Tag Archives: Debenham


18 Jul

From its official beginning in 1934, the Institute’s aim has been to increase understanding of the polar regions through research and publication and to educate new generations of polar researchers; to make its collections accessible to the public and to project the history and significance of the polar regions to a wide audience.

As was recorded in the first section of this blog, in 1934 the Institute’s income was small – its activities depended heavily on Professor Frank Debenham, with one assistant, a Research Fellow and volunteer helpers.
The essential importance of both Polar Regions was recognized. In the Arctic military posts, weather and radar stations and airfields were already built and the possibilities and needs for transport, trade and mining (advocated strongly to the government by William Speirs Bruce as late as the 1920s – advice that was ignored), were apparent. In the Antarctic conflicting claims over control occupied political minds – Britain had a considerable interest -Edward Bransfield sighted, roughly mapped and claimed the Northern part of the Peninsula, in 1820 Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton had laid claim to parts of East Antarctica – the Australian explorer, Douglas Mawson had charted and claimed hundreds of miles of previously unmapped Antarctic coast line for the British Empire in his expeditions of 1914. Later, in 1936 Mawson led the British, Australian and New Zealand expedition the Banzare expedition which made claims over the Antarctic coastline closest to Australia, from 45°E to 160°E (later becoming the Australian Antarctic Territory). But no permanent bases had been established on the continent.
The Institute was occupied by the Admiralty during the war years 1939-1945. Its founding Director, Professor Debenham, was against the facility being occupied and stayed away from the Institute throughout the war and the Institute was transmuted to become became a sub-centre for Naval Intelligence, led from 1937 by James Wordie, Chair of the Committee of Management. Wordie advised an Interdepartmental Committee on all matters of policy and the Institute became a centre for research into cold weather warfare, clothing and equipment and produced geographical handbooks for the Admiralty – its library and map facilities ware enlarged.

In these war years, plans with far reaching implications for Antarctica were hatched by the British Government in which the Institute played a key role. The strategic necessity for a British presence on the continent was obvious – Argentina and Chile were making claims and in 1939 the United States established the US Antarctic Services expedition to the continent led by Admiral Richard Byrd, This was intended to be a permanent occupation. In the Institute, Wordie and Neil Mackintosh (both experienced polar experts and explorers), played a key role in an important venture, Operation Tabarin. The official description of the operation was that Tabarin was monitoring Axis surface ships and submarines and ‘looking for raider hideouts’ that would threaten Allied shipping. Its actual role however was to establish bases from which to administer the British Antarctic claim and so strengthen her hold to the area known as the Falkland Islands Dependencies (FID). The FID had been established through “Letters Patent” in 1908 (as amended in 1917) covering an area containing the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetlands, the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia and Graham Land.

Operation Tabarin was the start of permanent occupation of Antarctica by Britain, it was always a civilian operation whose twin tasks were to preserve the claim and to carry out scientific research. Competing claims and the threat of cold war confrontation led, in the late 1950s, to search for effective arrangements for governance of the continent. This led in 1959 to the outstandingly successful Antarctic Treaty which was ratified in 1961. This reserved the Continent for peace and science, fostered international collaboration, banned nuclear testing or dumping and placed existing territorial claims to one side, whilst requiring that the signatories agree to make no further territorial claims. From the original 12 signatories there are now 29 full consultative parties to the Treaty whilst another 25 nations have acceded to it, but do not play a formal role in the governance of the continent. There are over 70 separate stations, some in permanent operation and the rest in operation only during the summer season.

