Robert Falcon Scott

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Captain Robert Falcon Scott (known as Scott of the Antarctic), C.V.O., F.R.G.S., Royal Navy (6 June, 1868 – 29 March, 1912) was a noted Royal Navy officer and Polar navigator who earned eternal glory when he and members of his expedition became the second group of men to reach the South Pole. His martyrdom, subsequent elevation to heroic status and vicious debunking through the Twentieth Century obscured the scientific achievements made by his polar work.


Not surprisingly, a lot has been written about Captain Scott. This editor believes that the biography by renowned British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is by far the best. However, a freelance reviewer for The New York Times accused Fiennes of writing as if "his own experience as a polar explorer made him almost the only person who could write authoritatively on the subject."[1] It is surely incontrovertible that someone who has actually spent years in the Polar extremities as well as thoroughly researching Scott's life is better qualified than many, if not most, to write a life of Scott. Certainly better than a hide-bound desk jockey. Fiennes' work stands on its own merits. — SIMON HARLEY, Co-editor.

Early Life & Career

This article may temporarily contain text from an edition of the Dictionary of National Biography which is in the Public Domain.

Scott was appointed to the training ship Britannia on 15 July, 1881. Diana Preston refers to "the harsh discipline" of Britannia, without further explanation. She asserts that "The penalties for those who were lax or failed to concentrate or conform were severe." Unsurprisingly, she does not elaborate on what these penalties were or their severity.[2] He left the training ship in July, 1883, passing out seventh in his class.[3] On 24 July he was appointed to the corvette Boadicea on the Cape of Good Hope Station. He was rated Midshipman on 14 August without examination, having gained eleven months' time on passing out from Britannia, meaning he only had to wait a month before being rated Midshipman.

On 15 August, 1885, he was appointed to Ganges for the training brig Liberty, and on 19 September he was appointed to the Monarch, Channel Squadron. He remained in her until 1 November, 1886, when he was appointed to the Rover, Training Squadron.

Having obtained a First Class certificate in Seamanship with 980 marks (out of a thousand) he was promoted to the rank of Acting Sub-Lieutenant on 14 August, 1887. He was appointed to H.M.S. Excellent for study at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

On 4 July, 1888, he was appointed to the torpedo gunboat Spider for the annual manœuvres, and paid off on 28 August. He was appointed to the protected cruiser Amphion on the Pacific Station on 21 December.[4]

He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 14 August, 1889,[5] at a relatively early date, having attained four first class certificates in passing for the rank.[6]

Upon his return to Britain Scott was appointed to Sharpshooter for the annual manœuvres on 8 July, 1891. On 30 September he was appointed to Vernon to qualify in torpedo duties. Apart from a spell in Curlew for the annual manœuvres of 1892 and in T.B. 87 in those of 1893,[7] he would remain in Vernon until 24 August, 1893. He attained a first class torpedo certificate at the Royal Naval College in July, 1892, and obtained a first class on the practical course in July, 1893.

Scott was appointed to the staff of Defiance, torpedo training ship at Devonport, on 22 March, 1895.

He was appointed to the new battleship Jupiter for Torpedo duties on 8 June, 1897. Not long after, on 21 July, Scott was appointed to Majestic as torpedo officer. Captain MacLeod noted on Scott leaving Jupiter: "Recommended for advancement. Very attentive and painstaking." He remained in Majestic until 30 June, 1900, when he was promoted to the rank of Commander.[8]

