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Polar Publications

Happy World Book Day! Books have an important place in Polar history; from the extensive library aboard Discovery for the men to make their way through in long winter darkness; to the publications created in Antarctica, filled with priceless snapshots of everyday life; to the millions of copies of modern books that continue to tell the inspiring stories from the exploration of the last place on Earth, in the early 20th Century.

Today we’re celebrating two incredible Polar books in our collections: The South Polar Times and Ernest Shackleton’s Aurora Australis. Regular followers of our social media and readers who have visited us here at Discovery Point will be familiar with this pioneering pair. Grab your pemmican, pour some hoosh and read along, as we share the stories of two of Antarctica’s most iconic publications.

(Read the original edit of this blog here:

Often referred to as a newspaper or magazine – though it was eventually bound into a book and later reproduced in very limited numbers – The South Polar Times was created monthly by the men of Discovery during the winters of 1902 and 1903. Only one copy of each edition was ever printed in Antarctica, yet The South Polar Times had a readership that would bring tears to the eye of a media mogul. Every single person on the continent of Antarctica read it. For good measure, the paper also had a startlingly impressive list of editors that included polar exploration legend Ernest Shackleton.

Bursting with prose, caricatures, illustrations (primarily by the hand of Edward Wilson, an excellent artist) and poetry, the Times acted as a way of staving off boredom and bringing morale to its creators. Now, it has become a vital part of our understanding of Antarctic heritage, for its genuine representation of life aboard Discovery.

From its very beginnings, the publication was a collaborative feat; with possible names for this “winter magazine” discussed after dinner in the Wardroom. Aptly, the title ‘The South Polar Times‘ was decided upon on 21st March 1902; on the anniversary of Discovery’s launch in Dundee.

Inner page of The South Polar Times Vol. I (SKE 5.1)

As is well documented, Ernest Shackleton took up the role as editor of the first edition of the magazine – a task that would inspire him to later create more Polar publications – and as Edward Wilson describes, had as close to an official Editor’s Office as was possible on a busy research ship;

… Arranging the “Editor’s office” in one of the holds. We built up (Shackle and I) the whole of the cases leaving a small passage and a small room at one end where we arranged cases for seats and a table for Shackle’s typewriter. We sorted out some hundreds of magazines… Shackle has fixed a rope to the door which enables him to open or shut from the other end of the hold, according to whether he wants his visitor to remain outside or to come in. It’s a select office, and strangers with no business are not admitted as a rule.

Edward Wilson

Though a “select office” we know that we would have loved to peep our heads round the door, to witness Shackleton putting together copy for The South Polar Times, or indeed indulging his profound interest in poetry. He may also have been found selecting material for The Blizzard; a secondary magazine that was devised following the overwhelming interest in, and submissions to, The South Polar Times, in order that everyone’s work may be published in one way or another.

Another key figure in the success of The Times was of course Dr. Wilson. A great deal of his diary entries from the Expedition are devoted to documenting the production of the winter magazine and noting the hours spent on illustrations to adorn the pages. As Captain Scott wrote in Voyage of the Discovery;

The rest of [Wilson’s] day is devoted to working up sketches and zoological notes, making those delightful drawings for the SPT, without which that publication would lose its excellence.

Captain R.F. Scott

Edward Wilson’s advocacy of the magazine did not stop at his tireless work in bringing colour and art, as this diary entry conveys;

“Then spent the rest of the day drawing for the SPT, a job which takes up a lot of time, but we are bent on having a good paper to show for our winter down here. And it certainly is a considerable factor in keeping up interests and giving occupation and amusement to everyone on board, so that I cannot think it is a waste of time spent.

“Moreover we are keeping it so strictly Polar that I think many interesting things will be preserved in it which would otherwise be lost – little incidents and pass-times of a somewhat frivolous and fleeting character, which people will like to read about later on. In fact, the paper brings out the more human side of the members of the expedition and leaves the Narrative and Scientific Reports to do the rest.”