Professor Debenham retired in 1946. He was succeeded by the Reverend Launcelot Fleming, and, in 1949 by Dr. Colin Bertram. The first full-time Director, Dr. Gordon Robin, was appointed in 1958. As the Institute developed post war it attracted senior ‘scholars’ from overseas and quickly became a recognised international centre for research and reference. It was enlarged to accommodate these burgeoning requirements on several occasions: in 1946 the rent from the Admiralty lease and a small grant from the Treasury allowed for extensions of offices, laboratories and the provision of a lecture theatre. In 1960, the Ford Foundation made a generous donation of nearly $300,000, a sum that allowed for further extension of the archives and map collection and a picture library. In the 1990s the Shackleton Library, named for Sir Ernest Shackleton and his son Sir Edward (Later Lord) Shackleton was built. It included a major extension of the archives and map collection plus a picture library and was opened by the Honourable Alexandra Shackleton, Edward Shackleton’s daughter. This development won one of the four awards given by the Royal Institute of British Architecture to the Easter Region.
In 2010, the centenary of Terra Nova, the Polar Museum was refurbished and reopened in June by the
Earl and Countess of Wessex and the museum was shortlisted for the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year
Prize in 2011.
Awards kept coming! In 2014, the centenary of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the Heritage Lottery Fund, through its Collecting Cultures Programme, awarded £50,000 to the Institute for its By Endurance We Conquer Shackleton Project. The aim of the project was to allow for the four sections – museum, archive, library and picture library to combine in both purchasing Shackleton memorabilia and to promote Shackleton even more widely to the public.
So what of the Institute’s activities now? The first thing to say is that it is an exciting place to visit.
There is always a buzz when I go there. The Institute is a favorite venue for schools as well as
national and international visitors. Since 1957, it has been part of Cambridge University’s Teaching
and Research Programme and is a sub-department of the Department of Geography. The University Grants Committee provides its main financial support.
The museum is on the ground floor. It is an Aladdin’s cave of exhibits: there is a section on the
Antarctic in addition to a collection of indigenous objects from the Arctic regions. There are polar oil
paintings, watercolours and sketches, and more watercolours by Dr. Edward Wilson (of the Discovery
and Terra Nova expeditions), on British birds. There is a flag collection, models of famous polar ships, a scrimshaw collection and examples of Inuit art – enough to keep the enthusiast happy for hours as well as to interest the most casual of visitors. The library claims to house the world’s most comprehensive polar collection. Its archive is named the Thomas H Manning Archive (after the British-Canadian Arctic explorer who, amongst other sorties, led the British Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1936-1941). In the archive are hundreds of well –catalogued manuscripts relating to all aspects of research, explorers and exploration. Here researchers from all over the world, including myself, can spend many hours unraveling the arcane details of their chosen subjects and one of the pleasures of such a visit is in meeting with this diverse group. There is also a Picture Library which houses a vast array of Arctic and Antarctic photographs.
Research plays a pivotal contribution in the Institute which states that its projects, often interdisciplinary, cover aspects of the environmental sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities that are of relevance to the Arctic and Antarctica. The Institute states that ‘it has taken advantage of its role within the University of Cambridge to establish itself as an academic centre where problems of polar research can be studied, free from the demands of expedition administration, of governmental decision making, or of economic pressures’ and that this is this way, it believes, it can contribute most effectively. The list of subjects studied is daunting, for example: the Glacimarine Environments Group (dynamics of ice-sheets and delivery of sediment to the marine environment) The Polar Landscape and Remote Sensing Group (processes which modify the polar and sub-polar environments), Polar Social Science and Humanities Group (covering the anthropology, history and art of the Arctic).
One fascinating recent study, led by Professor Julian Dowdeswell, the Institute Director, investigated the patterns of wave-like ridges on the ocean floor to the east of the Antarctic Peninsula. These ridges are about 1.5 met res high and 20 metres wide, and were formed roughly 12,000 years ago (the last glacial maximum)! An autonomous underwater vehicle ‘lying’ 60 metres (197 feet) above the ocean floor recorded these wave- like ridges, which were produced when grounded ice sheets (the buttresses that stop ice flowing from inland) began to float free and these dropped into the sea-floor sediment – their shapes being influenced by the movements of the tides.
Changes in the positioning of the ridges indicated shrinkage in the grounded ice sheets by as much as 50 metres (more than 160 feet) a day. Importantly, this shrinkage ( from 12,000 years ago), is greater than has been measured in recent years, i.e. we now know that the ice is capable of retreating at speeds far higher than what we see today and the fear is that should climate change continue to weaken the ice- shelves in the next few decades, we could see similar rates of retreat. This would, of course have profound implications for global sea-level rise.
The Polar Record began life in 1930 as the Institute’s learned journal. It is published twice yearly and is essential reading for polar enthusiasts — each edition contains a review of all the major events in the polar regions during the previous six months and includes peer reviewed and authoritative articles on any subject of topical Polar interest. It is the journal that promotes the Institute to a wide international audience.
All in all, Professor Debenham would feel that the Institute lives up to all his far sighted original ambitions and aims.

