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The Polar Museum: news blog

Solving the “Mystery of the Wilson sledge runner”

This object is the “Wilson sledge runner”, and admittedly it does not look very interesting in its own right:

But appearances can be deceptive, because the story goes that this fragment was actually part of the dramatic moment when Scott’s party, nearing the South Pole on 18th January 1912, saw the first signs that the Norwegians had been there already and had their hopes of being first to the Pole dashed.

The sledge runner was being used as a flag pole with a black marker flag and a note with a statement of the Norwegians calculations of their position.  Edward Wilson and Scott both recorded this moment in their diaries, and Wilson also sketched the site before collecting the flag, note and part of the sledge runner:

The story goes on to tell how the fragment was allegedly found with the bodies of Scott and his party, and given to Wilson’s widow, Oriana.  From her it was passed to her great friend Evelyn Ferrar in her will, and was then brought to the Polar Museum by Evelyn’s son Nick Forbes.

Nick Forbes asked the Polar Museum to examine the sledge runner to see if this story could be “proved”.  Apart from Scott and Wilson’s diary entries which describe the finding of the flag and sledge runner, the whole story was only preserved in Nick’s family as an oral tradition.  Perhaps the fragment was not the one in the story after all.  Proving something like this beyond all doubt would be impossible but it should be possible to tell how likely the story was.

When the fragment was examined in detail it quickly became apparent that it is part of a Norwegian sledge runner from the early twentieth century.  The object is a piece of tapering metal which was used as protective cladding on a wooden sledge runner to protect it from damaging sharp ice.  It is made from German silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel which was used for a short period in the early twentieth century as a rust-free and inexpensive alternative to iron cladding.  This important fact, as well as nail holes and other features of the object show that it is certainly from a Norwegian sledge from the right period. Amundsen was a Norwegian and would have planted the flag on the sledge runner in 1911.  So, mystery solved – or not?

Unfortunately the English team was also using Norwegian sledges, and Scott bought all the sledges for both the Discovery (1901-4) and Terra Nova (1910-13) expeditions from Oslo!  This means the fragment could actually be just a random piece of sledge runner from another of Scott’s journeys which has been confused with the “Wilson” fragment.  This is very possible because Nick Forbes’ family have been closely connected to the world of Polar exploration for generations, especially Scott’s Discovery expedition where Nick’s grandfather H.T. Ferrar was the geologist.

The clues to solving the mystery of whose sledge runner this really was took a long time to find.  I hunted through the Archives at SPRI looking for accounts of finding the bodies of the Polar party, along with their effects.  I tried to track the journey of the sledge runner from there to the Forbes family through notebooks, wills, letters and exhibition catalogues, but frustratingly it was never considered worthy of mention.  The flag and the note collected by Wilson at the same time were given to SPRI by Oriana Wilson herself in 1930, and interestingly these were never mentioned in any written sources either, but their provenance is not in doubt.  I crawled around in our stores measuring sledge runners from our Discovery and Terra Nova sledges, and eventually I even looked under the stairs at Amundsen’s delightful house near Oslo where one of the only surviving Norwegian South Pole sledges is stored:

I read many accounts of early twentieth century sledging.  In short, I became a sledge runner nerd!

The crucial evidence to solve the mystery is visible in the sledge runner itself.  On each side are parallel folds which show where it was wrapped around the wooden runner.  The distance between these folds is 10mm, which would be the thickness of the runner too.   The runners from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions are about 15mm thick and so much too thick to have fitted the fragment.  Meanwhile, Amundsen’s diary and his official account of his expedition show that he was obsessed with reducing the weight of all his equipment to the bare minimum.  He actually ordered his sledges to be broken up, pared down as thin as possible and then rebuilt, saving many kilos in weight.  The sledges which survive from Amundsen’s expedition show that the runners were about 40% thinner than those used by the English, and were about 10mm thick.  The nails used for cladding were also the same as those which were used with Nick Forbes’ fragment.  So the fragment could definitely have come from an Amundsen sledge.

Amundsen used thin temporary under-runners covered with metal cladding to protect the wooden runners in rough conditions.  In many cases the cladding was made of steel, but according to his own account the leading sledge in the South Pole journey had non-ferrous fixings because iron plays havoc with compass readings.

Amundsen described how his team broke their under-runners in half to make flag poles and skied off in different directions to plant them near the Pole – just to ensure they had definitely covered the territory.  A photograph of Wisting with his sledge taken near the South Pole in 1911 and now in Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo shows a whole under-runner fixed to the sledge, the same type as was later used to make the flag poles:

The weight of all the evidence taken together strongly supports the story of the sledge runner.  The full story of the authentication has been written up and is now published in the latest issue of Polar Record. It will be made available free of charge through the University Repository Green Access scheme early in 2018.  In the meantime the metal fragment has been kindly loaned to the Polar Museum by Nick Forbes and is on display there with the flag and note which were found at the same time.

 

Sophie

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