Monday, July 7, 2014

How Cardiff Remembers Two Torontonian Explorers

UK TOUR DAY FOUR (CARDIFF): The Royal Hotel. Cardiff. This is where I'm staying on the second leg of The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. It's the oldest hotel in the city — a Grade II listed heritage building from the 1800s right in the heart of the Welsh capital. I've come here because 100 years ago, this is where one of the most famous stories in all of British history began. And that story included two Torontonians.

The story starts back in the summer of 1910. Cardiff was buzzing. Everyone was talking about a ship docked down at the bay. The Terra Nova. Latin for "Newfoundland". She was originally built in the late 1800s by a Scottish company; hunting seals in the frigid waters of the Labrador Sea. But she was eventually bought by a company from Newfoundland: Bowring. They were a ship-based company back then, but they're still around today, having morphed into a chain of Canadian-owned gift shops. You can still find a few of them in Toronto; more than a dozen in the GTA. And more than a century later, their logo is still an image of the Terra Nova.

The ship did more than hunt seals, though. She was built to withstand the relentless onslaught of arctic seas, and had been used to rescue two polar expeditions: an American expedition trapped in the Canadian arctic for two years, and a British one that got stuck in Antarctica. That British expedition was led by Sir Robert Falcon Scott — one of the most famous explorers from "The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration". A few years later, he decided to try again. This time, he hoped to become the very first human being to ever reach the South Pole. And to get there, he was going to use the Terra Nova

That's why the ship was in Cardiff. Scott had convinced Bowring to sell him the Terra Nova temporarily. It was in Wales to load up on coal and other supplies. He and his crew would sail the ship to the bottom of the world and then spend two years in Antarctica, recording important scientific observations and making a push south to the Pole. All for the glory of the British Empire.

Charles Seymour Wright was the expedition's physicist. He'd been born and raised in Toronto. His family lived on Dovercourt, then on Crescent Street in Rosedale. He studied at Upper Canada College — even became head boy — and then went on to get his degree at the University of Toronto. He did so well there that he earned a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied radiation and became very good friends with another student, Thomas Griffith Taylor. Taylor was an Englishman who spent much of his youth in Australia, but he was eventually going to end up in Toronto, too: a couple of decades later, he founded the Geography Department at U of T and spent 15 years there as a professor.

The Terra Nova heads out of Cardiff Bay
It was while they were at Cambridge that Wright and Taylor both decided to become polar explorers. At a dinner one night, Taylor met another towering figure of the Heroic Age — Sir Douglas Mawson — who just happened to have returned from the Antarctic. It was Mawson who told the young men about Scott's planned expedition on the Terra Nova and urged them to sign up. So they did.

Taylor was immediately hired as the expedition's senior geologist. But Wright's application was rejected. Still, he wasn't about to take no for answer. When they got the bad news, the two friends walked all the way from Cambridge to Scott's office in the middle of London — 100 kilometers away — so that Wright could plead his case in person. Scott was so impressed that he hired Wright after all. He, too, would be on the boat when it sailed south from Cardiff.

The expedition had plenty of ties to Wales. A Welshman was part of the crew — and the second-in-command had Welsh roots that he used to gain Welsh financial support for the adventure. Cardiff responded by embracing Scott's expedition like no other city in the world. Welsh businesses donated money and coal and oil and cooking utensils. They convinced the Welsh politician David Lloyd George (a future Prime Minister of Britain) to give Scott a government grant of £20,000. Welsh schoolchildren even donated Scott's sleeping bag. In return, the Terra Nova used Cardiff as her home port, loading up on supplies and doing some last minute fundraising before sailing south. And when she did, she was flying the Welsh flag. Thousands of people lined the shores of Cardiff Bay to watch her go and cheer her on her way.

It was the beginning of one of the most epic tales in all of British history.

The men of the Terra Nova spent two years living in some of the harshest conditions on earth. They froze in temperatures that sometimes plunged below −60°C. They were battered by storms with winds so strong that pebbles were picked up off the beach and hurled through the air. They starved. They were poisoned by their own contaminated food. They fell through the ice. They slipped down crevasses. They were hunted by killer whales. They endured months of nothing but darkness, only to go snowblind when the summer sun finally did return. They dragged equipment and supplies across the ice for hundreds of kilometers, their bodies ravaged by frostbite, their faces blackened by the cold.