Discovery Expedition

The Discovery left England in August 1901 and reached the Ross Sea via Lyttelton, New Zealand, in January, 1902. A course was made southward along the coast of South Victoria Land and then eastward along the edge of the ice barrier. Ross's "appearance of land" was confirmed by the discovery of King Edward VII Land. The ship returned westward and entered McMurdo Sound, where an anchorage off Hut Point, Ross Island, in lat. 77° 50' 50" S., was selected as a suitable place for wintering. This remained the base of the expedition for about two years, since in the following summer the ice failed to break up and liberate the ship. The expedition was excellently staffed and equipped for the varied scientific work which was actively pursued throughout the two years. Of many sledge journeys the two principal were led by Scott. Accompanied by (Sir) Ernest Henry Shackleton and Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson he went south over the barrier along the edge of the plateau to lat. 82° 16' 33" S. (30 December 1902), discovering the southward continuation of the South Victoria Land mountain-range and making the southern record. Dog teams were used on the outward journey, but they were little help on the return, which was also made difficult by the serious breakdown of Shackleton and by an outbreak of scurvy which attacked the three men. A year later Scott made a long journey westward over the high plateau of Antarctica to lat. 77° 59' S., long. 146° 33' E. This was the first long journey towards the interior of the continent, and it amplified the work done by Lieutenant A. B. Armitage on his pioneer journey to the plateau in the previous season. Other important results of the expedition were the survey of the coast of South Victoria Land, the sounding of the Ross Sea, and investigations into the nature of the barrier and into the structure of the Antarctic continent. The researches in zoology, magnetism, and meteorology were also of great value. The Discovery with its two relief ships, Morning and Terra Nova, returned to New Zealand in April, 1904.


On 10 September, 1904, the day he returned to Britain,[9] Scott was promoted to the rank of Captain.[10] From 1 October he was appointed to President for nine months on leave and in connection with the work of the Antarctic Expedition. On 29 November, 1905, he was appointed to the War Course at Devonport, but on 6 December he was appointed to President for temporary service at the Admiralty.[11] On 15 January, 1906, he was appointed Head of Trade Division in the Naval Intelligence Department.[12] His office was located just off the main entrance of the Admiralty Building on Whitehall.[13]

On 25 August, 1906, Scott was appointed in command of the battleship Victorious, as Flag Captain to Rear-Admiral George Le C. Egerton, Second-in-Command of the Atlantic Fleet, who had participated in the Arctic expedition of 1875-1876. He transferred with Egerton to H.M.S. Albemarle on 2 January, 1907, and was superseded on 25 August.[14] Egerton's opinion of his service was recorded as:

His general ability energy & capability for command are so well known that it is needless for me to remark on them. He has much to learn in purely service matters but as each question arises he goes into it thoroughly. Is rather restless of ordinary routine duties & thirsting for more active employment. An officer of excellent physique & likely to have a brilliant career if opportunities offer.[15]

The Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, Vice-Admiral Curzon-Howe added, "As a Captain of a ship under my command Capt. S. has merited my highest approbation."[16]

On 25 January, 1908, he was appointed Captain of the armoured cruiser Essex. On 30 May he was appointed in command of the battleship Bulwark in the Home Fleet.[17] In December his outgoing Flag Officer, Rear-Admiral Arthur M. Farquhar, wrote of Scott, "Handles his ship v. well: a most excellent offr. & desirable in every way." The Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir Francis C. B. Bridgeman, expressed his concurrence in Farquhar's remarks.[18] On 24 March, 1909, he was appointed Naval Assistant to Bridgeman, now Second Sea Lord at the Admiralty.[19] He was also appointed a member of a Departmental Committee "to inquire into the question of numbers of the Military, Engineer, and Marine Branches which will be required in future."[20] The same year he announced his plans for a new Antarctic expedition which was to continue the work of the Discovery and to attempt to reach the Pole, following as far as possible the route by which Shackleton had reached lat. 88° 23' S. in January 1909.

Back to the South

With the financial support of the British and Dominion governments the Terra Nova was able to sail in June 1910, with Scott having been appointed to President, additional for command of the British Antarctic Expedition on the first of the month.[21]

Winter quarters were established at Cape Evans in lat. 77° 38' 24" S., 15 statute miles north of the Discovery's old anchorage. Before the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand she made a course eastward to King Edward Land, and discovered Roald Amundsen's Fram, which was landing a wintering party at the Bay of Whales on the ice barrier preparatory to making an attempt on the Pole. This news confirmed the announcement of his plans which Amundsen had made to Scott some months earlier. Scott set out on his southern sledge journey 1 November 1911. Several food and oil-fuel depôts had been laid in the previous autumn, the most southerly being One Ton depôt in lat. 79° 28' 53" S., 130 geographical miles from the base. Scott had hoped to put this depôt in lat. 80° S., but the condition of the ponies had compelled him to forgo the last 31 miles. After a few days march the motor sledges broke down beyond repair. This was inconvenient, but reliance was placed chiefly on ponies and dogs, which helped the transport to the foot of the Beardmore glacier. Here the last of the ponies was shot for food and the dogs were sent back with a supporting party (11 December).

