S4 E6: Snow Widows

In the final episode of the series, Katherine MacInnes tells the story of the race for the South Pole from the perspective of the women whose lives would be forever changed by it.

S4 E6: Snow Widows

In the final episode of the series, Katherine MacInnes tells the story of the race for the South Pole from the perspective of the women whose lives would be forever changed by it.

S4 E5: Snow Widows

In the final episode of the series, Alok Jha revisits one of Antarctica’s most enduring tales of exploration with author and journalist Katherine MacInnes. Her book, Snow Widows, tells the story of the race for the South Pole, from the perspective of the women whose lives would be forever changed by it: the wives and mothers that Scott and his expedition team left behind. 

Subscribe to the podcast to hear new episodes first: Acast | Apple | Spotify

Listen now (a full transcript is available below):

S4 E6: Snow Widows Katherine MacInnes

Alok Jha: Let me take you on a journey. To the coldest place on earth, and its last and greatest wilderness. On a voyage to Antarctica…

Hello and welcome back to A Voyage to Antarctica, brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I’m your host Alok Jha.

This week, I’ll be revisiting one of Antarctica’s most enduring tales of exploration with author and journalist Katherine MacInnes. Her book, Snow Widows, tells the story of the race for the South Pole from the perspective of the women whose lives would be forever changed by it – the wives and mothers that Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his expedition team left behind.

Katherine MacInnes has been an arts journalist and commissioning editor. She has published plays and children’s books, as well as a biography of Oriana Wilson called The Woman With The Iceberg Eyes. She is a regular on local BBC Radio and her journalism has appeared widely, including in the Times, the Telegraph and Country Life.

She lives in Gloucestershire with her family

Alok Jha: Katherine, who were the Snow Widows and how did you end up wanting to write about them?

Katherine MacInnes: The Snow Widows are five ladies who were bereaved by the Terra Nova expedition, which was Captain Scott's 1910 expedition to the South Pole. There were five women, two of them were mothers: Captain Oates's mother was Caroline Oates, and she was a very rich lady, and she basically ran the village of Gestingthorpe. She was a sort of lady of the manor.

And then at the other end of the scale: Taff Evans's wife, Lois, was a singer. She grew up in a pub in Middleton called The Ship Inn, and she learned to sing with the vicar's daughter. She became a kind of minor celebrity in South Wales.

So those are the two ends of the scale, and in between, was Emily Bowers. Her son was Birdie Bowers. And she had grown up as the daughter of a tailor in Cheltenham. And she trained at Cheltenham Teacher Training College to be a teacher. And in her first job, within three years, she was made a headmistress. And then she went out to Malaya, to Penang, and she became a teacher there, that's where she met her husband. And before Birdie went to the South Pole with Scott, she had become a widow.

Two more: Oriana Wilson was married to Dr. Edward Wilson. And Edward Wilson had been on two expeditions with Scott, and in between them, she learned to become a very good grass dissection expert, an ornithologist basically, as his field scientific assistant. So she was a scientist.
And the last lady is the most sensational probably: Kathleen Scott, Captain Scott's wife, and she was a sculptress – or a sculptor as she liked to be known. She was a talented artist. She trained with Rodin and her statues are all over Britain. Mostly naked men. Do ask me about why, if you want to, but that gives you all five.

Alok Jha: Well, I mean, before I go on, why naked men?

Katherine MacInnes: Yes, why the naked men? Okay, so Kathleen Scott was the youngest of many children, and her mother died shortly after she was born. So, her father, who was a vicar, decided he couldn't look after them all, and Kathleen grew up in a sort of convent orphanage where she was obliged to bathe in a shift lest she catch sight of her own naked body.

And when she decided she was going to become a sculptor, she went to Paris to study under Rodin. And she walked into the back of the studio and she saw all the students looking in one direction and she followed their line of vision and she saw a naked man walk across the room, get onto a throne, strike a pose, strike another pose and walk off.

And she could not believe that everybody was looking at this nakedness and she ran out and was sick in the loo. And, after that, she decided that that was very vulgar to react like that to a male form. And so she became quite obsessed by naked men, I would say. And the most famous of her naked men is outside the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

And that was modelled on Lawrence of Arabia's brother. And it's actually a very beautiful statue, kind of more realistic than her normal ones. And she donated it to the Scott Polar Research Institute. They kind of tried to resist accepting it, but they had to. And Lawrence of Arabia's brother became a don at Cambridge and had to bicycle past his naked self on his way to work.

