Robert Falcon Scott was born in Plymouth on 6th June 1868 and was educated at Stoke Damerel and Stubbington House at Fareham. He joined the officer training college HMS Britannia in 1880 and on completion of his training in 1882, became a Midshipman on HMS Boadicea. Six years later, he became a Sub-Lieutenant in HMS Spider and was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1889, joining HMS Amphion. Nine years later, he joined the flagship of the Channel Squadron, HMS Majestic when he was appointed as Lieutenant for Torpedoes.
However, he was not destined to spend a long time with the flagship as in 1899, on the recommendation of Sir Clements Markham, he was offered command of the expedition being organised by the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society to the Antarctic. The expedition was being arranged to explore the South Victoria Land and the ice barrier which had been discovered back in 1841 by James Ross, and to extend further into the Antarctic continent. A survey ship was purchased in 1901. The majority of the crew and team members were seconded from the navy but as the organisation was more from the two societies, the ship flew the merchant ensign. Scott was promoted to Commander on taking up his duties with HMS Discovery.
The expedition team left Cowes on 6th August 1901, after an inspection by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. During their visit, Scott was invested as a Member of the Royal Victorian Order. The ship's handling was not quite as Scott had desired, due to defects in the hull that had not been discovered before the ship had been launched, and this was to slow down the voyage considerably.
On 8th February 1902, the ship anchored in McMurdo Sound at Ross Island at the foot of Mount Erebus. The team made camp at a spot that became known as Hut Point. This was to be their base camp for the next two years. In November 1902, Scott set off southwards with a party consisting of Ernest Shackleton and Adrian Wilson to explore the Antarctic interior. The journey was hard and the team suffered physical and mental hardships, including an attack of scurvy. They returned to base camp on 3 February 1903 having discovered that the South Victoria mountain range continued southwards and having been the furthest south that human beings had ever been. On the same day, a relief vessel, Morning with supplies and mail for the team. On March 2nd, Morning left the Discovery, still ice-bound, and sailed for Lyttelton in New Zealand, carrying some members of the original team who were to return due to lack of supplies to support the whole team. Included amongst them was Shackleton, whose health had suffered during the southern expedition.
In October, Scott set off on a second expedition. This time, he headed west to explore the polar ice cap. His team included Petty Officer Edgar Evans and Leading Stoker William Lashly, both of whom were to join him in his later expedition. Like his previous expeditions, this one was beset by problems and hardships, not least the loss of the navigation tables. On 30th November, they turned back with little idea of where they were in relation to the base camp. They eventually arrived back at Hut Point in mid-December, to find that the team members who had remained had been trying to crack the ice that was still holding the ship. On January 5th 1904, Morning returned to Ross Island, accompanied by a whaling ship, Terra Nova. Scott received orders from the Admiralty to return, and if necessary, abandon the Discovery if it could not be released from the ice. However, during the first week of February, the ice began to break up and all three ships could depart on 16th February. The following day a severe gale hindered progress but they eventually arrived in New Zealand in April.
The expedition had been a tremendous success. As well as Scott's explorations, the team had been able to take soundings of the Ross Sea, investigate the structure of the continent, fix the position of the South Magnetic Pole and undertook observations the natural life of the continent, including the colony of Emperor penguins at Cape Crozier. Personally, Scott had showed his leadership skills and his ability to undertake scientific research. The expedition reached Britain in the autumn of 1904, arriving at Stokes Bay, near Portsmouth on September 10th. She was escorted into Portsmouth harbour by many small vessels and by guards of honour from the naval ships moored there.
Scott received many national and international honours in recognition of his work on the southern continent. These included the French Legion of Honour, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO), awarded the Polar Medal and promotion to the rank of Captain, dated from his return to Portsmouth. Scott asked the First Sea Lord for a leave of absence in order to write up his narrative of the expedition. During this period, he was attached to the Admiralty as an Assistant Director of Naval Intelligence.