Depôts for the return journey were established on the outward route. Heavy haulage and fierce blizzards delayed the explorers and extremely low temperatures taxed their endurance. On 4 January 1912, in lat. 86° 32' S., the last supporting party, consisting of Lieutenant E. R. G. R. Evans, R.N., and two seamen, left Scott to continue his journey to the Pole with Dr. E. A. Wilson, Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, Lieutenant H. R. Bowers, R.I.M., and Petty Officer Edgar Evans. In spite of the use of ski, pulling was heavy and progress slow. Temperature frequently fell to -23° F. and never rose as high as zero. On 16 January a flag was sighted, and Scott's anticipation of being forestalled by Amundsen proved true. On 18 January the Pole was reached. In the vicinity was a tent left by Amundsen with a note for Scott. The Norwegians had reached the Pole on 14 December 1911, and left three days later. Subsequent recalculation of Bowers's observations show that the possible error in the determination of the polar position was not more than 30".

In spite of bad travelling conditions fair progress was made on the return journey till the head of the Beardmore glacier was reached (7 February). Petty Officer Evans, however, was breaking down under the strain, and he died on 17 February. His weakness had entailed dangerous delay. On the barrier temperatures of -30° to -47° F. sorely tried the four men, weak from want of warm food. A shortage of oil in the depôts by evaporation through the stoppers of the tins was a serious and unforeseen calamity. Frost-bite made marching slow and painful. By the beginning of March it was a race against time to reach one depôt after another before the party's strength gave out. Progress was frequently interrupted by strong winds. On 17 March Oates, who was too badly frost-bitten to go any further, walked out into a blizzard, hoping by this sacrifice to allow the others to push on to safety. Four days later they camped in lat. 79° 40' S. eleven miles from One Ton depôt. There seemed to be a faint hope; but a long-continued blizzard put an end to all possibility of advancing. On 29 March Scott made the last entry in his diary: ‘We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more.’

In accordance with instructions a relief party with dog teams had set out from the base to meet Scott, but was held up by a blizzard at One Ton depôt from 3 to 10 March, when a shortage of dog food compelled a return. Eight months later a search party under Dr. E. L. Atkinson found the tent and the bodies. Scott's diaries, letters, photographs, and message to the public were recovered, as well as the valuable geological specimens from the Beardmore glacier, which, in spite of their weight, had been retained to the end. A snow cairn surmounted by a cross was built over the tent. Some months later a cross to the memory of the five men was erected at Observation Hill on Hut Point, Ross Island.

In addition to the polar journey, much valuable exploration was carried out, together with notable scientific researches. A party, under Lieutenant V. Campbell, unable to land in King Edward Land, was put ashore by the Terra Nova at Cape Adare and was moved in the second year to Terra Nova Bay. In face of great difficulties this party explored the coastal region of South Victoria Land and reached the expedition's main base in safety.

The news of the disaster to Scott and his companions did not reach Europe until February 1913 when the expedition finally returned to New Zealand. The achievement and the heroic end aroused world-wide admiration. A memorial service was held in St. Paul's Cathedral on 14 February, government pensions were awarded to the dependents of those who had perished, and Scott's widow received the rank and precedence of the wife of a K.C.B. A Mansion House fund was opened to commemorate the explorers, and devoted chiefly to the publication of their scientific results and to the foundation of a polar research institute at Cambridge.

