History of Scott's Expedition

The National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04

Credit: Canterbury Museum

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Antarctica offered great opportunities for scientific discovery, but it was the lure of the South Pole – considered the greatest geographical prize of the time - that was irresistible to the ambitious explorers of the day.

And none was more ambitious than the Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, an organisation with a long and proud history of exploration.

Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society

When the Norwegian-born Carsten Borchgrevink secured funding from the wealthy English publisher Sir George Newnes to put together the British Antarctic Expedition 1898–1900, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham, was infuriated. The Society had been planning to mount an expedition to Antarctica for some time and Borchgrevink’s mostly Norwegian team had beaten them to it. Borchgrevink’s expedition built two huts at Cape Adare, and a party of ten men lived through the winter of the year 1899 in them. Cape Adare was a poor place from which to carry out exploration, and the party was affected by personality problems, but the expedition did prove that men could survive an Antarctic winter, a fact that was vital in planning the pending Royal Geographical Society’s expedition; other achievements were the construction of two huts (to a Norwegian design) that have survived the conditions very well for over 100 years, and the men made good use of dogs and ski. The great geographical prizes of the South Pole and the South Magnetic Pole were, however, still to be claimed.

The National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, the British Government and a London businessman, Llewellyn Longstaff. There were also donations from officers of the Royal Society and other private individuals. Sir Clements Markham launched the appeal that eventually raised £90,000 for the expedition – sufficient to pay for a new ship, provisions, wages and other costs.

Commander Robert Falcon Scott, RN was selected to lead the expedition. Scott, the son of a Devonshire brewer with naval connections, had entered naval training school at just 13. He progressed first to midshipman and then lieutenant and served in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. On 5 June 1899, Scott, who had been serving as a torpedo lieutenant on the Majestic, met Sir Clements Markham in a London street. Markham was returning from a Royal Geographical Society Council meeting at which the impending Antarctic expedition had been discussed and Scott immediately volunteered to command the expedition. Markham, who was familiar with Scott’s background, already had him at the head of a list of potential candidates for the position of expedition leader.

Robert Falcon Scott, Leader of the National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04

Markham proposed the building of a new ship and, on 21 March 1901, a 52.4 metre purpose-built vessel constructed by Dundee Shipbuilders Company Limited, was launched on the River Tay by Lady Markham and named Discovery.

Reflecting its large budget, the expedition was planned on a grand scale with such equipment as two army balloons for reconnaissance, a windmill to generate electric power and a number of dogs. The Discovery sailed from London on 31 July 1901 with a great fanfare from passing craft and a full salute from the training ship Worcester. The ship then moored at Cowes for the yacht-racing week where King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra came on board. According to Dr Edward Wilson:

"We were busy the whole morning, till nigh on 11.30 when the King and Queen came on board, clearing up, tidying and putting our smartest bits of apparatus and our prettiest solutions in prominent positions. Microscopes were set out, water bottles, thermometers, everything else arranged and tidied up … The King shook hands with us all round as he came on board, and again when he left. The Queen also. The King gave the Victorian Order of the First Class to Captain Scott before leaving, having with great difficulty fished it out of his tail-coat pocket, which was a long way round on the wrong side of his stout figure. He gave us a few words of royal encouragement, was shown off the ship and then left."

The Discovery made her departure from Cowes the next day, 6 August 1901. When she arrived at Lyttleton, New Zealand some months later an impressive quantity of food was taken on board including tinned meat, dehydrated vegetables, 45 live sheep donated by local farmers, soups, biscuits and various beverages. Also taken on board were three huts; a single-roomed hut for the magnetic observatory, a similar building for the seismograph, and an 11.3 metre square prefabricated building to be erected as a shore station. This large hut was constructed by James Moore of Sydney at a cost of £360.14.5d and was intended to house a small landing party.

