Way back in the summer of 2015, I came across a white linen tablecloth embroidered with signatures in various colours (Y: 2008/21) – and have been meaning to write a post about it since then, as all was not as it first seemed. The original catalogue entry described it as being embroidered with the signatures of the crew of Morning, the ship from the British Relief Expeditions of 1902–03 and 1903–04, which went to the Antarctic to relieve Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Discovery). It was donated by the family of William Colbeck, captain of Morning, whose wife did the embroidery. Click here to view the catalogue entry for the tablecloth.
A bit of basic internet research showed there is a tradition of signing tablecloths and then embroidering over them to create a memento from an event or experience. Examples I came across included one from 1914 with suffragettes’ signatures (including Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst), one with the signatures of the 1926 Australian cricket team, and another with signatures from a Japanese internment camp in 1942.
I had assumed that this tablecloth must have been signed at a dinner to celebrate the return of the Morning and the end of the expedition. I had no reason to question this, until I started trying to decipher the signatures (some of the handwriting was quite difficult to read) and to cross-reference them with the names on a crew list from the Morning. I soon discovered that a) I couldn’t find a crew list, and b) that there were lots of people who I knew hadn’t been on Morning and some who had never been on a polar expedition.
Once I started looking closely and deciphering all of the signatures, I noticed that the centre of the tablecloth contained the names of the scientists on the British Antarctic Expedition 1898–1900 (Southern Cross), the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica, (but not the name of the expedition leader, Carsten Borchgrevink). So I then thought the tablecloth must have been started by the Southern Cross expedition, and assumed it was a dinner to celebrate their return… until I discovered that Hanson died on 22 August 1898 soon after the expedition set out.
I then tried to match up the names with other expeditions. At this point, I posted a photo of the tablecloth on Twitter and got a response from the National Maritime Museum stating that the tablecloth contains Southern Cross names in the centre, with one corner devoted to officers from Discovery and another to officers from Morning.
It would be great to do some research to find out exactly who everyone was – and identify what expedition they were on, what their polar connection was, or what their connection to Colbeck was. It would be also be interesting to see whether there is any significance in the colours – do they relate to an expedition, or a time when the tablecloth was signed? And are the positions on the tablecloth significant – if one corner is for Morning and one for Discovery, what about the two?
I had started out hoping to be able to trace the tablecloth to a particular dinner or other event, before concluding that it must have been the equivalent of an autograph book to Colbeck – something he started before or in the early days of the Southern Cross expedition (before Hanson died) and decided to keep up. However, further information has come to light which suggests that the tablecloth may date from the departure dinners (rather than the return dinners) of Southern Cross and Morning.