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Frozen In Time

Edward Adrian Wilson, one of Cheltenham’s greatest heros. crack

If Cheltenham has produced an outstanding man, it must surely be Edward Adrian Wilson. Today he is known to most people for dying along with Scott during their 1911-1912 expedition to the South Pole. It was a return journey of 1,532 miles undertaken on foot. Ponies sank into the snow up to their bellies and had to be shot and fed to the sledge dogs. The men were buried in snow drifts and blizzards ripped their tent away during the night. Sleeping bags froze like planks and had to be hacked open. Edward Wilson and Captain Robert Falcon Scott and their men were plagued by the lowest temperatures ever withstood by human beings. But there was much to Edward Wilson, who, having suffered from tuberculosis, seemed an unlikely candidate to suffer the things that hardly anyone could endure during what Cherry Garrard called The Worst Journey in the World. Garrard had survived because he had not been picked by Scott to be among the five men for the last leg of the journey to the South Pole.

Edward Adrian Wilson was born on Montpellier Terrace in 1872. His father was an eminent Cheltenham physician and we have him to thank for bringing clean drinking water to the town. Just outside Cheltenham his mother bred poultry and farmed all the vegetables for the family which grew to ten children. Edward’s parents noticed that their three year-old son had a passion for drawing, but also that he had a fierce temper. The boy they called ‘a queer little fellow’ had a sharp tongue and violent emotional outbursts which led him into wild fights with boys from rival schools. His school reports were peppered with the words ‘he refuses’ which earned him much punishment. Aged nine he announced that he preferred walks in the country with his father to all other things and that he was going to become a naturalist. Aged eleven he began lessons of taxidermy. When his mother took on The Crippets, a larger farm, just across Leckhampton Hill near Shurdington, Edward went to Cheltenham College as a day pupil, whose school motto (above) seems to have been modelled on what he achieved in his lifetime. At night he returned to the farm where he roamed in search of wildlife and anything else collectable he could study and sketch. A special favourite were birds eggs. He even spotted a Golden Eagle at Prestbury during that time. As a teenager he explored most of Wales on foot, drawing and recording everything he found.

After studies of medicine at Cambridge he was appointed Junior Surgeon and Zoologist to the British National Antarctic Expedition. During this period photography was too poor to capture either colour or accurate details of nature. Only drawing and wildlife painting were adequate and Edward Wilson excelled at it for detail, scientific understanding and sheer hard work. He produced prodigious amounts of work. His watercolours of the Antarctic scenes are astonishingly accurate in both colour and detail and Wilson was truly the last of the great expedition artists.

In all his projects and in the preparations for the expeditions he was supported by his wife Oriana. She even sewed and embroidered his sledging flags. They had married two days before the departure of the Discovery in 1901, Wilson’s first expedition with Scott and Shackleton. Their honeymoon lasted one day and the wedding guests toured the ship that was due to leave the next day. During the 1901-2 expedition the Discovery was trapped by the ice for the whole of the summer and Wilson did some of his finest watercolours of the frozen wastes, as well as his superb studies of the Emperor Penguins. But one great goal remained for him. He wanted to capture the eggs of the Emperor Penguin to study the embryos in the early stages of development.

The Worst Journey in the World

On June 15th 1910 Wilson sailed from Cardiff on the Terra Nova, posting home his drawings from wherever the ship docked. Captain Scott joined the ship in South Africa. They were still

raising funds for the expedition at this point. On the 29th November 1911 the expedition members left New Zealand, sailing south to the Great Ice Barrier and past the vast ice plain. They made a balloon ascent to gage the scale of it as no one had ever seen it. Scott’s great rival, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen informed Scott that he was sailing South, thus deliberately challenging Scott to a race for the South Pole first.
Almost from the moment Scott’s men arrived luck was not on their side. Fierce storms raged, the pack ice delayed them and they found themselves 30 miles off target from their main supply depot. News came that the Norwegian had reached the South Pole and claimed it for himself. Scott decided to stick to the plans for his expedition. Wilson sketched and painted all along the ships journey. He reported that the ship rolled so much that his paint, paper and water were flung around the cabin as he worked.

