200 Years of Polar Exploration

Marcus Budgen


In November 2019 Spink unveiled the most important exhibition dedicated to Polar exploration ever staged, finally bringing Frank Wild out of the shadows to join Scott, Shackleton and Mawson among the greats of the Heroic Age. It featured clothing, equipment, medals and other memorabilia from Scott, Shackleton and all of the leading explorers from the Franklin expedition to the modern day, including Henry Worsley, who tragically died during his final Antarctic expedition in 2016.

The exhibition, charted the history, experiences, sacrifices and brotherhood of these seminal polar expeditions – from the search for the Northwest Passage during the 19th century to Shackleton’s death in 1922 – bringing to life the characters, their thoughts and feelings. It was staged to benefit The Endeavour Fund – a charity championed by Henry Worsley and his family – which supports the ambitions of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans wishing to use sport and adventurous challenge as part of their recovery and onward rehabilitation. 

The unprecedented display was created in partnership with collectors as well as the Scott Polar Research Institute, and marked the centenary of the end of the Heroic Age of Exploration, as Shackleton prepared for his final expedition. It included many iconic pieces that had never been seen together before and also gave centre stage to the largely unsung heroes of the great Antarctic expeditions of the early 20th century. 


The poignant pair of medals awarded to Able Seaman George Thomas Vince. Vince served during the 2nd Boer War, earning the Queen’s South Africa Medal (on the left). He volunteered for Captain Scott’s 1902-04 Discovery expedition at Cape Town. On 11 March 1902, during the return from Cape Crozier, the party became isolated on an icy slope during a blizzard. Attempting to find safer ground, Vince slid over the edge of a cliff and fell to his death, aged 21. Scott later recalled: ‘Vince had been popular with all; always obliging and always cheerful. I learnt that he had never shown these qualities more markedly than during the short sledge journey which brought him to an untimely end. His pleasant face and ready wit served to dispel the thought of hardship and difficulty to the end. Life was a bright thing to him and it was something to think that death must have come quickly in the grip of an icy sea.’ A cross commemorates the spot where Vince fell to his death. See this link coolantarctica.com

Little mentioned outside polar exploration circles is Frank Wild, the Yorkshire-born seaman who took part in five expeditions between 1901 and 1922, becoming Shackleton’s second-incommand in both the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16 and the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition of 1921-22, which proved fatal to its leader when Shackleton died of a heart attack, aged just 47. Wild took over the expedition, leading it to its completion along the Antarctic coast. 

The Polar Medal to Bernard Day. Day has gone down in history as the first man to drive a vehicle in Antarctica. He was employed by the New Arrol-Johnson Motor Car Company before he joined the 1907- 1909 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Ernest Henry Shackleton, as motor expert. His role was to maintain and drive the expedition’s motor car, which had not been tested in Antarctic conditions. Its wheels quickly sank into driven snow. He recalled: “The wheels turned violently round… burying themselves to such an extent that the car moved not an inch.” Despite these difficulties, Day managed to drive the car some 500 miles, mostly carrying supplies between depots. After this expedition, he joined the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott as a motor engineer, but returned home after the first year, later settling in Australia. He was awarded the Polar Medal for his part in the two expeditions.

Any one of these individuals could easily command a dedicated exhibition in their own right, so to be able to present dozens of them together as a kind of polar fellowship in this way is truly extraordinary. There’s no telling when, if ever, this will happen again.

An extremely rare penguin egg brought back by members of Scott’s 1910- 13 Terra Nova expedition, and presented to Captain Thomas Newland Prosser, dockmaster at Cardiff ’s Bute Docks. The expedition originally sailed from Cardiff - this gift was a way of thanking the city for its generous support and warm send-off. The wooden case was made during the return journey, from spare bits of wood on the Terra Nova. The egg itself is inscribed with the names of the explorers who took part in the expedition. One of its aims was to discover the reproductive cycle of the Emperor Penguin, hence why they brought back egg samples.

Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott were the giants of Polar exploration in the period, with Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson and Edward Evans among those adding to the legend. 

