Tag Archives: Debenham

THE SCOTT POLAR RESEARCH INSTITUTE —- PART 1

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