1) Glacial Maximum refers to the peak of an ice age when the geographical extent of the ice sheet is at its maximum. Dowdswell’s result shows that the Antarctic Ice cap spread far out over what is now the Weddell Sea with the ice, extending right down to what is now the sea bed. As the ice started to retreat the ice front moved poleward creating the steps seen on the sea bed.


16 Jun

This year (2020), The Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge will celebrate its centenary. The Institute was planned as a national memorial to Robert Falcon Scott and his team, who died on their ill -fated return journey from the South Pole in 1912 The University approved the establishment of the Institute in 1920

The institute was Frank Debenham’s inspiration and any account of its development must acknowledge and be impressed by the dogged persistence, patience, determination in the face of setbacks, in addition to the sheer volume of work taken on, shown by him and his team

Frank Debenham was a geologist on the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition. He wrote that the idea (which he originally called ‘A Polar Centre’), came to him in 1912, when he and geologist Raymond Priestley were surveying around Shackleton’s old hut on the slopes of Mount Erebus. Their plan was to augment the survey that had been made on Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ expedition of 1909 and, as they worked, they mused on the whereabouts of the original notes and on the need for a centre for field records and details of expeditions.
Debenham on the Terra Nova Expedition

In 1913, when the members of the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition started to prepare their reports, they had, as anticipated, difficulty in locating details of some previous expeditions – some reports had not been published and could not be found – these had probably been filed at home by their writers, or simply given away to friends. The necessity for a specialized centre was clear.

Plans were delayed by the First World War, but the idea persisted, and in 1919 a memorandum was prepared and presented to Sir Arthur Shipley, the Master of Christ’s College containing the suggestion that any records that could be located should be preserved. A new building was being planned for the Department of Geography and it was hoped that the proposal for a specialized centre could be linked to this development – the geography department approved of the suggestion acknowledging that it could neither undertake such a specialized study of technical and literary records as was envisaged, nor assess future submissions for research and exploration effectively.

Sir Arthur sent the proposal to Sir William Soulsby, the Honorary Secretary of the Captain Scott Memorial Mansion House Fund – an appeal fund for the dependents of Scott and his four companions. A total of £76,000 had been raised and of this sum £10,000 had been set aside as a ‘ Polar Research Fund’. Sir William put ‘the interesting statement’ before the Trustees of the Polar Research Fund and in May 1920 a grant of £6,000 was given to establish a polar research institute at Cambridge. The award was to finance a suitable wing or annex in a part of the larger building devoted to Geography… In the meantime temporary accommodation was to be provided.

In this way money for a wing was guaranteed (though dependent on the main building being erected). No maintenance fund was allocated. But with this support came confidence that the plans would succeed.

The Institute started life in an attic room (the attic period), in the Sedgwick Museum of Geology, where Frank Debenham was based as Emeritus Professor of Geography. Here equipment and records started to be collected – many from Scott’s expeditions. The attic quickly became the meeting place for the many people who were interested in the aims of the Institute – a place where they could meet with other enthusiasts. It was a group that had experts on virtually any polar matter and it quickly became the nexus to which requests for information could be sent – Antarctica was not the only area of interest, many expeditions, large and small, had been to the Arctic. The Institute aimed to provide information about the Polar Regions, to create a library for Polar books, diaries, logs etc. to provide information to anyone interested in the Polar regions and, importantly, to liaise with other centres – for example Scandinavia, North America, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.

