Posted in Bringing Alive The Past, Exhibition, History, Maritime History, Museum, Review

Captain Lawrence Oates – Soldier, Explorer, Hero

Earlier this year I visited Gilbert White’s House and Garden  in the pretty village of Selborne, rural Hampshire, which is also home to The Oates Collection.  I am delighted to bring you this article, my third and final, in a series showcasing different aspects of the museum’s collection.

Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Edward Grace Oates (1880-1912) began his career as a solider but spent his final years as an explorer, after having joined Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s (1868-1912) ill-fated second expedition to the Antarctic and epic journey of discovery to the South Pole (1911-1912). Lawrence’s uncle was African explorer, Frank Oates (1840-1875).DSCF6871

Last year marked the centenary of Scott’s Second Expedition and thanks to a National Lottery ‘Your Heritage’ grant, match funding by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, generous donations and fundraising, the redesigned Lawrence Oates Gallery is now re-open to the public. The Gallery is a beautifully designed exhibition space which creates the perfect backdrop to tell the poignant life story of this courageous English gentleman. The Gallery also includes new interactive features that enhance the visitor experience including original expedition footage and photographs. The short film featured above, ‘The Oates Collection’, was produced following the recent refurbishment and provides a virtual tour of the first floor galleries. It gives an excellent overview of Lawrence’s extraordinary life.  The Oates Collection is the only museum in the world dedicated to the life of Captain Lawrence Oates.

Lawrence's beloved mother. He declared that she was the only woman that he had ever loved. Lawrence never married.
Lawrence’s beloved mother. He declared that she was the only woman that he had ever loved. Lawrence never married.

Lawrence was born on 17th March, 1880 at Putney, London to William Edward Oates (1841-1896) and Caroline Anne Oates (née Buckton). He was the eldest of four children and enjoyed a privileged childhood at the family country seat, Gestingthorpe Hall, Essex. He attended Eton College for two years but had to leave due to ill-health (he had weak lungs and caught pneumonia) forcing him to continue his education at home with the assistance of a private tutor.

Uniform similar that worn by Lawrence during the Boer War in South Africa. On loan to Gilbert White's House and Garden from the The Inniskilling Dragoon Museum.
Uniform similar to that worn by Lawrence during the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). On loan to The Lawrence Oates Gallery from the The Inniskilling Dragoons Museum.

He began his military career in 1898 with the 3rd West Yorkshire regiment, followed by a regular army commission in April, 1900 and finally a posting to the 6th Inniskilling dragoons. He served in the South African War (Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902) where he sustained a thigh injury in 1901 which would later came back to trouble him whilst in the Antarctic. It was whilst serving in South Africa that he earned the nickname, ‘No Surrender Oates’ for refusing to surrender to a much superior Boer force. 

Captain Oates's despatch case used during his military career. On loan to the museum from The Inniskilling Dragoons Museum.
Captain Oates’s despatch case used during his military career. On loan to the museum from The Inniskilling Dragoons Museum.

After a short period of convalescence for his thigh injury, he returned to his regiment having been promoted to rank of lieutenant on 2nd February, 1902.  He continued his military career, serving in Ireland, Egypt and India, becoming a captain in 1906.

Lawrence found his posting in India to be too quiet and inactive. An expert horseman, he spent much of his time playing polo, steeplechasing and hunting, even bringing his own pack of hounds to India with him. By the end of 1909, the restless young Lawrence was looking for adventure and applied to join Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition, offering his services in any capacity as well as £1,000 (approximately £95,000 in today’s money) towards the expedition funds. Scott received eight thousand applications for this expedition. In March, 1910, Scott accepted Lawrence due to his knowledge of horses (he looked after the expedition’s nineteen ponies) and his military experience. Lawrence was the only army officer to join the Terra Nova Expedition.

