30 Jul



Atkinson was the naval surgeon who had a pivotal role to play in the Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. Michael Tarver has written Atkinson’s biography: The Man who Found Captain Scott, Antarctic Explorer and War Hero, Surgeon Captain Edward Leicester Atkinson. but he is referred to less frequently than other heroes of the expedition. He deserves to be remembered.

Atkinson came from a family of military and professional men. He was one of seven children – the only boy. His mother Jenny Anne Hazel, was a member of a long -established Creole family and the family lived in in the Caribbean – St. Vincent initially, subsequently the Port of Spain.

In October 1895, Edward was sent to a boarding school in England. Forest School in Essex is an Anglican, independent boarding school for boys. Here Edward (pupil number 1653), excelled in sport, but was also academically precocious.  He decided on a medical career, leaving Forest School in 1900. 

Medical training was at  St Thomas Hospital, London.  Edward did well. By1906 he was  a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England  and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London. He also won the hospital boxing championship. Two years after qualification, in 1908, he joined the Royal Naval Medical Service becoming a Surgeon to His Majesties Fleet.

Work from 1908-1909 was at the Royal Naval Hospital  Haslar. in Gosport Hampshire. Here experience was gained in helminthology and parasitology.  But Edward wanted more- he  wanted adventure, excitement, action. He had hoped that he might be be appointed to an Antarctic Patrol Ship, but he did better! Aged twenty eight, he was appointed as parasiitologist and bacteriologist to the Terra Nova Expedition, Scott’s second expedition to Antarctica.

When the Terra Nova reached Antarctica, a base was established at Cape Evans on Ross Island. Atkinson spent the winter working at base camp before taking part in Scott’s 1911, South Polar Journey.

Surgeon RN Edward L. Atkinson 1911 Parasitologist

On this expedition he was to be involved in two controversies: The first related to Scott’s orders concerning the use of dogs, The second related to the possibility of scurvy  affecting the polar party. 

The assault on the Pole began on 24th October 1911. The motor parties started first. They were followed by the pony parties (Atkinson was a lead driver). The ponies were followed by the dog teams driven by Cecil Meares (who had purchased the dogs), assisted by Demitri Gerof, an experienced dog driver.

By the time the expedition had crossed the Barrier and began the ascent proper of the Beardmore Glacier, the motor party had abandoned their vehicles after fifty miles and were man-hauling, The ponies had been slaughtered. Importantly Scott was so impressed by the dogs’ performance that he kept them with the advance party for longer than planned – they were to go as far as the Lower Glacier Depot and only turned back on 11 Dec 1911. This decision was to have long- term consequences.

Twelve men in three man-hauling teams, ascending the mighty Beardmore Glacier leading to the Plateau and the Pole. Atkinson hauled with Charles  Wright (a Canadian physicist), William Lashly (a Chief Stoker in the Royal Navy), and ‘Teddy’ Evans (Edward Ratcliffe Evans, Scott’s second in Command). On the ascent Scott was constantly deliberating on the best team for the final plateau stretch to the pole.  He  eventually sent seven men back before choosing the final, five -man assault team for the Pole. Atkinson was sent back to base on 22nd December from the Upper Glacier Depot, along with Charles Wright, Apsley Cherry- Garrard (the Assistant Zoologist) and Patrick Keohane (one of the Petty Officers.  Wright paid tribute to Atkinson’ calm leadership as the team lost their way on the return. They got back to base in late January.

At base Atkinson assumed command of the station.  He learnt that Meares had resigned from the expedition and was waiting for the relief ship (due in early February, 1912) to go home. Simpson, the meteorologist, was also returning to England. Atkinson himself,  as instructed, planned to go south again with the dogs on the support mission. But a dramatic intervention threw all plans into disarray.  The depots were never replenished.

The relief ship the Terra Nova, arrived in early February. Criticism of Atkinson’s leadership at this time has been levied.  Scott’s instructions has been for three journeys to be made to the south with further supplies – the third journey to leave with the dogs by early February and Atkinson could have  done this but instead of  going south, he lost time directing the unloading of supplies, mules, dogs etc. from the Terra Nova. In Atkinson’s defense Cherry Garrard wrote in his book, The Worst Journey in the World, that Atkinson’ group had not reached Cape Evans until January 28 and that Atkinson would not have been fit enough to take the dogs our in early February.