Alok Jha: Can we just talk about Kathleen Scott for the next hour? She sounds like a fascinating woman.

Katherine MacInnes: Yes! Oh yeah, absolutely.

Alok Jha: But I mean, but let's pause it just for a second on that. So the five women you talked about, Oriana Wilson, wife of Dr. Edward Wilson, Kathleen Scott, wife of Captain Scott, Emily Bowers, so Birdie Bowers's mother, Caroline Oates, Captain Oates's mother, and Lois Evans, the wife of Edgar Taff Evans.

The men we hear about a lot and we've heard stories and there've been books and films and all sorts of legends written about the Terra Nova expedition. When you started researching these five women, what was it about them that drew you towards them? I know your husband climbed Everest when your children were quite young, so you had your own experiences in talking about members of your family who have been away –

Did you recognize stories that you found about them in your own experiences of your husband going away on Everest?

Katherine MacInnes: That is a very, very difficult question. But the reason I started looking into the women at all was because I'm always interested in the story behind the story. I'm interested in seeing the dancers warm up offstage before they come on and do a slick final performance, that kind of thing.

So that's why I looked into it. And what I found was that it was the real story. I used to say it was the unofficial story, but actually it's the true story of that expedition because the men confided in their wives and mothers in a way they didn't with their neighbours in the hut in the Antarctic. So it was entirely possible that the wife or mother would know more about what the man was actually thinking than the man in the sleeping bag next door.

So, for example, if Scott knew what I know from the letters that these men wrote home, he would never have chosen those five for the final journey. The whole story would be different.

But as for sort of resonance, I think my main feeling is that nobody has really named the state of anxiety, which is being in a permanent state of vicarious danger, where you aren't in physical danger, but somebody that you love and that is part of your family, and that it will be very life altering if anything happens to them, is. And you can't do anything about it.

Alok Jha: Let's just talk about the expedition sort of as it happened then. So when the men went off from Terranova, what was the expected method of communication between them,. What were they expecting to hear and how often?

Katherine MacInnes: Yes. So they were expecting to have letters at the ports ahead.

They had a leaving date, for example, from Cardiff, the Terranova, and the wives could write letters in advance to get there to be in Madeira. And they could also give them letters which were post dated to open. And those were incredibly important, which meant that they gave the letters to a friend of the man and said, please will you give him this on his birthday at Christmas and just before he leaves on expedition.

There is a very significant letter that Kathleen Scott wrote to her husband for him to open just before they set off. This is the letter that was found on Scott's body and just to be clear about that, the people who didn't go to the South Pole remained in the Antarctic in a hut, and when the sun came back to the sky in the Antarctic, they went out to try and find their dead comrades, and they found something that looked like a cairn covered in snow, and when they brushed the top away, they found a ventilation flap, so they knew that it was a tent, but they didn't know what was inside it.

So they cleared away the snow and crawled in through the tunnel entrance and they found three frozen bodies perfectly preserved. And they decided that they were going to try and take as many of the effects off these bodies in order to take them back to the widows. And there were two men in the tent and everybody else was standing outside.

And suddenly the people outside heard a noise like a gunshot. And they called into the tent just through the canvas and said, what's happened? You know, are you okay? And a man said, I was just trying to get Scott's diary and his letters, and I had to move his arm and it broke off. And it broke off with the sound of a gun.

Isn't that amazing? That's how frozen they were. They were literally ice. So this is the letter that they found once they had broken Scott's arm off and retrieved this letter. This is the letter that Kathleen Scott had given him, post dated, to open just before he left for the final journey to the South Pole:

”I left off just where I was going to tell you a very difficult thing. Look, you, when you are away south, I want you to be sure that if there is a risk to take or leave, you will take it. Or if there is a danger for you or another man to face, it will be you who face it. Just as much as before you met Peter (their baby) and me.

Because, dear man, we can do without you. Please know for sure we can. God knows I love you more than I thought could be possible, but I want you to realise that it won't. Crossed out. Wouldn't. Be your physical life that would profit me and Doodles – that's their nickname for Peter – Most. If there is anything you think worth doing at the cost of your life, do it.

We shall only be glad.”

Alok Jha: That's a very bold thing to say.

