The Widows of Captain Scott’s Doomed Antarctic Expedition | History Hit

The Widows of Captain Scott’s Doomed Antarctic Expedition

Anne Fletcher

10 May 2022
Scott's party at the South Pole: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson and Evans
Image Credit: Henry Bowers (1883–1912), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 10 February 1913, the news of the death of ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ broke around the world. Scott and his team had been beaten to the South Pole by a matter of weeks by Roald Amundsen, and all five perished on the way home.

Scott’s body was found lying between Dr Ted Wilson and Henry Bowers, just 11 miles from base. Edgar Evans and Captain Oates were never found. All were declared heroes of the British Empire, dying for their country in the pursuit of knowledge. But they were sons, husbands and fathers too.

When Scott lay dying, he had written his final words, “for God’s sake look after our people”. Uppermost in his mind were the three women who would now be widows. This is their story.

The five men left three widows

Kathleen Bruce, a bohemian artist who had studied under Rodin in Paris and loved to sleep under the stars, had married Scott in 1908, only two years before he left on the expedition. Their son Peter was born the following year in the middle of planning and fund-raising.

Oriana Souper, a vicar’s daughter, had become the wife of deeply religious Ted Wilson in 1901. Just three weeks later, he left on Scott’s first Antarctic expedition. Long separations became their norm.

Kathleen Scott on Quail Island, 1910 (left) / Oriana Souper Wilson (right)

Image Credit: Photographer unidentified, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (left) / Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (right)

Lois Beynon married her cousin Edgar Evans when he returned a local hero from Scott’s first expedition in 1904. In their home close to the naval base in Portsmouth, Lois gave birth to their three children: Norman, Muriel and Ralph.

They weren’t all thrilled at the prospect of the Antarctic expedition

Hearing of Scott’s planned expedition, Kathleen was hugely enthusiastic. She had married a polar explorer and she did not want anything to stand in his way. Oriana was never happier than when at Ted’s side, but when he decided to join Scott again in 1910 to complete his scientific work, she could not object. They both believed that the expedition was God’s plan. Lois had always known that if Scott asked Edgar to return, he would go. He believed that being first the pole would bring them financial security, and so she reluctantly waved him goodbye.

They did not like each other

There was no love lost between Oriana and Kathleen. Oriana’s life was founded on faith and duty, and she could not understand Kathleen’s lifestyle. Kathleen, conversely, thought Oriana was dull as ditchwater. Their husbands had got them together, fully expecting that their wives would get on as well as they did but it was a disaster.

Both women sailed as far as New Zealand with the expedition, but after several months onboard the ship and with the stress of impending separation, there was an almighty row between Kathleen, Oriana and the only other wife on board, Hilda Evans.

They weren’t the first to hear of their husbands’ deaths

Letters to and from Antarctica took weeks to arrive and there were lengthy periods of no news at all. Sadly, this meant that the men had been dead for a year by the time their wives found out. Even then they were not the first to know.

Observation Hill memorial cross, erected in 1913

Image Credit: User:Barneygumble, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Kathleen was at sea on her way to a reunion with Scott and it was nine days before news of the tragedy could be cabled to the ship. Oriana was in New Zealand travelling by train to meet Ted and as it pulled into Christchurch station, she heard of his death from a newspaper seller shouting out the headlines. Lois, the only one still at home, was tracked down in the wilds of Gower and doorstepped by journalists.

Lois was hounded by the press

Lois experienced the worst of the press’ fascination with the story. On the day she heard of Edgar’s death, she had to talk to journalists who turned up unannounced at her house. They intercepted her older children on their way home from school, photographing them when they did not know their father was dead.

Soon Lois had to defend Edgar, too. He was blamed for slowing down the others, with some claiming the four ‘English gentlemen’ might not have died if it weren’t for him. This theory was fuelled by the widespread belief that the working classes were physically and mentally weaker. It was an accusation that coloured not only Lois’ life but those of her children, too. They were bullied at school.

The public gave money to support the families

Under normal circumstances, Lois would never have met Oriana or Kathleen. She was not the wife of an officer and so it was never an option for her to travel to New Zealand too. Besides, she had three young children and not enough money to survive on while Edgar was away. After the tragedy, millions of pounds were raised in a public appeal, but money was awarded to the widows according to their rank and status. Lois, who needed the most, received the least and would always struggle financially.

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Oriana lost her faith

Oriana’s belief in God’s plan for Ted survived his death but could not survive World War One. Working in the hospitals set up for wounded New Zealanders, she saw its horrors firsthand. Some of Ted’s Antarctic crewmates died or were dreadfully wounded during the conflict, and when her favourite brother was killed at the Somme, she lost her faith.

Kathleen became a celebrity in her own right

Kathleen was empowered by her fame and used it to defend Scott’s legacy for the rest of her life. She had not been a conventional Edwardian wife, but now she played the hero’s widow perfectly, at least in public. Kathleen kept her upper lip stiff and declared that she was proud of her husband. She did the job so well that her closest friend George Bernard Shaw believed that she had not loved Scott and felt no pain. This was far from the truth. There were many nights and many years of crying into her pillow.

Anne Fletcher is a historian and writer. She has a successful career in heritage and has worked at some of the most exciting historic sites in the country including Hampton Court Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Bletchley Park and Tower Bridge. She is the great-great-great niece of Joseph Hobson Jagger, ‘the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’ and he is the subject of her book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, published by Amberley Publishing in 2018. Her search for his story started with only a photograph, a newspaper article and the lyrics of the famous song. The story was featured in national newspapers. Fletcher is also the author of Widows of the Ice: The Women that Scott’s Antarctic Expedition Left Behind, published by Amberley Publishing.

Anne Fletcher