Henry Bowers: Small Scot with big heart who took on Antarctic
HE WAS the short, stout, yet steadfast Scotsman who fulfilled his life’s ambition by accompanying Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his final adventure, where he perished in the icy wastelands of the Antarctic.
Now, in the centenary year of his death, a new biography of the Inverclyde-born navy lieutenant who played an invaluable role in the heroic British expedition to the South Pole has shed new light on his remarkable journey.
The book, which features previously unpublished correspondence from Bowers and recently discovered diaries and photographs from his family, also documents a series of intimate letters between the Scot and his mother as he neared death in his blizzard-bound tent aged just 26, in which he promised her that “God shall wipe all tears from our eyes”.
It reveals how Henry “Birdie” Bowers yearned for a life spent exploring from an early age, writing a letter to a remote community in Antarctica addressed “Dear Eskimo”, asking the inhabitants to tell him about their way of life.
The book’s publication comes ahead of a special centenary dinner being held in Bowers’ home town of Greenock, where the guest of honour will be polar explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
A stocky red-head with a prominent hooked nose which led to his nickname, Bowers followed in the footsteps of his master mariner father and shipwright grandfather to pursue a life at sea. He rose to become a lieutenant in the Royal Indian Marine Service, serving in Australia, America, India, Burma and the Persian Gulf, before he was chosen above 8,000 other men to join Scott’s expedition in 1910.
Standing just 5ft 4ins high, he overcame the doubts of some that he was not up to the task, and eventually became indispensable to Scott, with the famous explorer using one of his last letters in early 1912 to describe Bowers as one of his “closest and soundest friends”, who remained “cheerful, hopeful, and indomitable to the end”.
In her book, Birdie Bowers: Captain Scott’s Marvel, author Anne Strathie documents his early years as well as his experience on the ill-fated expedition aboard the Dundee-built Terra Nova.
“Hopefully this book will let a few more people know who he was,” Strathie said. “After all, he was the first Scot to reach the South Pole, and the youngest man to make the trip – a record which stood for around 90 years.
“I think that sometimes people feel that Scott’s expedition was a purely English thing, but Birdie played such a vital role, and people forget his and Scotland’s involvement in polar exploration.”
His formative years in Scotland – Birdie’s mother would later move to Bute after he went to sea – informed his later experiences, according to Strathie, who details how he compared the “wonderful desolation and grandeur” of the Antarctic to places in his homeland, using one journal entry in December 1911 to write of how “the mountains surpassed anything I have ever seen – beside the least of the giants, Ben Nevis would be a mere mound”.
“It’s very touching the way he compares some of the mountains in the Antarctic to Ben Nevis and when he was at McMurdo Sound he describes how a stretch of water reminded him of the Firth of Clyde,” said Strathie, from Busby near Glasgow.
The book also includes several letters sent by Bowers to his mother, Emily. One, highlighting his conflicted feelings, reads: “I have never missed civilization so far and except for seeing your dear face again would be in no hurry to return. I am proud to be under such a leader and to be associated with such an excellent lot of men… One realises [God’s] presence here in the uttermost part of the Earth more than anywhere.”
Elsewhere, the gentle, compassionate nature of Bowers shines through when he writes about the prospect of killing the floundering ponies who were used on the expedition to the pole.
“It is sad that for the poor ponies there is no return,” he writes. “They have been our pets for so long that I cannot bear to contemplate the fact that I shall have to shoot Victor in less than three weeks. They are all well treated and any beating or undue urging is out of the question; we have not a whip or stick in the party.”
Next month, Strathie will take part in a conversation about Bowers’ life with Sir Ranulph at Greenock’s Arts Guild Theatre, before both take part in a special centenary Birdie Bowers dinner at the town’s Tontine Hotel.
The latter event will see a toast made in honour of Bowers, while a short film featuring photographs of the Terra Nova trip will also be shown. Drew McKenzie, director of Discover Inverclyde, the local tourism forum which is organising the dinner, said it was a fitting way to remember Bowers.
He said: “The Bowers family is rooted in Greenock, and I think people respect the uprightness of Birdie and the ethos of the man. He was so reliable and in the way he conducted his life he is a great role model.”
• Birdie Bowers: Captain Scott’s Marvel by Anne Strathie, will be published by The History Press on 24 September
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