Katherine MacInnes: It's an incredibly bold thing to say, and that was the letter that was found on Captain Scott's body. So it meant a lot to him. He felt it was inspiriting. It was releasing him from the pressure to be alive, to come back to them. But Kathleen Scott was a very extreme version.

She was sort of a geneticist. At this time, Leonard Darwin, Darwin's son, was the president of the RGS. And so the idea of inherited characteristics, genes, was very important, and these men were considered to be lions, and so she considered that she had sort of fixed his biological immortality by having Peter, and that now he was free to go and make his name, his reputation.

Alok Jha: Such an interesting way to look at this, because people think about relationships, obviously, very interpersonally. If someone's going away, you want them to come back. But this really is – Kathleen Scott sounds like somebody who sees human relationships and exploration as something so much more about humanity itself, never mind the individual.

Katherine MacInnes: Yes, I think they all did. This is where this phrase was coined, “the right stuff”, you know, that's been used by Tom Wolfe. These men were proving that the members of the British Empire still had the right stuff, the right genetic material, the right kind of levels of resilience and ability to endure and kind of heroic selflessness as they saw it, so that it was for the good of the country, not necessarily for their good or for the good of the family.

Alok Jha: I mean, the right stuff is interesting. You've raised that because reading about the snow widows and the women who were left behind really reminded me of the women left behind on Earth as the first astronauts went off into space and then onto the moon.

And there are depictions of them in books and films, waiting by the phone for any indication of what's happening to their people and being very, very strong about it all. And, you know, there is certainly a parallel. I didn't know that the right stuff as well was used for the people going to Antarctica as well. I mean, it's in a way very similar, but 50 years earlier or 60 years earlier.

Katherine MacInnes: I think it's exactly the same, yes. It was like going to the moon. Nobody had been to the South Pole. They didn't know whether it was a volcano, whether it was another continent, whether there were people living there, they just had no idea.

Alok Jha: But going back to the communication then, so what communication would they have expected? So we had the letters, as you said, and the sort of post dated letters, which is a very clever method of communicating actually. What else did they have?

Katherine MacInnes: They also had cables. So I get very excited about this whole cable business. But if you look at a map, I have one on the wall, which is the Associated Telegraph Company's cable system. And it shows you, it was called the All Red Line. So it was the communication for the British empire

Alok Jha: This is an innocent question here, but they didn't have a cable to Antarctica, I'm assuming. They didn't have a cable to Antarctica, so the nearest to Antarctica was right at the south of New Zealand.

So the Terranova could bring letters once a year when the sea ice melted, which was the Antarctic spring, which is our winter. So by the time the men are in the Antarctic you have two parallel stories in different hemispheres in opposite seasons. with no communication. I mean, it would be more difficult to communicate with them than with the moon.[Instrumental]

Alok Jha: So you had the letters, you had the cables but what else was there to try and pierce that silence?

Katherine MacInnes: There was, in this instance, because the Norwegians went, Amundsen and Scott's expedition actually met near Cape Evans, and so they had at least seen each other. more recently than anybody after the cable head. So when Amundsen came back, because he reached the pole first in 1912 and came back, he could say that he had seen Scott's ship, and he had seen many of the explorers.

But yeah, it was incredibly difficult. Probably one of the best ways of kind of outlining it, is how the news came back when the men had died. So the women lived in complete ignorance for ten and a half months, although Amundsen had managed to get back. So he had managed to send news that he had been first to the South Pole and he hadn't seen Scott.

The idea was that either Scott's party had been lost or they were just so far behind that they hadn't seen them. They knew that at least in 1912. But Amundsen started doing post expedition lectures in New Zealand and Oriana Wilson had gone out there. So she attended Amundsen's lectures to be a good sport.

And afterwards said, do you think they're still alive? And he had no idea, but he said, if anybody has done a winter journey – her husband, she knew from information that had come back with the Terra Nova after the resupply, had done this winter journey in the Antarctic. And that was a first. And Amundsen said, if anybody can do a journey in the Antarctic winter, they can survive anything.

So the middle section of the book with the news coming home uses all of the possible forms of communication, principally a telegram to a London newspaper because the Terranova had a exclusive news deal as a part of their funding because it was a privately funded expedition and so they said that they could have the news 24 hours ahead of the in exchange for £8,000, which is a lot.

