Tuesday, 28 April 2015

P.O. Edgar Evans (Gower Society publication)

P.O. Edgar Evans   (Gower Society publication)

It was 11th February 1913, just ten months after the Titanic sank in the north Atlantic, while in Europe the threat of war loomed on the horizon.  On a sunny Tuesday morning three figures were on Oxwich beach in south Gower - fourteen-year-old Lilly Tucker, Mrs Lois Evans, and her youngest child Ralph, while her two elder children were at school in Rhosili.  Lilly’s father, Mr William Tucker of Pitton Cross Farm, had driven them by horse and cart to Oxwich to look for cockles, and intended to call back for them later in the day.  But only a few hours after his departure Lilly was surprised to see a familiar figure making his way across the beach towards them.  From his limp she knew it was her father, returning far sooner than planned.  He was bringing a telegram from New Zealand that had been forwarded on from Portsmouth: it informed Mrs Evans that her husband had died in Antarctica - in fact he had been dead for nearly a year.  Petty Officer Edgar Evans, born in Rhosili, had perished returning from the South Pole in February 1912, on what became known as ‘Scott’s Last Expedition’, officially called the British Antarctic Expedition.

Gower Background
The Gower peninsula is a site of ancient human habitation, for the Paviland caves  contained the earliest human skeleton found in the British Isles, the so-called ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ (actually the bones of a young man).  From both sides of his family  Evans’ roots were firmly in Gower.  His paternal grandfather, Thomas Evans, was a quarryman in Oxwich, for limestone used to be quarried from several of the south Gower cliffs and taken across the Bristol channel to fertilise the fields of north Devon.  Edgar Evans's father, Charles Evans, was a mariner, one of the Cape Horners who used to sail from Swansea across the Atlantic ocean and around Cape Horn, in order to obtain copper ore from countries on the west coast of South America, principally Chile, for refining in such works as those owned by the Vivians and the Grenfells in the Lower Swansea Valley.

On 24th July 1862, when aged 23, Charles Evans had married Sarah Beynon at St Mary's church in the village of Rhosili, near the tip of south-west Gower.  The parish at that time had 64 inhabited houses, with a population of 294.  Charles Evans's profession was given as mariner, with his residence being Oxwich.  His bride, Sarah, aged 22, was the daughter of William Beynon, licensee of the Ship Inn at Middleton, the hamlet next to Rhosili.  Charles and Sarah Evans lived in the village, where their first child was born in 1864, and they then moved to nearby Middleton and settled at Fernhill Top Cottage.  After three more children were born, into this family of two sons and two daughters Edgar was born on 7th March 1876.  At the time of her confinement, Mrs Evans was staying at nearby Middleton Cottage, home of her sister Elizabeth, married to shoemaker William Morgan. The birth was registered on 13th  April 1876, and Edgar Evans was baptised in Rhosili church at the end of that month.

By 1881 the family had moved to Pitton, the next hamlet to the east, for that year's census describes five-year-old Edgar as a scholar, then attending the village school in Middleton.

Growing up in Swansea

Two years later the family moved into the town of Swansea, as Charles Evans had ceased working as a Cape Horner, and was employed on the coastal routes of Bacon's Boats, which operated from Swansea's South Dock (now the Marina).  The Evans family lived in Hoskins Place (between lower Oxford Street and Singleton Street), and between the ages of seven and thirteen Edgar attended St Helen's school in the Sandfields area.  This school is proud of their famous old boy, for a picture of him hangs in the hall.  As a result of the 1874 Factories Act children from the age of ten could be employed as 'part-timers', and it seems that soon after reaching that age Edgar Evans would have worked in the mornings as a telegraph messenger boy based at the Head Post Office in Castle Bailey Street, beside the ruins of Swansea Castle, and spent his afternoons at school.  That Post Office building has since been demolished, but Evans’s picture (taken at the time of his wedding by photographer H.A. Chapman of 235 High Street) is displayed in Swansea's Royal Mail premises. Behind the Post Office the ground sloped down to what used to be the North Dock (later filled in with rubble from bombed sites after the Second World War).  At the height of Swansea's prominence as the centre of the copper industry, youngsters would wander around the North Dock which contained ships from all over the world, and occasionally have the opportunity to go on board.  After one such occasion Evans returned to his place of work soaking wet, having apparently fallen in the dock!  He  made light of his misadventure - probably because he had no business being in that area – but this indicates some resilience of character, for if he intended following his father into the Navy (albeit the Royal Navy) he could expect occasions when he would be wet through, with no prospect of getting dry or into dry clothing for some time.  From an early age Evans had shown an interest in going to sea, though his mother tried in vain to dissuade him.  She felt it was quite enough having one member of the family engaged in such a hazardous occupation.
In Evans’s final year at school, W.E. Gladstone, having been three times Prime Minister although then out of office, visited Swansea to open the new public library in Alexandra Road.  Boys marched from St Helen's school to attend the opening, though   they had surely dispersed to enjoy a half holiday by the time Gladstone delivered a speech on the question of Irish Home Rule!  After leaving school Evans worked in the Castle Hotel (on which site the ‘Varsity’ pub, formerly the Midland bank, was later erected), beside the statue of Lord Swansea (since relocated to near St Mary’s church).  The Castle Hotel had 36 bedrooms, employed 20 servants, and was patronised by captains of many of the copper ore barques, whose conversation about their voyages would surely have further fuelled Evans’s determination to go to sea.

The 1901-04 Discovery Expedition
When he was old enough, Evans applied to join the Royal Navy, only to encounter a problem when a medical examination in Bristol revealed one more decayed tooth than was permitted.  In spite of this Evans managed to obtain a special dispensation in order to join the Navy - which demonstrates the fifteen-year-old's determination.

