RRS Discovery

The Royal Research Ship

As a major whaling centre Dundee’s shipyards had long experience of constructing ships robust enough to travel through the Arctic pack ice. It was this expertise that Markham harnessed to build RRS Discovery, the first vessel to be constructed specifically for scientific research. While the design was based on the great Dundee whalers, there were some modifications to be made. Discovery was one of the last wooden three-masted, barque rigged sailing ships to be built in Britain. Although Discovery had coal-fired auxiliary steam engines, it had to rely primarily on sail for the simple reason that on a Polar expedition coal was a precious commodity, and conserving stocks was of prime importance. Magnetic surveys were to be an important part of the scientific work of the expedition. To be sure of complete accuracy an exclusion zone round the magnetic observatory was created, with no iron or steel allowed within 30 feet of the area.

The total working sail area of Discovery was 12,296 square feet. The record run under sail on the outward journey was 223 miles in a single day with an average speed of just over nine knots.

110 feet up at the top of the main mast, the Crow’s Nest was an essential aid to navigation when breaking through pack ice. The lookout man would climb in through a hole in the base. Holes in the side allowed observation without being exposed to the elements.

Discovery’s funnel was specially designed with a hinged base so that it could be laid flat to make way for the large sail which was sometimes rigged from the main mast.

Discovery is a ship with no portholes. Under the extreme pressure of ice they would have weakened the sides of the vessel. Instead, brass mushroom vents were let into the deck to provide light and ventilation below decks. They were soon renamed ‘ankle bashers’ for obvious and painful reasons.

The rudder and two-bladed propeller could be lifted up into the main hull to avoid ice damage and allow repairs to be made more easily.

On 16 March 1900, in the context of significant donations to the approaching expedition by patrons Llewellyn W. Longstaff and the British Government, construction on the Discovery began in Dundee, Scotland, by the Dundee Shipbuilders Company. She was launched into the Firth of Tay on 21 March 1901 by Lady Markham, the wife of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society.

According to Shackleton, the ship was a bad sailor, and carried too much sail aft and not enough forward; while Scott worried that the design of the ship’s hull was unsuitable for work in pack ice. The ship had a massively built wooden hull designed to withstand being frozen into the ice. Iron-shod bows were severely raked so that when ramming the ice they would ride up over the margin and crush the ice with deadweight. Discovery rolled badly in the open sea where the flat shallow hull, built with no protuberances to work well in ice, provided minimal stability in heavy seas.

Discovery’s Triple Expansion engine really came into its own when the ship was manoeuvring through pack ice. It could produce up to 450 horse power, requiring the stokers to shovel 6 tons of coal a day into the fireboxes.

The Galley

The men and officers ate the same food, though at different times. In the tight confines of the galley, Charles Clarke somehow managed to produce three meals a day, even baking fresh bread daily. In fact Clarke was the third choice of cook, the previous two having been sacked (one was even clapped in irons for a time). The fire was always kept lit, making the galley the warmest place on the ship and an ideal site for the sick bay nearby.

Preserved Food

All the food taken on board Discovery was tinned, dried, bottled, or pickled. The men often moaned that it was tasteless and boring, despite there being mustard by the boxful to spice things up.

Midwinter Dinner

Christmas-like celebrations were held in June, half-way through the long dark Antarctic winter. Decorations were put up, small gifts distributed to every man and bottles of beer broken out. As the menu shows, traditional fare was served, as well as some rather more exotic, Antarctic cuisine. Devilled Skua anybody?

Fresh meat

With the lack of vitamin C scurvy was a real risk, causing aching joints and lesions on the skin. Gums would haemorrhage and teeth loosen, making eating an impossible agony.  Fresh meat was essential to health. On reaching Antarctica the flock of sheep was slaughtered and the meat hung in the rigging to freeze. Seals and penguins were also hunted. While penguin wasn’t to everyone’s taste, seal liver was considered a delicacy.

The Mess Deck

The Mess Deck was where the men lived and spent their spare time. There was absolutely no privacy and the air was thick with the smell of damp clothes and unwashed men. A continuous cloud of tobacco smoke added to the already fetid atmosphere. At night hammocks were slung across the ceiling to provide the most basic of sleeping arrangements.

The Working Day

Each day working parties were formed and tasks allotted. Sledges, tents, clothing and other equipment were in need of constant repair. Collecting ice to melt for fresh water was an important but back-breaking daily routine, with two sledging parties going out to a nearby glacier to cut ice.

Midwinter Party

Midwinter Day on the 23rd June saw an interesting role reversal, with the men being served by the officers for a change, amid some hilarity. The celebration ended with a concert in the evening.

Grog and Games

As Naval custom dictated, the men were given their daily ration of rum mixed with water from the ‘grog’ tub after dinner at 1pm. When they weren’t working, the men passed the time reading, carving, playing shove ha’penny, cribbage and board games.

