At the start of the 20th century most of the far places of the world had been explored. Only the Polar regions, bound in ice and well-nigh impenetrable, remained to be conquered. Captain Scott led two expeditions to the Antarctic, on the ship Discovery in 1902 and the Terra Nova in 1911. He and his men waited out the long months of winter darkness, carrying out scientific research, and then used the brief summers to explore the uncharted continent, culminating in 1911 with their ill-fated journey to the South Pole, forever etched on the national consciousness.
The South Polar Times was a magazine created by members of Captain Scott’s expeditions to entertain themselves during the four months of Antarctic winter. Typed up, and illustrated with paintings, sketches and photographs, each issue was read aloud to all hands. They contain a mixture of the ‘grave and gay’, serious reports on the weather or fauna interspersed with cartoons, songs and articles that gently poke fun at members of the expedition. Together the material gives us an unsurpassed sense of their community: legendary personalities such as Scott, Shackleton, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard, as well as scientists and ordinary seamen, all of whom had been inspired to travel to the furthest reaches of the earth and risk their lives.
Scott’s intention has been fully realised in this painstaking and exact reproduction of all 12 issues of the South Polar Times. The original manuscripts, typed by the various editors, illustrated with drawings, watercolours and with photographs printed by Herbert Ponting in his Antarctic darkroom, have a thrilling immediacy. Opening the facsimile is to feel oneself in direct contact with the group of men who began the first great scientific exploration of Antarctica. It conveys an unsurpassed sense of the camaraderie that supported them, the patriotic vision that inspired them and the stoicism and courage that enabled them to endure and make light of terrible privations.
The history of exploration in Antarctica continues to fascinate us, but the dramatic ‘race to the Pole’ and tragic death of Scott and his companions has overshadowed much of what the expeditions were really about: scientific study, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and a desire to test oneself against the most extreme conditions on earth. The South Polar Times offers an insight into the daily conditions, tasks and amusements of the expedition that is more evocative than any history book or biography. We can see Scott’s meticulous plans and calculations, the work of adapting the sledges, sewing reindeer skins for sleeping bags, practising skiing, exercising the animals and worrying over rations – activities which give the lie to some ill-informed criticisms of Scott as an ‘amateur’ who did not prepare properly or who scorned Inuit knowledge of survival in Polar conditions.
Perhaps even more valuable than this window into the past is the light it sheds on the outlook of the expedition members which – 100 years and two world wars later – is at once familiar and strange. Edwardian society was still rigidly class-bound, while rank was naturally paramount in the Royal Navy. Although the expedition members functioned as a close and devoted team, and all contributed to the South Polar Times, we are reminded of how deep social divisions remained. Wilson drew sledge flags and heraldic devices for the officers and scientists, not for the petty officers or other ranks. Patriotism is a dominant note in many of the poems, which speak of ‘England’s pride’ or ‘Britons to a man’, despite the fact that many of the crew were from Australia, New Zealand and even Norway. Trivial details, however, prove revealing of how much the group did share culturally: popular music-hall songs rewritten with new lyrics that the men sang together; a pastiche of Walt Whitman’s poetry; and an account of their own expedition as recently decoded papyrus leaves – a spoof on the great Rosetta Stone controversy.
The South Polar Times is a powerful piece of history that shows us a heroic age in incomparable detail. The editions are beautiful and interesting in their own right: Scott, Shackleton and Bowers were all extremely talented writers, while Wilson was an excellent artist, and many others tried their hand at silhouettes, sketches and cartoons, including Lieutenant Barnes and Leading Stoker Arthur Quartley. Our modern fascination with the magnificent, lonely beauty of Antarctica is the legacy of the words and images left to us by these pioneers.
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Ann Savours, the acknowledged authority on Polar publishing, wrote a greatly admired commentary on the final volume of the South Polar Times for the Scott Polar Research Institute, which was first published in 2010. With her assistance, we have reorganised her extensive material to provide a commentary on all 12 volumes.
Savours has identified the authors of each article (they were originally published under pseudonyms) and written fascinating biographies, as well as listing the landmarks named after them. Who could not admire Lieutenant Barnes, for instance, who despite frostbite so severe that he later had a leg amputated, dived into icy waters to rescue a sailor during an Atlantic gale, had a ship sink under him during the First World War and served on anti-submarine patrols in the Second?
Savours has a gift for selecting anecdotes and diary passages that bring the expedition members as vividly before the reader as the caricatures in the South Polar Times itself. She has added explanatory notes that allow us to understand the private jokes of the small community, including the nicknames for expedition members (Bowers was ‘Birdie’ because of his beak-like nose) and the allusions contained within the mock heraldic devices and sledging flags – the motor engineer Bernard Day’s Latin motto was Dies lucifer, which translated means ‘Day is the bearer of light’, because he was the man called upon when the lighting in the hut broke down. Scrupulously researched, lavishly illustrated – with photographs from the major Polar expeditions, further examples of Polar publishing and more of Ponting’s spectacular work – and highly enjoyable to read, this commentary is a wonderful accompaniment to the magazines themselves.
Limited to 1,000 sets.
12 issues, reproduced in facsimile for the first time as individual volumes. The pages are sewn and bound in card using the ‘ota’ binding technique.
Printed in full colour to match the original typewriter-ribbon colours.
With numerous watercolour paintings, caricatures, silhouettes, photographs and maps.
The handmade nature of the original has been carefully followed, including a tipped-in fold-out map and tracing paper to protect the photographic prints.
Presentation box is covered with cloth and fastened with a magnetic clasp.
Accompanied by a comprehensive commentary volume.
The collection is 1224 pages in total, whilst the commentary is 232 pages.
Collection size: 10¾" X 8⅛"
Commentary size: 11" X 8¼"
View extracts from the South Polar Times with this interactive PDF.
View letter from Production Director Joe Whitlock Blundell, with this interactive PDF.
Review by mcwhitehead on 26th Mar 2013
"As an avid reader of exploration adventures, especially the polar regions, once I received the example pack I immeditately ordered this special edition. I love this set along with it's companion volu..." [read more]
Review by turracoo on 1st Dec 2012
"What a privilege it is to own this collection. I have always been fascinated by polar exploration and when the chance came up through the society to own this limited edition, I did not think twice. It..." [read more]