After training in HMS Ganges, the training establishment for boy cadets in Falmouth, Evans served in various vessels before becoming a physical training instructor at HMS Excellent, the gunnery school in Whale Island, Portsmouth.  He was nearly six feet tall, weighed 150 lbs and was strongly built.  When serving in HMS Majestic, the flagship of the channel fleet, he advanced to Leading Seaman and then to Petty Officer second class.  There he came to the notice of a young torpedo lieutenant, Robert Falcon Scott.  When Scott was invited by Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, to lead an expedition to Antarctica, funded by that Society and the Royal Society, he aimed to include among the crew reliable seamen whom he had encountered in his naval career.  Evans was one whose release was requested from the Admiralty.

In August 1901, 25 year-old Edgar Evans sailed from Cowes, Isle of Wight, in the Discovery.  Barque-rigged and 172 feet long, she had been specially built in Dundee by Alexander Stephens & Sons, both for scientific work and to withstand Antarctic conditions, built of wood in order to yield rather than buckle under pressure of ice.  During three years away Evans acquitted himself well in alien conditions.  He was not involved in the journey that achieved the ‘furthest south’ - 410 miles from the South Pole: that comprised Scott with Dr Edward Wilson (who was to die alongside Scott on the second expedition) and Merchant Navy officer Ernest Shackleton.  During their second season in Antarctica, Evans accompanied Scott and Chief Stoker William Lashly on a two-month sledging trip which included 35 days on the Polar plateau.  At an altitude of 9,000 feet they had to contend with extreme wind conditions, with each man pulling a weight of around 170 to 200 pounds: Scott wrote that with Evans and Lashly pulling, the sledge they dragged along seemed ‘as a living thing’.  While a blizzard kept them snowbound for several days, they shared a three-man sleeping bag: Scott later commented that he learned more of life in the lower deck than he had hitherto in his naval career!  While making their way back to the Discovery, icebound at Hut Point, Scott and Evans fell down a crevasse; but being in harness were, with difficulty, hauled back to the top by Lashly.  In his published account of the expedition ‘The Voyage of the Discovery’, Scott noted that Evans commented ‘My word, sir, that was a close call!’, but no doubt Evans’s language was considerably more colourful.


When the Discovery returned to London in September 1904, the crew were given two months' leave.  Evans was among six seamen commended in Scott’s report to the Admiralty, and promoted to Petty Officer first class.  Within a few months the 28 year-old seaman was to marry his cousin, Lois Beynon, aged 25, daughter of his maternal uncle William Beynon, who had taken on the licence of the Ship Inn at Middleton.  Lois had a fine singing voice and was a prominent member of the choir of St Mary's church in Rhosili, often taking part in local concerts with the daughters of the former Rector.

By this time Evans was becoming well known and he was interviewed for the local Swansea newspaper, the South Wales Daily Post, which described him as being ‘reticent as to his own deeds and expansive as to the deeds of others’.  They quoted him as saying:

It's an uncanny feeling standing there, surrounded by everlasting snow, gigantic nunataks [isolated peaks of rock projecting above a surface of snow] all around you, and dead silence which is almost deafening.  Not a sign of life, no birds to speak of, only a melancholy seal to look at, and his blessed hide not worth a cent in the European market.  Six of us were chosen to do this trip, which was 300 miles from the ship, and lasted nine weeks and three days: but three went back.  We saw absolutely nothing.  We were 9,200 feet high on the ice-cap, and away towards the Pole was a range of unclimbeable mountains.  Nobody knows what lies behind it.

The marriage of this man, who had literally returned from the other side of the world, to a young woman known to both the churchgoers and to those who patronised the Ship Inn, created much interest.  The local newspaper reported:

Rhosili, Gower, was agog with excitement on Tuesday, the occasion being the wedding of Miss Lois Beynon, youngest daughter of Mr William Beynon, of the popular Ship Inn, and Mr Edgar Evans, son of Mr Charles Evans, of Paxton Place, Swansea, who has sprung into prominence by reason of the fact that he was one of the crew of the Discovery sent out for the purpose of Antarctic exploration.  The village expressed their well-wishes by firing a feu-de-joie, and Rhosili Church, where the marriage ceremony was performed by Rev. Lewis Hughes, Rector, was filled.  The bride, who looked very charming in crêpoline silk, trimmed with chiffon, with picture hat to match, and carrying in her hand an ivory-bound prayer book, the gift of the bridegroom, was attended by Miss Gladys Thomas (cousin) and Miss Aida Faull (niece) both of whom looked neat and pretty, and wore dress rings, the gift of the bridegroom. Mr Enoch Beynon (brother of the bride) acted as best man.  The service was fully choral, Mrs Henry Richards presiding at the organ.  The wedding breakfast was laid at the Ship, and later on the happy pair left for London, amid further firing by coastguardmen, farmers and others. The presents were many.

The Rector of Rhosili, Rev. Lewis Hughes, described Evans:

He is robust and courageous to a degree, and has during his voyage added much to his previous knowledge and attainments.  Like every truly brave man, he is far from being boastful, and requires considerable persuasion to make himself relate anything about himself.

Subsequently the couple moved to Portsmouth, where Evans trained to become a gunnery instructor, completing the training in one instead of the usual two years.  The contrast from rural Gower must have been acute for his wife.  There were no married quarters at that time for seamen, so they lived in the town, initially at 12 Walden Road in the district of Stamshaw, and then at 52 Chapel Street in the suburb of Buckland.  During the next five-and-a-half years - the sum of their married life together - they had three children - Norman, Muriel and Ralph.
Evans was evidently an effective gunnery instructor, for his gun crews won the Royal Naval Tattoo for Field Gunnery at London’s newly-opened White City in 1906, and again the following year.  He had a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, but always fair.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Shackleton, who had been invalided home from the Discovery Expedition, led his own Antarctic Expedition in 1907-09 in the Nimrod.  This achieved the first ascent of a polar mountain, reached the South Magnetic Pole, and found a route onto the polar plateau - which Shackleton named the Beardmore Glacier after his principal financial backer.  Without using skis or dog teams, Shackleton improved on Scott’s record (in which he had participated) by achieving the furthest south, before wisely turning back on 9th January 1909 when 97 miles short of the South Pole.  He commented that his wife would rather be married to a live donkey than to a dead lion.  This extrovert Anglo-Irishman returned to London to a hero’s welcome and a knighthood.