The British team – Robert Scott, Edward Wilson, ‘Titus’ Oates,  ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Petty Officer Edgar Evans reached the pole on 18th January 1912, thirty four days after the Norwegians. All the British team died on the return from the Pole

The controversy over whether Scott’s  man -hauling team could have made a successful return if they had married up  with the supplies for the men and dogs, that Scott had intended to be left for them on their return, continues to this day

As I understand it the orders ré the dogs were varied in relation to the circumstanced that Scott found himself.

  1. The original instructions given to Meares  at Cape Evans dated 20 October 1911 i.e. before the teams set out were that…. the first week of February (1912). I should like you to start your third journey to the South…… to hasten the return of the  Southern unit [the polar party] .…..
  2. A number of instructions were sent back from the expedition, including the provision of emergency stores at Hut Point and a second journey to One Ton Camp with rations, biscuits and oil to be completed by the 19th January 2012 followed by a third journey in early March to assist the returning explorers and hopefully catch the relief ship
  3. Further (final) written instructions, relating to the dogs were apparently meant to go back with Atkinson and were forgotten /mislaid. Cherry Garrard wrote later that Scott had intended to tell Atkinson to bring the dogs as far south as he could.

In the event all these plans were thwarted. Other problems crowded in. Teddy Evans, Scott’s Second in Command was sent back to base, on the 3rd January 1912 with two Petty Officers, William Lashly and Thomas Crean. On the return Teddy fell seriously ill with scurvy.-so ill that he thought he would die and ordered his companions to leave him, they refused (he wrote later that this was the first time that his orders had ever been disobeyed). Tom Crean made a treacherous 18 hour, 35 mile  journey back to base to seek medical assistance.  Dr. Atkinson priorities immediately focused on Teddy, who would die without medical help. He abandoned his plans to go south in favour of going to attend to the seriously ill Teddy. HE  stayed with his patient until the Terra Nova had arrived and Evans was safely on her.

This left the question as to who was to take out the relief supplies. At the base  Simpson (meteorologist), was returning to England on the relief ship. Wright was needed to continue  the scientific work. Atkinson therefore instructed Apsley Cherry-Garrard (poor sighted and inexperienced in charting), to leave with Demitri Gerof for One Ton Camp .

The outing was not considered to be a relief mission – it was assumed that the polar party would be in good shape on their return. Cherry was to ‘use his judgment’ as to what to do if he did not meet up with  the returnees at One Ton Depot.

He and Gerov left with the dogs on 26 February carrying rations for the polar party and 24 days’ of dog food. They arrived at One Ton on 4 March with enough dog food to reach the next depot but no further and he knew that saving the dogs doe possible further polar work was a priority –

In the event the weather was so bad that he felt unable to proceed — he reasoned he could easily miss Scott anyway in the prevailing conditions.

The two men waited for Scott for several days, mostly, it is recorded, in blizzard conditions (although no blizzard was recorded by Scott some 100 miles further south until 10 March) and they returned to Hut Point on 16 March, in poor physical condition and without news of the polar party.

The Polar Winter was approaching Atkinson could do no more

As is well known of the five returnees, Edgar Evans died on the 18 February 1916, Titus Oates about a month later — well before the anticipated meeting with the dog teams.  Apart from malnutrition, difficulty in finding the food caches and a poor oil supply the British were caught by the coldest conditions ever experienced on the Barrier. This appears to have been the final blow



‘Footsteps In The Snow’

5 Jul

My co-author on William Speirs Bruce has just written his autobiography

                                        ‘Footsteps In The Snow’

A most interesting read that recalls his Antarctic experiences. Here is the flyer that you may find of interest.

Sir Clements Markham, Saint or Sinner?

27 May

I think that writing the biography of Sir Clements is going to take months – so I will probably not be adding much to my blog, which has concentrated on some of the lesser known Polar Heroes  -though I will probably get round eventually to John Ray and Edward Atkinson.

