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Men who sew: Part 3 – Birdie Bowers « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

Men who sew: Part 3 – Birdie Bowers

This is the last post in the series about men who sew, so I want to share one of my favourite objects in the collection – Birdie Bowers’ sledging flag.  Lieutenant Henry Bowers (known as Birdie because of his impressive nose) was on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13 and was one of the four who died with Scott in his tent in 1912.

p2005-5-1172-img  Bowers wearing his trademark hat.

Sledging flags are a curiously British tradition among Polar explorers.  They came into fashion in the mid nineteenth century and were used on sledges to identify the sledging parties and also to keep morale up.  During later expeditions each officer would have their own personal design.  Sir Clements Markham was very influential in the design of sledging flags.  He served on the Arctic Discovery expedition of 1875-6, and later became President of the Royal Geographical Society, where he was key in organising the 1901-4 Discovery expedition to Antarctica and launching Scott’s polar career.   Markham was a keen genealogist and he designed all the flags for the 1901-4 Discovery expedition.  The flags he designed are shaped like forked pennants.  Markham wrote “The knights of chivalry used flags (called standards) with the Cross of St George always at the hoist. This was to denote that, whatever family the bearer may belong to, he is first and foremost an Englishman”.  This is why many sledging flags show the cross of St George on the hoist side and the family crest and motto of the officer on the rest.

The sledging flags had great sentimental value for some officers.  In the 1901-4 Discovery expedition, Edward Wilson (who also died with Scott in 1912) had a flag which was made for him by his wife Oriana:


Wilson modified it by adding a black linen bandage tube so he could hoist it onto his ski pole, and he also made a little bag for it out of Burberry material to protect the silk and embroidery.  At one point in 1902 Wilson reported in his diary that Scott “has taken a dislike to his (own sledging flag) and says there will be no flags on the long southern journey.  I said I should certainly not go without mine if I had to sew it into my shirt”.  Scott said he could if he liked but that he himself wouldn’t “add weight for mere sentiment”!

For the Terra Nova expedition many officers followed tradition and had sledging flags made.  Wilson got a whole new one (although interestingly Oates never had one – a design was drawn up but the flag was never made.  He apparently didn’t share Wilson’s love of sledging flags).  Bowers also ordered one, but it was not finished in time, and the expedition had to sail without it.  Bowers was not put off and made his own:


I love this object because Bowers clearly tried so hard to get a good result even though he wasn’t used to doing fancy needlework:


The flag is made from cream silk all in one piece, with added ribbon and blue edging.  The George Cross normally has a separate panel of fabric, but not in this case.  Perhaps the materials were not available.  Bowers embroidered his family crest (a pierced leg) and the motto “Esse quam videri” which means “To be, rather than to seem to be”.  (For trivia buffs, this is also the motto of the state of North Carolina in the USA!):


The tassels on the flag both have a special knot known as a monkeys fist:


This knot has special significance in sailing communities and symbolises comradeship, so as a naval man Bowers may well have used it deliberately.  Bowers had his flag with him at the South Pole and you can see it in the famous image of Scott’s party at the Pole:


This is actually a “selfie”, because Bowers was holding the shutter release cable to take the shot!  He is sitting on the bottom left of the picture.  Next to him on the ground is Wilson, with Oates, Scott and Edgar Evans standing.  Behind the group is the Union Jack.  A small piece of this came back from the Pole and is now on display in our museum.  Behind Bowers the dark sledging flag is Wilson’s, the one in the middle is Scott’s and the one on the right is Bowers’.  Other photos of Bowers’ flag at base camp show that the red and blue have faded dramatically and the cream silk has got very yellow.  The small flag on the extreme left next to Oates is a silk one made by Teddy Evans’ wife to fly at the Pole.  Teddy Evans was not selected for the Polar party and was bitterly disappointed, so Bowers promised to fly his flag at the South Pole for him.  Edgar Evans (the tall one on the right) was not an officer so had no sledging flag.

Sledging flags used on the Terra Nova expedition are the subject of a new online virtual exhibition entitled “Stretched wings towards the South” which has just been launched.  There you can see images of our sledging flags and also many from other collections, as well as photos of them in use.  If you want to browse all the sledging flags in our collection, have a look at our online flags catalogue.


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