The Wardroom

With a cabin for each officer the Wardroom seems far more luxurious than the Mess Deck. In fact it was one of the coldest places on the ship. Ice would form on the walls overnight, making for a decidedly chilly start to the day. The Wardroom dining table doubled as a workplace during the day. Officers would often be eating dinner at the very spot an animal dissection had taken place just hours earlier, and often with a line of wet socks drying above their heads.

Scott’s Pipe and Tobacco

Smoking was considered one of the greatest comforts, something to take one’s mind off the unremitting cold. Scott himself was hardly ever without his pipe or a cigar. However, smoking during church was a serious offence – “damned impudent” in Scott’s view.

Formal Dining

Dinner in the Wardroom was the biggest and most formal meal of the day, following strict Naval etiquette. Officers and scientists ate off china commissioned from Royal Doulton and used specially engraved silver cutlery. Apart from a glass of wine with the meal little alcohol was drunk, rather to Scott’s surprise. Every Tuesday after dinner a debate would be held, a science subject one week and a topical one the next.

The South Polar Times

Started and originally edited by Shackleton, the South Polar Times was produced monthly from an office set up in a coalbunker. Contributions came from officers and men alike, covering everything from science to everyday experiences, often accompanied by the exquisite drawings of Edward Wilson.

Post British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04

Cargo vessel

The British National Antarctic Expedition was acclaimed upon its return but was also in serious financial trouble, and so in 1905, Discovery was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company, who used her as a cargo vessel between London and Hudson Bay, Canada until the First World War, when she began carrying munitions to Russia. In 1916, she was loaned to the British Government to rescue Shackleton’s party marooned on Elephant Island, but they were rescued before she arrived. In 1917, she carried supplies to the White Russians during the Russian Civil War. At the end of the hostilities Discovery was chartered by various companies for work in the Atlantic, but outdated and outclassed by more modern merchant vessels she was soon laid up, spending the early 1920s as the headquarters of the 16th Stepney Sea Scouts.

Discovery Investigations

In 1923 her fortunes were revived when the Crown Agents for the Colonies purchased her for further research work in the Antarctic. Re-registered to Stanley in the Falklands and designated as a Royal Research Ship, Discovery underwent a £114,000 refit. In October 1925 she sailed for the South Seas to chart the migration patterns of whale stocks, as part of the Discovery Investigations, with zoologist Sir Alister Hardy on board. Her research role continued when the British Government lent her to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). She served in this duty from 1929 until 1931.

Boy Scouts/Sea Cadet Corps

Returning to Britain, her research days now over, Discovery was laid up until 1936 when she was presented to the Boy Scouts Association as a static training ship for Sea Scouts in London. During the war her engines and boilers were removed for scrap to help with the war effort. Too costly for the Scouts Association to maintain she was transferred to the Admiralty in 1954 and formally commissioned as HMS Discovery for use as a drill ship for the Royal Navy Auxiliary Reserve and also training ship for the Westminster Sea Cadet Corps. As the years passed, her condition deteriorated and when no longer of use to the Navy, she was in danger of being scrapped. The Maritime Trust, into whose care she passed in 1979, saved her from the breakers yard. Her future secured, she was berthed first on the River Thames next to HMS Chrysanthemum and HMS President, and later in St Katharine Docks. During this time, she remained the home and training ship of the Westminster Sea Cadet Corps. She reverted to the Royal Research Ship (RRS) designation and was open to the public as a museum. The sea cadet unit eventually relocated to on-shore premises in Pimlico situated in the converted basement of a local council estate. The Maritime Trust spent some £500,000 on essential restoration until she was passed into the ownership of the Dundee Heritage Trust in 1985.

Discovery Point, Dundee

On 28 March 1986, Discovery left London aboard the cargo ship Happy Mariner to make her journey home to the city that built her. She arrived on the River Tay on 3 April. Moved to a custom built dock in 1992, Discovery is now the centrepiece of Dundee’s visitor attraction Discovery Point. She is displayed in a purpose-built dock, in a configuration as near as possible to her 1924 state, when she was refitted in the Vosper yard at Portsmouth. She is listed as part of the National Historic Fleet. Discovery Point is a fully accredited museum and has won numerous national awards, as well as being a 5 star rated tourist attraction with Visit Scotland. In 2008, Discovery and the associated polar collections were named as a Recognised Collection of National Significance.

Since the 1990s, the Discovery Point museum has concentrated on interpreting the vessel on all of her voyages, with personal items from the ship’s crew as well as information on her scientific activities. Items range from the games played by the crew on her first expedition to examples of sea fauna. Star objects on display including Captain Scott’s rifle and pipe. Her three main voyages, the National Antarctic Expedition (1901–1904), the Discovery Oceanographic Expedition (1925–1927) and the BANZAR expedition (1929–31), are all explored in the museum through film and photographic evidence with artefacts from each era represented. The museum also holds other pieces from Scott’s subsequent Terra Nova expedition and Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

The ship also features on the crest of the coat of arms of the British Antarctic Territory.[7]

Subsequent Ships

There have been three subsequent royal research ships named Discovery, RRS Discovery II (1929) and the third-named RRS Discovery (1962). A fourth ship is the current RRS Discovery, which was built in 2013

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