In July 1895, the International Geographical Congress met in London, and it was decided that Antarctica would be the primary focus of new exploration. Up until this time, nobody had explored the hinterland of the frozen continent, and even the vast majority of its coastline was still unknown. The meeting touched off a flurry of activity, and soon thereafter, national expeditions from Britain, Germany and Sweden, as well as private ventures, started organizing. This is the story of Thomas A.F. Feather, who was part of the 1902-04 British National Antarctic Expedition, and who played a role in Scott's last expedition.
When 31-year-old Thomas Feather was appointed Boatswain of the Discovery in May 1901, the Norfolk native and First Class Petty Officer had no idea that his performance during the upcoming British National Antarctic Expedition would net him an appointment as a warrant officer in the Royal Navy. Feather was a post office boy in Stalham before joining the Navy in 1885 as a Boy 2nd Class. By May 1888, he was an Able Seaman, and between 1893 and 1895, Feather rocketed from Leading Seaman to First Class Petty Officer. His ability to handle men evidently showed itself and accounts for his quick succession of promotions.
Though appointed to the position of Boatswain of the Discovery, such an appointment was usually held by a First Class Petty Officer, if a warranted Boatswain was not present to fill the billet. One is inclined to conjecture that Feather's "people skills" aided his appointment. This attribute, along with Feather's professionalism, were later warmly laid out by Scott:
"Our boatswain, Thomas Feather, was a thorough seaman, and took that intense pride in his charge which was so well known in the old sailing days. A sailor will understand well the merits of a boatswain who can make the proud boast that the Discovery circumnavigated the world without losing a rope or sail. Our boatswain, like the rest of us, under new conditions had to turn his talents into fresh channels; in the Far South all that pertained to sledge equipment was placed in his charge, and with him rested the responsibility that everything was in readiness when we started out on our sledge journeys. And here, as before, he proved his excellence, for I do not remember a single complaint or breakdown that could have been obviated by more careful preparation." (Author's emphasis added)
After the Discovery arrived in Antarctica, Feather and many of the sailors held misconceptions about their strange new home. Believing that Ross Island (on which they were camped) was very small and could be walked around in a few hours by keeping on the ice floe and following the coast. In fact, it measures 60 miles in length. A bit of foolhardiness in mid-May 1902, nearly cost Feather and Second Engineer James Dellbrigde dearly. After dinner, they went out for a walk at two in the afternoon, and after six hours had not returned, so three search parties were making ready when the pair turned up onboard. They had gotten lost in the snow drift and were in pitch darkness. Nearby, a sledge party had already suffered a fatality two months previous, when Able Seaman George Vince drowned after slipping down a steep ice slope during a blizzard. His body was never recovered.
Despite his wanderlust, the Tom Feather displayed his mettle during a preliminary southern sledging reconnaissance that September. The party consisted of Scott, Third Lieut. Shackleton and Feather. The trio's two dog teams were not always kind to the party, as Second-in-Command Lieut. Albert Armitage wrote:
"On one occasion, as they were crossing a crevasse which was 3 1/2 feet broad, and when Mr. Feather was harnassed to the traces, in front of the dogs that were dragging the sledges, the dogs stopped short in front of the crack, and dragged the boatswain back into it, and he was suspended by his harness just below the surface of the ice. Shortly after he had been dragged up and had resumed pulling, the toggle connecting him to the traces carried away, so he had a near shave. When asked if he was hurt, he only replied: 'Damn the dogs!' On another occasion one of their sledges, on which were stowed most of the provisions, went down one of these treacherous places, and Mr. Feather was lowered down to unpack it before it could be recovered."
The sledging expedition had been a closer brush with Death than Feather realized at the time, as Scott related, "This evening the boatswain has shown me his harness; one strand was cut clean through where it fell across the ice-edge. Altogether he had a pretty close call." Feather was often Captain Scott's first choice to be a member of his personal sledge. The image herein shows a group consisting of three four-man sledge parties prior to their departure from base camp at Hut Point. Boatswain Feather is standing second from left.