Chasing the Emperor’s eggs

Edward Wilson, an expert ornithologist, was on a mission to collect the eggs of the Emperor Penguin, laid only in the midst of the Antarctic winter. The embryos, he hoped, would prove the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. At that time it had been thought that penguins were birds.
For the last leg of the journey Scott picked four men to accompany him to the South Pole, Capt. Titus Oates, Dr.Edward Wilson, Lieut. Henry Bowers and P.O. Evans. They climbed the Beardmore Glacier, the longest in the world. It stretches over 100 miles, is 40 miles wide and lies 10,000 above sea-level. Because of its heavily crevassed surface Scott could not bring animals to pull the sledges. Evans, who had kept quiet about infected cuts to his hands nevertheless remained with the others. At the South Pole they found the Norwegian flag.

Sunk in the snow up to his knees, with frostbite on his hands and snow blindness, Wilson continued to sketch. Every morning, getting ready in temperatures of -60C, the men struggled for four hours with their frozen, snow-encrusted sleeping bags and clothing which now weighed twice as much. Then, on the ice, they saw their first brooding Emperor Penguins. They collected five eggs, two of which broke in transit. They had to kill three penguins to use the animals’ blubber in their stove. On the return trek a blizzard blew away the roof of their igloo as well as their tent, leaving them lying in the open, praying till daybreak. The next night they tied the tent to their bodies.Evans, who had suffered a head injury during a fall into a crevasse, collapsed and died soon after, leaving Scott, Wilson, Bowers and Oates to carry on. But they were immobilised for days on end by the raging blizzards. They ran out of food and fuel. In a last letter to his wife, Edward Wilson told her where she would find his personal items.

At last Titus Oates could stand the pain of frostbite no longer and uttered the famous words: ‘I’m just going outside and may be some time.’ He disappeared into the blizzard and his body was never found.

Edward Wilson, Scott and Bowers were found by a search party on the 12th November 1912. It is believed they died in March 1912. The three bodies were found in the tent just 11 miles from their depot. Bowers lay in his sleeping bag, Scott’s arm was reaching for Edward Wilson who sat with smile on his lips, facing the exit. The search party collapsed the tent over the bodies and built a cairn topped by a cross. Travelling on a train in New Zealand his wife Oriana heard newspaper sellers on a train platform announcing her husband’s death.
After the deaths Scott was blamed for being unrealistic and ill-prepared for the journey. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who had probably stood on skis before he could walk. He knew that dogs pulling the sledges performed much better than ponies as they were more resilient to the harsh conditions, more agile, lighter and much less likely to sink in the snow and ice. Amundson returned safely. The fact that Scott’s men pulled the sledges themselves for hundred’s of miles undoubtedly contributed to the sad outcome of the expedition.

In 1914 the Edward Wilson statue was erected in the Long Gardens on the Promenade in Cheltenham. He left behind invaluable documents in the shape of his drawings of the discoveries he made during both expeditions. When a memorial service was held at St.Paul’s in London 10,000 people were left standing outside as the cathedral was already full to bursting.

You can help save Capt. Scott’s hut

Scott’s hut is currently the subject of an important conservation expedition by the UK and New Zealand Antarctic Heritage trust. Excavation of a large amount of snow and ice has revealed 300 important new artefacts. The race is on to preserve the structure of the hut and the fragile artefacts. You can find all the details to save this important part of our history on the internet via google or you can buy a packet or two of Captain Scott’s Strong Tea at Tesco’s who will give 5p for every box purchased towards the conservation campaign. More recently David Attenborough, despite his age, travelled to both Poles. Perhaps we shall see him do so in one of his excellent television programmes.

Edward Wilson at the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum

There are a number of exhibits in the museum. Photographs of Edward Wilson are displayed as well as some of his work and personal items such as a rather frighteningly large fur suit to guard against the cold, though I don’t recall seeing the men wearing such clothing on their expedition to the South Pole. Wilson’s seal skin slippers, his honey jar, a fork and his knife are on display. There are postcards on sale in the museum shop. Children can also join in and colour sheets depicting Wilson’s penguins and other drawings.

The Life of Edward Wilson, by D.M.Wilson & D.B. Elder, £9.99 (available in bookshops or at the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum shop)

This slender volume is a poignant record of Edward Wilson’s life and work. I fell in love with it, not only because of the heroic account of such a remarkable man, but also because of the immense quality of his drawings, his watercolours and the meticulous records he made of everything he discovered. There was nothing brash about him, as is the case of so many posturing ‘TV explorers’ today. An unceasing curiosity drove him to investigate the world around him, wherever he found himself. The amount of work he produced was truly staggering, often with frostbitten fingers or on a ship rolling in a storm. His last letter to his wife, written as he knew he was dying of hunger and cold is one of the most moving ever written.