The 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition
Shackleton’s success spurred Scott, now promoted to Captain, to plan his second Antarctic Expedition, in order to complete much of the scientific work begun in the Discovery, but also to ensure that the British flag would be the first to fly at the South Pole.  The Discovery had been sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company, but the old Dundee whaler the Terra Nova, which had been used as a relief vessel in Antarctica in 1903, was purchased and fitted out for the British Antarctic Expedition.  Evans assisted at the rented offices in 36-38 Victoria Street, London.  To come off the Naval payroll was a risk, for finances for this Expedition were less than certain.  Unlike in 1901, neither the Royal Society nor the Royal Geographical Society were prepared to fund another Antarctic expedition, so what we would term ‘sponsorship’ had to be sought.  However a lengthy general election campaign from December 1909 was a major distraction from efforts to raise funds, and its inconclusive result, followed by the death of King Edward VII, further hampered fundraising efforts.

Lieut. Teddy Evans (no relation) was appointed second-in-command of the British Antarctic Expedition and unlike Scott he thrived on the challenge of addressing business communities in order to drum up support and seek funding.  He exploited a tenuous connection with Cardiff, building up a good friendship with Cardiff shipowner Daniel Radcliffe, who galvanised much local support (particularly from W.E. Davies, editor of the Western Mail), securing the provision of free coal and berthing facilities.  In recognition of this it was decided that Cardiff would be the Terra Nova’s home port.  On Monday 13th June, two days before sailing, the Cardiff Chamber of Commerce held a farewell banquet for the officers at Cardiff’s Royal Hotel in St Mary Street, while Evans and the seamen were entertained at nearby Barry’s Hotel.  The officers and businessmen had a 7/6d menu, while further down St Mary Street the seamen had a 2/6d one.  After the meal Scott summoned the men to join them for a smoking concert, where Edgar Evans, being from South Wales, was seated on the top table between Scott and the Lord Mayor (Cardiff had achieved city status in 1905).  When presented with a flag bearing the arms of the City of Cardiff, Evans made what The Cambrian newspaper described as a ‘breezy speech’.  Referring humorously to the prospect of bringing back ‘the Pole’, he remarked ‘We cannot put it in the Museum, but if we do bring it back I hope you will let it go to Swansea’ - which provoked cheers and laughter. 
Later Evans was one of four seamen who had to be assisted back on board the Terra Nova in a state of intoxication: significantly all the reports mention Evans being in this state, but none identify the other seamen – it was the man from Gower who stood out in any company!
His 22-year-old niece Sarah was shown around the ship in Cardiff’s East Bute dock by her uncle, and met Captain Scott, who gave her a biscuit of the sledging rations.  Speaking over 40 years later to Dr Gwent Jones for an article in Gower, Mrs Sarah Owen of Sketty recalled leaving Cardiff in a tugboat to accompany the Terra Nova out of the harbour on 15th June, while on the Gower cliffs near Rhosili relatives were watching out as the wooden vessel sailed down the Bristol channel. 

The Journey South
The vessel called at Funchal, Madeira, then at Simonstown, the naval base on the peninsula south of Cape Town, and at Melbourne, where Scott received the startling telegram from Amundsen informing him that his Norwegian expedition in the Fram would be going south.  Their original destination had been Arctic waters, but the North Pole had been reached by the American Commander (later Rear Admiral) Robert Peary in March 1909.  To his credit Scott determined to adhere to his plans, rather than be drawn into any ‘race for the Pole’.  From Melbourne the Terra Nova sailed to New Zealand, where Port Lyttleton near Christchurch became their southern hemisphere headquarters for a month, as it had for the Discovery and Nimrod expeditions.  Fresh supplies were taken on board, along with dog teams, ponies, and the remaining men, mainly scientific staff.  In attempting to re-embark after some heavy drinking Evans fell in the harbour and was dismissed from the Expedition, though later reprieved and able to embark at Port Chalmers.  During the perilous crossing from New Zealand at the end of November, the overloaded ship (whose Plimsoll line had been painted out) encountered a heavy storm and the pumps became clogged.  For two days there was  frantic baling out, with officers, scientists and seamen working side by side, until eventually the blockage was removed.  Approaching Antarctica it took twenty days to get through the pack ice, compared with just four in the Discovery.  Unable to find a landing place at Cape Crozier because of the swell, the Terra Nova entered McMurdo Sound and they landed at a bay which Scott named Cape Evans after his second-in-command.
Edgar Evans wrote to his mother on 3rd January 1911:

                                                                                                                Sailing Yacht Terra Nova

                                                                                         Cape Crozier

                                                                                    Victoria Sound

                                                                                                                       Antarctica.                                                                    3rd Jan 1911

My dear Mother

A few lines to let you know that we have arrived here safely after rather a long voyage.  Since leaving New Zealand we have had some pretty bad weather, which did some damage to the ship, and was also the cause of two ponies and one dog dying, but we got over that allright. 

After we got to the ice we had a job to get through it - it was so thick at  times we were completely blocked by it; it took us 19 days to get through 370 miles of it, the conditions were more severe than when I was down here before in the Discovery, but there is one thing, nothing seems so strange now as it did then, in fact the place looks quite familiar to me.   