I remain surprised that Clements Markham has not caught the attention of other authors over the one hundred and six years since he died. Of course his cousin Admiral Albert Markham wrote a ‘life’  dedicated to Sir Clements’ widow Minna. This was written soon after Clements’ death, but the work was not, in any sense, an objective biography. Albert had had close ties with Clements’ family. When he was studying to get into the navy, he lived with Clements widowed mother Catherine. Catherine had already lost two of her sons,  and, with her remaining son, Clements travelling widely, she welcomed Albert as another ‘son’ and a ‘brother’ for her three daughters.

Clements as a young man

Clements was eleven years older than Albert and he created a  profound impact. Albert was overwhelmed by Clements’ success in smuggling quinine out of Peru and transporting the medication to India. He also shared Clements’ passion for knowledge – reading, travel and exploration. He would never write a critical paragraph about a man who was his cousin, Catherine’s son and Minna’s husband.

In fact Clements seems to have had a very loving relationship with his friends and family. The same however cannot be said about anyone who disagreed or criticized him. Such a person became a permanent enemy. Thus seems to have been a life-long characteristic, but his reputation was unequivocally damaged by his behaviour after, at the age of 63, he became President of The Royal Geographical Society  (R.G.S.) and announced his ambitions for Antarctic exploration.

His facility for acerbic observation was apparent quite early on -as a young boy for example, he described one of his father’s friends and  neighbour, as having  a ‘long neck, an eager little face and a voice like a cockatoo’. Aged fifteen, when a midshipman sailing on the ‘Collingwood’ Pacific Tour, he described the Governor of Tahiti (governed by the French). as ‘short, stumpy, ugly, fiendish and crafty looking’. The Captain of a French ship was also short, ugly, fiendish,  but also ‘a little man’ – with red hair and whiskers.

When, as a successful member and officer of the R.G.S he was made its President in 1893, Sir Clements made his announcement that his primary ambition was to support the resurgence of Polar exploration -this had lapsed following the tragic death of Sir John Franklin, who had been lost in the Arctic along with his two ships and entire crew in the 1840s during an attempt to find a sailing route from the Antarctic to the Pacific – the North West Passage.- Clements had, as a midshipman, been on one of the many ships attempting to discover the fate of the doomed expedition.

In the early part of the 1900s it was not  actually certain that the Antarctic existed as a continent and Sir Clements focused his attention on the South.   A number of land areas had been seen, but not landed on –  they could have been islands. One area, Cape Adare had been landed on and its coordinates recorded. but no significant penetration southwards had been made.  Sir Clements ambitions were  to penetrate into and discover as much as possible about this mysterious area and to collect geographic, meteorological  oceanographic information. He also wished to enthuse naval personnel with this great venture,  he felt the navy would benefit from the challenge.

His two great problems were –firstly, funds to support the expedition, and secondly, agreement over the actual aims of the expedition. To get enough sufficient funds, he had to combine with the Royal Society (R.S.), (against his better judgment), in an appeal to the government for the £45.000 still needed to launch the expedition.  He himself (on behalf of the R.G.S), had already raised  about £40,000 in three years after the appeal was launched (£25,00 had been given by an individual R.G.S. member). The R.S supplied no monies.

Balfour, the First Lord of the Treasury eventually allocated the funds applied for, but an unbridgeable chasm between the Learned Societies, as to the aims, purposes and priorities of the expedition, became apparent all too soon.

The predominant schism related to the relative leadership roles of naval personal (R.G.S. supported) and the R.S. civilian scientists.  The R.G.S. views and Markham’s vision for the expedition, was that the venture was naval, both on land (geographic discoveries and scientific work) and on sea. The R.S. plan, in complete contrast, aimed to appoint a scientific director who would have absolute control of all research on land suggesting, this implied, that the naval scientist would be answerable to a civilian scientist director. The R.S. plans also implied that the navy would provide transport to and from Antarctica and, having offloaded the scientists, would leave for warmer climes.

The Navy of course would never agree to this plan; the suggestion that naval men should report to a civilian scientist was unthinkable.  It is hardly surprising that increasingly vituperative tensions and disputes over the aims and ambitions of the expedition developed. Clements became increasingly distrustful that certain members of the R.S. were scheming against him. He wrote that one man (presumably himself), if he was capable at all, was always more capable than a number of equally capable men working together – and there undoubtedly was an unpleasant confusion of ambitions in the Antarctic deliberations.  

