skip to primary navigation skip to content

SPRI logoScott Polar Research Institute

Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


Scott Centenary 29th March 2012 – St Paul’s Cathedral

Scott Centenary 29th March 2012 – St Paul’s Cathedral

The Captain Scott centenary was marked at St Paul's Cathedral on 29th March 2012.

Bishop of London's sermon from the Scott Remembrance Service at St. Paul's Cathedral

Lord God, give us the courage to strive, to seek to find and not to yield for the sake of Jesus Christ who through the suffering of the cross became the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen

It appeared to be the end but it proved to be the beginning. On this very day 100 years ago Captain Robert Falcon Scott made the last entry in his immortal journal. “It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. For God’s sake look after our people.”

Eight months later, Wilson and Bowers were found in the attitude of sleep. Scott died later. He had thrown back the flaps of his sleeping bag and opened his coat. The little wallet containing the three notebooks was under his shoulders and his arm flung across Wilson.

The Memorial Service was held in this Cathedral in the presence of the King and the Prime Minister and it is good to record that this City and the nation did not forget the families of those who had died.

Scott was especially concerned for his son, Peter, and wrote to his wife and to Peter’s godfather J.M.Barrie about him. “Make the boy interested in natural history if you can” and “Make him a strenuous man. I had to force myself into being strenuous as you know.” Peter Scott as we know was to fulfil his father’s hopes and among many other achievements was responsible for creating the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Today we assemble once again in this Cathedral in glorious sunshine which makes such a poignant contrast to the conditions which Scott and his party endured. Simply surveying this great congregation and the bodies you represent brings to life a picture of the astonishing legacy of the Terra Nova expedition. The 29th of March 1912 appeared to be the end but it proved to be the beginning of what we celebrate today.

100 years ago Antarctica was the last great unknown wilderness; now it is the largest laboratory in the world. Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans with the other members of the Expedition played a foundational role in bringing to light the scientific significance of the continent. They also helped to inspire the drafting of the Antarctic Treaty which guarantees the integrity of the continent as a place of peace and scientific research, as far as possible uncontaminated by the rubbish that we have made of much of the rest of the natural world.

There are 39 distinguished representatives of the states that have ratified the Antarctic Treaty participating in today’s service. The diversity of the places from which you come reflects the international character of Scott’s own team which included not only men from a number of English speaking countries but men from Russia and Norway as well.

The scientific and institutional legacy has been very rich. Scott’s expedition laid the foundations of modern polar studies and has stimulated scientific progress up to our own day. Observations, data and samples collected by the scientists accompanying Scott helped to test the evidence for evolution. They made a contribution to the development of the theory of continental drift. And the work continues. Frank Debenham one of Scott’s geologists founded the first Institute devoted to polar studies in any university. The Scott Polar Research Institute is a living memorial which carries on the multi-disciplinary work which Scott and his friends pioneered. Antarctica as we all know is in particular a crucial place for climate science where it is possible to extract ice cores which illuminate the history of the earth’s climate over 800,000 years.

In yet another field Herbert Ponting’s work set new standards in photographing nature. His evocative pictures were recently exhibited in the Queen’s Gallery, very appropriately since his expedition film was the first to receive a Royal Command performance and one could say that he was the pioneer who blazed the trail for the enthralling work of Sir David Attenborough.

As well as professional scientific research, thousands of young people have had their lives transformed by participating in the expeditions of the British Schools Exploring Society founded by Murray Levick of Scott’s Northern party.

This congregation is a comprehensive refutation of the notion that the race to the South Pole was the central theme of the Terra Nova expedition. While we also honour Amundsen and his brave companions, Scott’s journal reveals that he foresaw as early as October 1911 that the Norwegian explorer would reach the Pole first. He notes that “I decided at a very early date to act exactly as I should have done had he not existed. Any attempt to race must have wrecked my plan, besides which it doesn’t appear the sort of thing one is out for....only I’m afraid that you must be prepared for the chance of finding our venture much belittled.” It was only too truthful a prophecy. How did so many people become so cynical that they could not recognise genuine heroism and disinterested scientific curiosity and instead wasted their time in a search for clay feet?

The bodies of three friends together in their tent under the cairn wait like some latter day Arthur and his knights in the heart of the frozen continent. The bodies of Evans and Oates who had sacrificed himself in an act of undemonstrative courage have never been found.

Courage is another part of the legacy which we have received – courage fortified by a sense that we are serving ends greater than the preservation of our own individual existence.

Scott’s journal for January 1911 records, “We all assembled on the beach and I read Divine Service, our first service at the camp and impressive in the open air.” Hymn singing improved as the expedition entered the Antarctic winter and we began this service with one of Captain Scott’s favourites.

The wilderness is a great searcher of souls. As Scott wrote in May 1911 “I do not think there can be any life quite so demonstrative of character. One sees a remarkable reassortment of values. Under ordinary conditions it is so easy to carry a point with a little bounce; self-assertion is a mask which covers many a weakness. Here the outward show is nothing; it is the inward purpose that counts. So the “gods” dwindle and the humble supplant them”.

Scott paid special tribute to Wilson as someone who embodied the life of a spiritually evolved human being. Writing to Wilson’s wife he said – “If this letter reaches you, Bill and I will have gone out together....His eyes have a comfortable blue look of hope and his mind is peaceful with the satisfaction of his faith in regarding himself as part of the great scheme of the Almighty.” Wilson’s well-worn Book of Common Prayer is one of the items preserved in the Polar Museum in Cambridge.

Courage is the expression of our deepest being and reaching after it may involve the sacrifice of many desirable things – pleasure, comfort and even existence itself. But life in all its fullness only opens up when we have found the courage to confront death and to reach out for our deepest and truest selves. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

Scott and his friends still call to us to live our lives courageously conscious of our part in a drama whose author is God. T.S. Eliot finds the words to convey the message to us from those who went before us one hundred years ago:

“Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”