Our programme is the main party is going to winter at Cape Crozier, that is 70 miles from where the Discovery wintered, and a small party will go to King Edward Land to winter and to survey that place (I belong to the main party); in all probability we shall start sledging in 3 weeks’ time, but it will only be to lay down depots for the long journey which will take place about next October: then the dash for the South Pole will be made and we hope to be successful.

It all depends on how we get on the first year as to how long we stay here but we hope only to be here about 15 months.  After the ship has landed the parties, she will go back to New Zealand and stay over the winter, coming down to us next December and I hope to have a letter from you then.

I am pleased to tell you dear mother that I am in the best of health and I hope this will find you all the same. 

We are very busy getting provisions etc out of the ship.

With love and best wishes to all,
        I am your ever loving son     

His phrase ‘but we got over it allright’ is significant, indicating that Evans always endeavoured to make light of perils and dangers, and having a mature attitude to 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune', rather than bemoaning his lot.  Evans used the same phrase in his log when as the ‘old hand’ with previous Antarctic experience he assisted three young scientists - Australian geologists Griffith Taylor and Frank Debenham, and Canadian physicist Charles Wright - on a four-week geological expedition in the Western Mountains and the Ferrar glacier.  Debenham, later Cambridge University’s first professor of geology and founder director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, commented:

Taff was quite at ease with officers and would never have felt the least barrier with his sledging companions, though he was always very correct in addressing them…. Taff was wonderful company, always cheerful and with a great fund of anecdotes. Even in our arguments over scientific matters he would break in with the most fearful and wonderful suggestions to send us into fits of laughter…. We got into one or two tight spots on that journey but he never showed any alarm and usually made a light joke in the middle of what looked like being a very risky job…. I would call him a first-rate sledging companion.

                                                     The Antarctic Winter 1911

Once the two pre-fabricated huts and supplies had been unloaded at Cape Evans (named by Scott in honour of Lieut. Evans), the Terra Nova returned to winter in New Zealand, leaving 28 members of the Expedition to prepare for the Antarctic winter of 1911, and for the Polar journey which would commence when  temperatures would permit the ponies to venture across the ice.  During that winter after the sun had dipped below the horizon there was much scientific work to do, and dogs and ponies to be exercised.  Photographer Herbert Ponting wrote:

In the mess deck Petty Officer Evans was the dominant personality.  His previous polar experience, his splendid build, and his stentorian voice and manner of using it - all compelled the respect due to one who would have been conspicuous in any company.

On 4th July Surgeon Lieut. Atkinson, a parasitologist, ventured outside the hut to investigate the parasites of fish.  When a blizzard sprung up and he did not return promptly, Evans took Irish P.O. Tom Crean with him to look for the officer.  When they returned without Atkinson, Scott organised search parties to go out in each direction – putting Evans in charge of the first one.  In fact Atkinson found his own way back to the hut, and Evans was photographed dressing the surgeon’s badly frost-bitten hand.  Atkinson probably had this incident in mind when, in a letter of condolence to Mrs Lois Evans of 31st January 1913, he wrote ‘Your husband on many occasions has shown me very great kindness…’

The Polar Journey 1911-12

On 1st November twelve men with ponies and dog teams set out from the hut at Cape Evans, following three who had started a week earlier with the two motorised sledges. A member of the Polar party faced a journey of 1,530 geographical miles, expecting to take five months.  Depots of food and fuel were deposited along the route to assist those who would return at various points to the base camp. By early January the dog teams had returned, the remaining ponies had been killed and their meat buried in food depots, and the sledges were man-hauled up the Beardmore Glacier.  On the Polar plateau at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Scott made his final selection from the remaining eight men, but instead of sending four men back and taking on a team of four, he sent back only three men, and took a group of five to the Pole.  To three veterans of the Discovery expedition - Scott himself, Dr Edward Wilson, who was chief of scientific staff, and Edgar Evans - were added dragoon officer Captain Lawrence Oates and marine Lieut. Henry Bowers.  This change of plan meant some adjustments, as the tents were designed for four men, not five, and food was packed in portions of four, so cooking for five would take longer and crucially more oil would be used.  But, unbeknown to Scott, when shortening the sledges along with Crean and Lashly (the other two seamen), Evans had incurred a hand injury which in those conditions did not heal, and this was to seriously impede the Welshman’s effectiveness.

They reached the South Pole on 17th January 1912, having discovered the previous day that they had been forestalled by the Norwegians, who had arrived there on 14th December.  Amundsen had managed to get dog teams onto the Polar plateau - thereby saving themselves much laborious man-hauling of sledges.  The famous photograph taken by Bowers (who pulled the string for the camera's shutter release) shows five men disappointed at not having achieved primacy at the Pole, exhausted by the intense physical effort of manhauling at altitude on the Polar plateau, suffering from frostbite and the effects of a diet deficient in vitamin C, with Evans also nursing a festering hand injury.  It had taken them two-and-a-half months to reach the South Pole, but the journey back – the equivalent distance of Land’s End to John O’Groats, taking at least two more months – must have been terrible as their condition weakened.  Descending the Beardmore Glacier in mid February, Evans collapsed and died near the Lower Glacier Depot, possibly from a brain haemorrhage brought on after falling into a crevasse a week earlier.  Still 400 miles from the base camp, his companions encountered freak weather conditions - temperatures as much as 10ºC lower than normal – as revealed by the research of American atmospheric scientist Dr Susan Solomon in her book ‘The Coldest March’.  With both feet badly frostbitten, Oates bravely limped on for some weeks until he crawled from the tent into a blizzard around 17th March.  About ten days later the three remaining men - Scott, Bowers and Wilson - perished through exhaustion, dehydration, starvation and the effects of extreme cold.  Being only eleven miles from the large depot of food and fuel known as One Ton Depot was largely irrelevant, as they could not have regained sufficient strength to reach the safety of the base camp (still a hundred miles away), nor survived the onset of the Antarctic winter.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Titanic set sail from Queenstown (now Cobh) in southern Ireland, bound for New York.