The surviving explorers came back to New Zealand, they took all the lights out of the Terra Nova. they came in, in the middle of the night, in total darkness. And when a lighthouse flashed at them “what ship?”, because that was also a form of communication, they didn't answer. So they put two men in a rowing boat and rowed them into Oamaru Harbour to send a telegram.

And when the men appeared on the quay, the harbour master said, I've been sending a message to you to say watch it, but you haven't told me, I could have you arrested. And they said, we have this exclusive deal, we can't tell you anything. And he said, well, who are you? And they said, we can't tell you.

And then the next morning, they went very early to the telegram office and they said to the telegram man, will you send this single sentence telegram? And would you mind if we locked you in your room for the rest of the day? He agreed, and then they caught the train and they were going up to Christchurch, where the expedition agent in New Zealand, a man called Joseph Kinsey, lived.

And as they were going up, the rumours started that somebody had seen the Terra Nova over the horizon, because another ship had come, and the Terra Nova was hiding over the horizon. And he said, I think that was the profile of the Terra Nova. So then the rumours started, and people started getting on this train and saying to these men, Who are you? You know, bearded men in sea boots. And they said, we can't tell you. So the rumour started that Captain Scott and one of his men had come back. Actually, they were dead. Those were the rumours that Oriana Wilson heard and she was asked to come to Christchurch.

Meanwhile, Joseph Kinsey was trying to send telegrams to the relatives so they would hear in advance of it being in the newspaper in 24 hours time. But he had to send those telegrams from New Zealand to London.

Alok Jha: So all of this is going on, all these rumours are swirling, not just for a couple of days, it must be in weeks that this is happening.

Katherine MacInnes: Weeks, absolutely.

Alok Jha: How does that affect the women themselves? If they're hearing all these things, they just don't have any way of confirming any of it. It must be so paralysing. And so how did they find out then? What was the point at which the rumours sort of ceased and they knew that the expedition had not been successful?

Katherine MacInnes: Well, it was different for all of them. For Orianna, because she had come to New Zealand to be able to meet the boat coming back.

Alok Jha: The boat that she thought was a successful emissary of the mission.

Katherine MacInnes: Yes, because her husband had come back from the first expedition, A. And B, because Armundsen had said to her, anybody who can survive a winter journey can survive going to the South Pole.

She was in New Zealand and she got a telegram from Joseph Kinsey, the expedition agent, saying please come to Christchurch. She got on the train and she started going North from Dunedin, where she was staying with Kinsey's daughter. And as she was going on the train, she saw people pinning up a poster.

But her train was going through the station so she couldn't get out and look at it. And then eventually other people heard the rumour that two men who might be Captain Scott and his assistant were on the train ahead. And so they got on their horses and galloped and got onto the moving train with her to say, you can't be alone for this: we don't know what's happened and we've heard rumours and we want to be with you.

When she eventually got to the end of the line to Christchurch. She was fully optimistic and really expected her husband to be waiting on the platform. And so she walked up into the train station and in the atrium, there was a newspaper hawker reading the headlines, calling them out to sell newspapers.

And it said everyone who went to the South Pole is dead. So that's how she heard that her husband had died.

Alok Jha: I can't even imagine how just devastating that must have been.

Katherine MacInnes: It's incredible, isn't it?

But then the message got back to England, they tried to contact Caroline Oates, but since she had an apartment in London and a house in the country, they sent the telegram to the wrong place. So she also heard it from a poster on a newspaper kiosk in a London street.

And Emily Bowers was in Italy, and she always went to get her news from the embassy where ticker tape news, telegrams were printed out and put up on a board. So she went up to the board to get her normal daily news and she saw there that her son had died.

Lois Evans was on a beach in Cardiff because she was very poor and she was scraping for cockles and a man came down onto the beach with a telegram in his hand and it was the wrong telegram. It was a telegram from her brother Stan saying, heard the terrible news, try to bear up, love Stan.

And she didn't know what had happened. So then she went back up to her cousin's house in Gower, and a newspaper man arrived, and he said, you know, my condolences, and she said, what for? What's happened? She didn't know. So the newspaper man had to tell her, and while he was doing that, a photographer was setting up a tripod outside, so there's a photograph of her from the newspaper photographer at the moment she's told.

