Scottish fact of the week: RRS Discovery

RRS Discovery, at her home in Dundee. Picture: Complimentary
RRS Discovery, at her home in Dundee. Picture: Complimentary
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THE Discovery was the last traditional three-masted wooden ship to be built in Britain.

Designed for Antarctic exploration, she was launched as S.Y Discovery in 1901 - acquiring the Royal Research Ship designation in the 1920s - with her first mission being the British National Antarctic Expedition carrying Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first successful journey to the Antarctic.

This became known as the Discovery Expedition.


A wooden barque with one funnel and three masts, Discovery measured 172ft long, and was powered by a coal-fired steam engine and sail, achieving a top speed of 8 knots (around 9.2mph).

She typically had a crew of 11 officers and 36 men.

Construction began on the ship in March 1900, at the Dundee Shipbuilders Company in Dundee, costing £51,000 in total (around £4.1 million today). She was launched into the Firth of Tay on March 21 1901, by Lady Markham, wife of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society.

Despite her coal-fired steam engines, Discovery had to rely mainly on sail, due to the coal bunkers lacking the capacity to take the ship on long voyages.

Shackleton was critical of the ship’s construction, complaining that she carried ‘too much sail aft and not enough forward’ while Scott expressed concerns over the design of the ship’s hull, worrying that it was poorly equipped for dealing with pack ice.

However, the ship had been constructed with icy waters in mind - its wooden hull had been built to withstand being frozen into the ice while the propeller and rudder could be lifted out of the way to limit ice damage.

But Discovery suffered in open waters, where her flat, shallow hull provided little stability in heavy seas.

British National Antarctic Expedition

The British National Antarctic Expedition, or Discovery Expedition, was the first official exploration of the Antarctic since the voyage led by James Clark Ross sixty years earlier.

Organised by a joint committee of the Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society, the expedition aimed to carry out scientific research and geographical exploration in what was then a largely uncharted continent.

It also launched the careers of many who would go on to become key figures in the age of Antarctic Exploration, including Scott and Shackleton, as well as Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.

Costing around £90,000 (the equivalent to over £7 million today), the expedition benefited from a £45,000 donation from the British Government on the provision that the two societies could raise a matching sum, and a number of commercial sponsorships, including Colman’s mustard, Cadbury’s, Jaeger and Bovril.

The expedition left the Isle of Wight in August 1901, arriving in New Zealand via Cape Town in November and setting out for the Antarctic in on December 21.

In January 1902, Discovery sighted the Antarctic coastline.

She anchored in McMurdo Sound in preparation for the winter and remained locked in ice there for the next two years.

The crew had planned on spending the winter in McMurdo Sound before moving on in the spring.

Despite the unexpected delay, the Expedition was able to confirm that Antarctica was a continent, and Shackleton and Scott made numerous observations.

Discovery was eventually freed on February 16 1904, following the use of controlled explosives to help break up the ice.

She arrived back home in Spithead on September 10 1904.

Cargo vessel

The Discovery Expedition arrived home to great acclaim, but hidden beneath the accolades was a serious financial problem and in 1905, Discovery was sold to the Canada-based Hudson’s Bay Company, starting a new life as a cargo vessel between London and Canada until the outbreak of the First World War.

During the conflict, she was used to transport munitions to Russia and was loaned to the British Government in 1916 in order to rescue Shackleton and his party who were marooned on Elephant Island - although they were picked up before she arrived.

In 1917, she carried supplied to the White Russians during the Russian Civil War, and at the end of the conflict, was chartered by a number of companies fro work in the Atlantic, but the emergence of more modern merchant vessels led to Discovery soon being laid up, spending the early 1920s as the headquarters of the 16th Stepney Sea Scouts.

Discovery investigations

In 1923, Discovery enjoyed a new lease of life by being returned to research work in the Antarctic. The Crown Agents for the Colonies bought the ship, re-registered her to Stanley in the Falklands, and saw her designated a Royal Research Ship (RRS).

She underwent a £114,000 refit and in October 1925, sailed for the South Seats to chart the migration pattern of whale stocks.

Her research role continued when she was loaned to the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) between 1929 and 1931.

Life after research

Discovery was laid up until 1936, when she was presented to the Boy Scouts Association as a training ship for London-based Sea Scouts. During the Second World War, her engines and boilers were removed and scrapped to help the war effort.

She was transferred to the Admiralty in 1954, and formally commissioned as HMS Discovery for use a drill ship for the Royal Navy Auxiliary Reserves, and training ship for the Westminster Sea Cadet Corps.

Her condition deteriorated until she was on the verge of being scrapped, with The Maritime Trust stepping in to save her from the breakers’ yard in 1979.

She spent time berthed on the River Thames, eventually reverting to the Royal Research Ship designation and opening as a museum.

She was passed into the ownership of the Dundee Heritage Trust in 1985, following a £500,000 restoration carried out by The Maritime Trust.

Home in Dundee

Discovery left London on March 28 1986, on board cargo ship Happy Mariner, to make her trip home to the city that built her. She arrived on April 3, and was eventually moved to a custom-built dock in 1992.

Now the centrepiece of Dundee’s ‘Discovery Point’ visitor attraction, the ship is displayed in a configuration as close as possible to her 1924 condition.

The attraction’s museum has spent years collating personal items from the ship’s crew as well as interpreting the vessel on all her voyages and information on her scientific activities.

Items collected include Scott’s rifle and pipe, examples of sea fauna and games played by the crew on her first mission.

Her three main voyages - The National Antarctic Exploration (1901-04), the Discovery Oceanographic Expedition (1925-27) and the BANZARE expedition (1929-31) are all explored through film, photographs and artefacts from each era.

The ship also features on the crest of the British Antarctic Territory coat of arms.