SCOTT & The South-Pole

Henry Robertson Bowers ("Birdie")

A Portrait Of 'Birdie' Bowers

Bowers was born Greenock, Scotland (just west of Glasgow). His father died in Burma when Bowers was but three years old. Not long after that the family relocated to Sidcup, Kent where Bowers spent his boyhood. At some further point the family was located at South London. The relationship that Bowers had with his mother and her religious bounds, impacted significantly on his character and proclivities. "... Before breakfast each day, the family would gather to sing a hymn, have a bible reading and pray. Throughout his short life Henry never doubted the simplicity and happy faith of his childhood."1

As a young man, Bowers went to sea. At first, it seems, he was on merchant ships, then he joined the navy. Bowers sailed around the world four separate times. In 1905, he joined the Royal Indian Marine Service as a sub-lieutenant serving in Ceylon, Burma and in the Persian Gulf. All along Bowers pursued his boyhood interest in the study of such things as butterflies and birds (thus his nick-name, "Birdie Bowers." So too, he became interested in photography. Bowers impressed his superior officers, such, that more than one of them, directly recommended to Scott that he would be a good addition to Scott's exploratory expedition then in the planning stages. (From boyhood, Bowers was interested in Antarctica.) Scott brought him on, sight unseen, notwithstanding that Bowers had no Polar experience (nor did most of them). As it turned out, Bowers was the only member of the expedition not to be even interviewed (there were 8000 applicants). It is speculated that Scott was keen to have another navigator with him, and Bowers was good one, honed his skills in the navy. Though, upon upon meeting him, Scott was not so impressed by the short, stout young man. "Well, we're landed with him now, and must make the best of it" said Scott in his journal. Scott view of the man was to change. In Scott's words, Bowers became "one of my closest and soundest friends." And another time, Bowers "is a perfect treasure, enters into one's ideas at once, and evidently thoroughly understands the principles of the game."

Wikipedia wrote of Bowers' appearance and character:

"Bowers was short, at five foot four inches. He had red hair and a distinctive beak-like nose that quickly earned him the nickname of 'Birdie' among his fellow explorers. He was known for his toughness, dependability, and cheerfulness. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a fellow expedition member, remarked that his 'capacity for work was prodigious,' and that "There was nothing subtle about him. He was transparently simple, straightforward, and unselfish.' In his diary, Scott wrote of Bowers that 'he is the hardest traveller that ever undertook a Polar journey as well as one of the most undaunted.'"2
Scott wrote:
"Bowers is all and more than I ever expected of him. He is a positive treasure, absolutely trustworthy and prodigiously energetic. He is about the hardest man amongst us, and that is saying a good deal—nothing seems to hurt his tough little body and certainly no hardship daunts his spirit. I shall have a hundred little tales to tell you of his indefatigable zeal, his unselfishness, and his inextinguishable good humour. He surprises always, for his intelligence is of quite a high order and his memory for details most exceptional. You can imagine him, as he is, an indispensable assistant to me in every detail concerning the management and organisation of our sledging work and a delightful companion on the march."
Again Scott:
"Little Bowers remains a marvel -- he is thoroughly enjoying himself. I leave all the provision arrangement in his hands, and at all times he knows exactly how we stand, or how each returning party should fare. It has been a complicated business to redistribute stores at various stages of re-organisation, but not one single mistake has been made. In addition to the stores, he keeps the most thorough and conscientious meteorological record, and to this he now adds the duty of observer and photographer. Nothing comes amiss to him, and no work is too hard. It is a difficulty to get him into the tent; he seems quite oblivious of the cold, and he lies coiled in his bag writing and working out sights long after the others are asleep."
It would be an interesting study, the developing relationship between Scott and Bowers. Scott at the first of it was not sure about Bowers, but gradually, and effectively, Scott, as we can see from his entries in his journal, came ever closer to Bowers. It was not intended by Scott that Bowers would be with him at the last moment. Then, just before sending Teddy Evans home (Bowers being part of that team) Scott build his team up from four to five by adding Bowers at the last moment. This move on the part of Scott has been criticized: "adding a fifth man to the party meant squeezing another person into a tent made for four, and having to split up rations that were packed in units for four men. The most likely motivation for Scott to add Bowers to the polar party was a realisation that he needed another experienced navigator to confirm their position at the South Pole ..."3 At the last of it Scott wrote a letter to Bowers's mother, as follows:

"My Dear Mrs. Bowers,
I am afraid this will reach you after one of the heaviest blows of your life.
I write when we are very near the end of our journey, and I am finishing it in company with two gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son. He had come to be one of my closest and soundest friends, and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and energy. As the troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful, and indomitable to the end.
The ways of Providence are inscrutable, but there must be some reason why such a young, vigorous and promising life is taken.
My whole heart goes out in pity for you.
PS: To the end he has talked of you and his sisters. One sees what a happy home he must have had and perhaps it is well to look back on nothing but happiness.
He remains unselfish, self-reliant and splendidly hopeful to the end, believing in God's mercy to you."

We should note that Scott wrote only to the mother of Bowers and the wife of Wilson, Bowers and Wilson being the last two with him in the tent where all three died -- starved, dehydrated and frozen.

With Scott on the Terra Nova Expedition, indeed, as a trusted friend and navigator, Birdie Bowers was one of the five that made it to the pole; on the way back he died along with his four companions.

[1] From Scott's Journal, we read, when aboard the Terra Nova "I read Service in the wardroom." At Xmas, 1911: "There was full attendance at the Service this morning and a lusty singing of hymns."




GO TO A List of Persons Involved with Scott at the South-Pole

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Peter Landry