The Polar Ships & Petty Officer Edgar Evans
Early in June 1910 Captain Robert Scott’s vessel the Terra Nova arrived at the Roath Dock for coaling. She had left London bound for the Antarctic, calling at Cardiff to take on 300 tons of patent fuel and nearly 100 tons of Insole's finest Welsh steaming coal. It was as much as she could carry and she settled so deep in the water when it was time to leave, the ship was troubled by a leak in the forepeak. The vessel and her company were given a warm welcome in the city and every facility was made available to them. The Crown Fuel Works donated the coal briquettes needed for the voyage, an office was found on the docks for expedition work and all docking fees and routine repair costs were waived.
Scott was so impressed by the generosity and the reception he received in Cardiff, that he re-registered the Terra Nova with Cardiff as her home port and promised that Cardiff would be the first port of call when the ship returned. The ship herself was a three masted barque of 750 tons built in 1884 as the biggest whaling ship then afloat. Later, she was equipped with an auxiliary steam engine and an iron sheathed bow for her first trip to the Antarctic, as a relief ship in 1903/1904.
The city had already donated £1,387 towards expedition funds earlier in the year, and a few weeks previously, after a luncheon, Lieutenant Teddy Evans, the expedition's second in command, had received a total of £222 17s from business men who had been present. Lieutenant Edward R.G.R. Evans (later Admiral Sir Edward R.G.R. Evans, Lord Mountevans) was already a veteran of polar exploration having been involved in the relief expedition during Scott’s first voyage south in the Discovery, (the National Antarctic Expedition in 1901-1904). Until Scott’s announcement that he was going to return to the Antarctic, Evans had been preparing to mount a Welsh polar expedition based in Cardiff. However, he shelved these plans to accompany Scott and was given command of the Terra Nova. Aware of Evans’ plan, it was the local newspaper, the Western Mail, which proposed to Scott that Evans should be sent to Cardiff on a fund-raising mission. With the support of the newspaper, and Evans’ Celtic exuberance, it proved brilliantly successful. With the farewell banquet at the Royal Hotel attended by the Lord Mayor and many eminent citizens producing a further £1,000, the total of expedition funds raised in Cardiff was some £26,000, more than the rest of the country put together! The banquet was a great success with many stirring speeches made and some fine singing from the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir, all helping to generate a great surge of enthusiasm. In his native land, another Welsh member of the party, Petty Officer Edgar Evans from Swansea, had been given the honour of sitting next to Captain Scott whom he had served under on a previous expedition. At one point, Edgar Evans stood up to make an impromptu speech, saying that although they had a difficult challenge ahead of them, if any man could lead them to success it would by Scott. The revelry went on late into the night and the celebrations took a twist when Evans allegedly became gloriously drunk. He was a giant of a man and not for nothing was he known as 'Bull'. It took six of his colleagues to get him back to his ship where he promptly fell overboard. Not an unusual occurrence for a seaman on the eve of departure to unknown lands and an uncertain future but with the venture so much in the public eye, it was not an auspicious moment. Nor was it the only time that Evans let drink get the better of him, a similar incident occurred in New Zealand. Evans enjoyed a drink ashore like seamen everywhere but on the ice he would be a tower of a man.
One of the last people to leave the Terra Nova before she sailed was Bill Batstone, a painter whose last job was to paint the newly fitted crows nest- an adapted beer barrel supplied and fitted by a well known Cardiff brewery. The Terra Nova slipped her moorings in Cardiff and sailed for the Cape on the 15th. June 1910 and many well wishers turned out to see her go. A huge cheer went up when the Red Dragon presented by the Corporation of Cardiff was run up the masthead and unfurled. The tugs Falcon and Bantam Cock drew her slowly seawards to the sound of the cheers and ship's whistles and sirens. Her progress down channel was accompanied by a swarm of attendant boats including the paddle steamers Devonia and Ravenswood, and was watched by crowds at vantage points along the coast.
