Tag Archives: Class prejudice early 1900s

CAPTAIN SCOTT’S MEN

3 May

I have been asked to make a presentation to the British Residents Association of Switzerland next week. The subject chosen, is a review and comparison of the contributions of Edgar Evans and Edward Wilson on Scott’s expeditions.

 

It is an interesting subject. The most fascinating aspect is the way the two men were remembered after their deaths on the return from the Pole in 1912.

 

They were an ill-assorted duo, coming from very different classes of society: –Wilson’s grandfather was High Sheriff of Pembrokeshire, his father a doctor, a respected practitioner in Cheltenham. Edgar Evans’ grandfather was a quarry man and his father served in the Merchant Navy. However, the two came into close proximity in the final assault on the Pole and shared a respect and admiration for Scott.

 

In both expeditions the two earned Scott’s esteem and affection individually. In the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904, they were each on three-man expeditions with Scott into the interior of Antarctica. Wilson was with Scott and Shackleton on the Southern Journey from 3 November 1902. Scott already trusted him (Wilson was his choice to accompany him on the attempt to get close to the Pole), but he grew to rely on the doctor’s calm good sense and intelligence. They became friends and confidants on this expedition. Edgar was with Scott and Stoker Lashly on the Western expedition in October 1903. The three advanced over the plateau, together for three weeks in the closest proximity. Scott admired them both, their practical ingenuity and their imperturbability.

 

Both Wilson and Scott returned to England as heroes in 1904. Everyone wanted to meet the men who had actually been to and seen, the magical mysteries of Antarctica

 

How different in 1913. When the news of the British parties’ party demise was telegraphed to England, Wilson remained a hero. Poor Edgar however became the fall guy in some circles for the disaster.

 

Although soon after his death on February17 1912, his companions said that they thought that Edgar had weakened even before he reached the Pole, but his downward path was accelerated by frostbitten fingers and falls (which could have caused brain damage), a physical breakdown was not favoured by the media. Mental causes was the preferred explanation

 

In the early 1900s self -control epitome of masculinity. Edgar (confused and ill) had not been in control of his actions. He had not faced death like a gentleman.

 

Some examples of writing relating to Edgar’s death:

‘Ah, well for him he died, nor ever knew        

How his o’er wearied, stumbling forward drew

Death’s snare about his friends to hold them fast’ i.e. he had caused the deaths of the group

‘Like English Gentlemen’ was a book for children which explains how when Edgar weakened, his companions ‘like English Gentlemen’ never thought of leaving him but stayed with him to the end. Oates, by contrast, took control of his own death by crawling out of the tent, as a gentleman should.

Cigarette cards were printed showing all the Antarctic heroes except Edgar Evans. This outrageous omission must have been terrible for his children.

An ‘Eminent Medical Specialist’, wrote that the breakdown was due to lack of an education, which meant that Edgar could not stand the monotony of the return. ‘

St Katherine’s Press in 1913, made a booklet of the dead heroes, but omitted Edgar entirely

In 1930 it was written that ‘Science no place for those who have only done manual labour. Presumably Edgar would not be able to comprehend what they actually HAD achieved.

 

Edgar was the victim of remarkable class prejudice; it took years for a proper understanding of his deterioration was reached.

 

I think times have changed and will be interested in the views of the British Residents Association.