Tag Archives: Polar Medal


12 Oct

It is all to easy to forget the ‘other’ man who contributed to the success of the expeditions. On the ‘Scotia’ expedition Captain Robertson was pivotal to its success.

He was one man with whom Bruce never fell out; Bruce admired the Captain’s superb ice navigation skills and his ‘miraculous’ ability to anticipate and avoid the numerous potential emergencies that ‘Scotia’ encountered on her exploration to the South in 1903.
Thomas Robertson was born in Peterhead in 1855. His father and both his grandfathers were whaling captains, and from childhood he had a close association with the sea. His apprenticeship was served on a Peterhead merchant vessel trading with Australia and China but, on his return to England he decided to join the whaling and sealing industry. In this work he went to the Arctic, first as Mate on the ‘Jan Mayen’ of Dundee and then, at the age of twenty-four, as Master of the ‘Polar Star’, in which role he made voyages to the seal and fishery grounds off East Greenland and the Davis Straits. These voyages gave valuable experience; the ships were sail driven – this was before steam was in general use on whaling ships- and the knowledge he gained in handling these sailing vessels through the iceberg- laden north, was an invaluable asset when later he commanded ships with steam auxiliary power.

Bruce first encountered Robertson on the Dundee Whaling Expedition to the Antarctic of 1892-1893 when he (Bruce), sailed as Surgeon/Naturalist on ‘Balaena’, one of the five whalers going South in search of Right Whales. Robertson was Captain of one of the smaller ships, the ‘Active’. Bruce was accompanied on the expedition by his friend and fellow student Burn Murdoch. When Burn Murdoch wrote a book, ‘From Edinburgh to the Antarctic’, criticising the captain for the few opportunities allowed for scientific work on the expedition, Robertson wrote a defence. He said that it was difficult for the ‘passengers’ to be aware of the petty tyrannies imposed on a whaling captain.

The two men met again in the summer of 1897. Bruce was a scientist on the Franz Josef expedition when Captain Robertson, now Captain of ‘Balaena’ and on a whaling sortie, visited the archipelago. The meeting led to Robertson being later appointed as Captain of the ‘Scotia’ in 1902 when his skill in avoiding getting trapped in the Polar ice was pivotal. His plan to avoid the ice that swept up from the southeast of the Weddell Sea by sailing above it, became a benchmark for later expeditions. His contribution to the success of the ‘Scotia’ expedition was readily acknowledged by Bruce.

Robertson was naturally ambitious to further his career. At this time Shackleton was Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Robertson wrote to him in October 1904:
Lieutenant Shackleton RNR
Dear Sir
As I was in command of the ship of the Scottish Antarctic expedition I would esteem it as a great honour if your society would make one a fellow. I did some work in the Antarctic some years ago and I think that an FRGS would help one in getting charge of some expedition where I would have a chance of doing some geographical work in the future.
Trusting you will lay my request before your council I am yours faithfully Thomas Robertson.

The council approved Robertson’s Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and at their meeting on Thursday 20th October 1904, the council awarded the society’s silver medal to Captain Robertson. Bruce was awarded the Gold Medal.

Following the Antarctic expedition it was planned that ‘Scotia’ would see further use by the Universities of Scotland as a research vessel: however it became necessary to sell her, to recoup some of the expedition costs and she and Robertson were reunited as Robertson sailed her as a sealer and whaler off the Greenland coast. On the 15th February 1913 she was requisitioned, (still under Robertson’s command,) by the Board of Trade for use as a weathership on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in order to give iceberg warnings to shipping; for this a Marconi wireless was fitted so allowing communications with stations on the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland.

When members of Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ expedition were awarded the Polar Medal, Bruce submitted a request for the crew of ‘Scotia’ to be awarded the award. This was refused by Edward VII. Bruce reapplied in 1913 but the request was refused again by George V. Bruce wrote to Charles Price, Edinburgh MP and Bruce supporter, in August 1917, that ‘Robertson was dying without his well won white ribbon! The Mate is dead! The Second Mate is dead!! the Chief Engineer is dead!!! everyone as good men as have ever served on any Polar Expedition yet they did not receive the white ribbon. Surely it can merely be treated as an omission by the King, the public need never know that King Edward ever considered the matter’.
The medal was not awarded.