On 27th January, 1910, he wrote to his beloved mother whilst in a Delhi hospital:

I have now a great confession to make. I offered my services to the Antarctic Expedition which starts this summer from home under Scott. They wrote and told me to produce my references which I did and they appear to have been so flattering that I have been practically accepted. Now I don’t know whether you approve or not but I feel that I ought to have consulted you before I sent in my name. I did not so as I thought there was very little chance of my being taken.

Scott, however, appears to be a man who can make up his mind and having decided, he told me so at once which was the first intimation I had I was likely to go. Points in favour of going: It will help me professionally as in the Army if they want a man to wash labels off bottles, they would sooner employ a man who had been to the North Pole than one who had only got as far as the Mile End Road.

Now points against. I shall be out of touch for some considerable time. It will require a goodish outlay of about £1,500 as I have offered to subscribe to the funds. I shall have to give up the hounds. I shall annoy the Colonel very much.

This was Scott’s second expedition to the Antarctic, his first had been in 1901 until 1904 when he sailed there on the RRS Discoverytogether with a team of fifty men.

Exhibit in The Oates Gallery showing Ponting's photograph of the Winter
Exhibit showing Ponting’s photograph of Scott’s winter quarters in the Antarctic. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

In the spring of 1910, Lawrence arrived in London to board the Terra Nova. The Terra Nova Expedition was made-up of sixty-five men who operated on ship and shore.  Some of the key members of the team were:

  • Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) – Expedition leader who died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Dr Edward Adrian Wilson (1872-1912) – Chief Scientist who died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers (1883-1912) – died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates (1880-1912) – died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Edgar Evans (1876-1912) – died on the return journey from the South Pole;
  • Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans (Teddy Evans) (1881-1957);
  • William Lashly (1867-1940);
  • Tom Crean (1877-1938);
  • Thomas C. Clissold (1886-1963). The cook who took part in two depot-laying journeys and trained sledge dogs. He was also a clever inventor of mechanical devices. To view photographs of Clissold, taken by Ponting, CLICK HERE.
  • Herbert Ponting (1870-1935). The expedition’s official photographer. His high-quality images produced on glass-plate negatives have left us with an incredible visual legacy of Scott’s expedition. Ponting also shot extensive film footage;
  • full list of crew members who took part in the Terra Nova Expedition is available on the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s (NZ) website. CLICK HERE.

    Exhibit in The Oates Gallery showing replicas of Herbert Pontings glass-late negatives.
    Exhibit in The Lawrence Oates Gallery showing replicas of Herbert Ponting’s glass-plate negatives.
Replica of the Terra Nova (scale 1/8 inch to 1 foot) made by Commander Rupert Head RN, 2011-2012. The Oates Gallery.
Replica of the Terra Nova (scale 1/8 inch to 1 foot) made by Commander Rupert Head RN, 2011-2012. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

Terra Nova (a converted Dundee whaler) eventually sailed from Cardiff, Wales bound for New Zealand on 15th June, 1910. Additional supplies were loaded onto the ship in New Zealand, including thirty-four dogs, nineteen Siberian ponies (brought by Scott much to Lawrence’s frustration, Scott was not a horseman and had brought the wrong breed of pony, ‘a wretched load of crocks’ wrote Oates) and three motorised sledges. The Terra Nova departed Port Chalmers, New Zealand on 29th November, 1910 eventually arriving at Ross Island, near the continent of Antarctica, on 4th January, 1911.

Display panel in The Oates Gallery.
‘Scott’s science’ display panel in The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

Both of Scott’s expeditions were based upon extensive programmes of scientific discovery. The Chief Scientist on the Terra Nova Expedition was Dr Edward Wilson who declared: ‘We want the bagging of the Pole to be merely an item in the results’. Substantial scientific data and specimens were collected by Scott and his team. The scientific party included geologists, biologists, physicists and one meteorologist (George C. Simpson, 1878-1965) who created a weather station in the Antarctic.

