Anniversary of news of Scott's party's deaths

SAD NEWS: The Terra Nova returns to Lyttelton with its flag at half mast. Inset: Oriana Wilson.
SAD NEWS: The Terra Nova returns to Lyttelton with its flag at half mast. Inset: Oriana Wilson.

One hundred years ago, news of the tragic end of Captain Scott's party's bid to reach the South Pole began reaching the wives and families of the dead explorers.

Author Katherine Macinnes tells how Oriana Wilson, the wife of Scott's right-hand man, Dr Edward Wilson, heard the news. Below is an excerpt from her yet-to-be published book on Mrs Wilson.


The year is 1913. It is 2am on February 11. In a remote corner of New Zealand, two sailors disembark from the Terra Nova, Robert Falcon Scott's Antarctic expedition ship.

They have been in the Antarctic for three years. They row quietly through the dark into Oamaru Harbour, South Island, with orders to send a secret telegram to London.

Scott's expedition sponsorship depends upon an exclusive scoop for the Central News Agency, a promise he is, posthumously, about to deliver on.

Christchurch, New Zealand. February 11, 1913

Oriana Wilson had received the telegram that morning. It was from the expedition agent, Joseph Kinsey.

Kinsey asked her to take the first train back from Dunedin; he would meet her in Christchurch that evening. Ory had been staying with Kinsey's daughter but had set off on foot for Dunedin station without even waiting for a cab.

She boarded the first Christchurch train full of hope. A small hurriedly typeset paragraph on page five of the Wanganui Chronicle, on sale at the station, had caught her eye.

It confirmed that her husband's Antarctic expedition ship, Terra Nova, had arrived at Oamaru, South Island, at 2 o'clock that morning.

Two men had landed "supposed to be Captain Scott and one of his officers". Captain Scott was well known in this patriotic outpost of the British Empire. Chronicle informers would surely have recognised him?

Some of the passengers entering Ory's train carriage might also have recognised her.

A sketch from a portrait photograph occasionally appeared in the newspaper. In a few lines, the artist had captured "Mrs E Wilson" - the enigmatic but quietly glamorous wife of Edward, expedition surgeon, naturalist, artist and, most significantly, Scott's right-hand man.

It was summer in the southern hemisphere, but the newspaper declared that the barometer had a falling tendency - unsettled weather was on its way. To begin with, Ory had enjoyed the "glamour of romance" of being an explorer's wife, but over the years she had perfected a sphinx-like countenance to protect herself from being treated like a human barometer.

Anyone entering the carriage would not have been able to discern the fate of the British Antarctic Expedition from her expression.

The truth was, Ory had last seen Ted on November 29, 1910, two years and over two months ago. She knew as much as they did. Her only communication with her husband had been through letters delivered once a year when the sea ice melted and the mail bag could get through - letters were months, sometimes even a year, out of date.

The guard blew his whistle, the carriage doors banged shut along the length of the train and a cloud of steam transformed the platform into a white wilderness.

From what Ory knew from Ted's last letter written 15 months before, Ted had already pushed himself to the limit of human endurance and survived. Together with two others, he had made an extraordinary sledge journey through the winter wilderness to Cape Crozier to retrieve emperor penguins eggs.

If, as Ted believed, penguin embryos proved that scales evolved into feathers, Ory would find herself the wife of a truly eminent "missing-link" scientist. Ted had recovered from the ravages of that frostbitten journey to be, as Scott had described it in his last letter to her, "fitter than ever".

The Chronicle's recent update was brief. Ory knew that in order for Scott to secure funding for the Terra Nova expedition, he had been obliged to sign an exclusive first news contract with the Central News Agency in London.

The Terra Nova men had telegrammed their news to London. Twenty-four hours later, the New Zealand papers would be informed.

Desperate for a scoop, the Chronicle journalist had obviously tracked down two "ordinary travellers", ordinary "except that they wore sea boots", and questioned them.