But Robertson’s reputation as an outstanding seaman is assured. He had a remarkable record; in nearly forty years of Polar work he neither lost a ship, nor a man. He was a man to ride the waters with. In numerous emergencies, when a moment’s hesitation could have resulted in disaster, his natural gifts as an ice pilot were complimented by an intuition that on occasions seemed miraculous.

Taking sightings On Scotia Captain Robertson with Mr. Fitchie

Victor Hayward

10 Dec

I was interested to see that the Albert Medal and the Polar Medal, awarded to Victor Hayward, are to be auctioned. It is anticipated that thousands of pounds will be realized. I am delighted that there is still such interest in the expeditions of the Heroic Age.
The Albert Medal was awarded for the saving of life on land or sea (two medals with different inscriptions depicting the two groups). The medal was discontinued in 1971 and replaced by The George Medal. The land version, which was awarded posthumously to Victor, was in red with a red and white ribbon.
The Polar Medal is awarded to citizens of the UK and Northern Ireland who have made conspicuous contributions to knowledge of the Polar Regions, or who have
given service of outstanding quality in support of acquisition of this knowledge and who, in either case, have undergone the hazards and rigours imposed by the Polar environment.
It is greatly valued. William Speirs Bruce, whose biography I have just completed, battled unsuccessfully for years to get the medal awarded to members of his Scotia Expedition The medal is octagonal, with a white ribbon. It depicts a ship surrounded by ice floes. The obverse has a portrait of the reigning monarch, in Victor’s case George V.
Shackleton’s support team went to McMurdo Sound. Their story has been overshadowed by the Endurance saga. The Captain of the Aurora was Aeneas Mackintosh. Victor Haywood was a member of the Ross Sea party, which included the Reverend Arnold Patrick Spencer Smith and seven other members. Mackintosh was in charge of laying a series of depots across the Great Ice Barrier from the Ross Sea to the Beardmore Glacier for Shackleton to pick up when he had crossed the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea. Shackleton’s party could not carry sufficient food and fluid for the entire journey and depended on these depots for the final quarter of their journey (as is well known, in the event, Shackleton did not actually make landfall on the Antarctic as ‘The Endurance ‘became icebound, and drifted around the Weddell Sea from February 1915 to November 1915, when she sank.
Mackintosh sailed to Antarctica from Tasmania. On arrival in Antarctica three camps were prepared, the largest in Cape Evans, Scott’s hut of 1910, the second in Hut Point Scott’s original camp of 1902 (relatively poorly equipped and separated by sea/ice from Cape Evans by thirteen miles), and thirdly at Safety Camp, a staging area from which the parties would set out for the south. Mackintosh followed instructions with enormous difficulty. The first party, January to March 1915, reached 80 degrees S. At each parallel they left depots, made out of ice blocks to about 12 feet and topped by a high black flag. By the time they returned to Hut Point they had lost all of the ten dogs they had taken.