After calling at Cape Town to collect Captain Scott who had followed by steamer, the Terra Nova put into Lyttleton Harbour in New Zealand where she was dry-docked to repair persistent leaks. With the work done and the stores reloaded, the ship was made ready for sea. Petty Officer Edgar Evans had once more been enjoying a drink ashore and when he returned to the ship, he fell off the gangplank just as the Bishop of Christchurch was about to go aboard to bless the ship and her crew. Some say that to avoid any embarrassment, Petty Officer Evans was helped overboard by his namesake Lieutenant Teddy Evans who was no relation and who, despite being a fellow Welshman, had little time for the junior man. This time Scott felt he had to take some action against the Petty Officer so, even though he had a high regard for Evans, he dismissed him from the expedition. This left Evans devastated and very contrite; he was reluctant to leave the expedition. He traveled by train at his own expense with Scott to Port Chalmers (Dunedin) further down the coast where Scott rejoined the Terra Nova after she had taken on a last bunker of coal. There is no doubt that Scott had high regard for Evans, having had him on the earlier ‘Discovery’ expedition. Evans pleaded with Scott to be allowed to stay and eventually Scott relented. This caused a rift with Lieutenant Teddy Evans and some of the other officers but Scott worked some of his charm and Edgar Evans stayed.
History records that an epic but ultimately unsuccessful journey took place across the barren icy wastelands at the south pole. One day short of three years later, on the 14th. June 1913, as promised, the Terra Nova returned from the Antarctic to her berth at the Roath Basin. Captain Scott was not of course aboard, having perished with four companions on the ice. Petty Officer Edgar Evans was one who shared the same fate as his captain. For despite his size and strength, the amiable Petty Officer was the first of the party to perish having tumbled into a crevasse and sustained a head injury.
Scott’s widow, Kathleen, and young son, Peter, who would become a world renowned naturalist, were waiting on the quay when the Terra Nova returned to Cardiff and were first up the gangplank. Later, upwards of 60,000 people came to look at the Terra Nova after her epic three-year voyage; special trains were laid on to bring the visitors to see the ship. Two members of the crew, William Lashly and James Skelton settled in Cardiff, working at the docks after they had seen service in the Royal Navy during the Great War. As for the ship, she paid off in Cardiff and was repurchased by her previous owners, Bowering Brothers Ltd., for £5,000. The company also paid for the figurehead to be removed and be presented to the City of Cardiff as well as paying for the lighthouse memorial to be erected in Roath Park lake. The Terra Nova was sent to St. John's, Newfoundland where she was employed in the seal fishery business. At the start of the Second World War, she was chartered by the United States to carry war supplies to Greenland. On the 13th September 1943 she sprang a leak off the southwest coast of Greenland and was abandoned by her crew. She was eventually sunk by United States Navy gunfire as a danger to shipping. The latitude and longitude of her position when sunk was not recorded and so the exact location of her last resting place remains unknown.
History has not been terribly kind to the Welshman Edgar Evans. There are two reasons for this; Scott ran his expedition with strict naval discipline which meant that as a Petty Officer, Evans was ‘lower deck’ and not one of the officers. His other four traveling companions in the overland party that reached the south pole were all naval or military officers. That is not to say that Evans was in anyway disadvantaged by the rest of his team or that he was in awe of his companions; that was simply not the case. Evans was very well liked and well respected by the others. He was an organiser; maintaining equipment, re-arranging stores on the sledges to best effect, resourceful, cheerful and always upbeat in the most trying of circumstances. There had been much conjecture over who would be chosen to make up the south pole party but there was never much doubt that Evans would be one of them. Nevertheless, later accounts of the expedition have tended to focus on the other, more ‘influential’ members of the party. The other reason that led to this apparent discrimination is that because Evans was the first to succumb during the trek, a full month before Oates took his heroic ‘I’m just going outside and I may be gone for some time’ departure from this life, there is a lingering perception that when the going got tough he somehow let the side down. The truth however was quite the reverse. Evans had been a tower of strength to the expedition and his decline began following the head injury he received when he fell into the crevasse. It was suspected at the time and supported by later assessment that the injury probably led to some form of brain hemorrhage; Evans died thirteen days later.
