Robert Falcon Scott

"England knows Scott as a hero; she has little idea of him as a man." - Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

Scott's last expedition

When Robert Falcon Scott set off on his second journey to explore the Antarctic – the British Antarctic Expedition 1910 – he could not have predicted it would be his last.

He died on the return from the South Pole two years later. Since then, the expedition has become synonymous with the Pole journey and his death. Public perceptions of Scott have varied greatly over the years, from the hero to the flawed leader, and discussions of what really happened still captivate people. However the expedition, also known as Terra Nova after its ship, was much more than a journey to the South Pole. Between 1910 and 1913, more than 80 people were involved, including a team of scientists that studied geology and surveyed new terrain, collected vast numbers of zoological specimens and made meteorological observations. In addition to the Pole journey, there were many other tales of human endeavour.

Scott with Ski Pole

Robert Falcon Scott
© Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

News of a great tragedy

In February 1913, tragic news shocked the world. Robert Falcon Scott and four companions – Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans, Lawrence Oates and Edward Wilson – had perished on their return from the South Pole.

When a search party found the bodies, they discovered Scott’s diary in which he described their harrowing last weeks: strenuous sledge hauling, severe frostbite, lack of food and fuel, unusually cold temperatures and violent blizzards. He knew they would die. To add to their misfortunes, they had been beaten to the Pole by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

The tragedy touched millions worldwide. Condolences poured in – the King, eminent explorers and international scientific societies were among the many that expressed both grief and admiration. At a time when the British Empire was coming to an end, the nation needed heroes. The death of the Polar Party turned to triumph.

The Lyttelton Times

The Lyttelton Times, 12 February 1913
© Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

From hero to man

Since his death, opinions on Scott have been extreme and polarised. He was initially celebrated as the iconic British hero: selfless and courageous, an inspiration for soldiers during the First World War.

Decades later such heroism seemed outdated and irrelevant, and Scott became the focus of criticism. His methods and abilities as a leader were questioned, and his complex personality was explored in detail. Recently the trend has changed again and contemporary views are more balanced. They focus on Scott the man and the wider context of his expeditions.

Scott was a productive writer, skilled with words, he created absorbing accounts of the expedition. He wrote gripping tales of human endurance, described the scientists at work, and gave detailed descriptions of day-to-day life in the Cape Evans hut.

His diaries were also an opportunity to express confidential opinions about his team, both positive and negative, and they survive today, providing a rare glimpse into life during the expedition and the long journey to the South Pole.

"Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale." - Robert Falcon Scott, last diary
Scott writing in his cubicle

Scott writing in his cubicle at Cape Evans hut during the Terra Nova expedition
© H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection, Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Early years

Scott was born in June 1868 on a country estate in Devon, and from an early age was destined for the Royal Navy.

Strict discipline and intense training prepared him for naval life and his superiors described him as a promising young officer. The death of his father in 1897, and soon after his only brother, left Scott in a difficult position. He was now his family’s main provider and needed a promotion to be able to support his mother and sisters.

In 1899 he found his opportunity. While talking with the president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham, Scott heard about a planned Antarctic expedition and he applied to be in command. In Scott, Markham saw the qualities he wanted from an expedition leader and so selected him to head the Discovery expedition. Scott’s path as an Antarctic explorer was set.

Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott, Maull & Fox photogravure
© Canterbury Museum New Zealand

Scott's Antarctic Medal
The medal has two bars, acknowledging both of Scott's expeditions. © Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

© Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Sword belt
© Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

Navy bicorne hat
© Canterbury Museum, New Zealand

© Canterbury Museum, New Zealand