This news flashed around the world, it was a much bigger story than the Titanic disaster, which had been the year before. And the king decided that he had to break protocol and have a memorial service, which he would attend at St. Paul's. So they had this huge memorial service, but they couldn't get in contact with Kathleen Scott because she was in a boat going out from America to New Zealand, that way around the world. They couldn't contact her. So all this time she knew nothing about it. And there was this huge service at St Paul's. All the streets were crowded.

Thousands and thousands of people. And nobody could tell her. So eventually, when she was nearing New Zealand, they managed to get a message to her boat. And the captain of the ship told her. And after he told her they put an officer on watch to make sure that she didn't jump overboard.

So, it was really awful for her. And she knew nearly a week and a half after the rest of the world.

Alok Jha: The way you describe it, it sounds like this is the kind of thing that should have been written about a long time ago because there's so much drama, there's so much tragedy, there's so much emotion in all of it. It feels like a story that we should all know.

Katherine MacInnes: Isn't it interesting that, you see, I think that's one of the extraordinary things. It's such a kind of essential legend that it's been kept in this sort of sacred box of we won't touch it and we won't question it and we won't look at it from a different angle for so long.

It's extraordinary, isn't it? But I would say, I don't feel it diminishes the men's achievement. I still think it's incredible. It's just it gives the other side of the story, you know, what was happening in the civilised world to their relatives at the time.

Alok Jha: So now that we know how the women all found out about the death of the people on the expedition, did the women themselves communicate between each other? Did they know each other at all?

Katherine MacInnes: Very good question. They did know of each other, but they only became that group of five just before Captain Scott selected them for the South Pole. He took 16 men and, at every depot, he said, right, you lot go back. And so, eventually, he got down to five. So, nobody knew who those people were gonna be until the last moment.

They didn't even know, until the Terra Nova came back with the news, who had been selected. none of them liked Kathleen Scott. Which is a shame, because I think she was just dynamic. But she didn't like women. She said, the next time my husband takes an expedition, the wives should be interviewed as well as the men. Better still, have none. So, she wasn't keen on women. And her only friend was Isadora Duncan, the contemporary dancer. That was her only female friend who was able to tolerate.

But she absolutely worshipped men. She was very extreme, Kathleen Scott. And I think very clever, but just with a very sketchy education.

Funnily enough, Emily Bowers, who was the person who grew up in a tailor's shop, and Caroline Oates, who was the lady of the manor, were the two mothers, and they were kind of from the previous generation, more Victorian than Edwardian, and they were friends.

The reason that it's interesting that they were friends is they had a completely different view of Scott. One of the things I say in my book, which hasn't been said before, but I know who it was said to, is that Caroline Oates in later life, went to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and she was being shown round by Frank Debenham, who had been on the expedition and was then the director of that institute.

And she pointed to Kathleen Scott's bust of Scott, which is just above the main door, and she said, that man killed my son. But anyway, Emily Bowers, who was her friend, the other mother, felt that she regretted, obviously, that her son had died, but she said he thought Scott was wonderful. And, you know, if he was going to die with anybody, then that was, you know, cause there were three men in the last tent. Birdie Bowers and Scott and Wilson were the last to die. on or about the 29th of March, 1912, and Emily Bowers felt that it was God's work and that Scott wasn't to blame. So it's interesting for me that those two could sustain a friendship with an entirely opposite view of the man who had led the expedition that meant that their sons didn't come back.

Alok Jha: Do we know what Kathleen’s response was when she found out that Robert Falcon Scott had died?

Katherine MacInnes: Well, so she made all men fall in love with her. And the first thing she did was write to Fridtjof Nansen, the sort of father of Norwegian exploration.

He'd been in the Arctic, and they may or may not have had an affair when Scott was away. Anyway, she wrote to him and she said, what would it be like dying like that? I mean, obviously, Nansen hadn't died, but he had come the nearest she knew, so she wanted to first know what it would have been like. And then, I can only paraphrase her letters, but she wrote, I must be strong because he has made me twice the man I was.

But the interesting thing is, she was also very good friends with George Bernard Shaw. And Bernard Shaw concluded that she can never have loved Scott. Because she never seemed to grieve, to him, she never seemed to be at all sad about him dying.

Actually, in her diaries, I would say that she was sad. But she was determinedly optimistic. On her gravestone, having had the most extraordinary life, she wanted this phrase, the happiest heart that ever beat. So, that was her kind of motivation. She wanted to be and appear to be happy.