Bust of Sir Clements in the Royal Geographical Society

It required a diplomat as well as an administrator to steer the negotiations. Sir Clements was not a diplomat –  he was a fighter; opposition roused his pugnacious spirit and he undoubtedly became outspokenly critical, intolerant of opposition and  increasingly unpopular. It was said that he felt he had the absolute right to a priority in the Antarctic. He appears to have made as many enemies as friends.  

But it actually took him some time to fully comprehend the dramatically different aims for the expedition between the two societies, but as discussions continued, he became increasingly aware that some members of the R.S. were uniting to scheme against his plans. He described several representatives of  the R.S. with uninhibited venom in his book ‘Antarctic Obsession’.  Professor Tizard, the Assistant Hydrographer and a member of the Royal Society Joint Executive Committee, was ‘a man of some ability, but narrow minded – a man who set himself up as an authority on Antarctica because he had been on the ‘Challenger’ expedition and seen the edge of the ice’. Professor Poulton of Oxford was described as an expert on butterflies, a dull and stupid man with a genius for blundering and a total ignorance on any subject addressed by the Antarctic Committee.  Lord Lister  the President was always courteous, never taking a decided line and caring nothing.  Professor Foster FRS, the Secretary of the R.S. was plausible and agreeable but an inveterate intriguer  who cared nothing for the expedition but only what he could get out of it for the R.S.

Many of these opinions would hardly have been discreet .  They may have even been publically expressed with predictable consequences. Planning became fractious and divisive. Markham was said to behave like a dictator – that he had an unrivalled capacity for misrepresentation, slander & vindictiveness..

Markham eventually managed to alter and weaken the R.S. plans  It should be said that R.G.S. members resented the idea that the man appointed as the Scientific Director, Professor John Walter Gregory was promoting himself as leader of the whole expedition through his allies in the R.S.     R.G.S. members were resistant to his predominantly scientific plan, one that subverted the original ambitions of geographic and magnetic observation (albeit with science making an important contribution), in an expedition led by this shadowy figure, who they had hardly heard of. Furthermore members were aware that the R.G.S. had conceived and considerably funded the expedition. The R.S, had not made a financial contribution.

When Markham finally succeeded in outwitting the R.S. – and causing much resentment and bitterness Professor Gregory resigned, The eventual instructions were in a form very similar to his original proposals of 1897.

The Discovery expedition lasted from 1901-1903. The newspaper ‘The Times’ praised the many achievements of the expedition. The expedition had an enthusiastic reception in England, but no government minister was present to welcome the returning heroes.  Significant  financial problem had again arisen. These related to freeing the ship ‘Discovery’ from  its suffocating icy embrace in Antarctica. Concern that this would prove impossible led to the need for two relief ships to be available to rescue the men, the equipment, the  scientific results, paintings, photographs. Neither the RGS or the RS had the funds for a rescue mission.

 The Government was furious- this was ‘a betrayal of trust’. It had always assumed that the societies would be in perfect control of their finances. But it had no choice. It had to take over the rescue operation Their naval men were trapped in the south. Sir Clements was forced to cede ownership of the relief vessel “Morning? to the government. He also fell out with his own council over the matter and resigned as president shortly after.

He died in 1916 in dramatic circumstances. He was reading in bed by candle light  – though his room actually had electricity. The candle slipped, the bed clothes caught fire. He was engulfed in flames and died.

Although Lady Markham received many expressions of condolence (and Admiral Markham’s eulogy), he had sadly  became so unpopular that negative reservations about his achievements were expressed remarkably early. Frank Debenham the first Director of the Scott Polar Institute called him ‘a dangerous old man’. The Scottish geographer Professor Rudmose Brown called him an ‘Old Fool and Humbug’. The accuracy of his many publications was questioned.

But these comments miss an important point. Sir Clements was a man  of vision. He could claim any number number of achievements:      

Firstly, his courageous expedition to Peru to smuggle quinine out of the country and transport the medication to India, saved thousands and thousands of lives.

