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Speech at the Jubilee Tea, by the Chairman of the Friends

Speech at the Jubilee Tea, by the Chairman of the Friends

There have been several requests for copies of the Chairman's speech at the Diamond Jubilee Tea on April 29th 2006. As the speech was made from notes, rather than read, the following is a reasonably accurate rendition of the occasion, rather than a verbatim transcript.

Sixty years ago, the then Director of the Institute, Lancelot Fleming, took a decision to give structure to the Institute's supporters. It was envisaged that the new 'Friends of the Institute' would be a catalyst, giving focus to those with an interest in the polar regions and promoting polar studies, through support for the work of the Institute. Increasingly, such interest was moving out of the small circle of the descendants, members and supporters of the early 20th Century's polar expeditions into the wider population, partly, of course, as a result of their work. The Friends would draw polar people together.

Of course, sixty years ago, the new Friends would have found a very different Institute. For a start there were hardly any employees - I believe that there was one member of staff - and whilst being a part of the University, the Institute received little support. In these lean post-war years, the Friends played an essential role in the development of the unique modern Institute which we find today.

Early on, the Friends' newsletter noted that: "The prestige of the Institute largely depends on the quality and nature of the research undertaken and the material available for research in the form of books, files and collections together, of course, with the personal capabilities of the staff itself." - a summation of the recipe for success at the Institute which is as valid today as it was when it was written. Most importantly, however, it also summarises the role of the Friends, for it is one aspect of this recipe that the Friends have always undertaken as our special responsibility; the provision of the materials of research "especially in the form of books, files and collections" is a task which we have undertaken with vigour.

In our earliest days, this provision was very basic: we provided the materials to develop the first lecturing facilities through the gift in 1946 of a Ross Edidiascope (the cost was £62.14s equivalent to £1,732.44 today). This was our first gift to the Institute, which is the lantern slide projector which you can see displayed over there. We also provided much of the basic furniture from chairs to filing cabinets. By 1951 the Friends were providing 7% of the Institute's annual income. As late as 1958 we were still providing the basics, with the gift of the Institute's first new fangled device called a photocopier - and the profits from its use came to the Friends (I wish that was still the case today!). We even provided that most essential of items for entertainment, a sherry decanter and glasses, at the princely sum of £22.2/6 (£344.47 today).

At the same time, of course, the Friends have always striven to ensure that important polar materials come to reside safely in the Institute for the benefit of scholars. As the University increasingly took over the more prosaic day to day provisioning of the Institute, the Friends' attention became increasingly focused on providing the materials of research through the provision of the Institute's collections, along with providing scholarly and public access to them. An enormous percentage of the Institute's library books, photographs and archive collections have been provided through the Friends - either donated by members, or via the persuasion of members, or with Friends monies. Examples include items as diverse as sketchbooks and artworks by Sir George Back, John Ross, George Marston and Edward Wilson; portraits of Shackleton, our founder Prof. Frank Debenham (commissioned); important collections of letters from Parry, Shackleton, Peary, Markham, Captain Oates, Sir John Franklin or Captain Scott; diaries of Frank Browning, of Wild, of Worsley, of PO Evans and Bowers; important books and libraries, for example the purchase of the Tanner Library or the Breitfuss Collection; and the acquisition of artefacts such as the Scrimshaw collection & the Drayton Egg, purchased from the Norwich Museum for £665 (£9,321.84); and of course, the photographic collections, the most recent addition to which was the acquisition of the original glass plate negatives of Herbert Ponting, to which we contributed £15,000.

Many of the items that we have taken a role in saving for the nation are amongst the most iconic, the Ponting photographs being the most recent example. I wonder however, how many of you recall that in 1955 we also played a key role in saving a fragile film that Mrs Rowett presented to the Institute, which turned out to be the only remaining positive copy of the film "South", the now famous film of Shackleton's adventures aboard Endurance. This ended up in the National Film Library for practical reasons of conservation but the Friends contributed £31.17/6 to the restoration of the film (£613.89 today), which has since been seen by millions of people around the world.

We should also recall, of course, that the Friends have often started projects that went on to become successful parts of the Institute's work, independent of the Friends - what we might call 'Friends' seeding'. We supported Polar Record for many years and other Institute book publications, as well as the oral history programme. We set up an Expedition Fund which was eventually transferred to Gino Watkins Fund. We founded the Museum shop producing the first Christmas and post cards in 1957 - indeed, much of our activity from then into the 1990s was spent on the shop, which I am glad to say is today a very successful department of the Institute independent of the Friends, for it pre-occupied us for many years. We have also supported the building appeals to give better access to the Institute's collections: for the new building in the 1960s; and for the Shackleton Memorial Library more recently - and, of course, we have held other special appeals, of which we recall the William Mills Library Acquisitions Fund in particular today.