Apsley GB Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959), a zoologist on the team, wrote and published The Worst Journey in the World (1922). The publication tells how Cherry-Garrard, Bowers and Wilson journeyed to Cape Crozier in darkness and dreadful winter weather to collect eggs from the emperor penguin colony.  The work done by Scott and his team of scientists created the foundations for Antarctic science today.

Scott led the march south from Cape Evans Base Camp on 1st November, 1911. On 3rd January, 1912 Scott selected a five-man team who would accompany him on the final part of the journey to the South Pole. He chose Dr Wilson, Henry Bowers, Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates. The team reached the South Pole on 18th January, 1912, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) and his team, had arrived there five weeks prior.

On 25th January, 1912, Scott’s five-man team began the eight hundred mile return journey. Fearing the worst and with his men in a bad way physically and emotionally, Scott asked Dr Wilson to issue each of his team with thirty opium tablets. Should the need arise the men could elect to end their own lives. The tablets were never used. Evans died on the 17th February, 1912. Lawrence died on 17th March, 1912. The remaining team members, Scott, Wilson and Bowers, succumbed to starvation and exhaustion and died c. 29th March, 1912 after having spent ten days trapped by a blizzard only eighteen miles from life-saving supplies that had been deposited at One Ton Depot. The team’s tent and bodies (except for Lawrence’s which was never recovered) were found eight months later, on 12th November, 1912, by a relief expedition led by Edward Atkinson. A cairn was built over the location of the tent.

The men needed five thousand five hundred calories each day and were only consuming four thousand four hundred and thirty with no vitamin C.
The men needed 5,500 calories each day and were only consuming 4,430 and no vitamin C which made them prone to bouts of scurvy. The above display is on loan to The Lawrence Oates Gallery from The Sutton Collection. Chief Petty Officer Tom Williamson was a member of the search party that found Captain Scott’s last camp and the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. From there and from the hut he brought back a number of items which now comprises the ‘Sutton Collection.’ Oates wrote: ‘ Pemmican must have disagreed with me at breakfast, for coming along I felt very depressed and homesick.’ (15th January, 1912)
The Oates Gallery.
The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Sledge on display in The Oates Gallery. Fully-loaded a sledge needed 4 men to pull it. Some sledges were 10ft long (3m) others were 12ft long (3.65m) and could weigh 1,121lbs (51kg) when loaded with equipment and rations. Birdie Bowers wrote:'...I have never pulled so hard or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking on the canvas band round my unfortunate tummy.'
Sledge on display in The Lawrence Oates Gallery. Fully loaded a sledge needed 4 men to pull it. Some sledges were 10ft long (3m) others were 12ft long (3.65m) and could weigh as much as 1,121lbs (51kg) when fully loaded with equipment and rations. Birdie Bowers wrote:’…I have never pulled so hard or so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking on the canvas band round my unfortunate tummy.’