The ‘Discovery’ expedition would never have happened without his single -minded determination, grit, and courage. He raised a good proportion of the cash virtually single handedly, the R.S. gave no cash. 

He developed the R.G.S. –the library, research, map facilities. The membership of the society increased significantly.

He wrote some fifty books – on historical figures and events, as well as on the Polar regions, plus  many papers and reports.

He was loving and loyal to his friends and family who appreciated him.

 His overriding aim was to serve his country and geography.


Herkomer– again!

17 Apr

I am delighted to say that this little book (76 pages) has, at last, appeared. I am pleased with it, though some of the illustrations could perhaps have been a little larger.

As I have mentioned I wrote it simply to draw attention to this versatile, incredibly talented man who, although a nationalised Englishman and living in England for over fifty years, became ostracised during the lead-up to the first World War primarily because of his lingering loyalty to Germany, the country of his birth. He created resentment amongst his fellow Royal Academicians and rejection by the public. He died just before the war.

He achieved some positive reassessment during the second part of the 1900s. and he is admired and valued by a select few. But generally he is forgotten, and this is a loss.

I hope this little work will rekindle interest.

On a different subject the organisers of the Antarctic SouthPole-sium are hoping to hold their fifth conference in San Francisco 22-24 June this year. the details are on

It is always a good meeting


Piece on Hubert von Herkomer

30 Mar

I am delighted to say this piece on Herkomer has just about finished its prolonged journey through the publishers– mostly covid problems

I am told it has reached the Austin Macauley website

Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1849-1914 ISBN 9781398401884

I became interested in Herkomer through my research on Dr Edward Wilson.

Wilson lived in Bushey Hertfordshire and I went there to learn more about him. I went to Bushey Museum only to find they were not much interested in my subject but VERY interested in their hero Herkomer, who had lived in Bushey for forty years. Here he had started an art school and a theatre, whilst meanwhile becoming one of the best known artist of the Victorian/Edwardian period- he painted Queen Victoria an her death bed—- apparently Edward VII did not like death masks.

I was fascinated to understand why I had never heard of him and decided to research his life. I found that from a humble beginning he rose to fame and riches and then fell completely from public interest. This little piece is the result of my researches.


11 Mar

I have not written a blog for some months, but I have not been idle. I have made some presentations both on Zoom and in person, but my main focus, during lockdown, has been writing.

I have completed an account of the life of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, the Bavarian born Victorian/ Edwardian artist who became a British national. Herkomer was a multi talented man who achieved such artistic heights in Great Britain, that he was commissioned by Edward VII, to paint Queen Victoria on her death bed – but who, through his persistent loyalty to his country of origin (as well as to Great Britain his adopted country), fell into personal and artistic disfavour and is now virtually forgotten.

I am also preparing, with co-author John Dudeney, a book on the life of Sir Clements Markham, who, as a young man, not only smuggled quinine (in the bark of the cinchona tree), out of Peru and transported it to India where it grew successfully, thus saving the lives of thousands and thousands of people, but also, as President of the Royal Geographical Society masterminded the ‘Discovery’ expedition. ‘Discovery’ was the first expedition ever, to penetrate significantly into the Antarctic. This is a big venture. We are lucky enough to have the wholehearted support of the Markham family and so access to private papers.

But the big news is the location of ‘Endurance’. I was doubtful if this would ever be achieved because of the problems of getting through the ice in the Weddell Sea. However the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust have supported the team that has successfully cleared through the ice (less dense this year) and discovered ‘Endurance’ at 10,000 feet. They were helped by the remarkable detailed records of ‘Endurance’s’ skipper Frank Worsley. We will be hearing much more.

Sir George Nares

14 Nov

I understand some of circulated blogs on Sir George had one image of ‘Manhauling’ repeated twice

I knew I had made this mistake but thought that I had corrected it

The image that should have been inserted was ‘Further Manhauling’-which I think is a very nice image

If you look at the blog on my website you will find it


11 Nov

George Nares was withdrawn from the  ‘Challenger Expedition’  to take charge of an important Arctic expedition, theBritish Arctic Expedition, because of his previous experience in the Arctic -he had been on one of the searches for Sir John Franklin from 1852- 54, in addition he had much surveying experience.

