As Captain Scott lay freezing and starving to death on his return journey from the South Pole, he wrote with a stub of pencil his final words: ‘For God’s sake look after our people.’ Uppermost in his mind were the three women who would now be widows: Kathleen, his own bohemian artist wife; Oriana, the devout wife of the expedition’s chief scientist, Ted Wilson; and Lois, the Welsh working-class wife of Petty Officer Edgar Evans.
When the news came that the men were dead, they became heroes, their story filling column inches in newspapers across the world. Their widows were thrust into the limelight, forced to grieve in public view, keeping a stiff upper lip while the world praised their husbands’ sacrifice. These three women had little in common except that their husbands had died together, but this shared experience was to shape the rest of their lives.
Each experienced their loss differently, their treatment by the press and the public influenced by their class and contemporary notions of both manliness and womanly behaviour. Each had to rebuild their life, fiercely and loyally defending their husbands’ legacies and protecting their fatherless children in the face of financial hardship, public criticism and intense press scrutiny. Widows of the Ice is not the story of famous women but of forgotten wives, whose love and support helped to shape one of the most iconic moments in British history. They have drifted to the outer edges of the Antarctic narrative, and bringing them back gives a new perspective to a story we thought we already knew. It is a story of imperialistic dreams, misogyny and classism, but also of enormous courage, high ideals, duty – and, above all, love.
A few years ago, I went to a talk at the Wakefield Archives, given by Anne Fletcher, about her book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo. As we were chatting afterwards, she told me a bit about her next project, writing about the wives of Scott’s doomed polar exhibition. I remember thinking at the time, ‘I didn’t even know they had wives’, and told Anne I thought it would be a fascinating project. How right I was!
Widows of the Ice tells the story of three remarkable and very different women, who had to stay at home and wait for news for months on end. They came from very different backgrounds and social classes, and their experiences, both in how they were treated and how their husbands were remembered, reflected that. But there was one thing they all had in common; they had lost their husbands in the race to be the first to reach the South Pole.
Kathleen Scott, Lois Evans and Oriana (Ory) Wilson deserve to remembered just as much as their husbands, Robert Falcon Scott, Edgar Evans and Edward (Ted) Wilson. They were the faces the public saw as news of their husband’s tragic deaths unfolded. They had to work through their grief under the gaze of the cameras, with journalists intruding on every aspect of their lives, as people tried to make sense of what had happened. Through their own letters, in their own words, and the national papers, Anne Fletcher has managed to rebuild their stories, to give the reader unparalleled insight into the lives and experiences of these three very different women.
For Kathleen and Ory, the final goodbyes were yet to come. As officers’ wives, they had the option to go to New Zealand with the expedition and both were determined to travel as far as they possibly could. Ory packed up and prepared to accompany Ted, but Kathleen’s position was a little different. She was the mother of a very young child. Sailing with Con [Robert Falcon Scott] would mean leaving nine-month-old Peter for four months. But she felt that she should; she needed to go with Con.
“… looking back over my life I can think of nothing that hurt more hideously than unlocking the sturdy fingers that clung round mine as I left the laughing, tawny-haired baby Hercules … (but) I had chosen, and joy never left me for long. In agonies and ecstasies of reciprocated love I followed my husband.”
Peter was left in the care of his grandmother Hannah Scott at her home in Henley, where three of Con’s sisters lived too. Rose, whose husband had died in 196, leaving her almost penniless, had moved into her mother’s home with her ten-year-old daughter Erica. Katherine had married Harry Lurgar Brownlow, a surgeon, in 1901 and lived in St Andrew’s Road. Grace, the only one of Con’s sisters not to marry, had also set up home in Henley. Peter would have the love and attention of his grandmother, aunts and cousins while his mother was away – but he would never see his father again.
As Ted sailed away from Cardiff’s harbour on board Terra Nova, Ory travelled to Southampton to board the ship that would reunite her with her husband on the other side of the world. She was to travel in greater comfort than he because RSS Saxon was a passenger liner, part of a fleet run by the Union Castle Line, which operated between Europe and South Africa. Ory was not the only Terra Nova wife aboard. Hilda Evans’s husband Teddy was commanding Terra Nova as it sailed to South Africa so she, like Ory, would see her husband again there. Kathleen was on board too, but she was not alone. Con had stayed behind to try to raise more of the funds that the expedition needed, and so she now shared a cabin with him, enjoying the last few precious weeks together.
Widows of the Ice was an emotional rollercoaster. It is not often that I find myself crying at a non-fiction book, but Widows of the Ice did it to me more than once. It is a heroic story, not just of the doomed polar explorers, but of their stalwart wives. In an age of instant communication and 24-hour news channels, it is hard to imagine the long months of waiting for news, hoping your husbands are alive, but knowing that they could have perished long ago.
It is hard to imagine the thoughts that must have gone through these women’s minds, knowing that they had been widows for a year, all the time looking forward to a reunion that would never happen. The letters they wrote in this time are heart breaking, so full of a hope that you know is going to be dashed in the cruellest of ways. And then having to live out the grief in the glare of the public eye!
Widows of the Ice is a true story, beautifully told with sympathy and empathy, and always with an eye to the tragedy you are watching unfold. These women were so much more than wives and widows – their strength, their passion and their sacrifices are demonstrated on every page.
My congratulations to Anne Fletcher for writing such a unique, illuminating and heart wrenching book, for bringing the stories of these incredible women to life. If there is only one non-fiction book you read this year, read Widows of the Ice, you won’t regret it.
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About the author:
Anne Fletcher is an historian and writer. She has a successful career in heritage and has worked at some of the most exciting historic sites in the country including Hampton Court Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Bletchley Park and Tower Bridge. She is the great-great-great niece of Joseph Hobson Jagger, ‘the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’ and he is the subject of her book ‘From the Mill to Monte Carlo’ published by Amberley Publishing 2018. Her search for his story started with only a photograph, a newspaper article and the lyrics of the famous song. The story was featured in national newspapers.
Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.
Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
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Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Available now from Amazon, Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.
©2022 Sharon Bennett Connolly