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Rare Discovery Original Refit Plans

2023 was an exciting year for our Royal Research Ship Discovery and all at Discovery Point in many ways; in June, we had the pleasure of welcoming the 2012 RRS Discovery to Dundee, and we are now looking ahead to urgent conservation works taking place on our 1901 Discovery.

2023 also marked the centenary of Discovery beginning her extensive 1923 Vosper refit in Portsmouth, ahead of undertaking ground-breaking oceanographic science on expeditions led by Sir Alister Hardy and many others. Findings from the ship’s oceanographic years are still being used as a benchmark by world-leading scientists aboard the 2012 RRS Discovery and beyond, today.

To mark this anniversary, we’re pleased to share that the original plans of Discovery‘s 1923 Vosper refit have been digitised and the first few can be accessed via our online collections – read to the end for a sneak peek!

In the first part of this blog, we begin to delve into the story of Discovery‘s years as a designated Royal Research Ship, before our Curator gives us exclusive insights into the process of digitising these fascinating plans, in part two.

Part 1: The History

Following its iconic 1901 voyage to Antarctica with Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton and later adventures with the Hudson Bay Company, in 1923 Discovery began a refit for a new era; an era of oceanographic research.

Discovery in refit, Portsmouth (DUNIH 401.3)

Having been purchased by the Crown Agents, on 29th July 1923, Discovery arrived under tow in Portsmouth, where she would undergo a refit by Messrs Vosper to turn her into a research vessel.  This was virtually a rebuilding of the ship and extensive plans were drawn up.

Writing in 1967, Alister Hardy recalls seeing the ship in Portsmouth for the first time, illustrating just how much of the ship was re-constructed:

My first view of the ship, in Dry Dock at Portsmouth, was something of a shock; she was a mere skeleton, reminding one of the dug-up remains of some ancient viking galleon. Could she be ready even in time to sail in 1925, we wondered?

Alister Hardy, Great Waters (1967)

The Royal Research Ship Discovery was indeed completed in time, and boasted many of the advances in technology required to equip her for oceanographic exploration. The construction of chemical and biological labs, adjustments to the positions of the main mast and fore mast in line with suggestions from Captain Scott, and the addition of sounding machines and three powered-reels are amongst the alterations made to the ship during the refit period; an undertaking that cost nearly £114,000 (including the purchase cost of the vessel).

Black and white image of Alister Hardy using a plankton net aboard Royal Research Ship Discovery.
Alister Hardy aboard Royal Research Ship Discovery using a plankton net (DUNIH 2017.2.48)

As documented in the numerous volumes of Discovery Reports, Discovery‘s consequent oceanographic expeditions were crucial to our current understand of whales, and saw the beginning of conservation thinking.

Part 2: Digitising Plans

Visitors to Discovery Point and the Royal Research Ship Discovery will note many indicators of the 1920s refit, as she remains in many aspects, almost an exact image of this state. As well as understanding the refit period through the ship’s features and design, we are very lucky to have over 100 of Vosper’s original plans and sketches available to us in our Recognised Collections.

Some plans are almost too big to be held by one person!

The first step of this was to look at the three collections we had and list the plans. When we knew what we had, we were able to catalogue them into the museum’s database with the plan name and number.

Detail of a Vosper plan

With a such a large archive, it makes sense for the museum number to run in line with the plan number – making life easier for everyone.  The second consideration for this is that when it comes to a number in a museum, it is important to make sure the number links with the collection. As this case is made of three collections, we needed to give three numbers: DUNIH 2022.19 for the largest collection; DUNIH 2022.20 for the mid sized and DUNIH 2022.21 for the smallest. The hope is that this brings this archive together whilst ensuring the unique collections are recognised.

However, it was still tricky to safely use the collection. The size of the plans (each would cover a small desk!) meant that it was difficult to look at more than one at any one time. For such historically informative and important objects, we do everything we can to protect the plans themselves.

Digitising these became an obvious option. So, they were packaged up and sent away to be scanned at a very high resolution.  This immediately made life easier! No more having to find the right plan in the chart chest and put it on a table big enough – and try doing it for three at a time!

Viewing printed plans

Now, all anyone needs to do is to simply go into the digital file and see it from the comfort of your chair. The other bonus of this is that the plans themselves are being kept safe all the while.

The final step in the digitising process was to create smaller digital images for the online catalogue; these are about 1/10th of the size of the super high resolution images.

Side elevation of Discovery showing masts and sails arrangement (DUNIH 2022.19.1)

So, enjoy the marvel of intricate plans and details of RRS Discovery’s refit 100 years ago and compare the views to what you already know about our magnificent ship.

Owing to the size of the collection, images will be uploaded in phases: the first are available to view now.

Look out for more unique insights on the Discovery Expeditions of the 1920s and beyond, both on our social media and at Discovery Point in Dundee!

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