The Last Few Months of The Terra Nova Expedition – In Their Own Words

  • Scott told me today he was very pleased with the way the ponies were going.. (Oates, 8th November, 1911);
  • I am anxious about these beasts (ponies) and if they pull through well, all the thanks will be due to Oates. (Scott, 12th November, 1911);
  • Scott realises now what awful cripples our ponies are and carries a face like a tired sea boot in consequence. (Oates, 18th November, 1911);
  • Whenever one peeped out of the tent there was Oates, wet to the skin, trying to keep life in his charges. Poor Oates had suffered as much as the ponies. (Evans, 4-8th December, 1911);
  • Thank God the horses are now all done with and we begin the heavier work ourselves. (Oates, Shambles Camp, 9th December, 1911. Oates has to shoot the remaining ponies);
  • The back tendon of my right leg feels as if it has been stretched about four inches. I hope to goodness it is not going to give me trouble. (Oates, 26th December, 1911);
  • I have been selected to go on to the Pole with Scott…What a lot we shall have to talk about when we get back – God bless you and keep you well until I come home…The excitement was intense. It was obvious that with five fit men – the achievement was merely a matter of ten or eleven days’ good sledging (Oates, writing to his mother, 3rd January, 1912);
  • Pemmican must have disagreed with me at breakfast, for coming along I felt very depressed and homesick. (Oates, 15th January, 1912);
  • We are not a very happy party tonight. We have picked up the Norskies tracks… Scott is taking his defeat much better than I expected. (Oates, 16th January, 1912)
  • Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured here without the reward of priority. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder we can do it. (Scott, 18th January, 1912);
  • One of my big toes has turned black. I hope it is not going to lame me for marching. (Oates, 25th January, 1912);
  • Titus‘ [Oates] toes are blackening and his nose and cheeks are dead yellow. At the same time Evans’s fingers were suppurating and his nails came off. His nose was rotten. (Wilson, 31st January, 1912);
  • Dug up Christopher’s [pony] head for food but it was rotten. (Oates, his last diary entry, 24th February, 1912);
  • Titus Oates is very near the end, one feels. What we will do, God only knows. (Scott, 11th March, 1912);
  • He [Oates] was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last hoping not to wake, but he woke in the morning – yesterday. He said “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He went into the blizzard and we have not seen him since. (Scott, 16-17 March, 1912)
    The Oates Gallery.
    The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

    The Oates Gallery.
    The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

Dear Mrs Oates,

This is a sad ending to our undertaking. Your son died a very noble death, God knows. I have never seen or heard of such courage as he showed from first to last with his feet both badly frostbitten – never a word or a sign of complaint or of the pain, he was a great example. Dear Mrs Oates, he asked me at the end to see you and to give you this diary of his. You, he told me, are the only woman he has ever loved. Now I am in the same can and I can no longer hope to see either you or my beloved wife or my mother or father – the end is close upon us, but these diaries will be found and this note will reach you some day.

Please be so good as to send pages 54 and 55 of this book to my beloved wife addressed Mrs Ted Wilson, Westal, Cheltenham. Please do this for me dear Mrs Oates – my wife has a real faith in God and so your son tells me have you – and so have I – and if ever a man died like a noble soul and in a Christ like spirit your son did. Our whole journey’s record is clean and though disastrous – has no shadow over it. He died like a man and a soldier without a word of regret or complaint except that he hadn’t written to you at the last, but the cold has been intense and I fear we have all of us left writing alone until it is almost too late to attempt anything but the most scrappy notes.

God comfort you in your loss.

Yours sincerely

E.A. Wilson.

Replica of the home-made tree made by Scott's team to celebrate Midwinter Day (22nd June, 1911). The Oates Gallery.
Replica of the home-made tree made by Scott’s team to celebrate Midwinter Day (22nd June, 1911). The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Ponting's photograph of Scott's team making the Midwinter Day tree. Oates sits at the table on the left. The Oates Gallery.
Ponting’s photograph of Scott’s team making the Midwinter Day tree. Oates sits at the table on the left. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Exhibit showing contemporary polar-exploration clothing. The Oates Gallery.
Exhibit showing contemporary polar-exploration clothing. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.
Rations used in modern-day polar-exploration. The Oates Gallery.
Rations used in modern-day polar-exploration. The Lawrence Oates Gallery.

