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Collections blog

Pole to Pole – Polar exploration in Poole Museum’s Collection

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 08/10/2020 17:50:03

This month’s blog explores (pardon the pun) the museum’s collection to identify objects relating to polar exploration, and there are some oddities and surprises that’s for sure.

We begin with a ship that lies scuppered in Holes Bay and has quite a reputation, including as a slave ship and ghost ship; the ‘Lady of Avenel’.

Built in Falmouth in 1874, she worked as a freight ship transporting granite from Cornwall and may even have made the journey to Labrador to transport salt cod, much like many of Poole’s own vessels. The ‘Lady of Avenel’ didn’t arrive in Poole until the late 1930s, when she was owned by J. Hughes, a Merchant Naval officer.  She was used as a ‘paying guest’ ship, a floating hotel I guess, until war was declared in 1939 and Hughes left to serve King and Country. The ship was anchored in Wych Channel but during a storm she came loose; it was feared she would damage other vessels. She was towed into Holes Bay and Hughes removed all the important bits and pieces before deliberately sinking her for safety. There had been plans to re-float her after the war, but she had fallen onto her own anchor and split her hull. Despite several attempts to raise and repair her since, she sadly sits in the mud of the bay.

Her connections to polar exploration come from her voyage in 1920, when she reached Spitzbergen and became the first ship to sail so far north towards the Arctic from a Southern British port. In 1925 she was selected by Commander F. A. Worsely and explorer Grettir Algarson to launch an expedition to the Arctic Circle, though they renamed her ‘Island’. They succeeded in their expedition and the ship made history again by getting closer to the North Pole than any other ship.

After this spectacular adventure the ‘Lady of Avenel’ retired and was purchased as a pleasure yacht, named ‘Virgo’, before being refurbished back to her original appearance and once again renamed with her original name. Eventually, the ‘Lady of Avenel’ ended up in Poole, and, as already mentioned, experienced a rather undignified end considering her great achievements. Thankfully, many objects on board were saved before the ship entered its permanent slumber in Holes Bay. The brass binnacle from the ship sits proudly on our first floor. I can’t say whether it took part in those great explorations in polar waters, but I’d like to think so. We also have doors, door handles, rigging blocks, numerus photographs, deck plans, a painting by Arthur Bradbury, 4 model ships and much more.

In 1901 the British National Antarctic Expedition took place and used the RSS Discovery as its base. It was a joint venture between the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, and brought several individuals into the limelight, especially Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. The expedition made important discoveries in many fields and increased our understanding of Antarctic geography, zoology and even magnetism. Although we don’t have anything from this expedition in our collection, we do have a great model of RSS Discovery, complete with little people aboard ship, and a collectable card from a pack of cigarettes depicting the preparation of sleds.

However, when it comes to Scott’s subsequent, and more famous, Terra Nova Expedition, we have something quite unique. Officially designated as the British Antarctic Expedition, the expeditions between 1910 and 1912 produced many more important discoveries and were part of a multinational race to the South Pole. When Scott and his party arrived at the pole, they discovered Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had arrived first, some 5 weeks earlier. It was on the return journey that things took a turn for the worse. Scott continued to write his diary for as long as possible and it contains accounts of the deaths of his companions; the last entry was made on 29th March 1912, assumed to be the date of his death. Scott’s body and those of Edward Wilson and Henry Bowers, who died in the tent alongside him, were not recovered until eight months later when the more accommodating spring allowed for easier passage. The bodies of Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates were never discovered.

Aside from the dramatic tragedy of the deaths many important scientific discoveries were made, and the intended scientific studies completed. During the expedition, Albert Balson of Bridport, and later Poole, was a leading Seamen on ‘Terra Nova’ and also acted as one of the mission’s divers. It was during the Terra Nova Expedition that he collected the unborn Weddell Seal pup that is in our collection today. We don’t know if he preserved the specimen himself or whether it was done by the scientific team on board as a momento of his time with the expedition. As you can imagine, not everyone has something from the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1912! This is a very important thing and we’d love to know more; if you have any information we can add to our records, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

So that’s that, our little delve into the icy waters of polar exploration and another exciting edition of the Collections Blog comes to an end. Join us again next month for more slightly interesting musings…

The items pictured are:

Top (left to right) – Two ship models of the ‘Lady of Avenel’, the binnacle of ‘Lady of Avenel’, collectable card depicting the Discovery Expedition

Bottom (left to right) – Unborn Weddell Seal collected during the Terra Nova Expedition, Ship model of RSS Discovery, a block from ‘Lady of Avenel’

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