On 21 August 1906, he returned to a sea-going naval post as Flag Captain of Rear-Admiral Egerton on HMS Victorious. However, Scott's thoughts continued towards further exploration and the ultimate goal of reaching the South Pole, while Shackleton was already making plans for an expedition of his own. At the beginning of January 1907, Scott was transferred to HMS Albemarle. In the same year, he met Kathleen Bruce and on 2nd September 1908, they were married at the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court, for which special permission had been granted from the King. In May 1908, he had been appointed to HMS Bulwark, flagship of the Nore Division, after a brief period in command of HMS Essex since January.
In March 1909, Scott was appointed as Naval Secretary to the Second Sea Lord, Sir Frances Bridgeman. He was the first naval officer to hold this appointment, normally held by civil servants. Any free time he could spare from his duties were spent working on plans for a second Antarctic expedition. At the same time, news came of Shackleton’s expedition having reached the magnetic South Pole, getting to within 100 miles of the South Pole and the discovery of the Beardmore glaicer. On 19 June 1909, while chairing a dinner in honour of Shackleton, Scott declared the intention of another expedition to claim the South Pole for Britain. An office for the British Antarctic Expedition 1910 was set up in London’s Victoria Street in September and the plans and goals for the expedition were published, followed a month later by a fundraising campaign. Another momentous event in Scott’s life also occurred at this time. His wife gave birth to a son, Peter Markham Scott on 14th September.
The ship chosen for the voyage was the Terra Nova. The ship sailed from Cardiff on 15 June, heading for the Cape. Scott left separately for the Cape on the 16th, accompanied by his wife and two other wives of the officers of the crew. They reached Cape Town on 2nd August and waited for the survey vessel to arrive. He joined it and sailed to Australia. On their arrival at Melbourne, Scott received the news that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was also heading south for the Pole. The race was on to see who would get there first.
The Terra Nova’s last call was to New Zealand and left civilisation on 29th November 1910. They arrived at McMurdo Sound on 5th January 1911 and made camp. Scott began his journey to the Pole on 11th November, following Shackleton’s route of 1909. On 4th January 1912, the last supporting team left and Scott continued on the journey with a small team of four: Dr Wilson, Captain Oates, Lieutenant Bowers and Petty Officer Evans. The journey was an arduous one with the team having to cope with blizzards and temperatures as low as minus 23 degrees. On 16th January 1912, Scott and his party reached the South Pole, only to find a Norwegian flag and a note from Amundsen stating that his party had reached the Pole on 14th December 1911.
The return journey began well and they made good progress despite the prevailing weather conditions. However, the team began to suffer from the cold and exhaustion, and frostbite was beginning to set in, with Evans and Oates being the main sufferers. Food supplies were beginning to dwindle and the depot camp could not supplement it.
On 17th February, the first member of the team met his death. Petty Officer Evans had been losing strength and was lagging behind the sledge team. The others went back to carry him on a sledge. He lost consciousness and died at 10pm. He was buried in the surrounding area. The team continued on but conditions got worse and supplies were running out. Oates was becoming severely affected by frostbite. On the 17th, after asking Scott to leave him behind while the team continued, he walked out off the tent and was never seen again. Unknown to Scott, eleven miles northward, the team at One Ton Depot camp was preparing to leave, having waited a week for the Polar team’s return. With supplies running out, they retraced their route to the winter base at Cape Evans. Gale force blizzard made travelling impossible and the team remained in their tent. On 29th March 1912, Scott made his last entry in his diary. “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write anymore.” It is supposed that he may have remained alive for one or two days more after that, alongside the bodies of Wilson and Bowers.
Eight months later a search party, led by Dr Atkinson, discovered the tent and bodies of the comrades, along with the diaries and last letters of Scott. Scott had written a message to the public explaining the reasons for the failure. Important specimens from the Beardmore glacier were also found, which, being heavy, must have hindered the progress of the team, who had refused to abandon them, even in the face of their difficulties. The discoverers left the tent where it was and built a snow cairn headed by a cross in tribute to the lost explorers. Later, a memorial was put up at Observation Hill, at Hut Point with the words “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”
News of the demise of the Polar team reached Britain in February 1913. A memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral. Scott was posthumously awarded a Knight Commander of the Bath and Kathleen retained the rights and privileges of the rank. A campaign was launched to raise a memorial fund to continue with the scientific work Scott had been actively involved with and the Scott Polar Research Institute was founded.
© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2001
The information contained in this fact sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.