Actually, I met her second son, Waylon Kennett. She was the only one of the widows that remarried. It was the most amazing thing to be talking to somebody that knew her very well. And he said she always used to say, “fun tomorrow”, every time she put him to bed. So whatever had happened that day, It was going to be fun tomorrow.

And so that's the loveliest side of that unbelievable strident optimism and happiness, isn't it?

Alok Jha: Sounds like somebody who is in a great deal of control over their own personality and their image and their emotions.

Katherine MacInnes: That's absolutely right. Nobody's said that before. I could have done with that, actually, before I wrote the book. Because I think you've nailed her. I think that's exactly right.

Alok Jha: Well, she sounds fascinating. Again, we were just talking earlier about how well the women knew each other. And they all didn't like Kathleen Scott, as you said. But what about the others? There's many women there of people who didn't necessarily mix because of the class they were living in. And at that time that mattered a lot. I mean, for example, as you talked about the wife of Taff Evans, uh, Lois Evans, tell me a bit more about her. And she found out, as you say, inadvertently on a beach, looking for cockles and things. And I just wonder what happened to her after she found out?

Katherine MacInnes: Oh, goodness, it's a very sad story. Taff was the first person to die on the return from the South Pole. So all these judgements they were making about that story, they were making with frozen, starved brains, basically. And as Taff fell into a crevasse shortly after they left the pole, and he hit his head, and he probably had a slow haemorrhage, he was also a very big man, and he had scurvy and frostbite, so he was dealing with all that.

And he eventually got incredibly slow, and the others in their diary got very frustrated, and wrote things like, you know, Taff Evans is broken down and holding us up. They wouldn't have said that if they were well fed and in a centrally heated room. But they weren't and they were desperate.

And so when the diaries were found and that was published, the rumour got out that Taff had held them up and that it was because of his class. He couldn't bear to be beaten. He wasn't a good sportsman. And he was easily bored on the polar plateau because he couldn't reach into the classical library of his mind and amuse himself as he was sledging along.

There were all these very awful things implied in the newspapers. But it caught on in South Wales where Taff's children were at school. And so people said, you know, if your father, if your husband hadn't kept them having to go very slowly at the beginning of leaving the pole, probably they'd all have got back.

And it's interesting because Taff's mother couldn't read. She signed her name with a cross. She had the newspapers read to her, and when she read that it was possibly Taff held them up, she said, and this is an extraordinary thing for a mother to say, she said maybe they should have left him behind, if he was the reason that they were held up.

The result of that is that the Evans family were bullied, badly bullied, not just that generation, but the grandson that I met was bullied at school, so I'm sorry it's not a better story.

Alok Jha: Because of this story?

Katherine MacInnes: Yeah, because of this story. It's an absolutely living story, because if you inherit a legend as a grandfather, or a kind of anti legend, then that is your inheritance. It makes a huge difference to your life. So all the relatives of these men, it's alive for them, the story.

Alok Jha: What about the others then? So we've heard about Kathleen Scott and Lois Evans and Emily Bowers and Caroline Oates. What happened to Oriana Wilson? I mean, we last met her on a train to Christchurch. She found out and then where did she go after that?

Katherine MacInnes: So hers is a very interesting story. It's a kind of corrective to the very sad story about Lois. So she came back to England and she had to stand up at the RGS and receive a medal on her husband's behalf. Kathleen Scott refused to come. So they were managing this sort of fallout for the legend, and then it became the First World War.

So then they were considered to be the representative widows. This is how everybody should conduct themselves. And so she started working for the New Zealand War Contingent Office.

These women had been pretty invisible up to this point, and then suddenly they were very visible. she was given a uniform, she was given a kind of managerial position, she was hiring and firing men. It was a complete reversal, suddenly empowered. And by the end of the war, the New Zealand government recommended her for a CBE.

She became a commander of the British Empire, and she decided she was going to go out to New Zealand to thank them at the end of the war. She thought she might stop off in Darwin in Australia on the way there. And she hired some native guides and she went a hundred miles further into the interior than any white person, man or woman, had ever been.

And she found some cast limestone caves, and at the back of those caves she found some bats. And she had learned to be a field scientist with her husband in between his two expeditions with Scott to the Antarctic. So she prepared this bat, and she sent it back to the Natural History Museum, saying, You know, I don't know this bat, do you?

