Today’s post was prompted by an excellent set of images of R.R.S. Discovery by Mark Simms on his blog last Monday. The ship, which is now a museum in Dundee, Scotland, took Robert Falcon Scott‘s first Antarctic expedition to the Southern Continent in 1901.
Like the old whalers before her, the Discovery was built for her purpose down to the last plank. Her designer was W.E. Smith, one of the Chief Constructors at the Admiralty. Nearly all his working life had been spent in building wooden ships. He was one of the last two men in the Service of whom that could be said. The Discovery’s frame of solid English oak, twenty-six inches thick, was made to resist tremendous side stresses. Her bows were fortified to a degree beyond anything known in wooden ship construction. Some of her bolts were eight feet long, running entirely through wood. She was considered a masterpiece of specialized shipbuilding, a verdict that time was to modify.
Her overhung stem ensured that when she charged into pack ice it was lifted two or three feet until the ship’s weight acted with a downward force that cracked the floe and made a passage for her to move forward to the next obstacle. There was less enthusiasm among the shipyard critics at Dundee for her peculiar stern, intended to buffer the rudder in heavy ice. Some were prepared to bet that it would collapse under stress; in fact, it served the vessel well in several seaward crises.
Early in June 1901, the Discovery was towed to London to be berthed in the East India Dock.
Visitors to the ship who asked Scott to face their box Kodaks observed that he liked his pet terrier Scamp to be in the picture. Scamp was sailing with him. No such favour was shown to the East End cats that had taken up quarters in the ship. A last-hour count revealed the number to be thirty-two. It was reduced to one by a ruthless concerted drive organised by the stewards.
‘Scott of the Antarctic’, Reginald Pound, 1966.
When the expedition returned to England in 1904, Discovery was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company to cover expenses. She carried munitions to Russia during World War I and, with peace restored, spent several years on charter work. A refit in the 1920s revived her career and she was lent to the BANZARE expedition at the end of the decade, which took her back to Antarctic waters.
She was laid up in London as a training ship for Sea Scouts by 1936. Taken over by the Admiralty in the ’50s, she became a familiar sight berthed in the Thames at Victoria Embankment (at left in 1970) but her condition declined over the next 20 years. The Maritime Trust saved her from the scrap yard, restored the old ship, and added her to their vintage collection at St Katherine’s Dock. Unfortunately that venture was a finacial failure and the fleet was dispersed around the country in 1986. Discovery, quite rightly, went back to Dundee where it all began.