Scott Polar Research Institute commemorates Sir Edgar Speyer – 100 years on

I am so delighted for Prof Tony Lentin that he has succeeded in gaining recognition for Sir Edgar Speyer for bankrolling Scott’s expeditions to the Antartic. Now, 100 years on, a plaque is to be dedicated in his memory at Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute.

German-born Speyer was a philanthropic support of the British arts, innovation and adventure in the Edwardian era. This included saving the Proms when it faced financial ruin and supporting the London Underground too. He was a distinguished member of the Privy Council and friend of the Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, but the tables turned on him at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. when he was vilified.  He was accused, among other things, of signalling to German submarines from Sea Marge in Overstrand, his North Norfolk home. Hounded out of the country and forced into exile in the United States, he was found guilty of wartime disloyalty by a judicial tribunal in 1921. He, his wife and British-born children were all stripped of their British citizenship.

Prof Lentin, a senior member of Wolfson College, Cambridge and author of Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer, lets readers decide his guilt for themselves. But what he is certain of is that history has airbrushed the huge value  provided by Speyer’s support, and he is fervently hopes that the BBC, organisers of The Proms, will now follow suit and acknowledge Speyer’s role in saving the historic and great British musical event from extinction.

The plaque is to be unveiled at the SCRI on Wednesday, 29 October by Dr David Wilson, a great-nephew of Edward Wilson, who died with Scott and his companions in 1912. Speyer personally put up the £5,000 necessary to pay for sending out a ship to rescue Scott and his companions when their ship, the Discovery, was stuck in the polar ice on their first expedition. Scott and Speyer were good friends. Speyer became treasurer of the British Antarctic Expedition in 1909 and raised funds for the second expedition. He was among a small crowd of well-wishers who saw Scott off at Waterloo station.

In a last poignant letter to Speyer on 16 March 1912 Scott told his benefactor, “I thank you a thousand times for your help and support and your generous kindness,” adding “we have been to the Pole and we shall die like gentleman. I regret only for the women we leave behind.” This letter was sold in 2012 for £163,250. Speyer helped to fundraise for the dependents of the explorers and for what later became the Scott Polar Research Institute.

Prof Lentin said: “Speyer was a visionary entrepreneur who supported the arts, innovation, science and exploration. Scott named a mountain discovered by his first expedition on the western side of the Ross Ice Shelf ‘Mount Speyer’ as a token of his appreciation. Edgar’s wife, Leonora, described it in a letter to Scott in 1906 as ‘our mountain’.

“It is good that, a century on, a memorial will be placed at the Scott Polar Institute dedicated to an inspirational man who I believe has unjustly been airbrushed out of British history. It would also be fitting if the Proms were to show the same kind of recognition for Speyer’s generous acts in saving the Proms from extinction.”

Dr Wilson said: “What happened to Speyer was one of the great wrongs that happened through the Great War. It is good to put that right in its centenary by acknowledging his support for Scott.”

Prof Julian Dowdeswell, Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, added: “The role of Sir Edgar Speyer in supporting Captain Scott’s expeditions has been largely forgotten. He was a committed supporter of Scott’s expeditions, a good friend who raised the funds for Scott’s last trip to the Antarctic. It is only fitting that Speyer is given recognition for his philanthropy. I believe Scott would have approved.”

How many people spare a thought for Speyer when they travel on the London underground. His company, the Underground Electric Railways Co of London, created the deep-line tunes and electrified the system. By 1912 he was known as the King of the Underground, really of London Transport, since he took over the buses and trams too.

*Prof Lentin will be sharing his good news at Holt Festival in North Norfolk next Monday, 21 July where he will be speaking about his book  and Sir Edgar’s life.

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