The Aftermath

On 12th November 1912 a relief expedition led by Lieut. Atkinson found the tent containing the bodies of those three men, along with Scott’s journal detailing what had happened to Evans and Oates.  The Terra Nova returned to Antarctica from New Zealand on 18th January 1913, exactly a year after the photograph of the five men at the South Pole.  After a memorial cross had been erected overlooking the base camp, the remaining members of the Expedition embarked and sailed for New Zealand, from where the tragic news was telegraphed across the world on 10th February 1913.  The impact of that news was as great as that of the Titanic disaster, although by contrast only five persons had perished instead of about 1,520.  As the Terra Nova entered Port Lyttleton that Tuesday morning, flags flew at half mast and men removed their hats in respect, prompting Cherry-Garrard to write, ‘We landed to find the Empire – almost the civilised world, in mourning.  It was as though they had lost great friends’.  Three days later King George V headed the mourners at a memorial service in London at St Paul's Cathedral, while many Gower and Swansea churches held services in memory of Edgar Evans.  His widow and her three children stayed temporarily in Falmouth House, Morriston (in the northern suburbs of Swansea), with Lois's sister, married to local iron merchant John Faull.  There she was visited on 4th May by Teddy Evans, promoted to Commander, and like Lois recently bereaved.  He motored over from Cardiff to give Lois Evans her husband’s diary and pocket book, being one of the three men who last saw her husband alive.  In February he had written to her from the Terra Nova about her husband that:

His ‘grit’ will for ever be an example to the lower deck, his ability was remarkable and I wish to convey to you from the whole Expedition our sorrow.  I also write to tell you of the admiration we felt for your dead husband. 

Lois Evans settled nearby in the village of Cwmrhydyceirw, naming her house Terra Nova.


In January 1914 a marble plaque which she had given was erected in Rhosili church in memory of her husband, bearing the inscription ‘To seek, to strive, to find and not to yield’ from the final line of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, as on the Antarctic memorial cross (albeit with the first two verbs transposed).  The outbreak of the First World War precluded further efforts for a local memorial, though in Cardiff’s Roath Park lake the names of the five men who died are on a plaque affixed to the clock tower in the form of a lighthouse, given in 1915 by F.C. Bowring of Bowring Brothers of Liverpool and Newfoundland, who had re-purchased the Terra Nova.  Further afield Evans was not forgotten, for in the 1950s New Zealand expeditions named three geographical features in Antarctica after him.  In 1964 a new accommodation block for petty officers in H.M.S. Excellent, Portsmouth, was named ‘in proud and honoured memory of Petty Officer Edgar Evans’.

On 17th February 1994, the 82nd anniversary of his death, a Civic Ceremony was held at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall with guest of honour Evans’s 87-year-old daughter Mrs Muriel Hawkins, and with several family members present.  The Lord Lieutenant of West Glamorgan presented to the City of Swansea a bust of Evans, commissioned by the Captain Scott Society of Cardiff.  This bust, carved in Gower by Philip Chatfield of white Italian marble, now stands in Swansea Museum.  The following year the City Archives published the biography Swansea’s Antarctic Explorer, and subsequently Evans has been the subject of a one-man drama Dead Men’s Shoes by Brif Gof, and of a melodramatic drama-documentary, Y Daith Olaf, shown in Welsh on S4C in 2001, and by HTV Wales in English as The Last Journey.

The long delay

It took many decades from the time of Evans’s death in 1912 until he was honoured in his home town of Swansea in 1994, through the initiative of the Captain Scott Society.  This long amount of time might have been, first, because he was a seaman whereas the other four men who died were all of officer class or similar status.  Yet Petty Officer Evans was an integral member of the Expedition from the outset - photographer Herbert Ponting described him as:

One of the leader's [Captain Scott’s] towers of strength... Nobody ever doubted, all through that winter, that Petty Officer Evans would be one of the ones chosen for the Pole.  The party selected by Captain Scott were the four men who possessed the most striking personalities. 

Just before they reached the South Pole, Captain Scott described Evans as:

A giant worker with a really remarkable headpiece.  It is only now I realise how much has been due to him ….. what an invaluable assistant he has been.

Second, some felt that he had neglected his family in order to seek fame.  When he sailed in the Discovery Evans had been a single man, but by the time of the Terra Nova he was married with three young children.  Those to whom the Admiralty granted leave to join the British Antarctic Expedition were off the Naval payroll throughout that time.  After two years away the Expedition funds were exhausted, so that by early 1913 his family in Portsmouth were in some difficulties.  Their relative William Tucker moved them to Gower to stay with Lois's parents at West Pilton Cottage, not long before the news came through of Evans's death.  Yet he had signed on to secure the future for his family, and the Expedition's financial problems were hardly his doing.  His father-in-law said of him: ‘He was a fine boy.  He was a good husband and a good son to his old mother’, and his widow Lois said, ‘He was a good husband and how fond he was of the dear children’.  Furthermore she said that her last communication from him comprised about 50 letters - covering a period of a year.  A person who, amid a busy schedule, made the time to write an average of one letter each week to his wife was surely well aware of his responsibilities as a husband and a father.  Had Evans remained on normal naval duties would a seaman’s life have necessarily been any safer than going a second time to Antarctica?

