Tag Archives: The ship ‘Discovery’

The story of the ship ‘Discovery’

7 Feb

Paintings and stories of ships can be exciting and romantic: paintings such as Nelson’s Victory, The Mayflower, The Fighting Temeraire rank with the remarkable story of Franklin’s attempt to find the North West Passage in the book Erebus, written by Michael Palin.

Many ships have remarkable histories, but the story of Discovery must rank high on that list. Built in 1900/01 for Captain Scott’s voyage to the Antarctic and subsequently, used as a trading ship in the service of the Hudson Bay Company (H.B.C.), Discovery made important contributions in both world wars and more recently. She is now a tourist attraction for visitors to Dundee where she was built nearly 120 years ago

I am going to record her remarkable history in two blogs. I have quoted, with her permission, details from Mrs. Ann Savours’ excellent book, The Voyages of the DISCOVERY –any mistakes are mine!

The ship was built by ‘The Dundee Shipbuilders’ specifically for Antarctic exploration. Her wooden hull was especially designed to withstand the Antarctic ice. This British expedition, The National Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904, (known familiarly as the Discovery expedition), was the first expedition ever to open up Antarctica. Four countries sent explorations to the Antarctic region in the early 1900s. The Discovery expedition was the one to make significant advances in knowledge about Antarctica’s interior.

Robert Falcon Scott led the expedition that left Cowes in August 1901, having been ‘blessed’ by King Edward VII and Queen, Alexandra. Scott sailed to the Antarctic via Madeira, South Trinidad, Cape Town, Macquarie Island and Lyttelton New Zealand. During the voyage as much information as possible was obtained about the location of the Magnetic South Pole, vital information for shipping, (before this expedition few records had been made beyond 40°S) and she was the second ship, after Ross, to steam along the mysterious Ice Barrier. New land was identified at the end of the icy shelf, named by Scott for King Edward.

‘Discovery’ locked in sea ice at Hut Point, Ross Island  with Discovery Hut on land in the foreground

At her base in McMurdo Bay Discovery was incarcerated in ice for 21 months – Morning, the relief ship of 1903, was initially separated from her by twenty miles of sea ice and never got closer than five. When, in the Antarctic Summer of 1904, Discovery finally escaped from the sea’s icy grip, she sailed victoriously to Lyttelton.

But her history had only just begun.

On Discovery’s return, hopes that she would continue as an exploring ship, or in the service of the government, were dashed when the Joint Committee of the Expedition sold her to the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), for £10,000. Her scientific instruments were sold and she was converted to a cargo vessel. The HBC controlled vast lands in Canada; the largest landowner in North America and Discovery was one of the last of the wooden sailing ships to be employed in trading, primarily for fur, withNorth American Indians. She sailed to the Hudson Bay, having journeyed south of Iceland and Greenland, through the treacherous 700 mile Davis Strait, across the Hudson Strait (pack ice), past Coats Island, to reach Charlton Island on the Hudson Bay. The furs, mostly beaver (for hats), were taken on board in exchange for textiles, tools, mirrors, beads, knives and alcohol. Her crew made hazardous journeys by canoe from ship to shore to trade with the indigenous population based around the Hudson Bay.

North American Indians in canoes

In 1912 Discovery was replaced by a steamer and she was laid up. But further duties called. In the First World War she was to make hazardous journeys to Russia, America and France. James Monet, a brandy merchant (and later the architect of the European Common Market), had traded with the HBC for years. Early in the war he suggested to its directors that they should become purchasers for the French Government, and France and Great Britain co-operated with shipping and supplies throughout the war. Contracts were signed also with Rumania, Russia and Belgium. Discovery was one of three hundred ships, financed by HBC that transported munitions, food, raw materials and manufactured goods. The fleet was to play a critical role in Allied Shipping during the war.

The dangers were great. In early 1915 the seas around Great Britain and Northern Ireland were designated a war zone by Germany and German submarines attacked the HBC’s fleet of ships – Germany stated that the safety of passengers on enemy merchant ships could not be guaranteed.

In the autumn of 1915 Discovery sailed for Archangel. The voyages to Archangel rank with the most courageous voyages of WWI (my grandfather was an engineer on one of the ships, sailing from the U.K.). At this time Russia was almost sealed off from the world. The Bosporus was blocked by Turkey, the Baltic Sea by Germany. Her most accessible entry was Archangel on the White Sea. To reach their destination and deliver munitions, ships sailed round the North Cape of Norway and through the Barents Sea to the White Sea and the Gulf of Archangel. Wheat, timber, oil and other essentials were taken back to the French ports.

The entrance to the White Sea was mined by Germany but in spite of this, nearly all munitions from France to Russia were transported via this route. The ships faced many dangers. Germany laid nearly 300 mines in the area. Discovery was Steamer 141. Between June and September 1915, ten of the fleet were lost. In all the HBC lost 110 ships from the fleet of three hundred.

