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Captain Scott's treasurer commemorated: plaque to be unveiled to Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932)

Captain Scott's treasurer commemorated: plaque to be unveiled to Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932)

Captain Scott Sir Edgar Speyer
Captain Scott Sir Edgar Speyer

Captain Scott went down in history as a fearless explorer who faced death in the Antarctic with dignity and valour.

But the man who helped bankroll his expeditions has for a century been dismissed as a German collaborator in World War I, suspected of signalling naval secrets to German submarines from his country-house on the Norfolk coast.

Just over a century after Scott's final expedition, a memorial plaque to Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932) is to be unveiled this autumn at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge.

The controversial case of Sir Edgar Speyer, the Anglo-German merchant-banker and Scott's major fundraiser , has been taken up in a new book, Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer -by Professor Tony Lentin, a senior member of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

The book claims that without Sir Edgar Speyer, a naturalised British citizen, neither of Scott's expeditions could have taken place, there would be no London Underground as we know it, and no Proms.

But Tony Lentin argues that Speyer's contributions have been "airbrushed out of British history."

Polar historian Dr David Wilson, great- nephew of Edward Wilson who died with Scott, and national co-ordinator for the Scott Centenary events on behalf of SPRI and other organisations, agrees that Sir Edgar should be recognised.

He said: "I knew the rough story, so when I read Prof Lentin's book I thought it was clearly scandalous from our modern perspective. I think it's about time he was brought back into some sort of recognition, there's no doubt about that."

Sir Edgar was found guilty of disloyalty in wartime by a judicial tribunal in 1921 but Dr Wilson said the outcome of the inquiry had been determined before the committee was set up.

Professor Lentin explains Speyer's significance for Scott's achievement: "Edgar Speyer played a leading part in financing both of Scott's expeditions. Papers recently auctioned at Sotheby's and donated to the Scott Polar Research Institute earlier this year confirm that Speyer personally put up the £5000 necessary to defray the costs of sending out a ship to rescue Scott and his companions when their ship, the Discovery, was stuck in the Polar ice."

Leonora Speyer

Leonora Speyer (John Singer Sargent, 1907)

"In recognition Scott named a mountain discovered by the expedition --on the western side of the Ross Ice Shelf -"Mount Speyer". Leonora Speyer, Edgar's wife, described it in a letter to Scott in 1906 as "our mountain"."

Speyer and Scott became close friends. Speyer became Honorary Treasurer of the British Antarctic Expedition in 1909 and helped raise funds for Scott's second (Terra Nova) expedition 1910-12. He was among the small crowd of well-wishers who saw Scott off at Waterloo station.

Punch, 29 November 1911

Punch, 29 November 1911. Last line reads `There is grave fear lest the South Pole Expedition should fail for lack of funds. Contributions may be sent to Sir Edgar Speyer, 7, Lothbury, EC,'

Farewell letter to Sir Edgar Speyer from Captain Scott

Farewell letter to Sir Edgar Speyer from Captain Scott, 16 March 1912, found on Scott's body. The letter was auctioned in 2012 for £163,250.

My dear Sir Edgar,

I hope this may reach you - I fear we must go and that it leaves the Expedition in a muddle. But we have been to the Pole and we shall die like gentlemen. I regret only for the women we leave behind.

I thank you a thousand times for your help and support and your generous kindness.

If this diary is found it will show how we stuck by dying companions and fought this thing out well to the end.

I think this will show that the spirit of pluck and the power to endure has not passed out of our race...

We very nearly came through and it's a pity to have missed it but lately I have felt that we have overshot the mark - no one else is to blame and I hope no attempt will be made to suggest we lacked support.

Goodbye to you and your dear kind wife.

Yours ever sincerely,

R. Scott

Speyer was a leading fundraiser for the Mansion House Scott Memorial Fund, part of which went to assist the explorers' dependants, part to commission monuments, and part to endow what later became the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

Scott Memorial, Mount Wise, Devonport

Scott Memorial, Mount Wise, Devonport, 1925

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Sir Edgar Speyer, hitherto honoured as a public benefactor, fell victim to the prevailing anti-German hysteria. Hounded by an unremitting campaign by politicians and the press, he left for the United States in 1915.

Despite fiercely protesting his innocence, Sir Edgar was found guilty of disloyalty in wartime by a judicial tribunal in 1921 and, along with his wife and three young daughters, was stripped of his British citizenship.

Prof Lentin says: "I assumed, on the strength of received opinion, that Speyer was guilty as charged - but the case is certainly more troublesome than appeared at the time."

"Whether he was guilty or innocent of the wartime offences for which he was condemned, my book simply presents the facts and leaves it to the reader to decide."

Prof Lentin suggests that Sir Edgar had been wiped from history because "the authorities at the time would have been desperate to dissociate Scott's heroic image of noble suffering and courage from any link with the disgraced Speyer."

However, the Scott Polar Research Institute is to recognise the key role played by Sir Edgar.

David Wilson, whose family have supported SPRI since its foundation, comments: "Prof Lentin published his book at the end of the (Scott) centenary and this is one of the great wrongs that happened through The Great War. It would be nice to put that right in its centenary."

Professor Julian Dowdeswell, Director of the Institute, adds: `The role of Sir Edgar Speyer in supporting Captain Scott's expeditions has been largely forgotten. Prof. Lentin's book sets out Speyer's important contribution with clarity. Sir Edgar Speyer was a committed supporter of Scott's expeditions, a good friend who funded Scott last trip to the Antarctic. It is only fitting that Speyer is given recognition for his philanthropy. I believe Scott would have approved.'

The plaque

The plaque will be unveiled at the SPRI on Wednesday, 29th October at 4.00 p.m., by Dr David Wilson. The plaque reads:

In memory of Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932)

whose philanthropic work made possible

Captain R. F. Scott's Antarctic expeditions and

The Scott Memorial Fund

`I thank you a thousand times for your help' -Scott's last letter to Speyer, 16 March 1912

Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?

A. Lentin, Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer is published by Haus Publishing. ISBN 978-1-908323-8