The first to die

The third possible reason was that the circumstances of his death may have led some to feel that Evans ‘let the side down’ by being the first of the five to perish.  There were two main reasons for his collapse.  Apsley Cherry-Garrard, sole survivor of the epic five-week journey with Bowers and Wilson to Cape Crozier for Emperor penguin eggs in the depths of the Antarctic winter, stated in his classic account The Worst Journey in the World (1922):

Evans's collapse ...may have had something to do with the fact that he was the biggest, heaviest and most muscular man in the party.  I do not believe that this is a life for such men, who are expected to pull their weight and to support and drive a larger machine than their companions, and at the same time to eat no extra food.  If, as seems likely, the ration these men were eating was not enough to support the work they were doing, then it is clear that the heaviest man will feel the deficiency sooner and more severely than others who are smaller than he.  Evans must have had a terrible time: I think it is clear from the diaries that he had suffered very greatly without complaint.  At home he would be nursed in bed: here he was crawling on his frost bitten hands and knees in the snow - horrible: most horrible perhaps for those who found him so, and sat in the tent and watched him die.  I am told that simple concussion does not kill as suddenly as this: probably some clot had moved in his brain.

His final sentence is borne out by the research of Dr A.F. Rogers, an expert in polar physiology who accompanied Sir Vivian Fuchs on the 1957-58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition.  His findings, published in The Practitioner in 1978, conclude that the diet of the Polar party was inadequate for the demanding physical work involved, and crucially deficient in vitamin C.  He felt that Evans may have been in the early stages of scurvy.  This can cause fragility in the blood vessels, so  Evans's head injury from his fall into a crevasse may have brought on a brain haemorrhage from which he died a week later.

But there is another aspect, for it was implied that Evans became insane at the end.  Commander Teddy Evans stated on 17th February 1913 in New Zealand:         

The rumour that P.O. Evans became insane is wholly baseless.  His illness was caused by privations and hardships, of which no man could be ashamed. 

The suspicion arose because Scott had written in his journal just before Evans died: ‘Evans has nearly broken down in brain, we think’.  There was no opportunity for Scott, writing in desperate conditions in the tent, to amend or enlarge on what he had written, as he might have done had he been able later to prepare his journals for publication.  Dr Rogers' later research throws light on his comment about Evans.  Furthermore in February 1993 Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Michael Stroud revealed the psychological pressures of a lengthy Antarctic journey.  They had travelled together in both Arctic and Antarctic conditions, had the advantage of current knowledge about vitamins and diet, and equipment as superior to that of Scott's men as that of modern mountaineers is to what Mallory and Irvine used on Everest.  Yet Fiennes spoke of irrational feelings of hatred towards his colleague during the march. The possibility of Evans’s mental collapse makes for good drama in Ted Tally’s 1980 play Terra Nova, but there is no hard evidence for this.

A combination of these reasons may have produced an initial reticence about honouring Evans in his home locality.  This was only dispelled with later research, which paved the way for the Captain Scott Society to initiate the Civic Ceremony in 1994 to honour the man from Gower.

Criticism of Scott

In the climate of character assassination of Great Britain’s deceased national heroes, Captain Scott was savagely criticised in 1979 in the book Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford, using a biased selection of material.  Though the late Sir Peter Scott successfully sued Huntford for defamation of his father’s character, those criticisms became widespread, especially when his book was televised in the seven-part series The Last Place on Earth in 1985, which was later made available on video.  Sue Limb, Captain Oates’s biographer, described Huntford’s book as ‘a masterpiece of iconoclasm’.  Yet if Scott was as poor a leader as some ‘armchair critics’ allege, would Wilson or seamen like Evans, Crean, Lashly, Heald and Williamson have so readily grasped the opportunity of returning to Antarctica under his command?  In his speech in Cardiff Evans said:

Every man in the ship has confidence in Captain Scott… No one else would have induced me to go there [to Antarctica] again, but if there is a man in the world who will bring this to a successful issue, Captain Scott is the man.

The British Antarctic Expedition, rather than being some bungled amateur enterprise, carried out valuable scientific research -  and reached the South Pole.  From the safety of Britain nearly a century later, and with the advantage of hindsight, it is easy to criticise Scott, especially when contrasting the different approaches of the Norwegians and the British to the challenge of travel in Antarctic conditions.  Compared with in the Discovery, things went against Scott in 1910-12 that could not have been foreseen – especially the appalling weather conditions.  For a judgement of Scott’s leadership one should turn to the man who comes nearest to standing in his shoes, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.  Unlike Scott’s critics, his 2003 biography Captain Scott has the authority of a leader who has experienced first-hand the immense challenges of sledge travel in Antarctica, and his objective observations merit serious consideration.


When the news of Evans’s death reached Swansea in February 1913, the Mayor said that the man from Gower ‘links this locality with one of the most heroic exploits of the British race’.  Though modern society is more wary of heroism and patriotism than post-Edwardian Britain, the story of Scott and his companions still evokes admiration as the centenary of the Terra Nova Expedition approaches.  Integral to this was the contribution of Petty Officer Edgar Evans, who lies buried in that immense continent of ice, far from the sea and so much further from his birthplace in Gower.

Fittingly Evans now has parity with his companions who perished in Antarctica, with  his own entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


An Edgar Evans walk (1-1½ hours)

Start from Rhosili church (GR 416881), where Evans was christened in 1876 and married in 1904, and where his wife Lois used to sing in the choir: notice the marble tablet inside on the north wall.  Walk along the main road with houses on the L, and on the R fine views over the fields to Worm’s Head.  In 400m Rhosili merges into Middleton.  At the junction before turning L, notice on the R Ship Farm: this was formerly the Ship Inn, where both Evans’s mother and his wife had lived.  Turn L and proceed uphill to pass on the R the Outdoor Pursuits Centre (formerly the village school) and cross the cattle grid.  A plaque on a house on the R indicates Evans’s birthplace, and further ahead the much altered Fernhill Top Cottage is where the Evans family lived before moving to Swansea.  Turn L onto Rhosili Down keeping to the R of the reservoir, and follow the path to the summit. 