Scott’s own journal records-
Until quite recently the only British memorial to Edgar Evans was a plaque paid for by Evans’ widow from her naval pension, placed in St Mary’s church at Rhosili were the couple were married in 1904. In 1964 the Royal Navy at least sought to make amends when they named HMS Excellent, a newly built shore establishment at Whale Island, Portsmouth, The Edgar Evans Building. In 1994 the Captain Scott Society of Cardiff commissioned a marble bust of Evans from a photograph of him at the south pole and put on display in Swansea. And although it may not be such a lasting memorial, in 2002 Virgin Trains named a new Super Voyager Class 221 train ‘Edgar Evans’ as one of a number of notable ‘voyagers’ of the past. Something of a tribute at least for the man who had become the forgotten hero of Scott’s doomed party.
Cardiff Docks also has other connections with famous Antarctic exploration ships. Captain Scott’s fist Antarctic ship, the Discovery, would later become no stranger to the port. She visited several times during the latter stages of the Great War carrying war supplies to the French coast between November 1917 and March 1918. Her last wartime voyage began with her departure from Cardiff on the 6th. June 1918, under the command of her Cardiff master, Captain G.H. Mead. She was laden with seven hundred tons of coal. Three hundred for her own bunkers and four hundred tons as cargo bound for Hudson Bay.
Then in August 1929, following in the wake of the Terra Nova twenty years before, Sir Douglas Mawson brought the Discovery to Cardiff once again, this time back in her role as a polar ship. She filled her coal bunkers in the Roath Dock before setting off for the Antarctic on the 1929 - 31 BANZARE expedition. (British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition.). Once again, the Discovery was en-route from London to Cape Town as the next port of call, where she was to take on stores and her scientific team. As the Discovery left Cardiff on the 10th of August, David Dilwyn John stood on the cliff tops near Southerndown and watched her set off down channel. He had sailed on the vessel as a member of the scientific staff on the Discovery (Oceanic) Expedition of 1925-1927 and must have had a twinge of regret that he was not aboard her once again. Though with his new wife beside him he was also setting out on a new journey. But another whose own new journey was short lived indeed was a fourteen year old stowaway found in one of the ship’s boats. He was taken off in tears by the pilot boat the same day. Of all the ships of the great age of Antarctic exploration, only the Discovery now survives. She lies in honourable retirement at Dundee, the port that gave her life in 1901.
A decade before the Terra Nova voyage, the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition fitted out the Norwegian whaler Heckla, built in 1872. The vessel was renamed Scotia and carried the Scottish expedition on it’s exploration of the Antarctic throughout 1902 to 1904. The Scotia made the first oceanographic exploration of the Weddell Sea and wintered at Laurie Island, part of the South Orkney Islands. The meteorological station established on the island is now the oldest continuous such station still operating in the Antarctic. After it’s return, the vessel was chartered by the Board of Trade to working in the North Atlantic monitoring ice conditions following the loss of RMS Titanic in 1912. With the onset of the First World War however, the Scotia was sold and began the final phase of her forty-four year career, now as a collier. On Sunday the 16th January 1916, during the Great War, the ship left Cardiff with a cargo of coal bound for France. She must have hoved-to for some reason because she was next seen early on Tuesday morning, the 18th January, just a couple of miles down channel, off Lavernock point. Smoke was pouring out both her forward and aft holds and she was clearly on fire on her starboard side. With the help of two tugs from Cardiff, she was beached on Sully Island later that morning and all hands were safely taken off. The vessel, a three-masted schooner with auxiliary steam engine, was almost identical to the Terra Nova. She was beached opposite the public footpath that led down from Sully and crowds of people came onto the beach to watch. Workmen from Barry went aboard and fought to contain the fire over the next two days. But it had been feared from the start that the Scotia was beyond help and so it proved to be. She became a total loss, though fortunately without loss of life. The famous old polar exploration ship’s last resting place was Sully Island; there are no signs of her remains there today. The timbers of a small vessel that can be seen on the northern beach of the island are that of another vessel and not the Scotia.