Poignant Letters to Antarctic Hero in Bonhams’ Hooton Pagnell Hall Sale

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Poignant letters—never before made public—to Antarctic hero Dr Edward Wilson, who froze to death with Captain Scott on their doomed return from the South Pole in 1912, are to be sold at the sale of selected contents of Hooton Pagnell Hall at Bonhams Knightsbridge, London on Tuesday 1 December 2015.

The letters form a fascinating link between Hooton Pagnell Hall—one of Yorkshire’s finest houses—and the Antarctic expeditions of Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

Edward Wilson was the younger brother of the Hooton Pagnell estate manager Bernard Wilson.  He served as second surgeon, artist and zoologist on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic in 1901 and contributed many of the illustrations to Scott’s 1905 two-volume account of the journey, Voyage of the Discovery.  The books were treasured additions to the library at Hooton Pagnell and feature in the sale estimated at £1,000-1,500.

In 1910, Edward Wilson sailed again for the Antarctic with Scott in the Terra Nova as head of the scientific staff. Letters sent to him from his brother Bernard and from Julia Warde-Aldam, the chatelaine of Hooton Pagnell Hall, are included in the sale with the first edition of Scott’s Last Expedition, 1913 from the Hall’s library which are estimated at £2,000-3,000.     

On 1 November 1911, Wilson was among the party of 14 that set off with dog sledges towards the South Pole. Bernard Wilson had written, “Goodbye old chap & take care of yourself… God help you."  Julia Warde-Aldam also wrote to Edward regretting the fact that she had been too late to sponsor a sledge as she intended saying, “I wish this were not such a dull letter but you must ignore it please and remember only the affectionate thoughts and hopes.  Goodbye in its old and best sense - ‘God be with you’ - you and all of you and bring you safely and triumphantly home again”.  It’s not clear, however that they reached Wilson before he left.

Wilson was one of the five men who made the final push to reach the Pole, only to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it. During the struggle back, Evans and Oates died; Edward perished with Scott and Bowers in their tent on or around 29 March 1912. Their bodies were not found until eight months later, and so it was a bitter irony that Julia Warde-Aldam had written again to Edward in September 1912, little knowing he was already dead: "I do hope it won't be very long now before you are back home again".

Scott’s diary, found in the tent later on, describes Edward Wilson as “everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself for others, never a word of blame to me for leading him into this mess.” In one of his final letters, Wilson wrote to his wife, “God be with you in your trouble, dear, when I have gone… We have struggled to the end and we have nothing to regret… All is well.” 

Bonhams head of Books and Manuscripts Matthew Haley said, “There is a palpable sense of anticipation tinged with anxiety in these letters and, of course, terrible poignancy in the knowledge that Wilson went to his death without ever reading them. They also bring home to us, living as we do in an age of almost instant communication, GPS and 24 hour news, how very difficult it was then to keep in any kind of contact or to know what was happening for months on end.”

Image: Captain Scott (standing centre) and Dr. Edward Wilson (sitting right).

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