During the 1903 sledging season, Feather saw no less activity on the ice. After the trail was blazed up to the icecap (on what was subsequently named Ferrar Glacier), Antarctica's interior was revealed. The main journey from Discovery began on October 12, and the advance party (including the Boatswain) commenced its march across the vast plain of snow by mid-November. As the men headed west, the unforgiving conditions began to take their toll - the strain was telling on the party. Feather suffered agonizing back pains, but did not utter a word of complaint as he pulled at the traces just behind Scott. The Commander knew his sledge mate was suffering terribly, but when he cast an eye at Feather, the Boatswain straightened up and pretended nothing was wrong. With pride, Scott wrote, " What is one to do with such people?" On a virtually unknown continent, Scott had the luxury of bestowing intangible honors on faithful companions like Feather, so it was during this journey that Mount Feather was christened.
The time had come to divide the party. Feather and two other men were sent back to the Discovery with a sledge on November 22, while Scott and two men struggled westward until December 1, when they too headed for the ship - their adventure was drawing to a close. By mid-February, due almost solely to efforts by the men from the relief ships Morning and Terra Nova, Discovery was able to break out of her ice prison and leave Antarctica in her wake.
When Scott submitted a lengthy dispatch to the Admiralty, praising all expedition members in the highest terms, he selected six individuals who were specifically Mentioned in Dispatches (MID): Dailey, Dellbridge, Evans, Lashly, Wild and Feather. MIDs were sometimes the basis for a medal or promotion in rank, and the Navy came through for Feather. He was promoted Acting Boatswain on Sept. 10, 1904, and confirmed in that rank almost exactly two years later. And though the newly established Polar Medal was being issued to expedition members, not everyone received it from the hand of King Edward VII, as did Boatswain Feather that December. Fate had smiled on him during his first Antarctic expedition, but things would be quite different for Feather - and Scott - the second time around.
By September 1909, Scott declared he was going to the frozen continent again, with the primary objective being the South Pole. He enlisted several old Discovery shipmates, and Feather was officially part of the new venture in April 1910, but by November, the following notation appeared on his service record: "Sent home as unsuitable for Antarctic Expedition". What could this have meant? After seven months' involvement with the new expedition, the man who was previously described by Scott as "a thorough seaman" -- and afterward by several officers as "decidedly temperate", "capable and zealous" -- was now "unsuitable"? Clues to what may have happened sprang from the memories of Feather's daughter, grandson and a former Terra Nova shipmate in the 1980s and 1990s.
Lieut. Edward Evans (Second-in-Command) and Boatswain Feather did not get on well. Evans was mercantile-trained and two-thirds of the Terra Nova crewmen were mercantile marine; of course, Feather was regular Navy. Scott had written about the incompatibility of naval and mercantile men on his first expedition. Added to this was an apparently deeper, and more serious problem: Feather had Scott's ear. This could have aroused jealousy in Evans. More important still, Feather believed Evans to be a self-opinionated officer, who would not be advised or told anything, and would not listen to what Feather was telling him about the supply chain and arrangements. With the experience of the previous expedition behind him, this must have been difficult to swallow for the Boatswain. Naturally, the whole situation put Scott in an uncomfortable position. A story within the Feather family was that the Boatswain had fallen aboard ship on the way out to New Zealand and injured his knee, and this injury allowed him to bow out of the expedition without losing face.
The story would have ended then and there, except for one thing - the death of the South Pole Party in March 1912. Subsequently, Feather partly blamed himself for the tragedy, which he felt may have turned out differently if he had stayed the course and been available to advise and assist with sledging arrangements. His family said Feather displayed no bitterness toward his old commander after being sent home, and if any had existed, it was likely wiped away by Scott's death and the circumstances that led to up to it. He probably learned of his former commander's fate before most of the outside world, because at the time he was based out of Sydney while serving aboard the surveying vessel Sealark. Afterwards, he joined the sloop Torch in November 1914, which was based in New Zealand. Was it mere coincidence that his naval duties put Feather "in the neighborhood" of Antarctica? I don't think so...
Just before the end of the First World War, Boatswain Feather became Chief Boatswain Feather, and retired with the honorary rank of Lieutenant in 1922. Lieut. Feather's medals, earned during his 37-year naval career, are now held in a private collection. They are pictured (left to right): 1914/15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal, Polar Medal (clasp- Antarctic 1902-04), Naval Long Service & Good Conduct Medal.
copyright 2006 Glenn M. Stein, FRGS
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Saturday, 12 August 2006 08:15
T.A.F. Feather and Scott's Antarctic ExpeditionsWritten by Glenn Stein
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