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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Why is a lighthouse or is it a clock tower in the middle of a Cardiff boating lake?

"I am just going outside and may be some time.”

Captain Lawrence (Titus) Oates 17th March 1912

In 1909, a young naval lieutenant named Edward Evans met with the editor of the Western Mail. The lieutenant was canvassing for support to mount an expedition to Antarctica. Evans, an experienced navigator who had been on previous expeditions, was persuasive and the editor, William Davies, quickly agreed to help promote the planned project. He saw it as a Welsh adventure and his paper would be instrumental in raising the profile of the endeavour by asking the public to give generously to pay for the equipment needed.

While Evans was busy raising funds, other adventurers were planning similar expeditions. Roald Amundsen, a Norweigan explorer, was assembling his own team, intent on reaching the South Pole first. A third contender, Robert Falcon Scott, was also preparing to be the first human to travel to the most southerly point on the planet. Scott was a polar explorer who had commanded previous expeditions and had experience of sledging long distances across the frozen ice.

Welsh follies, Roath Clock Tower

At the same time, another British explorer was also attempting to reach the South Pole. Ernest Shacklton’s expedition, of 1909, failed and was forced to turn back, less than 100 miles from the pole. The British expedition that Shacklton led almost ended in tragedy. Facing a foreign challenge from Amundsen, Evans and Scott agreed to pool their resources and take a joint expedition. Scott would lead and Evans would be second in command. Scott is quoted as saying, "The main objective of this expedition is to reach the South Pole and to secure for The British Empire the honour of this achievement."

By now, the Western Mail’s fund raising campaign was in full swing. £40,000 would have to be raised for the expedition to go ahead. £2,500 was collected on the streets of Cardiff. The Welsh Tinplate Company donated cooking utensils. School children gave their pocket money to pay for sleeping bags. Coal was needed to fire the ships boilers and the best available was Welsh Steam Coal. It burns hotter and longer making less ash. Coal companies offered 100 tons of coal together with 300 gallons of petrol, lamp oil and 500 gallons of diesel. The Welsh politician, David Lloyd George, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer, provided a government grant of £20,000. Commercial sponsors such as the ‘OXO’ food company were invited to help and eventually the target was reached.

The S.S. Terra Nova was obtained for £12,500. Despite her poor condition, the vessel proved to be the most expensive single purchase. The Terra Nova had sailed to the Antarctic on previous expeditions but it was unlikely that the Board of Trade would allow her to sail; she did not comply with current safety standards. To circumvent Board of Trade regulations, Scott paid £100 to become a member of ‘The Royal Yacht Squadron’. This exempted him from Board of Trade rules, enabling him to sail under a White Ensign flag and command the ship according to naval regulations.

The Terra Nova was moved to Bute Dock in Cardiff where she was fuelled and provisioned, thanks to the generosity of Cardiff ship owners and the people of Wales. In recognition of the help Wales had given to the coming adventure, Cardiff was registered as the Terra Nova’s home port. She sailed for the Antarctic on the 15th June 1910. On board were 65 officers and men. Scott was not among them. He joined the ship later when it reached South Africa. When the Terra Nova arrived in Melbourne, Scott received a telegram from Amundsen and read that, “Amundsen was proceeding south.” It was to be a race to the South Pole.

Terra Nova in Bute Dock Cardiff

Before reaching Antarctica the Terra Nova experienced violent storms. The bilge pumps failed and the crew resorted to bailing water using buckets. The ship arrived in January 1911 and the explorers set up camp, building prefabricated huts and using ponies to drag supplies ashore. The next four months were spent establishing supply depots further south. On the 23rd April the sun set for the winter and the men retreated to their accommodation. Perpetual darkness and extreme cold, made working outside impossible for five tedious months. Scott maintained strict discipline during the dark winter months, with officers and men separated by a partition of packing cases.

The weather began to improve and, on the 13th September, the 800 mile trek to the South Pole began. Sixteen men made up the party using motor sledges augmented with ponies and dogs. The animals were to prove more reliable than the machines. The plan was to send groups back at various points after supplies were cached for use on the return journey. As the sledges emptied, ponies with nothing to drag were shot for food. The original plan was for four men to make it to the South Pole but Scott increased the team to five, causing problems with provisions. Food and fuel for cooking had only been prepared for a four man party.

The five men chosen for the final leg of the journey were - Scott himself, Captain Oates, Wilson, Bowers and Edgar Evans (not to be confused with Edward Evans.)They reached the pole on the 17th January 1912. To their dismay a black flag, left by Amundsen, was already there. The Norwegian had beaten Scott’s party by 34 days. After resting and posing for some pictures they began the long trek back. On the 4th February Edgar Evans, who had become unwell, suffered a fall and died. The remaining four men still had hundreds of miles to walk. Eventually, after many days of clambering across the ice, the exhausted, hungry men pitched their tent and retreated inside. An old war wound had flared up, making it difficult for Oates to walk. He knew that he was slowing the others down. Scotts’ diary records Captain Oates’ last words, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He left the tent and was never seen again. Scott, Wilson and Bowers trudged a further twenty miles but they never reached safety. The frozen bodies of Scott and his two companions were discovered by a search party on the 12th November. Oates’ body was never found. Scott and his party had walked more than 1500 miles before dying from a combination of starvation and scurvy. They were within 11 miles of the next supply depot.

Earlier, Edward Evans, Scott’s second in command, had been setting up supply depots when he also contracted scurvy and nearly died. At the time, the importance of a diet containing vitamin C to combat scurvy was not appreciated. Because of his illness, the Welshman was repatriated, on the Terra Nova, in March 1912. He recovered from the disease and commanded the Terra Nova when it returned to Antarctica, the following year to rescue the expedition’s survivors. Evans continued his naval career, saw action in the First World War and retired as an Admiral having been made a Baronet, pictured below.

He also formalised the rule for professional wrestling, known today as ‘Admiral Lord Mountevans Rules’. Previous, ‘All In’ wrestling, which the rules replaced, had become a very violent sport.

Scott’s Antarctic expedition has been the subject of much debate. Some claimed that Scott was a reckless adventurer who risked the lives of his men. Others, that he was a meticulous leader whose orders were disobeyed, costing him his life. According to reports, he left written instructions for a support party to head south, towards the men returning from the pole. It didn’t go. Had the relief party set out, as instructed, Scott and his companions might have been rescued. Was Scott’s decision to increase the size of the polar party from four to five the reason they never got back? We shall never know. One fact is certain. It was the support of the people of Wales and Cardiff in particular that made the expedition possible. Without their generosity, it is doubtful if Scott and his expedition would have reached the South Pole and there would be no legendary ‘Scott of the Antarctic’.

In 1914, a boating lake in Roath Park, Cardiff was drained so that foundations could be laid for a peculiar building. The tower, in the shape of a lighthouse, contains a clock and above it is a model of the S.S. Terra Nova. The Clocktower, Lighthouse, Scott Memorial; it goes by a variety of names, was unveiled in 1915, having cost £159 6s 8d to build. It’s a pretty object and an appropriate cenotaph for such brave men.

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