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British National Antarctic Expedition

Why Antarctica?

At the beginning of the 20th century, Antarctica was still an uncharted wilderness. The danger to early voyagers due to the rough southern seas and fierce weather conditions meant very few humans had glimpsed the white continent.

Exploration was a daunting task, involving a long voyage through remote and tempestuous seas to reach the continent. The 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition was the vision of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. Naturally cautious, Markham saw the aims of the expedition as purely scientific. Being the first to reach the South Pole was never one of the objectives. By 1900, Markham had raised the necessary funds. Now he needed a ship, crew and scientific team.

Officers aboard Discovery in 1901 (WAR.2)

Preparing the Voyage

Dundee had long been a centre for the whaling industry – the shipyards were well-known for their robust whaling ships capable of surviving rough seas and Arctic Pack Ice. Markham harnessed this expertise to construct the Discovery, the first ship in the British Empire to be constructed specifically for scientific research. While the design was based on the great Dundee whalers, some modifications were needed.

The commission was given to the Dundee Shipbuilders Company to construct the ship at the city’s Victoria Dock. Much of the documentation about the Royal Geographical Society’s work to set up the expedition survives.

Original rigging plan for SY Discovery (DUNIH-2013.39.1)

Discovery Specifications

  • Magnetic surveys were to be an important part of the scientific work of the expedition. To be sure of complete accuracy an exclusion zone around the magnetic observatory was created, with no iron or steel allowed within 30 feet of the area.
  • Discovery was one of the last wooden three-masted, barque rigged sailing ships to be built in Britain.
  • Although Discovery had coal-fired auxiliary steam engines, it had to rely primarily on sail for the simple reason that on a Polar expedition coal was a precious commodity, and conserving stocks was of prime importance.
  • The total working sail area of Discovery was 12,296 square feet. The record run under sail on the outward journey was 223 miles in a single day with an average speed of just over nine knots.
  • 110 feet up at the top of the main mast, the Crow’s Nest was an essential aid to navigation when breaking through pack ice. The lookout man would climb in through a hole in the base. Holes in the side allowed observation without being exposed to the elements.
  • Discovery’s funnel was specially designed with a hinged base so that it could be laid flat to make way for the large sail which was sometimes rigged from the main mast.
  • Discovery is a ship with no portholes. Under the extreme pressure of ice they would have weakened the sides of the vessel. Instead, brass mushroom vents were let into the deck to provide light and ventilation below decks. They were soon renamed ‘ankle bashers’ for obvious and painful reasons.
  • The rudder and two-bladed propeller could be lifted up into the main hull to avoid ice damage and allow repairs to be made more easily.
  • Iron-shod bows were severely raked so that when ramming the ice they would ride up over the margin and crush the ice with deadweight.
  • Discovery rolled badly in the open sea where the flat shallow hull, built with no protuberances to work well in ice, provided minimal stability in heavy seas.
  • Discovery’s Triple Expansion engine really came into its own when the ship was manoeuvring through pack ice. It could produce up to 450 horse power, requiring the stokers to shovel 6 tons of coal a day into the fireboxes.

The Launch

The launch of Discovery into the Firth of Tay took place on the 21st of March 1901; crowds of Dundonians lined the dock to see the launch. Sir and Lady Markham were in attendance representing the Royal Geographical Society.

The launch of SY Discovery on 21st March 1901 (DUNIH 2004.14)

To provision the ship, Captain Scott had worked tirelessly to ensure no detail was overlooked. No one knew for how long the expedition would be cut off from the outside world. Everything had to be taken on board with them. Exhaustive provisions lists for three years were made – tropical and polar clothing, sledges, tents, furs, tools, explosives, signal rockets, a library of over a hundred books, lamps, candles, medicines and alcohol, described aptly as medical comforts!

Many of the food stores were supplied free by firms with an eye on publicity – custard powder from Bird & Sons, lime juice from Evans, Lesher & Webb and two tons of Cocoa Powder from Cadbury’s. As almost every man smoked, tobacco was vital, so 1,000 lbs of the pernicious weed was duly stowed. Further stores were taken on board in New Zealand. On the day Discovery left, the deck was a melee of twenty three howling dogs, a flock of forty five terrified sheep (a gift from the farmers of New Zealand) all milling around countless packing cases, sacks of food and timber for huts. An extraordinary scene indeed!