The British Arctic Expedition aimed to reach the North Pole.

There were two ships, the Alert, captained by Sir George and the Discovery. captained by Henry Stephenson.  Albert Markham (Clements Markham’s cousin) was  second-in-command on Alert.

Sir George’s brief was to advance along the west coast of Greenland via Smith Sound (see map). From here, it was believed, there would be open water as far as the North Pole, over which the expedition would sail. In essence Nares was to get as close as possible to the North Pole and to explore whatever coasts the travelling parties could reach.

After the ships’ departure in May 1875, progress was slow. The Arctic Circle was crossed on the 4th July followed by slow progress up the west coast of Greenland towards Smith Sound. The entry to Smith Sound was obstructed by thick masses of ice. Nares had to wait patiently for lanes to open before progressing, often at less than a mile per day. The conditions were awful but Nares was the first to take his ships all the way north to the Lincoln Sea. (see map)

The assumption that this would then open to an ice-free region that surrounded the pole was ABSOLUTELY wrong – Nares found that a wasteland of ice obstructed any further progress  – unfortunately  the polar sea was a myth. The ships progressed north with caution, sometimes waiting for lanes to open up, sometimes boring through ice floes, until they reached Lady Franklin Bay (see map), at 81°4’N. Here there was a good supply of fresh meat (musk). Fresh meat was thought to be helpful in the fight against scurvy because of its vitamin C content (in fact it contains virtually none) and here Nares decided that Discovery  should set up winter quarters. Discovery would act as a secondary base should some disaster befall Alert.

Alert continued  her northward progress around the tip of Grant Land (the northern part of  Ellesmere Island) and in early September 1875 Nares reached 82°24’N. Fifteen days later he  reached 82°27’N, and made his base in a bay safe enough to over-winter.




From the north of Ellesmere Island teams were sent out to explore the region and collect as much scientific data as possible. Markham led one of these sorties.  But the men were totally unprepared for the dreadful conditions they encountered – they were issued with sealskin suits and wool Guernsey jackets these provided totally inadequate protection, the suits got soaked and then iced up- it is easy to imagine the horrors of these conditions. Markham turned back after only four days.   A second sortie was attempted. This time the  team had to battle with big ice ridges – they had to unload all the items from the sledge, carry them over the ridges and then repack the sledges. Markham decided to halt the advance in early October at 83°20’ N. This was the expedition’s furthest northern depot. No more expeditions were attempted before the winter.


The achievements of the 1875 expedition were: the British flag had been taken further north than had previously been reached, and unknown regions had been explored and charted.

Both Nares and Markham were concerned for the welfare of their men. The winter months passed surprisingly smoothly considering the conditions. Entertainment was provided: an ice rink, firework displays, boxing matches, and most importantly, evening classes. ‘The Royal Arctic Theatre’ featured the officers’ attempts to entertain the crew.

The sun appeared after 142 days and the early part of 1876 was spent continuing to collet data and specimens and in charting Ellesmere Island.

In April 1876, Albert Markham and Lieutenant Alfred Parr led a Pole Party of fifteen men, pulling two sledges, boats and three support sledges. Leaving their base at 82°27’N the Markham party initially  travelled with another group led by a Lieutenant Aldridge, from whom they separated after two weeks. The Markham party battled again through the most atrocious conditions – deep snow and more large hummocks (mounds), through which they had to cut a path with shovels and pick axes Some days they covered seven miles, some days less and on other days they were completely incapacitated by storms. Their clothes froze solid, their sleeping bags became encrusted in ice from their breathing and their sweat and increased in weight.  They were exhausted, but what would finally incapacitate them was the onset of scurvy, the dread of all long expeditions and voyages.

It is now known that scurvy is due to a deficiency of vitamin C. However the concept of vitamins had not been considered in the 1870s, although it was known from the seminal work of James Lind in the 1740s, that a mixture of oranges and lemons resulted in a rapid improvement in symptoms. Unfortunately, in 1870, the Navy was issuing lime juice to its personnel. The juice, sourced in the West Indies and transported across the Atlantic in big vats, had considerably less antiscorbutic qualities than lemon although this was unknown at the time. In addition doubts had been raised  generally about its efficiency, on one expedition lime juice (almost certainly ineffective secondary to its transport) had been doled out daily and the man still developed scurvy.  In any event little lime juice was taken on this sortie.

