Sledge and sledge flag from Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition acquired for the nation

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Sledge and sledge flag from Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition acquired for the nation
Sledge Flag from Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- The National Maritime Museum and the Scott Polar Research Institute have acquired the sledge and sledging flag that Dr Eric Marshall (1879-1963) used on the British Antarctic Expedition (BAE) of 1907-1909 – one of the most important expeditions in British polar history.

NHMF safeguards nationally important heritage at risk of loss, establishing a UK wide collection of outstanding heritage over the past 40 years. The sledge and sledging flag are the two most recent treasures supported by the Fund, with a grant of £204,700, to mark its 40th anniversary, and symbolise the remarkable achievements of these explorers. They join significant items from other polar explorations that have been saved for the nation including:

• Shackleton Expedition Manuscripts, 1914-16 and 1921-22: Alexander Hepburne Macklin’s records of two Antarctic expeditions, which detail his eye-witness account of Shackleton’s death (granted 2001-02)

• Scott’s Lost Negatives, 1911: a set of photographic negatives from the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) expedition taken by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (granted 2013)

• Items associated with both explorers including Scott’s watch, snow goggles and satchel as well as Shackleton’s compass (granted 1999)

Ros Kerslake CBE, Chief Executive National Heritage Memorial Fund, says:
“We are delighted to mark the 40th year of the National Heritage Memorial Fund by supporting the acquisition of these extraordinary objects. Over four decades the Fund has saved outstanding heritage across the breadth of the UK, creating a memorial in honour of those who have given their lives for the United Kingdom. Sadly, during the Covid-19 pandemic this memorial has become even more relevant. Few objects from the Nimrod expedition survive, and these tell a gripping story about determination and resilience in the race to the South Pole, and one of the most daring and ground-breaking expeditions of the 20th Century.”

The British Antarctic Expedition, better known as the Nimrod expedition after their ship, consisted of Royal Naval reserves, Merchant Navy officers, doctors and scientists. Dr Eric Marshall was one of four men who accompanied Ernest Shackleton in his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. As well as serving as surgeon, surveyor and cartographer, Dr Marshall acted as principal photographer, producing some of the best-known images of the expedition, a number of which feature his sledge with its fluttering flag at various landmarks on their journey.

Shackleton commissioned a range of sledge sizes for the expedition. This sledge, one of the eleven-foot versions that he found more versatile, was pulled by one of four ponies accompanying Shackleton’s party. As each pony was put down along the outward journey, the sledges were abandoned as depot markers. However, the remaining sledge they had man-hauled towards the Pole finally fell apart as they returned to the expedition hut and was swapped at the first available depot. This was the sledge Marshall retained.

The sledge is based on a design by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen from his observations of traditional Inuit wooden sleds called qamutiks. It is constructed from ash on a hickory wood frame, with six uprights and cross-members reinforced with leather straps and iron braces. Drag ropes are attached around the uprights at both ends of the sledge.

Sledge flags were a tradition started in the mid-19th century during the searches for Sir John Franklin in the Canadian Arctic. Their individual designs are personal to the owner rather than expedition specific, harking back to Victorian interests in chivalry and heraldry. While they acted as personal identifiers, they were flown to mark specific achievements captured on camera. Marshall’s sledge flag is silk, two blue bands top and bottom and a central cream band embroidered with a red unicorn head and gold anchor.

Led by Shackleton, the Nimrod Expedition carried out meteorological, geographical and zoological investigations. The Southern Party were the first to reach within 100 miles of the South Pole – the nearest convergence on the Pole at that date. However, they turned back short of their goal because they would have died, having already stretched their rations to the limits. It became a race against time to return safely. As Shackleton said to his wife Emily, ‘I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.’

On their return to the UK, the men of the BAE 1907-1909 expedition were hailed as heroes, with Shackleton being awarded the Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by the King, and later knighted. Marshall was critical of Shackleton, remaining hostile to his former leader throughout his life. Yet, much of this was about his personality rather than Shackleton’s organisational skills. Marshall was a complex character, and not above being criticised himself, with Frank Wild referring to him as a ‘big hulking lazy hog’ in his diary.

While the sledge and the sledge flag undergo quarantining and conservation, they will be catalogued and researched to explore the numerous stories that these two objects hold and how they relate to Britain’s polar stories. Over time, these stories will be published as blogs, as well as inform future displays of the items. The National Maritime Museum is looking to put the sledge on display in its Polar Worlds gallery during 2021, but in the meantime it is available for viewing at its state of the art Collection Centre and Conservation Studios.

The sledging flag will rejoin its partner, Shackleton’s sledging flag from the same expedition, in the collections of the Scott Polar Research Institute. It will be cared for in a temperature, humidity and light controlled environment so that it can be preserved for future generations. The Institute’s Polar Museum hopes to update its displays relating to the Nimrod expedition to highlight not only the feat of almost reaching the geographic South Pole, but also the scientific goals and achievements of the expedition.

Charlotte Connelly, Museum Curator of the Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute, says: “It’s fantastic to be able to reunite Eric Marshall’s sledging flag with Ernest Shackleton’s flag from their march towards the South Pole. Although the sledging party fell short of their goal, by coming within 100 miles of the Pole they showed that it was achievable. This flag is an important witness to the hardship and successes of that expedition”

Jeremy Michell, Senior Curator: Maritime Technologies, National Maritime Museum, says: “Adding Dr Eric Marshall’s 11ft sledge from Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition to the collections is a great opportunity for the National Maritime Museum to explore human adaptability and ingenuity in extreme environments. The sledge will be the starting point for multiple threads of research into personal relationships, technology, and the links to Britain’s earlier Arctic expeditions. Importantly, the sledge acts a stimulus to remind audiences that Shackleton’s most successful expedition is the one for which he is least famous”

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