From the start, we have held the Friends' Saturday night lecture series and put on plays, concerts, dramatic readings, film shows and of course, parties. We held a Friends' Sherry party for the 50th Anniversary of Terra Nova sailing from New Zealand, attended by Debenham, Priestley, Wright, Simpson and Miss Bowers; and we received tape recorded greetings from Griffith Taylor; C.H. Hare (Discovery); Richard, Jack & Gaze (Endurance) & Stillwell (with Mawson 1911-14). We also held a Friends' Sherry party for the 50th anniversary of the sailing of Endurance; Lord Shackleton and Sir Vivian Fuchs spoke; and it was attended by Sir Philip Brocklehurst; Sir Raymond Priestley (Nimrod); Greenstreet; How & Green (Endurance) & Nesbitt & Smith (Quest). We also held a Friends' Sherry party for the members of the triumphant Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1958 who were presented with especially inscribed gold cufflinks to mark the occasion. I regret that you won't all be receiving especially inscribed cufflinks on this occasion! And you are having to suffer champagne instead of sherry - but I promise that sherry will be back in your glass for the Summer Lunch! I find it sobering to think, however, of all the names of the great explorers who have visited and supported the Institute, with many of them, of course, lecturing to us here over the years.

It is also sobering to read a list of my predecessors as Chairman of the Friends: Sir James Wordie (1947-1956); Prof. Frank Debenham(1957-1959); G. Colin Bertram (1959-1961 & 1970-1972); Alf Stephenson (1962-1966 & 1973-1976); Andrew Croft (1967-1969); Lt. Cmdr Quintin Riley (1977-1980); Sir Vivian Fuchs (1981-1985); Ray Adie (1986 -1995) and Philippa Foster Back (1996-2002) - which makes me the 10th Chairman. Every Chairman has had the support of a committee - without whom the successful development of the Friends would not have occurred; and in particular, the support of a long list of Secretaries, without whom the Friends would not operate at all. I pay homage to them and give particular thanks to the current Secretary, Ann Bean, who has organised this Jubilee Tea.

I am never one to rest on laurels, however. As Chairman, I am well aware of the gaps in our collections and the continuing role that the Friends have to play in supporting the continued improvement of the Institute as a multi-disciplinary resource for the study of the world's polar regions. I am particularly aware that we must meet the objectives of the Institute's current Library and Archives Appeal. I also believe that we should be turning our attention now to collecting material from the 1930s to the present. The sorts of things that many members will have residing in their drawers but don't think are terribly interesting [there was a slight guffaw at this point]. Well, you might think that it is 'just a tourist photo' or 'my time in Halley Bay' and not think that you have anything interesting in your drawers but I am sure that others would find it fascinating [at this point, the Friends' membership lost it - but amidst much hilarity the baffled Chairman continued]! Well, I hope that you will all go home, dig out those polar photographs, books and papers and donate them to the archive. Otherwise we will end up in the same situation with current materials as we have ended up with for materials of the heroic age, where it is very difficult for us to obtain them - and no doubt they will be of tremendous importance to future researchers. Who could have foretold, for example, that the 19th Century ship's logs and other archive papers in the Institute, would become the central focus of a scientific study on Arctic climate change? The importance of these things is rarely appreciated at the time. And, of course, there are huge changes occurring in our polar regions; indeed, the study of the polar regions has rarely been of greater importance. It will be up to us in the years ahead to help meet the increasing demands that this will place upon the Institute and to ensure the continued provision of the materials for research.

Now, a proper Birthday needs 3 things: Firstly, birthday cards - and I am pleased to present to you a birthday card from Ann Savours Shirley, with her apologies and birthday wishes; Secondly we need a birthday present - although in this case we are going to present one in our own honour - [At this point the Chairman presented to the Institute an oil painting by Keith Shackleton of Polar Bears, with a plaque marking the Friends Diamond Jubilee, which reads: "Presented by the Friends of the SPRI on their Diamond Jubilee, April 2006". The Chairman proposed a toast to the future of the Scott Polar Research Institute. The Institute's Director, Professor Julian Dowdeswell then replied and ended with a toast to the Friends - and to their next sixty years)]. And last but by no means least, we need a birthday cake. [At this point the Chairman invited Ann Bean and Jacqueline Mills to come and cut the Friends Diamond Jubilee Birthday cake] - Ladies and Gentleman, Many Happy Returns!

David M. Wilson. April 2006