And it was a new species. And so it was named for her, Miniopterus Orianae. And the Natural History Museum realised that she was a very good scientist. Her husband, Edward Wilson, had been a bit of a dreamer, and it was sometimes difficult to call him back to Earth, but she was brilliant. So she became a collector for the Natural History Museum. So she was a CBE and a scientist.

Alok Jha: Well, she sounds fascinating. And, of course, you've written a book about her, so there's lots to say about her, of course.

You took a decade to write this book, and I'm just curious how it took so long, given that you've talked about the people you've spoken to who are relatives of the widows in the story and all of that. Was it difficult to find the rest out? Was there just not much out there?

Katherine MacInnes: Yes, yes. So when my husband went, we had three children. The youngest was a baby, so she wasn't walking when he went to Everest, she was when he came back. That's quite full on, young family. But the main problem is that these women aren't in archives.

If you're researching the men, you go to the Scott Polar Institute, you ask for the file on them from the archives, and you get diaries detailing literally what they ate every day, how far they walked. You knew everything about the men, that's all written down. With the women, it's really difficult.

Oriana Wilson. gave her husband's letters to his biographer, George Seaver, in 1933. And when George Seaver had selected the extracts, she burned everything. So the way that I could get information on Oriana was going to New Zealand, because she really loved New Zealand, went there several times. And writing a letter in the newspaper and saying, Does anybody recognize this lady? Does anybody have any letters from her? Did she come and stay with your families? And there was a huge outpouring of letters.

With Caroline Oates, she was an incredibly private person. And the way into her is her accounts book. So she kept very rigorous accounts, but sometimes there's a bit of personality in it. Like there's an entry saying an amount to call the doctor, and then in brackets afterwards, it says, “Not for self” and I sat there in the Essex archives and I kind of looked around and said who are you saying that for Caroline? Are you saying it for me?

It's really odd but that's a really essential in to Captain Oates because he had a leg injury from the Boer War and scurvy makes old scar tissue disintegrate or degenerate. And so he didn't tell Scott how bad he was feeling, how painful his injury was, when Captain Scott was making his selection for the final group for the South Pole.

Captain Oates knew that his leg was not going to be good enough to go, but he refused to say that he was ill. It's the same place as Kathleen Scott's determination to be happy at any cost. It's the same thing, that they refused to say if they were ill. Illness was a kind of moral fault.

Alok Jha: You hinted at this earlier that if Captain Scott had known about the things written in the letters to these women that we've been talking about, that perhaps he would not have chosen those men to accompany him to the South Pole. And so the idea of having the injured leg, for example, that's one of them. What were the other things that perhaps Captain Scott should have known?

Katherine MacInnes: Yeah, well, I think It would have been worse than not being taken, because Captain Oates wrote to his mother, Caroline Oates, and he said, I dislike Scott intensely.

And then he criticised his transport methods because he was using ponies and dogs and motor sledges. And if Scott had found that – everybody in the expedition had signed on with a naval contract – and he would have been court-martialed. Not only would he have not have been taken, but he would have been court-martialed.

It would have been an entirely different story, and in Captain Scott's world, that would have meant that Captain Oates would be sent back to New Zealand in chains, literally in chains, when the Terra Nova came in to bring the mail in the Antarctic Spring of 1912. And yet, Scott had no idea about that so he was in the sleeping bag next door, not realising that Captain Oates really disrespected him.

With the Oates story, there's even more to be found out because the Official Secrets Act. has a century and I went to the National Archive and I'd seen a reference in Caroline Oates's accounts book to giving money to a German lady during the war and this is a time when anti German hysteria was at a pitch in Britain.

It was really dangerous to have any German relatives, have any German sounding name, Bechtenstein's pianos were being smashed in the streets, Dachshunds were being kicked, you know, it was hysterical, no rationale behind it. But Caroline Oates's two sisters had married German army officers.

Nobody knew that, not even her relatives, until I found that document, which is under trading with the enemy in the National Archive.

Alok Jha: Do you have a favourite widow? I mean, I know you've written a book about Oriana Wilson already, and so, you must like her and be appreciative of her challenges. But I'm getting the sense that there's another widow that you have a particular admiration for.

Katherine MacInnes: Yes. When I was doing this book with the editor, she said, can we just make the whole book about Emily Bowers?

