relating to his Antarctic expedition
  • RGS, diary
  • RS
  • Scott Polar RI, corresp., diaries, and papers
  • State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
  • TNA: PRO
  • Canterbury Museum, letters to Louis Charles Bernacchi
  • RGS, letters to Royal Geographical Society


  • BFINA, ‘Cardiff: the ship Terra Nova leaving harbour towards the south pole’, Pathé Frères, 1 July 1910
  • BFINA, ‘British Antarctic expedition, 1910–1913’, 1924
  • BFINA, ‘The great white silence’, 1924
  • BFINA, actuality footage
  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage


  • E. A. Wilson, pencil drawing, 1901, Scott Polar RI
  • E. A. Wilson, silhouette, 1902, Scott Polar RI
  • D. A. Wehrschmidt, oils, 1905, NPG
  • C. P. Small, oils, 1910, NPG
  • H. G. Ponting, photograph, 1911, NPG [see illus.]
  • L. Calkin, oils, 1913; last known at United Service Club, London [c/o Crown Commissioners]
  • J. C. Lawrence, oils, 1913, Scott Polar RI
  • Hester, mechanical reproduction, NPG; repro. in VF (19 Feb 1913)
  • H. Mann, oils (posthumous), RGS
  • H. G. Ponting and others, photographs, Scott Polar RI
  • K. Scott, bronze bust (posthumous), Scott Polar RI
  • K. Scott, bronze statue (posthumous), Waterloo Place, London
  • A. G. Walter, bronzed plaster group of statues, Scott Polar RI
  • E. A. Wilson, pencil drawing, Scott Polar RI
  • Carrara marble statue (after bronze statue by K. Scott), Christchurch, New Zealand
  • photographs, NPG

Wealth at Death

£5067 11s. 7d.: resworn probate, 13 May 1913, CGPLA Eng. & Wales