Today, however, Wild is considered one of only four men – Scott, Shackleton and Sir Douglas Mawson being the others – who define the Heroic Age of Polar exploration. 

The Polar Record for January 1940 in reporting Wild’s death the previous year recorded: “Frank Wild’s death must have been the first thought of Antarctic men meeting each other this winter. Apart from the leaders, no other Antarctic figure has so impressed himself on so many of the rank and file as Wild; for he had been a member of no less than five great expeditions, second in command on the later ones, but on all, whether in high position or not, acting as the guide and instructor to those new to Antarctic work. In many ways, Frank Wild was the greatest of them all.” 

It was in the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1916 that Wild took charge of the 21 men left on the remote and desolate Elephant Island when Shackleton and five others set off on their epic 800-mile rescue mission aboard a lifeboat, and it was Wild who kept the men alive until the rescue party arrived. 

Wild is the only man to have taken part in all four of the major Antarctic expeditions of the period, interspersing his adventures with service as a Temporary Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War, becoming the Royal Navy’s transport officer at Archangel after taking a Russian language course. 

Wild’s later life in Africa was, in many ways, as challenging as his polar exploits. From farming to work on the railroads and even a stint as a hotel barman, disaster struck all too often as his health deteriorated, and it was only towards the end of his life that he finally found peace with his second wife as a store-keeper in mining territory in South Africa. 


The First World War medals and Polar Medal awarded to Commander Frank Wild, a famous polar explorer who took part in all four major expeditions of ‘The Golden Age of Polar Exploration’ (hence the four clasps on his polar medal). His Wikipedia page says it all www.wikipedia.org. This is one of the most important (and rare) exhibits.

His diabetes and pneumonia finally caught up with him in August 1939 and he died at the age of 66. 

While his name may not be as familiar as Scott and Shackleton, Evans or even Oates among the wider public, he has long been a hero and legend to polar aficionados. 

Awarded the CBE in 1920, he became a Freeman of the City of London in 1923, having won the Royal Geographical Society’s Back Award in 1916 and going on to win its Patron Medal in 1924. 

Ultimate recognition only came in 2011, when Wild’s ashes were re-interred to the right hand side of Shackleton’s grave in South Georgia, marked by a granite block carved with the words Shackleton’s right-hand man. The burial coincided with the issue of a set of commemorative stamps by South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands honouring Wild and his fellow Antarctic pioneers. 

In 2016 a statue of Wild was unveiled in his birthplace, Skelton-in-Cleveland.


As well as charting the challenges and adventures of explorers from the 19th century through the Heroic Age, the exhibition showed how the indomitable spirit of these pioneers remains today in the likes of Henry Worsley, a Lieutenant-Colonel in The Rifles, who led a successful Antarctic centenary expedition of Shackleton’s Nimrod party in 2008, before becoming the first person to have successfully undertaken the routes taken by Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen in another centenary expedition to the South Pole in 2011. Worsley’s final attempt came in 2015, when he made another Antarctic attempt in the steps of Shackleton before falling ill with peritonitis, to which he succumbed in January 2016. 

This was a unique non-selling exhibition for Spink, who decided to put commercial interests aside and take advantage of this unique opportunity to create a landmark exhibition to celebrate these extraordinary pioneers. 

Lieutenant Colonel Alastair Edward Henry Worsley, O.B.E. (1960 – 2016). (Left) Photographed on his final expedition lighting up a cigar having knocked out a front tooth chewing on an frozen energy bar during his final expedition. (Right) His posthumous Polar Medal with unique clasp ‘Antarctic to 2016’. Our exhibition was assembled in his memory and in benefit of the Endeavour Fund.

For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton. Incomparable in adversity, he was the miracle worker who would save your life against all the odds and long after your number was up. The greatest leader that ever came on God’s earth, bar none.

A photo of Green aboard the Endurance, skinning a penguin for dinner!
A photo of Green cooking on a blubber stove on the ice.
2.1 Engraving showing proposed uniforms for officers of the Order. Courtesy of The Central Chancery for the Orders of Knighthood.
Scroll to Top