And indeed, “the SPT” has become revered for its insights into everyday life aboard Discovery in the coldest place on Earth in the early 1900s. Its varying submissions from a vast number of the officers and crew greatens its intrigue and distinctiveness; through unique humour, an array of writing styles, and snippets of those fleeting moments and relationships.

Perhaps the most humorous additions to The South Polar Times are that of the caricatures, drawn by Michael Barne. The second lieutenant was also responsible for a charming cover illustration of Discovery in the ice, which Edward Wilson described as giving the publication “a most chic and artistic appearance, an appearance which I am afraid will soon be hidden under a sufficiency of dirty finger marks“.

The original copy may well have been covered in marks showing its popularity and use – however, Barne’s caricatures of Charles Royds (“Our Charlie”), Albert Armitage (“The Pilot”) and Ernest Shackleton (“The Parsenger”) are somewhat immortalised in that they form the labels for our Discovery wine range, available in Discovery Point’s giftshop as well as being served at many a Wardroom Dinner aboard Discovery here in Dundee; amongst atmospheres that are just as joyous as those on the day of the ‘launch’ of the first edition of The South Polar Times 122 years ago!

Watercolour by Edward Wilson (DUNIH 442.1)

23 April 1902 – We had a merry dinner today, as it was the first day of our long winter… The South Polar Times, first number, was presented to the Captain after dinner, and I think was thoroughly appreciated by every one, even those who appeared in the caricatures. Only one copy has been produced and this has been made as complete and perfect as possible under the circumstances.

Dr. Edward Wilson

Following Shackleton’s early departure from the Discovery Expedition in 1903, Louis Bernacchi became editor, and so, Volume II was born.

On return to the UK, their winter magazine was collated and published in London, in numbers thought to be as low as 250; making copies of The South Polar Times like ours in our Recognised Collections of National Significance extremely rare. We are privileged to be custodians of this, and many other wondrous Polar objects here at Discovery Point – including another Polar book, which is even rarer than Discovery’s South Polar Times.

Ernest Shackleton aboard Discovery.

Perhaps inspired by his enjoyment of bringing together The South Polar Times from 1902-1903, Ernest Shackleton set out on his 1907 Nimrod Expedition with extra equipment; including a printing press. Shackleton was going to create the first book published in the Antarctic. It’s difficult to know whether the print enthusiast could have imagined that over 100 years on, his Aurora Australis would continue to bring delight to thousands of people across the world through its symbolism of his Antarctic feats and of creativity in even the most extreme environments.

It is estimated that there were around 100 copies of the book produced, each identifiable by its unique endplate stencil lettering; our copy features a cover made from what appears to have once been a soap crate! Other examples include ‘petit pois’, ‘beans’, ‘suet’ and ‘veal’. Around 70 of the 100 copies have been accounted for worldwide.

Signed with an inscription on the front page, the copies were eventually distributed to members of the Expedition and supporters.

"SOA" crate cover and signed inner page of Aurora Australis on display at Discovery Point (K.14)

Found all over the globe, this book “Published at the Winter Quarters of the British Antarctic Expedition 1907, during the winter months of April, May, June, July 1908. Illustrated with lithographs and etchings by George Marston. First printed at the sign of the penguins by Joyce and Wild” has rightly become a legendary piece of publishing.

It is somewhat difficult to convey in a short blog post all that these two publications – The South Polar Times and the Aurora Australis – signify in the history of early Antarctic exploration and the characters associated with it. However, we hope that you enjoyed this piece and feel inspired by the determination and dedication to craft of the men of both the Discovery and the Nimrod.

Both titles are on display at Discovery Point, along with over 100 other amazing Polar objects sharing the story of Antarctic exploration before visitors step aboard Captain Scott’s Discovery. By Adopting the Aurora Australis, you can not only receive exclusive engagement opportunities and benefits, but can support the care and conservation of this Internationally-significant piece of Polar history.

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