A distraction occurred in 1916; the explorer Ernest Shackleton, having failed in his attempt at a Trans-Antarctic crossing, had been trapped in the Weddell Sea. Despite the anxieties of the war a committee, The Shackleton Relief Advisory Committee was formed and a rescue planned. Advisors to the committee included the Scottish explorer William Speirs Bruce (who had previously spent nearly two years in the Weddell Sea) and the Australian explorer Sir Douglas Morton. However Shackleton reached South America before the relief ship set out, but as no ship was available to bring him back to England, Discovery was loaned for this purpose by the HBC, Due to the sensitivities of war, directions were given that no bodies were to be brought home and how the graves should be marked, also how the rescued men should be treated. In fact, as is well known, no men in Shackleton’ s party died.

For the remainder of the war Discovery served by transporting goods from ocean liners to ports in France, also visiting Madeira and the Hudson Bay. In France the company worked using a system of convoys to try to avoid German submarines and wheat, zinc plates, sugar and other goods were distributed at ports on the French coast between Brest and Bayonne. There was a voyage to Madeira in 1917 to discharge coal and pick up heavy guns for French defense.

The 1918 voyage to Hudson Bay was Discovery’s last wartime voyage. She carried coal, pork, fat and canoes to Charlton Island and had a difficult and dangerous sail – her captain sailed too far south of Resolution Island and north, instead of south of Salisbury Island but eventually struggled through only to have some of the crew felled by the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Peace was declared on 11 November 1918.


The Discovery Center Dundee next to the new V & A Art Museum Dundee



9 Jul

Whale protection in Antarctica is always in and out of the news. There is current concern whether the agreed international rules can be maintained long term.

Antarctica has been a hunting ground since the 1820s when interest in the continent (previously considered an impractical hunting ground, because of the barrier of the Southern Ocean), was rekindled in response to commercial demands, after whales from the northern hemisphere had been hunted to virtual extinction. Hopeful sightings were made on the Ross expedition of 1839-42.

The whaling industry made huge contributions to Britain and other country’s economies. Whales were needed for oil, (used for lighting and lubrication) and later for soap and margarine and for nitroglycerine used in explosives.

There have always been concerns about over culling and the conservation movement began surprisingly early. In 1913 Major Barrett-Hamilton (who joint published ‘The History of British Mammals’ with Dr. Edward Wilson), was sent by the Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), to investigate whaling and sealing in South Georgia.

Numerous reports were subsequently considered and a summary in 1915 stated that: “On its present scale and with its present wasteful and indiscriminate methods, whaling is an industry which, by destroying its own resources, must soon expire”.

The cruelty of the kill also gave concern. Svend Foyn’s explosive harpoon could be fired fast enough from the bows of the whaler to harpoon fast Large Rorquils and Humpbacks as well as the slower Right whale and Sperm whale. Rorquils and Humpbacks were inflated on capture, to stop them sinking, having died a most horrible death.

Pre 1914 rules concerning kills were virtually impossible to implement (particularly those concerning the killing of pregnant females). The lure of profit was immense (for example in 1925, 8,000 whales were processes in one South Georgian station. which made the owners Salvesen, a profit of £300,000). Factory ships avoided the regulations.

Comprehensive information about whales: population, life span of whales, breeding habits, food, needed to be collated before controls would be agreed by the industry. The aim was to agree a limit to kills but obviously, to maintain commercial viability.

One of the first scientific ships sent to obtain this comprehensive information was “Discovery”, Scott’s Antarctic ship of 1901-4. After an eventful career when owned by the Hudson Bay Company, firstly as a trading ship, travelling to Canada to collect furs and subsequently as a transport ship in WW1 avoiding enemy submarines on the terrifying convoys to Archangel to supply the Russians, she was extensively altered and refitted in the early 1920s for her scientific role. On these expeditions in 1925-26 and 1926-27, information was collected about whales; their breeding, gestation, calves rate of growth, some idea of their movements and importantly, their food. A vast amount of scientific data about Antarctic currents, sea temperature and salinity was also collected. These expeditions were described as the largest and most important scientific expeditions for years

Although in 1946 a quota for the number of whales to be killed annually was finally agreed for economic imperatives– 16, 000 Blue Whales, or the equivalent of smaller whales – this quota was above sustainable levels, the whaling industry remained intent on getting as much as possible of this invaluable resource.

Since 1986 there has been a moratorium on whaling but this remains as difficult to police as ever: some countries continue to hunt some species. Many countries have bases in Antarctica, more want to be involved ‘in the name of science’


I fear it is doubtful that international agreements can be upheld in perpetuity. Has self regulation got teeth? Although the Antarctic Treaty is due to be reconsidered in 2048, will its decisions be maintained? There is a problem now and this can only increase.