And in the end, they failed.

Scott took four men with him on the final leg of the journey to the South Pole. And when they got there, they discovered an abandoned tent and a Norwegian flag were already waiting for them. The Scandinavian explorer Roald Amundsen had beat them by a few weeks. "Great God!" Scott wrote in his diary, "this is an awful place..."

Charles Seymour Wright in Antarctica
The trip back to camp was an even bigger disaster. They spent weeks dragging their exhausted, starving, frost-bitten bodies back across the icy plateau and down one of the biggest glaciers in the world. Their toes and feet turned black. Fingernails were lost to the cold. When they reached the bottom of the glacier, the Welshman — Edgar Evans — collapsed and died. A few weeks later, a second man — Captain Oates — decided that he was only slowing the others down. One morning, he simply walked out of the tent to die. "I am just going outside," he told the others, "and may be some time." It's still one of the most famous lines in British history.

The last three surviving men carried on for another few days. But just a few kilometers from the next cache of supplies, they ran into yet another snowstorm. They waited for the weather to clear, but it was too late. They couldn't go any further. "We shall stick it out to the end," Scott wrote in the final entry in his diary, "but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God's sake look after our people."

It was the Torontonian, Charles Seymour Wright, who found the bodies. As part of the search party, he spotted the tent half-buried in the snow. Inside, he found the dead men along with their diaries and photographs. That documentation helped turn the Scott expedition into one of the most famous tales in British history.

And so, today, more than a hundred years later, you can still find traces of the Scott expedition in places all over Cardiff. That's in large part thanks to the Captain Scott Society of Cardiff, who have dedicated themselves to preserving the memory of the expedition. Today, as soon as I arrived at the Royal Hotel, I had coffee with the Chairman of the Society, Julian Rosser. I gave him a copy of my dreams for Charles Seymour Wright and we chatted, among other things, about some of the ways the Scott Expedition is remembered in places around Cardiff.

Thanks to the Society, the Royal Hotel has a new blue plaque dedicated to the farewell dinner that was held here in 1910. The room where the dinner happened is still called The Scott Room. They say some of the wood on the walls came from the Terra Nova. Artifacts from the expedition are on display in the National Museum of Wales. There's a memorial to Scott and his men in Cardiff City Hall. There's a lighthouse dedicated to their memory in a Cardiff park. The Terra Nova's binnacle is on display in the historic Pierhead Building right on Cardiff Bay. The Terra Nova restaurant is just 100 meters away. And across the water, in the town of Penarth, there's a road called Terra Nova Way.

There's another memorial on Cardiff Bay, too. It's a striking white monument that stands next to the lock where the Terra Nova sailed off into history. It's right outside the Norwegian Church — a reminder of the expedition's tragic failure. And it was commission by the Scott Society before being giving to the City of Cardiff. It shows Captain Scott, his men and the Terra Nova being swallowed up by an abstract swirl of snow and ice. In the middle of the sculpture, you'll find a hole. The shape of that hole is meant to remind you of the mouth of an ice cave. In fact, it's meant to remind you of one ice cave in particular. It was the setting for the expedition's most iconic photograph. Through the cave in the photo, you look out onto the Antarctic ice. In the distance, you can see the Terra Nova — that hardy ship from the waters off Newfoundland — waiting on the frigid sea. And in the cave itself, you can see two small figures. The Torontonians. Thomas Griffith Taylor on the left and, on the right, Charles Seymour Wright:

The Scott memorial sculpture, Norwegian chapel
A dream for C.S. Wright
Julian Rosser, Chairman of the Scott Society
The Captain Scott Room, Royal Hotel
A dream for C.S. Wright in the Captain Scott Room
Blue plaque for Scott at the Royal Hotel
Memorial lighthouse at Roath Park Lake
A dream for C.S. Wright at Roath Park Lake
The Pierhead Building
Cardiff Bay


I've already written a more detailed version of the story of the Charles Seymour Wright and the Scott Expedition on Spacing here.

Read more posts about The Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour and the connections between the history of Toronto and the United Kingdom here. I'll be posting lots more during the trip! And you can follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too.

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