One replied that his orders were to say nothing. "Don't mind you asking," he said. "Those are your orders. Ours are to say nothing."

It was a reply that smacked of Ted, who urged this approach upon his wife " . . . firm determination to be silent and say nothing . . . " "Like Brer Rabbit, lie low and say nothing all the time, and keep on saying nothing . . . "

She could endure anything that brought her nearer to Ted. Now she was heading to Christchurch to Kinsey's house, her home from home - a little piece of the England with gabled windows, greenhouses and balconies, just four miles over the isthmus from Lyttelton where all Antarctic boats were bound.

Ory had time to think about Ted's first expedition with Scott when she was a newlywed for Ted left for the Antarctic just three weeks after their wedding on July 16, 1901.

Back then, over a decade ago now, the expedition stayed south for a second year. Ted felt that their postponed reunion on Good Friday 1903 - "beat . . . a wedding hollow".

Ory remembered the month that followed had been a second honeymoon - a time of indescribable happiness, earthly bliss. They had travelled around New Zealand, through the very landscape now flashing past her train window. And now, a decade later, the Terra Nova had landed two men at Oamaru.

The two men were, according to the Chronicle, like Ory "proceeding to Christchurch". In 1904, Ted had thought his 29-year- old wife looked "not a day older than when I left her and far more beautiful". (Was it possible to recreate the euphoria of that first reunion at nearly 40, almost a decade on?)

The train began to pick up speed. The comforting rhythm of the wheels on the track mixed with the familiar scent of coal smoke. They were between places. Later Ory would be able to see her life clearly divided by the moment she alighted from this train.

There was before and there was after. There was love before and death after. For now, as the train rolled on towards Christchurch, ignorance and hope.

As Ory's train approached Christchurch on February 11, 1913, the sun was setting in the west. Scott had "robbed" her of her husband for long enough and, with the end in sight, it was difficult to be patient. Outside the train window, the wild New Zealand bush had given way to the architecture of civilisation and the Gothic spire of Christchurch cathedral came into view. Soon Ory would be among friends.

The train began to slow down. The setting sun flicked between buildings. Passengers smoothed their clothes, adjusted hat pins and checked their reflection discreetly in the window glass. The evening was cool; a strong northerly breeze whipped through the leaves of the blue gum trees beside the track.

A second reunion was imminent. Had one of those taciturn men, landed from the Terra Nova at Oamaru, made it to Christchurch yet? Was there a chance that Ted would be waiting for her on the platform?

Ory remembered Good Friday 1903: their second honeymoon; the charged intimacy of shivery changing huts; midnight bathing in the hot sulphur baths, the magnificent backdrop of Ruapehu.

She still had Ted's 1903 diary in which he described the geysers around Wairakei, "a cloud of steam and sparkling diamond drops and rainbows in the sunshine, a beautiful sight".

Now, a decade later, they drew into Christchurch station. The heavy carriage door opened. The hiss of brakes, the cloud of steam, the banging of doors and the clatter of footfall. Over it all, Ory heard an unlikely sound, the mournful toll of the cathedral bell. She descended carefully into the bustle of the station.

Where was Kinsey? Everywhere passengers, porters, hawkers. Gradually, she became accustomed to the new noise level. The cries of the newspaper sellers on the platform, insistent, demanding attention.

At first the blur of a New Zealand accent, specific sounds, then words. "Antarctic tragedy." "Loss of southern party." "Scott, Wilson . . . dead."

Wilson. Dead.

However quick the Kinseys were at spotting the tall Englishwoman in travelling dress, freeze framed in the steam, they were not quick enough. Ory had heard. Her husband was dead. She heard it alone in a crowd of strangers at Christchurch station.

Nothing that happened afterwards could ever change that.

Katherine Macinnes is writing a book on Oriana Wilson Love and Death and Mrs Bill. She welcomes any information readers can share about Mrs Wilson's life in Christchurch during the Terra Nova expedition years and can be contacted at

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