Saturday 5 September 2015

14 Petty Officer Edgar Evans

14. Edgar Evans (photos: plaque, St Helen’s/Chapman photos, Discovery, sledging)- 5 Sept 2015

In south-west Gower a blue plaque in memory of P.O. Edgar Evans hangs outside his birthplace, Middleton Cottage near Rhossili.  Yet at West Glamorgan Archives a book entitled “Swansea’s Antarctic Explorer” shows that this Gower seaman has been closely identified with the town itself.  

When Edgar was aged seven the family moved from Gower to Hoskins Place, off lower Oxford Street.  His father had secured work with Bacon’s Boats, later taken over by Coastlines, whose warehouse is now part of the Waterfront Museum.  Edgar attended St Helen’s School in Vincent Street, which has a framed photograph of their famous former pupil.  The 1870 Education Act permitted pupils to undertake a form of “work experience” during their last two years of schooling, so from the age of 11 Edgar worked part-time as a telegraph messenger boy at the Head Post Office.  This used to stand on the green in front of Swansea Castle, and messenger boys would begin each day with drill before starting on their errands. 

The Head Post Office moved to new premises in Wind Street (now Idols Bar), at the corner of Green Dragon Lane.  A photograph of Edgar taken by H.A. Chapman of 235 High Street used to hang above the counter there, and more recently it hung in the Royal Mail premises on the Enterprise Park.

In Castle Street, on the site where the Midland Bank (later HSBC, and now the Varsity Bar) was built, stood the Castle Hotel.  Edgar worked there after leaving school until he was old enough to join the Royal Navy.  As the Hotel was patronised by captains of the copper ore barques, he doubtless overheard conversations that further motivated him to seek “a life on the ocean wave”. 

In 1904 Edgar was interviewed for the South Wales Daily Post, by then based at the building in front of Swansea Castle vacated by the Post Office.  He had returned from the “Discovery” expedition to Antarctica, and been commended in Captain Scott’s report to the Admiralty.  To go to Antarctica in those days was akin to how later generations would regard journeying to the Moon.  The newspaper report described him as being “reticent as to his own deeds and expansive as to the deeds of others”.

At St Mary’s Church Rhossili Edgar married his first cousin Lois Beynon, daughter of the licensee of the Ship Inn (now Ship Farm), where the wedding breakfast was held.  The Gower Church Magazine commented that “he is one of those who are likely to do great things and make his mark in the world”. 

This strong Welshman stood beside Captain Scott in the famous photograph taken at the South Pole in January 1912, but a month later 35-year-old Edgar was the first of the five men to die on the return journey.

Swansea Museum contains a white Italian marble bust of him carved by Philip Chatfield, and presented to the City by the Lord Lieutenant at a civic occasion in 1994 in the Brangwyn Hall.  Guest of honour was Edgar’s elderly daughter Mrs Muriel Hawkins of Gorseinon, who had last seen her father when she was three years old, before he embarked on the fateful voyage from Cardiff in the “Terra Nova”.   

In 2012 St Mary’s Swansea held a Civic Service on the centenary of his death, while Swansea Museum hosted a fine exhibition about Edgar.  Also at the Museum Dr Isobel Williams’ book “Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant: Edgar Evans” was launched, which authoritatively refutes suspicions that he initiated the catastrophe by being the first to perish in those appalling conditions.

Swansea as well as peninsular Gower honours this seaman who did make his mark in the world, and who lies buried at the foot of Antarctica’s Beardmore Glacier.

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