When we were staying in Glen Prosen in Scotland we were just a few miles from where Captain Scott visited Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson while he was planning his second expedition. To commemorate this a statue was erected at one of his favourite viewpoints. This is the only statue of both Captain Scott and Dr Wilson.
Thirty miles south there is another Scott (and Wilson) connection in Dundee on the banks of the River Tay. We found this with some confusion – we followed the signs but got into the wrong lane and found ourselves on the Tay Road Bridge. Not once but twice. A mile long drive across the River Tay, round a roundabout and another mile back – so our journey was four miles longer than it should have been. Eventually we manged to park between Discovery Point and a Premier Inn where we grabbed a quick meal before heading to investigate the ship and exhibition.
The ship chosen for Scott’s first expedition was purpose built. It was RRS Discovery which was the first ship built in the UK specifically for polar exploration and the first for scientific research since 1694. It needed to be built in wood both so that magnetic research could be undertaken at sea and so that it could withstand the pressure of the ice. There were layers of oak, fir and elm. (An iron clad whaler would have been half the price.) By the early 1900s most British ship builders were building iron ships. Discovery’s sides are over two foot thick amidships (compared an inch for an iron ship) with the bows further strengthened for forcing the way through the ice. To further strengthen it there were no portholes – light and ventilation came from mushroom vents in the deck. There was no ironwork within 30 feet of the magnetic laboratory.
It was both steam powered and a sailing ship because it would have required far too much coal for it to be purely steam powered. It had to have provisions and equipment for the expedition sufficient for two or three years.
The wardroom was a work room by day and dining room by night. The officers’ cabins are along each side with Scott’s cabin on the left at the far end with the ships captain’s cabin opposite. The space shuttle Discovery was named after this ship and the astronauts who flew on it have visited and dined at this table (wearing their astronaut ‘boiler suits’) in the footsteps of Scott, Wilson and others.
This expedition was the first one led by Robert Falcon Scott. Its aim was extensive exploration of Ross Sea region, magnetic research and geographical discovery. Unfortunately arguments between the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society led to the resignation of the original scientific director (who was not willing to play second fiddle to Scott, which is what Sir Clement Markham of the Royal Geographical Society demanded). This meant that the expedition was not as well equipped to carry out meteorological and other research as it should have been and the ambitious programme outlined in a 600 page Antarctic Manual would only be partially achieved. Nonetheless a lot of significant work was done.
One of the members of this expedition was Edward Wilson, known as Uncle Bill to everyone. It was his sketches and watercolours which initially caught my eye when I saw some at an exhibition in Gloucestershire some years ago. I think he would have been a fascinating man to know. His father was a doctor in Cheltenham and Uncle Bill enjoyed long walks in the Gloucestershire countryside in his youth. He studied at Cambridge where his conciliatory approach was so admired that he was asked to stay on for an extra year to act as a calming influence on the students. After he qualified as a Doctor he worked in the east end where he contracted what was thought to be tuberculosis. He honed his sketching skills while recovering from this in Davos in Switzerland (having unsuccessfully tried to shake off the illness in Norway during the summer). He was an ideal senior member of the party and trusted confidante for Scott.
In Antarctica he would sketch under great difficulties – he would use the pencil for a few minutes and then warm his hands under his armpits. It was so cold that a soft B pencil would behave as a hard H. Then when he got back inside he would produce a finished pencil sketch from the rough one done outside. Then a rough watercolour followed by a finished watercolour. He would produce several copies of the same scene and give them away to colleagues and friends. He wanted them to be seen.
Discovery spent three years trapped in ice off Ross Island in the Ross Sea before returning home. The physicist on the expedition, Louis Bernacchi summarised their achievements “The expedition had returned after more than three years absence with the richest results, geographical and scientific ever brought home from the high southern latitudes. A vast new land . . . . had been discovered. Many hundred miles of unknown coast . . . . had been seen and plotted.”
Today after four Antarctic expeditions and other adventures Discovery is back in her home port where she can be visited along with an excellent exhibition.