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Titanic and Terra Nova


On 18 April 2015 two apparently unrelated stands of history came together in an auction in Wiltshire. Amongst the lots in an auction of items related to Titanic is a lot consisting of fifty-two negatives taken by Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers during the last months of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.

The connections between the two events go back to more than a century.

During the first days of April 1912 newspapers all over the world reported that Captain Scott’s expedition ship, the Terra Nova, had arrived in New Zealand. The members of the South Pole party (Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans) were not on board but had been, ship’s captain Lieutenant Harry Pennell told a waiting journalist, on course to reach the Pole by mid-January. The ship had, unfortunately, been forced to leave the expedition’s Cape Evans headquarters before their return to avoid being frozen in.

In New Zealand Pennell and his shipmates learned that Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole in December 1911. Pennell explained that there would be no further news of Scott’s attempt to reach the Pole until the Terra Nova returned from her final return voyage to collect Scott and other expedition members still on the ice.

In the meantime, those waiting for news of the expedition could read reports from Scott and other expedition members and see still and moving images of the expedition by Herbert Ponting, the expedition’s photographer, and photographs of the first part of the South Pole journey taken by Scott and Bowers. Most of the pictures taken by Scott and Bowers had been brought back to Cape Evans by returning support groups but one of Bowers’ films still lay on the Antarctic ice-shelf. It had been deposited there by William Lashly and Tom Crean during their desperate (but happily successful) attempt to haul scurvy-stricken Teddy Evans back to safety and the medical care he needed. Teddy Evans was on the Terra Nova, but as Lashly and Crean were still on Antarctica, it was expected the film might be recovered.

During the first half of April 1912 newspapers ran extensive reports on Scott’s expedition; they also reported on the departure, on her maiden voyage, of the Titanic, the world’s largest, most luxurious passenger liner. On 15 April 1912 it was reported that the Titanic had struck an Arctic iceberg in the North Atlantic; the following day it was announced that she had sunk with the loss of most of her passengers and crew. When Roald Amundsen, a veteran of Arctic waters, arrived in New Zealand to lecture on his South Pole triumph he was immediately asked for his views on the iceberg which had led to the sinking of the Titanic. In London, inquiries on the disaster were convened, a memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral and the Lord Mayor established a Mansion House Relief Fund for needy dependants of those who had died.

In early November 1912, after daylight returned to Antarctica, a search party set out to try to discover what had happened to Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans, who had failed to return as expected. On 12 November they found a tent containing the bodies of Bowers, Scott and Wilson who had, according to Scott’s journal, died towards the end of March 1912; Evans and Oates had both died earlier on the return journey. In the tent were journals, charts and photographs taken by Bowers which proved that the men had reached the South Pole on 18 January 1912. Before returning to Cape Evans the search party retrieved the film roll taken by Bowers which Lashly and Crean had deposited over six months previously.

On 10 February 1913 Harry Pennell landed in New Zealand and sent a cable to London with the news that the South Pole party had reached the Pole but died on their return journey. In a near-repetition of events of April 1912, a memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral and a Mansion House Fund was established for the dependants of the South Pole party.

Over the next two decades Herbert Ponting’s images of the expedition became familiar to millions, including through exhibitions, postcards, lectures and showings of his ‘movies’, including on the Western Front during the First World War. But when Ponting died in 1935, the contents of his studio, including expedition photographs taken by him, Scott and Bowers, were sold to a recently-established photographic agency, together with the rights to reproduce, license and sell Ponting’s work.

In 2011, as the expedition’s centenary approached, a collection of Scott’s photos was identified, catalogued and published; those photographs and their negatives are now held for the nation by the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge. SPRI already held negatives of the famous images Bowers took of himself and his companions at the South Pole but the whereabouts of the negatives of the other 80 or so photographs Bowers had taken in Antarctica was unknown. Now 52 of them have emerged from the darkroom of history in a Titanic auction.

‘Birdie’ Bowers, who took up photography in the early 1900s in order to capture images of seabirds as he circled the globe on a great sailing ship, would surely be surprised to know his work was the subject of such interest in the 21st century.

Bowers left England in 1910 while the Titanic was still under construction, so knew nothing of its fate. But, curiously enough, following the sinking of the Titanic, Scott’s sculptor wife, Kathleen Scott was commissioned to sculpt a memorial statue of the liner’s captain, Edward Smith. By late 1913 Kathleen Scott was also working on memorial statues of her husband and his friend Edward Wilson.

Perhaps it is less strange than it first appears that Bowers’ photographs should find their way into an auction of items connected with the Titanic.

By Anne Strathie

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