The Expedition

The main purpose of the expedition was to carry out scientific research – not to reach the South Pole. Among the men who served the expedition were a group of scientists who had orders from the Royal Geographical Society and The Royal Society to carry out particular pieces of research. That research was carried out in very difficult and often dangerous conditions.

Forty-eight men started the journey south, each one hand-picked by Scott. Apart from the scientists, the complement was a mixture of merchant and naval seamen, a decision Scott came to regret as tensions broke out between the codes. As well as Scott two other senior crew members stand out in particular; Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson. Both joined him on the journey furthest south in November 1902 – February 1903.

Shackleton, Scott and Wilson heading for their journey South

By December 1903 there were 20 miles of ice between Discovery and the open sea with no apparent way out. On January 4th 1904, two relief ships arrived; the Morning and Terra Nova. Finally, on February 16th controlled explosions were used to blow Discovery free from her icy prison and the expedition headed for home.

Landfall was made at Spithead on September 10th 1904 to a rapturous reception. Scott was acclaimed as a national hero and awarded numerous honours.

Discovery in pack ice (ROY.30.4.10)

Scientific Research and Breakthroughs

After five months at sea, Antarctica was eventually sighted on January 8th 1902. The main purpose of the expedition was scientific – to make magnetic surveys and carry out meteorological, oceanographic, geological and biological research. Five scientists carried out the work: zoologist Edward Wilson, biologist Thomas Hodgson, geologist Hartley Ferrar, physicist Louis Bernacchi and the ship’s senior surgeon and botanist Dr. Reginald Koettlitz. Hauling sledges through blizzards in temperatures as low as minus 45º, they risked frostbite and snow blindness to take measurements and collect specimens.

The work was truly groundbreaking. Over five hundred new kinds of marine animals, spiders, shrimps, star and shellfish were discovered. The expedition was the first to sight an Emperor Penguin rookery and obtain an egg of the species. Many hundreds of miles of unknown coast, towering mountain ranges and glaciers were mapped. Invaluable magnetic measurements, auroral observations and seismic recordings were made. The body of work was massive when the research had been analysed and the Royal Geographical Society came to publish the results, ten large, weighty volumes were filled. It represented a major contribution to the understanding of the Antarctic continent, a feat made all the more remarkable considering the extreme conditions endured by the heroic scientists of Discovery.

The Crew

*indicates spent only one winter in Antarctica.


  • Commander Robert Falcon Scott RN
  • Lieutenant Albert B Armitage RN
  • Lt Charles W R Royds RN
  • Lt (E) Reginald W Skelton
  • Sub Lt Ernest Shackleton RNR*
  • Sub Lt George F A Mulock
  • Lt Michael Barne


  • Reginald Koettlitz
  • Edward A Wilson
  • Thomas V Hodgson
  • Hartley T Ferrar
  • Louis C Bernacchi

Warrant Officers

  • Thomas A Feather RN
  • James H Dellbridge RN
  • Frederick E Dailey RN
  • Charles R Ford RN

Petty Officers

  • David Allan RN
  • Jacob Cross RN
  • Thomas Kennar RN
  • William Smythe RN
  • William MacFarlane RN*
  • Edgar Evans


  • Horace C Buckridge
  • Charles Clarke


  • Charles Bonner
  • Thomas Crean
  • George B Croucher
  • James Dell
  • Jesse Handsley
  • William L Heald
  • Ernest E Joyce
  • William Peters*
  • Arthur Pilbeam
  • George T Vince
  • Frank Wild
  • Thomas Williamson
  • Henry R Brett*
  • James Duncan*
  • James Walker*
  • William J Weller*


  • William Lashly
  • William Page*
  • Frank Plumley
  • Arthur L Quartley
  • Thomas Whitfield
  • William Hubert*


  • L/Cpl. Arthur H Blisset RMLI
  • Private Gilbert Scott RMLI

Discovery’s 1901 Expedition was pioneering in many senses of the word; and was just the beginning of decades of voyages across the world for the ship and her crew. Walk in the footsteps of Captain Scott, Ernest Shackleton and more at Discovery Point, as you climb aboard the Royal Research Ship to explore life above and below deck!

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