Edgar Evans by Isobel Williams

The History Press 2012, 191 pp

‘Taff Evans is the strongest and biggest.’ Ealing Studios’ still-looking-good film Scott of the Antarctic includes this note from Captain Scott’s journal. The year of its making, 1948, was a turbulent one with vast numbers of ENSA actors still awaiting demobilisation. All the same, the casting for Gower-born, Swansea-hardened Edgar Evans looks peculiar. A forty-one year old James Robertson Justice plays the thirty-five year old Evans with not a whisper of an authentic accent. It might be read as an emblem for Evans’ posthumous treatment, and one that Isobel Williams is keen to correct in her biography.

Edgar EvansEdgar Evans, the Welsh member of Scott’s last polar expedition, died 17th February 1912, six weeks before Scott, Bowers and Edward Wilson. Cheltenham’s newly refurbished civic gallery has been named in Wilson’s honour. In Swansea a small section of the City Museum is dedicated to Evans and a memorial plaque is on the wall of Rhossili Church.

As a biographer Isobel Williams marries virtues of crispness and a clearness of narrative to a gift for historical evocation. Her subtitle is Captain Scott’s Invaluable Assistant. This being history, she is also obliged to engage in some fisticuffs with a fellow historian over Evans’ posthumous reputation.

Her opening chapters deftly capture not just the early years but the sheer strangeness of a hundred-years-past Britain. Evans is born on the Gower 7th March 1876, the fourth of eighth children. In 1883 the family moves to a standard two-up, two-down terrace in nearby boomtown Copperopolis, with a then population of fifty thousand. Williams conveys the flavour of the city with its unchecked pollution, poor quality water and perennial lurking diseases of typhoid, measles and scarlet fever. At age ten Evans is a ‘half-timer’, half school and half work, on a shilling a week. As a telegraph messenger boy he is obliged by decree of the Head Post Master to begin every day with musket training and drilling.

The sea soon calls and he is on Scott’s Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904. The details and privations of the expedition are grim but it has its lighter moments. Scott organises hockey and football tournaments for his team played at minus thirty degrees. The hazards of an Antarctic expedition ironically include thirst; the loss of a source of heat means that ice cannot be turned to water. The explorers have a little luck in their food. Vitamins have not yet been discovered but by chance the method of canning fruit at the time does not yet entail boiling. The cans of rhubarb, apples and peaches provide some vitamin C.

The lack of vitamins on other Polar expeditions had their effects in lassitude, swollen joints, spongy gums and angry red spots. Williams is very good on the medical effects of the human body under exposure to the Antarctic. Modern science knows now the huge calorific deficit between the food intake and the effort required in hauling sledges in that climate and at an altitude of depleted oxygen. Evans’ companions had to massage his nose which frostbite had made resemble ‘a large, swollen potato’. The book’s illustrations include a picture of the effects of frostbite on fingers.

Williams quotes another explorer’s description of the agony of the foot’s residual warmth being used to defrost a frozen boot. Of the medical aspects it is now known that the explorers would have been badly dehydrated. It is an irony of Antarctica that its dryness means that sweat evaporates quickly. They would have been unaware that they were sweating at all. Even in this climate some bacteria are hardy enough to survive and Evans’ protracted infected hand would most likely have been caused by staphylococcus aureus resident in the nose. Among other medical theories after the event are that the condition of Evans’ fingers and nails point possibly to anthrax. Hypothermia is known now to affect the hypothalamus which loses its control of the small blood vessels beneath the skin.

Williams’ treatment is thoroughly anti-romantic. The Captain Oates in her book is frost-bitten and gangrenous, unable even to feed himself. In Ealing’s film he leaves the tent on his feet. His exit to death in fact was made by crawling.

Williams’ last-but-one chapter is called T’he Aftermath’. Scott’s tent, the bodies and the written records were discovered on 18th November 1912. When the news was cabled through to Britain, 11th February 1913, it was treated as a national calamity. One and a half million school children on a certain day were read from Scott’s account and in particular the report of Oates’ self-sacrifice. The mourners at a memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral, called ‘A National Homage to the Dead’ by The Times, were led by the King.  

Williams early on takes on historian Roland Huntford’s description of Evans as a ‘beery womaniser’ in his book Scott and Amundsen. In the national inquest on the expedition, class and Evans’ sole status as a non-officer and thus a non-gentleman intruded heavily. Williams does not state this, but the obvious superiority of the officer class was embedded in the culture. The Daily Express carried a front-page story from an ’eminent mental specialist’ that Evans, the uneducated man on the expedition, would have been lacking the toughness and stamina to be found in his educated superiors. When Player’s cigarettes produced their cards for children to collect, Edgar Evans was omitted. A popular children’s book continued the slur that the team had been let down by one of its members.

Recognition and equal status have come slowly and gradually. Articles and books have emerged over the decades. The Edgar Evans Building, opened in 1964 on Whale Island in Portsmouth Harbour, was the first to be named after a petty officer rather than an admiral. His name is included on a commemorative plaque on the Scott lighthouse memorial in Roath Park Lake. The Evans Névé in Antarctica carries his name.

The History Press is located in Brimscombe Port near Stroud. It is not a giant of a publisher. Proofing and editing of Edgar Evans are both exemplary in this concise, heartfelt and overdue tribute of a biography.