The view ahead of Rhosili beach and Worm’s Head contrasts with that of the Polar Plateau in 1912, where for most of the time there was nothing to see.  To the right a trig point stands at 193m.  Turn left and follow the path downhill – some steps will appear on the R.  It was while descending the Beardmore Glacier that Evans injured his head, which precipitated his death.  Go through the swing gate up the track onto the Green.  Here the community’s Millennium Stone stands and the 1km marker of the Gower Way – the 56km linear route traversing the old Lordship of Gower.  Walk through the churchyard, noticing as you leave on the L Sailors’ Corner, for victims of numerous shipwrecks.  After emerging by the bus stop, walk past the car park and also on your L the National Trust Visitors’ Centre (in the former Coastguard cottages). 

Proceed through the gate onto the cliff path with views on the R across the bay to the tidal island of Burry Holms.  In the foreground the remains of the Helvetia are visible at low tide.  Evans had moved to Swansea by the time she ran aground in 1887, but he would have seen the wreck of this Norwegian barque on subsequent visits to his relatives in the village.  Continue along the headland to the old Coastguard Lookout building, where a stone marks the western end of the Gower Way.  Retrace your steps for 1km to the start at St Mary’s church. 

On the Antarctic journey those five men returning from the South Pole had needed to retrace their steps for 1,200km to reach the safety of the base camp…

(Adapted from Gower Walks by Ruth Ridge, 1991)                                                            


This is published during the 60th year of the Gower society. With thanks to Malcolm and Ruth Ridge for their editing and photography, and to those who have contributed illustrations and who have assisted my research.

Principal Sources

Cherry-Garrard, Apsley, The Worst Journey in the World (London, 1922)

Evans, E.G.R., South with Scott (London, 1921)

Fiennes, Ranulph, Captain Scott (London, 2003)

Gregor, G.C., Swansea’s Antarctic Explorer (Swansea, 1995)

Huntford, Roland, Scott and Amundsen (London, 1979)

Huxley, L. (Ed.), Scott’s Last Expedition (London, 1913)

Johnson, Anthony M., Scott of the Antarctic and Cardiff (Cardiff, 1990)

Limb, Sue & Cordingley, Patrick, Captain Oates, Soldier and Explorer (London, 1982)

Pound, Reginald, Scott of the Antarctic (London, 1966)

Scott, R.F., The Voyage of the Discovery (London, 1905)

Gower volumes VII (1954), XLIV (1993), XLV (1994)

Gower Church magazine

South Wales Daily News

Useful websites

Captain Scott Society               www.captainscottsociety.co.uk/edgarevans.html

Dundee Heritage Trust             www.rrsdiscovery.com   

Gower Society                         www.gowersociety.org.uk

Scott Polar Research Institute   www.cam.ac.uk/cambuniv/libmuseums/spri 

Swansea Museum                    www.swanseaheritage.net 

HMS Excellent                     www.memorials.inportsmouth.co.uk/others/excellent/evans.htm

 PETTY OFFICER EDGAR EVANS (for the South Wales Evening Post)
In February 2012 a Civic Service was held at St Mary’s church in Swansea on the centenary of the death in Antarctica of a Swansea seaman.  The man was Rhossili-born Petty Officer Edgar Evans, who died aged 35 during the fateful return journey of five members of Captain Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition from the
South Pole.  Although cruise ships visit Antarctica nowadays, to go there in the early 1900s was the equivalent of travelling into space, and to reach the South Pole the equivalent of landing on the moon.

Edgar Evans was the son of a Cape Horner, one of those seamen who would make the hazardous voyage around Cape Horn in barques to obtain the copper ore from Chile for smelting in the Lower Swansea Valley.  The family moved from rural Gower into Swansea when Edgar was aged seven, and he attended St Helen’s School in the Sandfields area.  A photograph of him as a young seaman hangs in the school foyer.  From the age of ten he worked part-time in the mornings as a telegraph messenger boy, based at the now demolished head Post Office that used to stand in front of Swansea castle, and which later became the offices of the Evening Post. 

Because of his work as a telegraph messenger boy, the Royal Mail premises on the Enterprise Zone display a photograph of him taken by H.A. Chapman at the time of Edgar’s marriage in 1904.

He entered the Royal Navy at the age of 16 and trained in Falmouth, becoming a Physical Training Instructor at H.M.S. Excellent in Portsmouth.

He was chosen by Captain Scott for the pioneering expedition to Antarctica in the Discovery, from 1901 to 1904.  During this time Edgar demonstrated his reliability, strength and loyalty, and Scott subsequently kept in contact with him about availability for any future expedition.

Edgar had married his cousin Lois Beynon at Rhossili in December 1904, when the Rector  said: ‘Like every truly brave man, he is far from being boastful, and requires considerable persuasion to make him relate anything about himself.’  The wedding attracted attention from the South Wales Daily Post (later to become the Evening Post), since a prominent member of the church choir was marrying a person who literally had returned from the other side of the world!

Edgar and Lois had three children, all born in Portsmouth, where Edgar was a gunnery instructor.  His gun crews won the Royal Naval Tattoo for Field Gunnery at the White City in 1906, and again the following year.  When Captain Scott announced that he would be leading the British Antarctic Expedition in 1910, as many as 8,000 persons volunteered.  No one doubted that the man from Gower would be selected, because of his experience, character and competence.

Through the generosity of the Cardiff business community in helping to fund the expedition, it was from Cardiff that the Terra Nova sailed in June 1910, to continue the scientific work begun in the Discovery, and to attempt to reach the South Pole.

