The story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic is well known: an enormous private venture which set out to reach the South Pole before the competing Norwegian team, only to be beaten by some thirty-four days, and, on the journey back, for the five-man British team to perish, their fates unknown until their bodies were discovered in the snow over half a year later.
A story of adventurism and tragedy, the Terra Nova Expedition has had a stake in the public consciousness ever since the discovery of the party.
What you may not know, however, is that this well-known story has roots in the local Harrow area. Amongst the four men that followed Scott to the Pole was one Edward Adrian Wilson – physician, natural historian, painter and, at one key stage in his life, resident of Stanmore.
Known as ‘Uncle Bill’ by the members of the expedition, Wilson built up a close camaraderie with his fellow explorers, building a particularly close and loyal friendship with the expedition’s leader himself – with Wilson following Scott to the Antarctic on two occasions, and turning down the opportunity for a third in between out of loyalty to Scott.
‘Words must always fail me when I talk of Bill Wilson,’ Scott wrote at one stage about his friend, going on to say that Wilson ‘really is the finest character I ever met.’
When the team’s bodies were discovered in November 1912, Scott was found partially out of his sleeping bag, his left arm extended across Wilson.
Yet years before the two met – before Wilson embarked on the fateful expeditions that he would become known for – Wilson was a resident of Stanmore recovering from a debilitating tuberculosis, and contemplating the career he was going to lead.
Born in Gloucestershire in 1872, Wilson early on developed a love for countryside and drawing – the two often blurring in his pastime – but by the 1890s had decided to pursue a career in medicine, only to have his doctorate snatched away from him when he contracted tuberculosis during mission work in the Battersea slums.
Becoming seriously ill, his career plans were put on hold and, under the advice of his doctor to swap the smoke of the city for fresher country air, Wilson eventually came to Stanmore, to Loscombe Lodge, now named Robin Hill.
Now confined to his bed, Wilson turned once more to painting and in particular the painting of the natural environment, re-teaching himself these talents he had lost in the years since in the hopes of being able to capture the essence of a live bird on paper. (Some of these drawings can be found here)
By the time he was fit enough to continue his medical studies, there were only two months before his resit of the second Bachelor of Medicine exam, and a whole eighteen months of work he had to catch up on – however, despite these odds, Wilson still managed to pass.
Yet, perhaps as a result of the woes of his tuberculosis and the role of his artistry in offsetting its misery, Wilson was now considering abandoning his pursuit of a doctorate in favour of being a professional artist instead.
Professional art lessons had long been a dream of his, and, in the months of recovery, this dream had seemingly been rekindled. Wilson, however, found opposition to this idea in his father as well as from colleagues in the British Ornithological Union.
Despite his long-harboured desire for artistry, these forces eventually won out – Wilson committed himself to his doctorate, and soon after found work at the Cheltenham General Hospital.
His time at the hospital was not to last long, however. Shortly after taking up his post there, Wilson found employment in the first expedition made by Scott to the Antarctic in 1901, and with him he would take his passion for drawing – putting the polar icescape to the page as they trudged across it, and in so doing giving people the first glimpses of the frozen land that covers the southern cap of our world.
Stanmore, then, played a particularly important role in the polar explorer’s life. Had it not been for Stanmore, Wilson might never have recovered from his tuberculosis enough for him to embark on the famous expedition, and, had it not been for his rediscovery of his passion for art, he might never have brought back with him the first drawings of the pristine, untouched southern icescape.
It’s a role worth remembering the next time you catch the famous tale of the Terra Nova Expedition – whatever form it comes in – for had it not been for Stanmore and his time in it, Wilson’s life may well have turned out very differently.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Wikipedia