And I said, yeah, sure, She was absolutely extraordinary. Birdie Bowers was called Birdie because he had a very hooked nose. He was very physically unprepossessing. But if you were going to choose one of those men and you wanted to survive in the Antarctic, that would be your man.

Everybody loved Birdie. But the main thing was that Emily Bowers’s family were all very clever and very physically capable and very resilient. So they had all the possible qualities you needed for that situation. They were permanently underestimated. Emily was not maybe a genius, but she was extremely bright and capable.

She and her family had a kind of Midas touch. At the beginning, when Birdie Bowers was taken out on the Terra Nova, he was just gonna be part of the crew on the boat. And on the way out, Captain Scott suddenly realised how phenomenal he was and said, I'm gonna swap you to the shore party. Because I want you there.

So he was in charge of all the stores. He was in charge of all the logistics. Everything Scott could give him to do, he gave him. Because he could actually do it better than Scott. And better than anybody else. And she was exactly that. She was the sort of female equivalent. But very quiet about it. When people saw her, they saw a sort of, rather round little lady who was quite religious. And, you know, just very cheerful. But actually she was phenomenal. So that would be my favourite one, I think.

Alok Jha: Are you thinking of another book based on her then? I mean, it sounds like you might want to.

Katherine MacInnes: Louisa Young has written a book about her grandmother, Kathleen Scott, and I've written a book about Oriana. So there are still three more people left to write, but If anybody is thinking of it, it is incredibly hard because these women were almost self-erasing,

So it's really difficult and it is unfortunately particularly difficult to get under the skin of people like Lois because they didn't leave a written track record. The way into Lois has been voice recordings in Gower. Somebody went and recorded lots of her relatives. They were actually recording it to preserve the Gower accent. But that's how I know a lot about Lois.

Alok Jha: That's incredible. There's a sort of like an accidental discovery almost of that.

Katherine MacInnes: There's some lovely accidents actually, because a lot of people thought that Kathleen and Oriana were never friends. And I ordered a book on Amazon, Edward Wilson Nature Lover, and in the flyleaf of that book is a signature by Kathleen, which shows that she and Oriana were friends.

And that was just on Amazon, a random book, could have been one of thousands. Isn't that bizarre? But now, now I know her writing, I know who it was, and I know what that message meant at that time.

Alok Jha: You've talked about these people that have been to Antarctica and also the people that they left behind and I just wonder, we've kind of almost ignored Antarctica itself in the conversation for good reason, and normally in this show we haven't done that, it's all about Antarctica, but for you – do you think about Antarctica? Why does it matter to you?

Katherine MacInnes: Well, I would absolutely love to go there. I slightly feel I've been sort of method acting the Snow Widows by not going there because none of them did. But what it means to me, now I've been to quite a few conferences on polar exploration, is the possibility of having somewhere which is neutral internationally and which is just devoted to science.

That for me is the most valuable thing about Antarctica. But it's interesting because some of the core samples that Captain Scott's expedition members took, because it was a scientific expedition, are now being used as a sort of base measurement for climate change, so they can measure what the atmosphere was like when they took, for example, blue-green algae then, against samples now. So it is still alive, this story, because at the Natural History Museum, you will find scientists today using that material.

Alok Jha: So for you, it's a place that you would like to go, but it's also a place that is kind of intriguing for the place it has in the world, culturally and politically.

Katherine MacIness: Yes, I think that's the most interesting thing about it. It's unique, It's land and it's international. It's as civilised as we can possibly ever get. If we could be cosmopolitan citizens of a world and all make decisions in the interests of the planet Antarctica is the nearest example we have for that at the moment.

Alok Jha: Okay, Katherine, that's been absolutely fascinating. Could I talk to you for another three hours

Katherine MacInnes: Good, I love talking about it and you've been brilliant to talk to.

Alok Jha: It's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Katherine MacInnes: Thank you.


Alok Jha: Thank you for listening. A Voyage to Antarctica is brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, and made possible by support from Hurtigruten Expeditions.

To find out more about our guests and how you can support the Trust, please head to our website at www.ukaht.org, or find us on social media. If you enjoyed this episode, please don’t forget to follow and rate us, wherever you get your podcasts. It makes a huge difference to us.

A Voyage to Antarctica was presented by me, Alok Jha. Theme music is by Alec Hewes, and Editing and Additional Music is by James Stickland. The show is Produced by Jessica Norman.

See you next time.