In May 1915 the Aurora was torn from her moorings in a gale and carried out to sea. The men at the base were marooned.
Mackintosh and his party spent the winter preparing to set up more depots in the south. The second depot laying party worked from September 1915 in three teams of three. A failure of a primus stove meant that three of the party returned to Cape Evans leaving six to sledge south. During the journey the Reverend Spencer-Smith failed rapidly and became so debilitated with scurvy that he had to be left behind in a tent whilst the others progressed south, passing the 83 parallel (where Shackleton had turned back from his ‘Furthest South’ in 1909). They finally got to the base of the Beardmore Glacier leaving a depot with two weeks supply of food and fuel.
On their return the party picked up Spencer Smith. When Spencer-Smith was alone and dying slowly in his tent, he hallucinated and wrote notes that are touching to read – he thought that the war was over, that Sir Ernest and Frank Wild had appeared, both clean and neat, and that he had spent the day delivering a sermon in execrable French. He was conscious enough to write ‘Laus Deo’, as the team approached his tent. The return journey was terrible. Both Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith had to be pulled on a sledge and Victor Hayward was also very weak, but he looked after his two ill companions putting their wellbeing above his own and it was for this service that he was to be awarded the Albert Medal. As the awful return continued, Mackintosh was left behind behind as Victor and Spencer-Smith were taken north by sledge. Spencer-Smith died, worn out by exhaustion and scurvy. On the return there was no conversation ‘all our energies are needed for the job in hand’ -to bring the party to the relative safety of the Hut Point shelter where Victor recovered slowly. Mackintosh was able to follow later.
The party reached the Hut Point camp in mid March. Here they were marooned waiting for the ice between Hut Point and Cape Evans to be strong enough to stand their weight. They ate seal meat morning, noon, night. They lived ‘like troglodytes’.
On May 8th Mackintosh and Victor Hayward decided they had had enough of the conditions and the unending seal meat. They decided to cross the thirteen miles of ice to Camp Evans (warm and well supplied with food in comparison to Hut Point). They left against the advice of their companions, who watched their figures slowly becoming fainter and fainter in the dim light. Two hours later a blizzard swept over the Sound Mackintosh and Hayward were never seen again. They could have fallen through the ice, or been carried out to sea when the ice broke up. If, by any chance they had managed to reach land, they would have succumbed to hypothermia.
Seven years later, in 1923, Hayward was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal for gallantry, in recognition of his efforts to save the lives of Mackintosh and Spencer-Smith on the Barrier. The award of the Polar Medal recognized his prolonged support, service and contribution to advances of knowledge in the Antarctic. He was a man who had suffered and endured the hazards and rigours of the continent with courage.

albert medal on the left Polar medal and bar

albert medal on the left
Polar medal and bar





3 Feb

The medal is awarded by the Queen. It was known first as the Arctic Medal, which was issued in 1857 and awarded to, amongst others, the expedition trying to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in 1847 whilst trying to discover the North West Passage. The Polar Medal was introduced in 1904 in recognition of the achievements of Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctica. It was awarded to members of the Discovery crew, also, I understand, to the crews of both rescue ships the Terra Nova and the Morning. A few years later members of Shackleton’s expeditions (1907-09 and 1914-1916) were honoured also.

The medal is given to citizens of the United Kingdome and Northern Ireland who have made significant contributions to knowledge in the Polar Regions or those who have given outstanding support in the acquisition of this knowledge and the objectives of polar exploration. Both groups have to have had experience of the hazards and rigours of the Polar environment.

The Arctic Club is delighted that its honorary secretary has been awarded the 2016 Polar Medal. Seven people have been awarded the medal this year ‘for outstanding achievement and service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research’ with three of these related to Arctic work’.

As you know I am writing about William Speirs Bruce who led the major (Scottish) expedition, the Scotia expedition, to the Weddell Sea in 1902. After the expedition Bruce expected that he would get London-based recognition for his scientists and officers, but none received the Polar Medal. Bruce considered this a tremendous slight to himself and his crew and battled for years for the honour. He was convinced that Sir Clements Markham, the powerful President of the Royal Geographical Society and not a man to be crossed, influenced the decision. Sir Clements was the father of the Discovery expedition. He thought (and wrote) that he considered that Bruce had diverted monies that should have gone to Discovery to the coffers of the Scotia. This fundamental disagreement left Bruce with a lifelong distrust of Sir Clements and a conviction that the powerful president had effectively prevented the award.

Appeals by the Government to convince the Palace that the award should be granted were rebuffed. But recent evidence suggests that Bruce’s suspicions were wrong. The refusal appears to have been neither due to doubts as to Bruce’s scientific achievements, nor to Sir Clement’s malign influence, but because the Scotia expedition had been financed in Scotland and did not require government monies nor Admiralty rescue i.e. it had not had financial support out of Scotland (one of the ironies of this decision is that Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition did not have London-based financial support either). King Edward VII refused the award, his son George V was not prepared to overturn his father’s decision, a reason given that to honour Bruce’s expedition would set a precedent by widening the scope of the medal. A more recent application also failed.
Bruce considered, until his dying day, that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the Royal Geographical Society after the Scotia Expedition