Markham seems to have taken time to realize that the problem was scurvy – he knew that they had eaten meat, which was thought to be helpful against the disease. He thought his men were simply suffering from swollen knees and ankles due to their exertions (he clearly did not think of examining their gums), but as progress became slower and slower and more men became incapacitated, the diagnosis became obvious. The virtual absence of lime juice in this sortie was to be bitterly criticized in the subsequent enquiry. Eventually the sick men had to be hauled on sledges by their already weakened companions.

                       FURTHER MANHAULING

With what seems in retrospect to be unbelievable determination, Markham continued north until he reached 83° 20’N. in May 1876(see image below). This region was  over 400 miles from the Pole, the furthest north that had been achieved.

By this time only a few men were still able to function adequately and he had to turn back. Even then his courage did not desert him and he arranged a flag raising ceremony (and further observations).


Painted by Richard Brydges Beachey

The return journey was yet another a battle to survive, the pack ice was melting, it was important to get to firm land before being cut off on ice floes (and having to man the boats). The team deteriorated to an extent that, forty miles from base, there were only two officers and two men fit enough to work, a potentially disastrous situation. Here Lieutenant Alfred Parr, Markham’s second in command, showed his sterling qualities. He volunteered to make a solo sortie to get help. This risky, brave journey – he did not stop for twenty four hours – brought rescue teams to Markham’s desolate group. There was one death. It is said that when they reached Alert, of more than fifty men on board, only three men could actually walk.

Nares decided to return to England a year earlier than planned. His two ships reached Portsmouth in November 1876. He could claim that the expedition had explored an area that was previously unknown, they had reached a record northern latitude, had mapped a considerable portion of the north Greenland coast and collected  much significant scientific data.

The reception in England was mixed. Predictably questions and criticism soon surfaced. Although Queen Victoria applauded the expedition’s achievements and Nares was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and Markham was given a gold watch by the Society, the press, public opinion, armchair experts were critical. It was said that the expedition had failed in its goal of reaching the Pole, (true, but for very good reasons) and there had been much illness due to scurvy, and a death. An official inquiry blamed Nares for failing to carry out orders correctly   The expedition was (unbelievably), dubbed ‘The Polar Failure’.  Markham was blamed for not taking a sufficiency of lime juice for his crew on his north pole sortie – although, as mentioned above, it is doubtful even if the lime juice had been issued, this would have improved the outcome to any significant extent.

Nares was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1876, He was awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1877 and the Gold medal from the Société de Géographie in 1879. He was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1876.

He continued in command of Alert, initially surveying the Strait of Magellan. From 1879 to 1896 was employed in the Harbour Department of the Board of Trade. He retired from the Royal Navy in 1886. He was promoted on the retired list twice, firstly in 1887 to rear-admiral, and secondly in 1892 to vice-admiral.

He died in 1915 in  England, in Kingston Upon Thames  


The Challenger Expedition; 1872-1876

12 Sep

George Nares (by now Vice Admiral ), was chosen as commander of the Challenger Expedition because of his long experience of navigation and his scientific approach to surveying and exploration. His ship’s complement was two hundred – his officers were all naval surveyors, in addition, there was a team of civilian scientists, led by Charles Wyville[i] Thomson, the Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist..

Nares was not with Challenger for her entire tour –  he ceased his command in November 1874, when thevesselreached Hong Kong, having received orders to leave his ship in order to take command of a similar, but more arduous expedition – The British Arctic Expedition – an expedition that attempted to reach the North Pole.  Nares’ successor as Captain on Challenger was Frank Tourle Thomson.

