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Captain Scott’s Terra Nova in West India Dock 1910

Over the last few years, an amazing array of ships have passed through West India Docks. However it is worth remembering that when the docks was in full use, literally thousands of ships would use the docks. I have recently come across a news paper report from 1910 that illustrates that some of the great British voyages and adventures began from West India and East India Docks, Limehouse and Blackwall.

In the early part of the 20th century, the race to the South Pole was one of the great expeditions to undertake and their was plenty of confidence that the expedition led by Captain Scott would be successful. This confidence is shown by the reporter who goes to West India Dock to look over the expedition ship ‘Terra Nova’ and speaks to Scott and his crew.

The preparations for the South, Polar Expedition are going forward, and the following graphic account is given by ‘The Daily Chronicle’

‘Ware open hatchways!’

The cry might have been heard ringing out every other moment from a stout, square-rigged wooden barque of some 760 tons that lay in West India Dock. Outwardly there was little t0 distinguish this particular boat from others of its class ranged along the opposite quay. But on closer view one noticed signs of special activity.

Besides the men that were working lustily the blazing sun, swinging stores and pig-iron ballast into the thick-ribbed hold, one saw strange figures in top hats and frock coats, and others in elegant mourning gowns being escorted over piles of rope, oil barrels, casks, crates, half-sawn -beams, and newly-painted ladders, by guides whose white caps and gold-braided jackets betokened them undoubted officers of His Majesty’s senior service.

The secret of it all was soon solved by the Inscription on the bow, boats and belts— ‘Terra Nova R.Y.S.” For this plain and unassuming craft is, indeed, the very one in which Capt R. F. Scott and his gallant comrades are going to make yet another effort to capture for England the honour of being first at the South Pole.

She sails under the command of Lieutenant Evans— Captain Scott himself going on later by liner and joining the ship at New Zealand and something like seventy tons of provisions will have been got aboard. She will first go to Portsmouth to take in the scientific Instruments, then, onto Cardiff for coaling purposes, and then southward ho!

Accordingly, what with the loading of the stores, with reception of a constant stream of visitors, distinguished and otherwise, and the fixing up of all sorts of alterations that this latest raid of the Antarctic calls for, the Terra Nova was a scene of mingled, cheery activity, of hammering, and shouting that may, perhaps be remembered through many a silent vigil in the Polar solitudes.

With it all Captain Scott himself, who flitted in and out quite informally in a simple lounge suit and straw hat and Captain Evans and the other officers, welcomed everybody who had the remotest right to be there, and guided each round the tough little craft, which is to be their home for so many weary months, with unfailing patience, and courtesy.

Nothing, indeed, could be farther from the truth than any notion that the polar explorer must be necessarily a ‘rough customer,’ shaggy, gigantic, and unsociable, These officers of the Terra Nova, who are going to do things that have baffled the buccaneers and desperadoes of the centuries are neat, dapper, quick-witted young officers, boyish and keen and gentlemen to the core. They are without exception light and ‘wiry in physique— the very antithesis of the John Bull type. They are, in fact, picked men of a new and fine English breed. Behind their cheery modesty there is a determination that is not of cast-iron but of steel.

Shown round by Captain Scott. and Lieutenant Evans, ‘The Daily ‘Chronicle’ representative inspected every corner of the good ship from the tiny laboratories that had been specially built, to the cosy forecastle and the mighty beams beneath which the crew’s hammocks will swing.

Although It is twenty-five years old, the Terra Nova is, Captain Scott explained, in perfect condition. It has already proved its soundness in several voyages, both north and south. It flew the American flag at Franz Josef Land. It was relief ship to the Discovery, itself, which curiously enough now in the service of the Hudson Bay Company is lying in the very same dock.

As for the stores, their variety was bewildering. A specially interesting shipment was case upon case of lubricating oil for the motor-sleighs that are to play so important a part in the actual dash for the Pole. The pemmican and cocoa that are to be the staple food of the shore-party had been already stored away as they would be wanted last.

But as there are to be no less than three different expeditions to ‘cater for as’ soon as the ship touches the ice barrier the needs are infinite. One saw at least twenty crates of biscuits being heaved into the hold, huge stacks of boxes of sardines, a great stand by on account of the oil, casks of beer and crate after crate of mineral waters, dried vegetables of all kinds, beetroots, brussels sprouts, artichokes, broad beans, spinach, French beans, petis pois extra fine, asparagus, cauliflowers, ‘celery au jus, young carrots, cabbage, cheeses, pickles, soups, marmalade, lard, tinned fruits galore, tobacco and cigars, Christmas puddings—the list would have no end.

As it happened, the very last package to be taken aboard when the sheds closed was a large gramophone. By its means doubtless, many an Antarctic night will be charmed away with the songs of the old country, the silence of the ice-floe broken with Recollections of Harry Lauder or a Tetrazzini record.

Terra Nova in the Antarctic

Unfortunately, although Scott and four companions reached the South Pole in 1912, they discovered that Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had got there first. The expedition group never made it back to safety being overcome by frostbite, starvation or exposure.

If you would like to see some of the relics from Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition (1910 – 1913) they are on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in their Polar Worlds gallery. They include Captain Scott’s overshoes, Captain Scott’s sledging goggles and Captain Scott’s book bag in which he kept his famous diary.