Money was a problem. The grant that had been given by the Scott Memorial Fund was used up by 1925 and the need for a permanent, larger base remained. Debenham wrote to Sir William Soulsby suggesting that the £6000 promised, should be paid to the University, and that one-quarter of it should be allowed as capital for maintenance. An appeal to the Trustees resulted in The Lord Mayor handing over the balance of the whole trust fund (nearly £12,000) to the University of Cambridge for the foundation and maintenance of the Polar Research Institute. £6,000 was set aside as a building fund, which was to be built within ten years – the dream of 1912 became a practical certainty and on 9 May 1925, ‘the University of Cambridge gratefully accepted the generous offer of the Trustees of the Scott Memorial Fund to present to the University a sum of money for the erection, endowment and maintenance of a Captain Scott Polar Research Institute’. A Committee of Management was appointed. Frank Debenham was on the committee.. The Institute began its work on an income of £300 a year.

It could not have survived without voluntary help: correspondence, the collecting/ sorting of equipment and the organization of the library, were all done by volunteers. Frank Debenham writes that informal parties helped increase people’s interest in the Institute and that the social life of the Institute was never a problem, though finances were a persistent anxiety. He reported that the Institute’s original concepts were followed when its first report, on the geological and topographical sections of the results of The Quest expedition (1921-22), was produced.

The first meeting of the Committee of Management took place on January 1926, The Inauguration Ceremony was in May – an exhibition in Sedgwick House, followed by a dinner given by the Vice-Chancellor in Downing College. It was a grand affair, amongst others attending were Sir T. W. Edgeworth David (who had been part of Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition and who had reached the South Magnetic Pole) and Scott’s widow Kathleen (Mrs. Hilton Young). Kathleen’s husband, Commander Hilton Young, proposed the toast. The inaugural address by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen the Norwegian explorer, scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was cancelled because a coal strike prevented him getting to the meeting. 

In 1927 the Institute moved from the attic in the Sedgwick Museum to Lensfield Road in a premises that had been bought by the University. Initially the building was shared with the School of Architecture, but in 1929 the School moved and the whole house belonged to the Institute.

The Institute remained at Lensfield Road for seven years. Frank Debenham wrote admiringly of the panelling and carvings which he thought blended well with the portraits and with Edward Wilson’s water colours. The collection increased rapidly – souvenirs and relics increasing more quickly than polar equipment.
But revenue was still barely meeting expenditure (Debenham wrote that he and other volunteers regularly did any domestic chores needed). Capital was not being added to and the big expense ahead, the erection and equipment of the promised Memorial building loomed.

This emergency was averted when Sir Edward and Lady Hilton Young (Lady Scott) appealed to The Trustees of the Pilgrim Trust and in 1931 a gift of £4 000 was approved. This was followed by a further gift of £2,000 from the Trustees of the British Museum for a publication fund. Planning for the new building began. The Grade II Listed Building was to be occupied in 1934.
The first number of The Polar Record, appeared in January 1931.This reviewed all the major events in the polar regions during the previous six months and included authoritative articles on any subjects of topical interest. The Record continues its successful publications.

The Institute was opened by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stanley Baldwin. The architect was Sir Herbert Baker (who had designed some of New Delhi’s government buildings). Above the main door was a bust of Capt. Scott, sculpted by Kathleen Scott (Lady Hilton Young). On the frieze above were the words QUAESIVIT ARCANA POLI VIDET DEI, – He sought the secret of the pole but found the hidden face of God.

In front of the building was a statue also by Kathleen Scott in memory of the whole the polar party. It depicts a youth standing with head thrown back (the model was the younger brother of Lawrence of Arabia who became a Professor of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge).On the pediment is written LUX PERPETUA LUCEAT EIS, May eternal light shine upon them.

The entrance hall boasted two high domes, painted by Macdonald Gill with maps of the two polar regions embellished with famous ships and names of noted past explorers.

Entrance Hall

There were three floors. The ground floor contained collections of polar equipment (sledges, dog-harness, polar clothing, kayaks etc). The first floor held the library of polar books and maps and in the attic were paintings, including Edward Wilson’s water colours, also the collection of photographs and illustrations of past expeditions were stored here. There were small rooms for the director, staff and research students.

The building was formally opened on November 16, 1934

Frank Debenham OBE

To be continued