Once landed in Antarctica in January 1911, Edgar (having experience of travelling and camping in that environment) assisted three scientists on a month-long geological expedition in the Western Mountains.  A member of that party, Frank Debenham, later first Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, and founder director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, recalled: ‘Taff Evans was wonderful company, always cheerful and with a great fund of anecdotes. Even in our arguments over scientific matters he would break in with the most fearful and wonderful suggestions to send us into fits of laughter…. We got into one or two tight spots on that journey but he never showed any alarm and usually made a light joke in the middle of what looked like being a very risky job’.

Although no one knew who would comprise the final group of men to go to the South Pole, Herbert Ponting, the expedition photographer, said: ‘In the mess deck Petty Officer Evans was the dominant personality.  His previous polar experience, his splendid build, and his stentorian voice, and manner of using it - all compelled the respect due to one who would have been conspicuous in any company’.

The journey from the Base Camp to the Pole was roughly equivalent to Land’s End to John O’Groats (and the same distance back).  Sixteen men set out in November 1911, some of whom laid depots of food and fuel along the route before returning to the base.  Thus those who reached the Pole needed to pull only sufficient food and fuel on the sledge along with their tent to get from one depot to the next.  Captain Scott included Evans in the final party to press on to the Pole.  He described Evans as: ‘A giant worker with a really remarkable headpiece.  It is only now I realise how much has been due to him ….. what an invaluable assistant he has been’.

But the effort of hauling a sledge at an altitude of 10,000 feet on the Polar plateau was immense, and their rations were inadequate for the hard physical work involved.  The largest man – Edgar Evans - had the same rations as the others, so he felt the deficiency keenly.  The diet was deficient in vitamin C (modern knowledge of vitamins is subsequent to their leaving Cardiff), which exposed them to the danger of incipient scurvy.  With conditions abnormally cold (as shown by the research of American atmospheric scientist Dr Susan Solomon in ‘The Coldest March’ in 2000), they succumbed too easily to frostbite.  Edgar had cut his hand in shortening the sledge from 12ft to 10ft before reaching the Pole, and in that hostile climate the wound did not heal.

A month after they reached the South Pole – having discovered that the Norwegians under Roald Amundsen had got there before them - Edgar collapsed after a fall descending the Beardmore Glacier, and he died on 17 February.  As incipient scurvy produces fragility in the blood vessels, he may have had a brain haemorrhage.

Scott’s returning party encountered freak weather, impossible to predict, on the Great Ice Barrier.   After Captain Oates, suffering from gangrene in both feet, crawled out of the tent to his death in a blizzard, the three remaining men, Captain Scott, Dr Wilson and Lieut. Bowers died of starvation and exhaustion in the tent around 29 March.  After the end of the Antarctic winter, their frozen bodies were found in November 1912, with Scott’s journal detailing what had happened to Edgar Evans.

The news of the tragedy caused a tremendous outpouring of public grief, with estimates of over 10,000 people standing outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where King George V headed the mourners at the memorial service.  In Gower memorial services for Edgar were held at churches in Ilston and Rhossili, and in Swansea at St Mark’s Waun Wen, Mount Pleasant Baptist, Capel Gomer in Orchard Street, among many others.  The Mayor of Swansea said: ‘Edgar Evans links this locality with one of the most heroic exploits of the British race’.

When the Terra Nova returned to Cardiff in June 1913, his widow Lois was among those who met the ship.  The following year the memorial plaque to Edgar Evans was erected inside Rhossili church, and a clock tower in the shape of a lighthouse was erected in Roath Park, Cardiff, bearing the names of the five men who had died.

Plans to honour Edgar’s memory were sidelined by the catastrophe of the First World War. 

Subsequently New Zealand expeditions named three geographical features in Antarctica after him, and in 1964 a new building in H.M.S. Excellent in Portsmouth had a plaque stating ‘This building is named in proud and honoured memory of Petty Officer Edgar Evans, who gave his life returning from the South Pole.’

But some people suspected that as Edgar Evans was the first to die, his collapse might have impeded his companions from returning safely to the base camp.  Did the big Welshman let the side down?  This was unworthy of serious consideration, for as early as 1922 a member of the expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in his classic work ‘The Worst Journey in the World’, pointed out that as a big man on the same rations as the others Edgar would have suffered acutely from insufficient rations that were inadequate for smaller men.

More recently the experiences of Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Mike Stroud (an expert in Polar physiology) show that a large person is not ideal on Antarctic journeys, needing more food to keep going.

But had Evans’s deterioration slowed the others down crucially?  When he died, the worst of the journey was past, with three quarters of the 1,600 mile journey done, and the men had finished with pulling the sledge at the high altitude on the polar plateau where they had spent over two months.  Ahead lay 400 miles of travel across the Great Ice Barrier to the Base Camp – being approximately 240 miles to the large depot of food and fuel called One Ton Depot, then about another 160 miles to the Base Camp.  When Edgar Evans died survival was within their grasp. 

The Cardiff-based Captain Scott Society commissioned sculptor Philip Chatfield to make a bust of Edgar Evans; this was carved in Gower from white Italian marble and presented to the City of Swansea at a civic ceremony at the Brangwyn Hall in 1994, on the anniversary of Edgar’s death, with his 87-year-old daughter Mrs Muriel Hawkins present as guest of honour.  The following year Swansea City Archives (as it then was) published the book ‘Swansea’s Antarctic Explorer’ by G.C. Gregor, and in 2008 the Gower Society brought out a smaller colour publication ‘Edgar Evans of Gower’. 

Early in 2012 Edgar was the subject of a three-month exhibition at Swansea Museum, and the HTV programme ‘A Forgotten Hero’.  On the centenary of his death there was the Civic Service at St Mary’s church, and the new book ‘Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant: Edgar Evans’ by Dr Isobel Williams has brought his achievements to a wide audience.

Petty Officer Edgar Evans was a person of whom Swansea and Gower can be proud, whose memory was further honoured with a bi-lingual blue plaque on his birthplace near Rhossili.



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