2013 Events at Gilbert White’s House and Garden

  • Wild at White’s Easter Bunny Hunt. Good Friday, 29th March until Sunday 14th April. Come and explore the stunning gardens and find those spritely bunnies hiding in the grounds. Included in the normal admission fee;
  • Gilbert White Study Day for the WEA. Monday 15th April (10-3pm). £45. Pre-booking essential;
  • Wild at White’s African Safari. Saturday 25th May until Sunday 2nd June. Follow in the footsteps of Victorian Explorer Frank Oates and hunt for the wild animals of the African Continent hidden in the gardens. Included in the normal admission fee;
  • 21st Unusual Plants Fair. Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th June. Over Father’s Day weekend there will be over thirty specialist growers of rare and unusual plants, trees, shrubs and seeds trading in the lovely grounds at the Museum. Admission for Plant Fair and Gardens only: £6 Adults, £2.50 Children, Under 5s Free. Please note Season Passes and ‘2 for 1’ vouchers are not valid on Bank Holidays and Special Event Days;
  • Regency-style costume making workshop. Sunday 30th June (11am-4.30pm). Part of Alton’s Jane Austen Regency Week (Saturday 22nd – Sunday 30th June).  Part of the Museum’s Volunteering Project you will be helping to add to their collection of period-style clothes and accessories. Some basic sewing experience is preferred. Both hand and machine techniques will be used to create and accessorize one or two Regency outfits using a commercial pattern. Tickets include a morning coffee, light buffet lunch and afternoon tea. Limited places – pre-booking essential. £10 per ticket. Book now in the museum, or by calling: 01420 511 275. CLICK HERE, for more information on this super workshop;
  • Teddy Bear Trail and Picnic. Throughout July. This event is part of the Hampshire Food Festival organised by Hampshire Fare (1st-31st July). There will be a teddy bear trail in the grounds of Gilbert White’s House where you will identify local produce that makes up the best picnic! Free entry for all children accompanied by a teddy bear and adult;
  • Gilbert’s Games and Country Fair. Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th August. This is a very popular annual event. Fun and games for all the family suitable for all ages and abilities. Take part or compete in some traditional eighteenth century games and pastimes including stool ball, Aunt Sally, croquet, cricket and melon rolling! There will also be local crafts people demonstrating their skills which all take place in Gilbert’s beautiful House and Garden. Some activities may not be suitable for younger children; all children should be accompanied by an adult. Admission to the House, Garden and Games: £7 Adults, £2 Children, Under 5s Free. Please note Season Passes and ‘2 for 1’ vouchers are not valid on Bank Holidays and Special Event Days;
  • Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, outdoor production by the Chapterhouse Theatre Company. Sunday 25th August, from 6pm. Bring a picnic. Adults £13.50, Students & Children £9; Families £40 (2 Adults + 2 Child), 10% discount for parties of ten or more. Telephone: 01420 511 275 to put your name down for tickets before they are released on sale;
  • Wild at White’s Apples and Tortoises. Saturday 26th October until Sunday 3rd November. Normal admission charges apply;
  • Mulled Wine Day. Sunday 1st December.
  • Regency Dance. Saturday 7th December (7.30pm-11pm);

Opening times for 2013

  • Until 31st March, Tuesday-Sunday (10.30am-4.30pm);
  • 1st April-31st October, Tuesday-Sunday (10.30am-5.15pm)
  • 1st November-22nd December, Tuesday-Sunday (10.30am-4.30pm).
  • Also open on Bank Holiday Mondays, and Mondays in July & August;

Standard Admission Charges For 2013

Adult £8.50
Concession £7.50
Under 16 £3.00
Under 5 Free
Family Ticket (2A + 3C) £20.00
Pre-booked group of 10 or more £6.50
Garden Only £6.50


Social historian, based in the UK.

4 thoughts on “Captain Lawrence Oates – Soldier, Explorer, Hero

  1. Hello,

    I am writting a dissertation about “The Worst Journey in the World” by ACG and I would like to quote some passages of your blog. Would you be so kind as to provide me with the name of the author of this article?


    Paul B.


    1. Hi Gary, Thanks for your comment. Photographs in this article on Captain Oates were all taken by myself during a private tour of the Museum given to me personally by different members of staff as well as Ronald Davidson-Houston himself. There are 3 articles about the Museum on Come Step Back In Time, this article on Captain Oates is the final one in that series. Image captions for the articles were transcribed from information panels/labels written by the Museum. Image captions therefore should be accurate. All the articles were read by the Museum following their publication on my site. If there were errors, I am sure they would have flagged those up to me at that time. However, please indicate which images you are you querying and I will have another look? Kind regards Emma.


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