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A new acquisition at The Polar Museum: Charles Royds’ telescope « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

A new acquisition at The Polar Museum: Charles Royds’ telescope

It’s been a bumper season for new acquisitions at The Polar Museum! As well as wrestling with the all-important ethical and legal complexities of bringing artefacts collected in the distant past into the safe care of an accredited public institution like SPRI, we have also had some relatively ‘easy wins’ this autumn. Without a doubt, the gift of Charles Royds’ telescope has been the highlight of these.

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

As some of you longer-time readers may be aware, back in 2015 the Scott Polar Research Institute was awarded £500,000 through the Heritage Lottery Fund programme, Collecting Cultures, to enhance our understanding of, and public engagement with, the Shackleton story. One of the recent focuses of this effort has been a new display in our soon-to-be-refurbished Friends Room in the Library (open to the public!) that centres on the story of Shackleton and the people he worked with. This left us casting around for interesting objects we could use that weren’t already on display in the permanent gallery.

Then, in October, our Director Professor Julian Dowdeswell received a very timely letter from a descendant of the Godson of Charles Royds kindly offering us his telescope. The letter was passed on to me to process the acquisition; but, being more of an Arctic person, I found myself learning a lot more about the explorers who visited the opposite end of the planet…

Royds, Officer of Watch

Lieutenant Royds standing on the bridge of the ship beside the compass. (c) Scott Polar Research Institute.

Sir Charles William Rawson Royds was already a distinguished and well-travelled officer in the Royal Navy before he was picked in 1901 along with Robert Falcon Scott to serve as First Lieutenant aboard the Discovery. During his three years aboard Discovery the towering Royds served alongside the ship’s then little-known Third Lieutenant, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who in addition to overseeing the Antarctic expedition’s supplies was also in charge of maintaining morale. Royds meanwhile acted as the expedition meteorologist and oversaw the daily smooth sailing of the ship under Captain Scott’s direction—as the person with overall charge of the ship the naval convention was that Scott be called Captain, though his actual rank in the Royal Navy at the time was Commander.

Cape Royds on Ross Island in Antarctica was eventually discovered and named for Royds by the crew of Discovery during the expedition. After this episode, Royds returned to his regular naval duties serving in British waters, the Mediterranean and farther afield before finally retiring with the rank of Rear Admiral. His trusty spyglass, however, continued to bear the signs of adaptation for polar use.

The most immediately striking feature of the telescope is its covering of green woollen blanket cloth, which has been rather crudely stitched on with cotton thread, I like to imagine, by Royds’ own numb, chilly hands one cold day in Antarctica. My assumption here is that the blanket would have provided extra protection to the instrument during arduous sledging journeys and would also prevent a wayward bare hand from inadvertently freezing to the metal casing in the sub-zero temperatures.

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

 

The then owner of the telescope had already sent some excellent images and provenance information with their initial letter to Professor Dowdeswell detailing how their ancestor, Lieutenant Commander Vivian Edward Marshall May, acquired the telescope early in his career. Marshall May, himself a Royal Navy officer, received the telescope, along with a sextant and sword, on his passing out of the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth from his presumably very proud Godfather, Rear-Admiral Royds. Where the sword and sextant are today remains a mystery for the time-being.

After I showed the telescope and explained its provenance to my colleagues at SPRI it was unanimously decided that we should accept the gift for the new display. All that remained was for me to arrange for the formal handover, which always involves some paperwork, and to accession the telescope into the permanent Museum collection. I’m pleased to say that this is now done and the catalogue record can be seen online, here: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/catalogue/article/y2018.13/

As I said, a nice ‘easy win’! But, the work isn’t done. Just because something is formally added to the museum register doesn’t mean it will be frozen in time (no pun intended) with the story never to change. I would still like to know where the sword and sextant ended up, whether the cover on the telescope really is a specific polar adaptation and where else it has been. It isn’t even clear what make or model it is. There are no visible markings and I’m no telescope specialist… Even the easy ones raise more questions than they answer.

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