The hut was designed by Professor Gregory, who had been appointed leader of the scientific staff; however, he resigned from the position before the Discovery headed south. It was to be square in plan, its Australian origins evident in the open verandah that surrounded three sides of the structure. The structure and cladding of the building is entirely of timber, Douglas fir and Scots pine. The pyramidal roof was supported by a central post and consisted of two layers of tongue and groove boarding separated by felt; a ceiling enclosed an air space for insulation. The walls were of panelled construction, and the floor consisted of two layers of tongue-and-groove boarding fixed to joists and enclosing an air space. A heating stove was provided for the Officer’s quarters and a cooking stove in the Men’s quarters, and at least one of these was installed and later removed with the departure of the expedition. Seven double-glazed windows were located on three sides and additional light was admitted to the verandah on three sides by six skylights with shutters. Three exterior doors were provided, two of which are now sealed up.

Officers of Discovery on the deck, at Lyttelton, 21 December 1901. Left to right: Dr Wilson, Lt Shackleton, Lt AB Armitage RN, Lt M Barne, Dr Koettlitz, Mr RW Skelton RN, Captain RF Scott RN, Lt CW Royds, Mr LC Bernacchi, Mr HT Ferrar and Mr JF Hodgson.

On 21 December, the heavily-laden Discovery steamed out of Lyttelton where tens of thousands had gathered to see her off. Scott recorded in his diary:

"It is most difficult to speak in fitting terms of the kindness shown to us in New Zealand … On every side we were accorded the most generous terms by the firms or individuals with whom we had to deal in business matters."

As the Discovery headed southwards the expedition stopped at Port Chalmers for coal and to bury a seaman, Charles Bonner, who had fallen from the top of the mainmast as the ship left Lyttelton. On 9 January 1902, a call was made at Cape Adare where the record left by Borchgrevink was found, and on 4 February, during flights by Scott and Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton RNR in a hydrogen balloon named Eva over the Great Barrier (now called the Ross Ice Shelf), Shackleton took the first aerial photographs of Antarctica.

Granite Harbour on the western side of McMurdo Sound was considered a possible site for wintering, but Scott opted to winter over in what they named Winter Quarters Bay, a small indentation at the end of the Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island and described by Wilson as “the most perfect little natural harbour imaginable”.

It had not been intended that the Discovery should winter in Antarctica but, instead, leave a small land party in the hut that Professor Gregory had designed. However, by 8 February, Scott decided to remain and the ship was secured to the icefoot. The Discovery was then frozen in for two years and became home for 47 officers and men, 30 of whom were from the Royal Navy, the others being a mixture of Merchant Navy and Royal Marine, along with five scientists and four civilians. On 11 March, however, their number was reduced by one when a young seaman, George Vince RN, died when he fell over an ice cliff returning to the ship in a blizzard and was never seen again.

Construction of the hut, some 200 metres from the ship, soon began. The ground was levelled, but owing to the permafrost a few centimetres below the surface, many hours were spent digging the foundations before Dailey, the carpenter, could erect the frame. The structural frame, including posts, beams and rafters, was infilled with prefabricated roof, wall and floor panels. Stencilled letters and numbers on the various parts facilitated construction. As with RE Peary’s winter quarters (later named ‘Anniversary Lodge’), erected in North Greenland in August 1893, the intention was to enclose the three sides below the edge of the verandah with provision cases, against which snow could accumulate.

By 8 March the hut was complete, with windows and skylights installed and the exterior may have been painted terracotta. Scott described the building:

"The floor occupied a space of thirty-six feet square, but the overhanging eaves of the pyramidal roof rested on supports some four feet beyond the sides, surrounding the hut with a covered verandah. The interior space was curtailed by the complete double lining, and numerous partitions were provided to suit the requirements of the occupants. But of these partitions only one was erected, to cut off a small portion of one side, and the larger part which remained formed a really spacious apartment.
We found, however, that its erection was no light task, as all the main and verandah supports were designed to be sunk three or four feet in the ground. We soon found a convenient site close to the ship on a small bare plateau of volcanic rubble, but an inch or two below the surface the soil was frozen hard, and many an hour was spent with pick, shovel, and crowbar before the solid supports were erected and our able carpenter could get to work on the frame.

"In addition to the main hut, and of greater importance, were the two small huts which we brought for our magnetic instruments. These consisted of a light skeleton framework of wood covered with sheets of asbestos. The numerous parts were of course numbered, and there would have been no great difficulty putting them together had it not been that the wood was badly warped, so that none of the joints would fit together without a great deal of persuasion from the carpenter."