Scott received the C.V.O. in 1904, the Polar medal (in that year also), and the gold medals of many British and foreign geographical societies. He also received the honorary degree of D.Sc. from the universities of Cambridge and Manchester. Statues of Scott, the work of Lady Scott, stand in Waterloo Place, London, Portsmouth dockyard, and in Christchurch, New Zealand, and there are busts, also by Lady Scott, at Devonport and Dunedin, New Zealand. There is a portrait plaque in St. Paul's Cathedral. A portrait by D. A. Wehrschmidt (Veresmith), painted in 1905, was deposited on loan in the National Portrait Gallery in 1924. Another portrait, bust size and posthumous, painted by C. Percival Small, was given to the Gallery by Sir Courtauld Thomson in 1914. A third picture, also posthumous, based upon photographs and painted by Harrington Mann, was presented to the house of the Royal Geographical Society by Scott's family.

Scott married in 1908 Kathleen, youngest daughter of Canon Lloyd Bruce, by whom he had one son.


  • "The Polar Disaster" (News). The Times. Tuesday, 11 February, 1911. Issue 401342, col C, p. 10.
  • Fiennes, [Sir] Ranulph (2003). Captain Scott. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0340826975.


Service Records

Naval Appointments
Preceded by
Clement Greatorex
Captain of H.M. T.B. 87
11 Jul, 1893[22] – 16 Aug, 1893[23]
Succeeded by
Arthur H. Tremayne
Preceded by
Harry Jones
Head of Trade Division
15 Jan, 1906[24] – 25 Aug, 1906[25]
Succeeded by
Henry H. Campbell
Preceded by
Godfrey H. B. Mundy
Captain of H.M.S. Victorious
25 Aug, 1906[26] – 2 Jan, 1907[27]
Succeeded by
Edgar G. H. Gamble
Preceded by
Edward S. Fitzherbert
Captain of H.M.S. Albemarle
2 Jan, 1907[28] – 25 Aug, 1907[29]
Succeeded by
William E. Goodenough
Preceded by
Robert J. Prendergast
Captain of H.M.S. Essex
25 Jan, 1908[30] – 30 May, 1908[31]
Succeeded by
Herbert J. O. Millar
Preceded by
Arthur C. Leveson
Captain of H.M.S. Bulwark
30 May, 1908[32] – 24 Mar, 1909[33]
Succeeded by
Bentinck J. D. Yelverton
Preceded by
Naval Assistant to the Second Sea Lord
24 Mar, 1909[34] – 3 Dec, 1909[35]
Succeeded by
William O. Boothby



  1. Dore, Jonathan (3 December, 2006). "Sunday Book Review." The New York Times.
  2. Preston. p. 22.
  3. The National Archives. ADM 6/469.
  4. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  5. The London Gazette: no. 25969. p. 4737. 30 August, 1889.
  6. ADM 196/88. f. 62.
  7. "The Naval Manœuvres". The Times. Monday, 10 July, 1893. Issue 33999, col D, p. 10.
  8. The London Gazette: no. 27211. p. 4433. 17 July, 1900.
  9. Fiennes. p. 133.
  10. The London Gazette: no. 27713. p. 5913. 13 September, 1904.
  11. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  12. Naval Intelligence Department. Distribution of Work.—February 1906. The National Archives. ADM 231/47. p. 4.
  13. "Admiralty. Old Building Whitehall. Sheet No. 2." National Museum of the Royal Navy.
  14. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  15. ADM 196/88. f. 62.
  16. ADM 196/88. f. 62.
  17. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  18. ADM 196/88. 62.
  19. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  20. Copy of letter of 5 May, 1909. "Interim Report of the Departmental Committee on the Future Requirements of Officers of the Military, Engineer, and Marine Branches." p. 2.The National Archives. ADM 116/881.
  21. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  22. "The Naval Manœuvres". The Times. Monday, 10 July, 1893. Issue 33999, col D, p. 10.
  23. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  24. Naval Intelligence Department. Distribution of Work.—February 1906. The National Archives. ADM 231/47. p. 4.
  25. Naval Intelligence Department. Distribution of Work.—February 1906. The National Archives. ADM 231/47. p. 4.
  26. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  27. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  28. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  29. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  30. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  31. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  32. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  33. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  34. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.
  35. Scott Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/42. f. 501.