Not many people know that the Polar Museum has a piece of Captain Scott's wedding cake, which was donated to us in 1983 by his son, Peter. When I discovered this I was intrigued (especially as it is the wedding season) and decided to take a closer look. The piece of cake is still in the box which it came to the museum in – an old pink cardboard jewellery box:
Inside, the cake is wrapped in a piece of paper, and there is a press cutting about the wedding, and also a handwritten note on an envelope. The note is from Oriana Wilson (the wife of Edward Wilson, who died with Scott in Antarctica), although there is no clue who it was written to. It says "I am so sorry that this has got so squashed – it was in my husband's tailcoat pocket after the reception, and I am afraid he sat on the pocket! But it tastes all right I hope":
Perhaps the person who received the cake didn't much fancy it after that and decided to keep it as a souvenir instead, and ironically that is how it has survived for so long.
The cake itself is very fragile and crumbling to bits, so it can't be completely unwrapped.
Inside the outer layer of paper, the cake is wrapped in a bit of doily, presumably from the wedding reception. You can just see a bit of cake poking out of the wrapping – and it looks as though it was a plain sponge cake, not a fruit cake as I was expecting. Some of the loose crumbs are darker brown, which might suggest it was a chocolate and vanilla marble sponge, or might be related to how the cake has degraded with age. I can't see any sign of icing…
You can just see the edge of the cake poking out in the upper right area above the "wheel" shaped cutout – it looks like a bit of old shortbread wrapped in paper. On the lower left of the image are dark brown crumbs.
Naturally we would never eat part of a museum artefact, or even have a little lick (and frankly I wasn't even slightly tempted to try a piece of cake over a hundred years old which has been sat on into the bargain). However, I did sniff it and can report a slight whiff of sweetness still survives.
It might seem surprising that cake could survive so long without going mouldy, but if it was just allowed to dry out naturally and kept in a reasonably dry atmosphere, it would simply go hard and brittle, and not mouldy at all. Sometimes sugar can deteriorate over a long time by a chemical reaction (a type of oxidation process called the Brown-Mallarmé reaction) but I can't see enough of the cake to tell whether this might be happening in this case.
The press cutting is fascinating, with lots of information about the wedding dress and going away outfit (which included "a large brown hat with blue wings"). The bride, Kathleen, was clearly quite well connected, as the ceremony took place at the Chapel Royal in Hampton Court, and the reception was at the Oak Room of Hampton Court Palace (Scott himself had quite a modest background). The wedding was on 2nd September 1908, when Kathleen was already 30 and a fully fledged sculptor moving in artistic circles. This explains why Auguste Rodin and J.M.Barrie (author of Peter Pan) were both at the wedding! Although they came from very different worlds, Scott and Kathleen had a happy marriage.
The press cutting and the note were both getting damaged by being squashed into the box with the cake, so they have now been taken into the archive, which is their proper home. Sadly the cake is too fragile to be displayed…