William Scoresby leaving Humber


From Queen’s Dock to the ends of the earth

There is a fair amount in the media at the moment about the forthcoming first voyage to the southern oceans of the new Royal Research Ship, Sir David Attenborough, and also about its forthcoming role in extending our understanding of the oceans and polar regions of our world.

I thought it might be worth mentioning the first voyage – 95 years ago – of an earlier such research ship, the Royal Research Ship William Scoresby, which sailed from Hull in the summer of 1926. A story which embraces what is now Queen’s Gardens in Hull, Grovehill Shipyard, Beverley, Cottingham and a number of individuals associated with Hull as well as the University of Hull.

The first voyages of the William Scoresby

The RRS William Scoresby was named after the famous Whitby nineteenth century whaler and early scientific observer of polar regions. Built by Cook Welton and Gemmell at Grovehill, the ship was launched on the last day of December 1925 before being floated down the river to Hull where it was afterwards fitted out, largely in the Old Queen’s Dock, now, of course, Queen’s Gardens. The vessel’s triple expansion steam engines were built by Amos and Smith of Hull.

William Scoresby leaving Humber
The William Scoresby ship leaving the Humber on its first voyage

Sailing from Humber Dock on its first scientific voyage on 26 June 1926, the William Scoresby (after calling briefly at Brixham and Dartmouth for minor adjustments), headed south to join up with the old Royal Research Ship Discovery – Captain Scott’s old vessel – at Cape Town on 1 August 1926. At least two Hull men, John Blanchard from Monmouth Street and Walter Baxter of Westbourne Avenue, Hull, were petty officers on this, the first of the ship’s many exploratory voyages.

The William Scoresby worked on what were called the Discovery Investigations, making seven voyages to Antarctica before being laid up through lack of funds in 1938. During these voyages the vessel marked about 3,000 whales and its work helped develop an understanding of their movements. The William Scoresby worked with the old Discovery until the latter was replaced in 1929 by a specially built oceanographic research ship, RRS Discovery II.

The William Scoresby’s voyages were of varying length. When the ship returned to St Katherine’s Dock, London, in June 1930, for example, it had been away for two and a half years. During the course of that voyage the vessel had pushed far into the ice pack and, although rarely away from Stanley in the Falklands or Grytviken on South Georgia for more than six weeks, it had worked in some arduous conditions –­­­ at one time being surrounded in an ice pack by over 2000 icebergs. Whilst on this voyage, the ship met with a succession of icebergs, one of them, over 150 miles long and 11 miles wide, which was then the largest that had been recorded.

During this voyage the William Scoresby also played an important role in the Second Wilkins-Hearst Antarctic Expedition, so called because it was led by Sir Humbert Wilkins and financed in part by William Randolph Hearst, the US newspaper tycoon. The vessel loaded aboard, one of Wilkins Lockheed planes and sailed just below the 67th parallel in an attempt to find somewhere to take off for an attempted flight across Antarctica.

Though they were unable to find a stretch of suitable ice long enough for take-off with sufficient fuel for such a long journey, they fitted floats to the plane and completed a number of successful shorter flights.

One of these flights was over an area until then known as Charcot Land, which proved to be an island. Wilkins duly dropped a flag and a document which claimed the land in the name of King George V. Such pioneering aerial endeavour, however, paved the way for the first successful flight across Antarctica later in the 1930s.

Scoresby crew
The crew of the William Scoresby

Investigating the oceans

Throughout the 1930s, the William Scoresby continued survey and investigatory duties. A great deal of work was carried out marking and tracking whales, dredging oceanic seabeds and investigating all aspects of the oceans. During these years the work of the William Scoresby and its sister ships played a major role in extending the frontiers of knowledge, particularly in the disciplines of oceanography and marine biology. The vessels also charted large sections of South Georgia, whilst their discovery work in Antarctica contributed much to our knowledge of the continent.

The vessel was requisitioned by the Admiralty in October 1939 and returned to the Falkland Islands as HMS William Scoresby in June 1940. It served in the area until 1943, when it became part of Operation Tabarin and helped to establish British bases throughout Antarctica, observing Argentine activities in the region.

The final voyage

After the war ownership of the vessel was transferred to the newly formed National Institute of Oceanography, it sailed on a 10-month voyage which began with a preliminary survey of the Benguela Current off the west coast of Africa. Later, the ship called at Cape Town and Mauritius.

It was the old ship’s final voyage of discovery and investigation. A further attempt to obtain official funds to recommission the vessel failed and when a buyer could not be found the vessel was sold. In 1954 the ship was purchased by the British Iron and Steel Corporation and scrapped: thus ended the illustrious career of the William Scoresby.

Whilst the work of the William Scoresby and the other Discovery Committee ships did not stop the wholesale slaughter and destruction of many whaling stocks, the vessels had played a major part in increasing our knowledge of the world’s oceans and paved the way for later conservation measures.

On one of these voyages, for example the vessel, undertook a survey of the Humbolt Current on the west coast of South America, an area from which previously little precise knowledge had been obtained. The Humbolt Current and its contrary or opposing current, known as El Nino, plays a dynamic role in the world’s weather systems.

Previously, knowledge of the Humbolt Current had mainly been obtained from surface observations, but the William Scoresby’s scientists obtained much new information on the physical characteristics of the water at different depths and on the associated marine fauna. This proved of great importance in increasing understanding of this crucial aspect of our natural world.

Sir Alister Hardy’s contributions

Those who had carried out their investigations with these vessels were often to play a major part in extending our knowledge of the oceans. In 1924, for example, A.C. (later Sir Alister) Hardy was selected as Chief Zoologist on the Discovery for the first of the Discovery Expeditions. In later life, he was to write an account, Great Waters, of the expedition.

In 1927 he returned from the cruise of the Discovery and William Scoresby with an enormous amount of data and a brimful of ideas. He obtained a post as the first Professor of Zoology at the newly formed University College, Hull. Here he initiated a first year and an honours Zoology course whilst embarking upon a unique research project based on his Continuous Plankton Recorder. This led to the opening of his 1931 Joint Department of Zoology and Oceanography. He lived in the Tudor House on Thwaite Street in Cottingham and the Hardy Building at the University is named after him.

Hardy remained at University College, Hull throughout the 1930s and gradually extended his programme until the war led to its closure. In 1942 he was appointed to the Regius Chair of Natural History at Aberdeen. He had an extremely distinguished career, later becoming Director of Field Studies, Oxford. A deeply religious man, Hardy sought to bring about reconciliation between Darwin’s theories of evolution and his own religious convictions. He died in Oxford in 1987.

RRS Sir David Attenborough
The new RRS, Sir David Attenborough

A legacy

The RRS William Scoresby which emerged back in the 1920s from Grovehill Beverley and Queen’s Dock Hull may have long gone to the scrapyard, but the old RRS Discovery – whose construction incidentally had been partly financed with Hull money (but that is another story) – still, remains at Dundee. Furthermore, the legacy of scientific knowledge and investigation that such ships established, has endured and become ever more important to our 21st century world. It is a legacy and a quest for a better understanding of the natural history of our oceans and polar regions which is about to be taken on in its next stage by the new RRS, Sir David Attenborough, when it leaves the Thames on its first voyage.

Dr Robb Robinson is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Blaydes Maritime Centre at the University of Hull. For more information on this subject, please refer to his book: Far Horizons: from Hull to the Ends of the Earth.

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