His successful leadership was due to his wide experience in navigation and his calm and sure approach  – potential fallouts between scientists and naval officers were avoided.  Charles Wyville Thomson as chief scientist, had control of the scientific programme, but Nares was in overall command, setting what was possible with regard to scientific operations, whilst  always having due regard for the  safety and security of the ship and its personnel.  This was a model that was not always followed– when Sir Clements Markham organized the Discovery Expedition in the late 1900s; there was a vitriolic conflict between the scientists of the Royal Society and representatives of the Royal Geographic Society as to who should be in command. The Royal Society wanted to be in total control, a proposal vehemently  opposed  by the Royal Geographic Society which would never allow naval personnel to be directed by scientists.

Many people have never heard of the Challenger Expedition but modern oceanography undoubtedly began here. Until this expedition, knowledge of the world was limited to its coastlines and shallow depths.  Oceans were thought to be deep in parts, but almost nothing was known of the submarine landscapes or submarine life. Challenger was the first ship ever that was organized specifically to gather information on ocean temperatures, sea water chemistry, currents, marine life, and the geology of the seabed.  Apart from Charles Wyville Thompson, the famous naturalist John Murray, the father of modern oceanography, was on board. Discoveries were made that revolutionized oceanography.(When Challenger was safely back in England  John Murray, wrote that the expedition was “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and 16th Centuries”), 

                       The crew of Challenger

 Challenger was probably the first official expedition to carry a

                      photographer as well as an artist

With Nares in command, Challenger set sail on  Saturday 7 December 1872. The voyage involved numerous port stops – too many to list, but in summary Nares first headed for Lisbon and the Canary Islands then crossed the Atlantic arriving at the Virgin Islands in February 1873. He made a tour of islands  (Bermuda, The Azores), before arriving in South America Bahia (now Salvador), in September 1873

                         MAP OF VOYAGE – Nares left in 1874

In December 1873 he set a S/E track, visiting Tristan da Cunha before reaching the Cape of Good Hope. He visited the Kerguelen Islands and from there sailed directly south crossing the 60° S, parallel (i.e. approaching the Antarctic) and by 1874, Challenger was actually in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle (66°S),- see map –  here the scenery changed dramatically – it was was immensely new and exciting. Documents from this time show the interest and enthusiasm shown by the crew as they marveled at pack ice, ice bergs, whales and strange varieties of birds.

Nares did not explore Antarctica.  He turned N/E  and after a  very rough crossing of the Southern Ocean reached Australia, calling at Melbourne and Sydney in March 1874. This was followed in June by a visit to New Zealand.  He sailed between the North and South Islands and then, in the Pacific Ocean, he sailed north to Fiji and Tonga along longitude 180° where surveying continued in July and August. From September till November Challenger sailed due west, passing above the tip of Queensland and calling at New Guinea and the Philippines before reaching Hong Kong in November 1874.

The voyage resulted eventually in the haul of nearly 5,000 specimens, many from the time of Nares captaincy.   The yield demonstrated, for the first time, the richness of marine life on the sea bed:  “Stations” were made (a difficult navigation procedure, controlled by the captain, during which the ship had to be to be stationary for hours, so as to obtain specimens at known intervals from the sea- bed  to the sea surface).  Findings from the thousands of specimens these stations’ yielded provided  completely new information about the oceans when they were analyzed in the ship’s on-board laboratory, for example: depth of the ocean, marine chemistry, creatures of the deep – sea snails from the Azores; squid from waters around Japan, shark teeth, crabs, sea pigs, snakes, eels). Air tight bottles, and little boxes were used  to keep specimens of butterflies and insects, mosses and plants, Meteorological records were regularly made, the surface current was measured.

By the end of the tour (and two years after Nares had left Challenger ), fifty volumes (nearly three thousand pages), were needed to record the scientific findings. the photographs (including images of native people) and the paintings. These were records that Nares had facilitated and contributed to, so ably.

The measure of Nares successful leadership was recognized. His wide experience of difficult and varied conditions made him the preferred commander to lead the British Arctic Expedition an expedition that aimed to reach the Arctic Pole and he was recalled to fulfill this important role.

To be continued by telling the story of this venture.

[1] Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, (1830 –1882)  Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist. Knighted for his work on the Challenge


Sir George Nares

23 Aug

There has been a pause in my account of Sir George’s life because I have embarked on a biography of Sir Clements Markham. I am submitting 3 draft chapters to a publisher and hope they will be accepted

Normal service will be resumed soon!