100 years on, tributes paid to Captain Scott’s friend Sir Edgar Speyer

One hundred years on, Sir Edgar Speyer has been commemorated for his support in helping to fund Captain Scott’s expeditions to the Antarctic, and for his major contribution to polar research.

It follows the unveiling of a plaque at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge where he was toasted for his philanthropy, having been exiled and airbrushed out of history after WW1 following a furore over his German ancestry.

Tribute was also paid to Prof Tony Lentin, who campaigned for recognition to be given to Speyer, by Prof Julian Dowdeswell, Director of the SPRI.

He said: “I would like to give many congratulations to Prof Tony Lentin who has written the book about Speyer and has really brought to the attention of the wider world the fact that Speyer really was indeed very badly treated by, it is fair to say, the British establishment, considering all the magnificent support he gave to Captain Scott taking expeditions to the south pole.”

The ceremony began with the ringing of the bell from the Terra Nova. This was the relief ship sent out in 1903, at Speyer’s personal expense, to rescue Scott on his first expedition in 1903 when the Discovery was stuck in the Polar Ice.  The Terra Nova was purchased for the second expedition 1910-12 by the British Antarctic Expedition, for which Speyer was Hon. Treasurer and chief fundraiser.    

The plaque was unveiled by Dr David Wilson, great nephew of Edward Wilson, who died with Scott on their fateful expedition, and is a former Chairman of the Friends of the SPRI.

He said: There’s a little note in the archive currently on show in the Friends’ room by Sir Clements Markham in about 1903 and it’s a shopping list, a list of the cost of putting together another rescue mission together to go and rescue Capt Scott’s expedition aboard Discovery which was stuck in the ice. It amounted to about £5,000 which was a lot of money in those days and there’s a little note in Markham’s hand saying ‘Edgar gave it all’.

“That to me seems to summarise Edgar Speyer very nicely. He was one of the greatest philanthropists in this country in the early part of the 20th century. He was known as the King of the Underground; it was due to his business acumen in raising the funds that a lot of great underground lines were built through London and he was also an extraordinary philanthropist in supporting the promenade concerts and the musical scene in this country and was friends with Debussy and Elgar. His musical accomplishments and achievements through his support are extraordinary.

“What is often forgotten is that we wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for Speyer’s contributions to polar exploration. Not only did he put forward the money to rescue the first expedition of Captain Scott, but then he then got to know Scott and became the treasurer of the second expedition, putting up some of his own money for the expedition, but also fund raising with his friends. Scott’s second expedition was funded largely through Speyer’s efforts, so it’s true to say that Captain Scott did the great exploring work and my great uncle headed the science team, but none of them would have been able to do it without Speyer’s backing.

“When Scott died he chose to write one of his last letters to Edgar Speyer, which I think says a very great deal about him.

“The aftermath of that was an appeal for the families and Speyer was very much behind that appeal, helping to raise the money to pay off the debts of the expedition, and, of course, it was the remains of that public fund, the Mansion House Fund, which went towards the funding of this institute.

“So it’s true to say that not only would none of Scott’s work have been done on the second expedition without Speyer’s support, and British polar research in total would look very, very different without Speyer’s contribution. We wouldn’t be standing in one of the world’s leading polar institutes if it hadn’t been for Speyer.

“But then, of course, came the First World War. He was of German descent, even though he was a naturalised British citizen, he had been a leading Liberal, he got caught up in the waves of anti-German feeling, and in the collapse of the Liberal party through the war, he was stripped of his citizenship and sent into exile, which is why I will lay money that none of you here will have heard of Speyer. He has been airbrushed out of history, and, given his contribution to this country, particularly to polar research, it is time we put that right. I thank Prof Lentin for writing his book which has done so much towards that.”

A message from Scott’s granddaughter, Dafila Scott, to Prof Lentin said:

“I am so glad that there will be a plaque unveiled at the Scott Polar Research Institute to commemorate Sir Edgar and his role in supporting my grandfather Captain Scott’s expeditions.

“His story is a fascinating one, and he was clearly a remarkable man. Hopefully this will go some way to honouring his exceptional achievements, despite the awful treatment he received.”

Prof Lentin said it had been a very special day for him.

“Really, the book was quite a simple matter. The moment I went to the National Archives and the boxes arrived, they were everything I wanted. The story told itself, all I had to do was transcribe the documents.”

Pic caption: From left, Prof Julian Dowdeswell, Prof Tony Lentin and Dr David Wilson with the plaque dedicated to Sir Edgar Speyer.

*We had great coverage from Anglia TV and BBC Look East, and I was sent these kind words afterwards from my client Prof Lentin:

“You are the first and chief person to whom I’m emailing an enormous THANK YOU for everything.  Quite simply, without you, your energy, enterprise, interpersonal and organising skills, persistence and determination, we would never have got ANY of that coverage.”

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