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Archives Awareness Campaign 2010 – “Discovery”

This year’s Archive’s Awareness Campaign features the theme of discovery in terms of scientific and medical archives. You may well wonder what connection The Scout Association’s Archive could have that would be relevant. Not only did TSA once own probably the most famous ships of exploration but also Scouts accompanied Shackleton’s expedition of 1921!

The Royal Research Ship Discovery was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society in 1900 and built by the Dundee Ship Building Company. Discovery was the first ship built in Britain for scientific research and one of the last wooden three masted sailing ships to be constructed. It was launched on 21 March 1901 at a cost of £44,322.

Commander Robert Falcon Scott led the first expedition to the Antarctic using Discovery in 1901 and dropped anchor in McMurdo Sound in January the following year. For the next two years the scientists conducted experiments and made observations regarding metrology, geology, biology and zoology. They also learnt valuable lessons of living and working in the extreme cold. They returned home after two years to a hero’s welcome with Scott showered with awards and promoted to Captain.

Due to financial problems the Royal Geographical Society sold Discovery to the Hudson Bay Company in 1905. For the next six years it travelled between Canada and Great Britain transporting furs. In 1912, Scott died in Antartica trapped in a tent with storms raging around him.

With Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 Antartic expedition in trouble after his ship Endurance was crushed by ice. Discovery was tasked with rescuing the stranded crew from Elephant Island in 1916 but arrived in the Falkland Islands to learn that the expedition had been rescued by a South American vessel. During the First World War it transported supplies to France and Russia.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton was formulating another expedition in 1920 to the Arctic which then switched to the Antarctic. Shackleton offered to take a Scout with him as a cabin boy and interviewed ten candidates. He selected Scouts James Marr and N.E. Mooney for the expedition. The Shackleton-Rowett Expedition left Britain in September 1921 abroad the ship named Quest for a survey of the Antarctic Islands. The expedition ended prematurely as Shackleton died of a heart attack on the way to the Antartic.

The first connection with Scouting began in 1922 when Discovery became the temporary headquarters of the 16th Stepney Sea Scouts. A year later it bought by the Crown for scientific research duties around the Falkland Islands studying oceanography and whales between 1925 and 1928. The British Government then loaned the vessel to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson between 1929 and 1931 surveying the coast.

The ship was in disuse between 1931 and 1936 as the Government tried to find a buyer without success. TSA was offered Discovery as a training ship and hostel for Sea Scouts but also as a memorial to the Antarctic explorers such as Scott and Shackleton. The agreement was formally announced in 1937 and the ship was moored alongside the Victoria Embankment in London.

During the Second World War the ship continued to offer Sea Scout training but also hosted entrant training for the Royal Navy and the headquarters for the River Emergency Service run by the Port of London Authority.

Peacetime saw the resuming of Sea Scout training courses for Boatswains, Coxswains and Pilots badges. However the maintenance costs were prohibitively expensive and the Royal Navy stepped in to secure its future.

HMS Discovery was formally commissioned in 1955 and became a training ship for the London Division of the Royal Naval Reserve during the week and offered Sea Scout training at weekends. However by the late 1970s the upkeep costs could not be afforded by the Royal Navy due to cut backs in defence spending.

The Maritime Trust took ownership in 1979 and Discovery reverted to its RRS designation. As a result of a successful fund raising campaign the ship was restored and a new home was found in Dundee where it was built. Discovery moved to Dundee in 1985 and remains to this day as a museum telling the incredible story of Britain’s Antarctic Expeditions.

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