"The main hut is of most imposing dimensions and would accommodate a very large party, but on account of its size and the necessity of economizing coal, it is very difficult to keep a working temperature inside; consequently it has not been available for some of the purposes for which we had hoped to use it."

Discovery Hut after a blizzard in 1902

‘Professor Gregory’s Villa’, as Scott’s party called the hut, was described by Bernacchi as “more adapted as a summer house than a polar hut”, and by Armitage as a “colonial shooting lodge”. It was well stocked with supplies, but was very cold and, in the end, was used for scientific observations, for drying furs and tents after sledging, for skinning birds, as a repair shop and as a venue for entertainment, leading to it also being known as the ‘Royal Terror Theatre’.

Nearby, the two smaller huts were erected. The first became the ‘absolute’ hut; it had instruments for recording absolute magnetic values, and a Milne seismograph on a bed-plate supported by a Royal Doulton glazed earthenware pipe 45cm in diameter and 48.5cm above the ground. Sliding doors in the walls were for use of the transit telescope and to rate the chronometers. The other hut contained the Eschenhagen magnetograph, which recorded the variation of the magnetic forces. This hut was 3.5 metres square and 2 metres high and had brick piers to support an oak bench on which was placed the magnetometer and a large brass heating lamp.

In November 1902, the seismograph was moved to the main hut and was erected on a brick pillar sunk in the ground to a depth of 31cm. This was later used by Louis Bernacchi and Reginald Skelton for the pendulum apparatus used for gravity measurements. Other instruments in the physical laboratory included a marine barometer and observing telescope.

The pendulum apparatus used by Bernacchi and Skelton

Before the end of the first year much had been accomplished. In October, an overland party had journeyed to the other side of Ross Island where they discovered the Emperor penguin rookery at Cape Crozier, and, on 18 October, the first photograph was taken of an Emperor penguin chick. A record sledging trip resulted in the discovery of new land, when Scott, Wilson and Shackleton, assisted by dogs, made it south to latitude 82º 16’ S on 30 December 1902. The party had set out to investigate whether there was any land between the ice shelf and the South Pole, or whether the ice sheet extended to the far side of the Antarctic Circle. In the same month, an exploratory trip led by Lieutenant Albert Armitage, RN reached the Polar Plateau for the first time, ascending a glacier named after the expedition geologist Hartley Ferrar to an altitude of 2,740 metres.

In January 1903, the relief ship Morning arrived but the Discovery remained frozen in Arrival Bay. Scott then decided to reduce the ship’s complement to 37, with Shackleton (who was ill with scurvy after the sledging journey) and eight others returning on the Morning. A second winter was spent on board the Discovery.

In the spring, sledging commenced once again and, on 26 October 1903, a party led by Scott ascended to the Polar Plateau via the Ferrar Glacier and exceeded the journey of the previous summer. On their return, the party became disoriented, descending the wrong glacier and finding themselves in what is now named the Taylor Valley near the terminus of the Taylor Glacier and Lake Bonney.

With the team all back at the Discovery, attention was now focused on sawing a channel to free the ship from her berth of two years. On 5 January 1904, the relief ships Morning and Terra Nova were sighted. Efforts were then made to free the Discovery with explosives, but this did not achieve the desired effect and Scott made plans to abandon the ship. Then, on 14 February, the sea-ice began to break up and with the aid of a final explosive charge and some assistance from the wind and currents, the Discovery was free. Before the expedition departed, a cross to the memory of Vince was erected on a small knoll about 100 metres south-west of the hut, which was closed up with the remaining stores and some equipment, and abandoned. After stopping briefly in Robertson Bay at Cape Adare to replace the rudder, the Discovery proceeded to Lyttelton, arriving on 1 April.

The National Antarctic Expedition was highly successful. In addition to the comprehensive scientific observations and geographical discoveries described, other research, observations and field work included meteorology, geology, glaciology, botany, marine biology and cartography. A ‘furthest south’ record of 82º 16’ S had been established.


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