October 2016

The subject of this month’s archive news is a fantastic example of the quirkiness and the breadth of engineering which existed in the early motor industry. It’s not a motor car, but a motorised sled which was designed to be used on Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1910-11 Antarctic expedition. An interesting part of the story also is how we come to have information on this rather lumbering beast in our Archive Collections.

From the Wolseley glass plate negative collection, this intriguing image shows a tracked vehicle being tested for its ability to climb hills at the Adderley Park factory in North Birmingham. When we first saw the image, we were unsure what the purpose of this design could be!

Scott launched his expedition in 1910, a year after Ernest Shackleton had successfully explored parts of Antarctica. His aim was to map out the rest of the continent and reach the South Pole. The voyage would start in England then pass by Madeira, the Cape of Good Hope and Australia before landing at King Edward VII Land. Although they encountered some issues on the way and landed at Victoria Land instead, the crew did make it to Antarctica. Unfortunately, the outcome of the expedition was decidedly less successful and marked the last expedition Scott would ever make.

The subject of our Archive News is a pretty much forgotten part of this famous expedition. Captain Scott decided not to follow the example of his Scandinavian rivals, who for transport used large teams of dogs, bred to withstand the cold. Instead he would take a much smaller contingent of dogs, combined with ponies who were less suited to the conditions. To back them up, the British effort would take advantage of Britain’s engineering excellence by taking along specially developed motorised sleds. The engine and trailer were designed by Mr Belton T Hamilton and built by the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company of Birmingham (better known as Wolseley).

Another Wolseley negative, this one shows the sled on test further afield in Norway. Here it could be tried out in snow, while local children were drafted in to test its loading capacity.

In the course of cataloguing the Wolseley negative collection, which goes back to the early years of the 20th Century, we have come across many unusual images. This is mostly due to the fact that the Wolseley was prolific in creating engines for a diverse range of vehicles – including locomotives, aircraft, motor boats and evidently even snow sleds. We hotly debated what the small series of negatives represented. After some research, we discovered they depicted Captain Scott’s long-forgotten sled, being tested on a sharp incline near a factory and then put through its paces in actual snow, with Norway standing in for the Antarctic. Looking at the pictures, it seemed that the local villagers found the sled as intriguing as we did.

Then, in an amazing co-incidence, days after we had found and decoded the negatives, a small commemorative brochure entitled ‘The Undiscovered Pole, 1910 Antarctic Expedition’ was donated to the Archive. The brochure was produced by Shell who were the official fuel providers for the expedition. It explained the purpose and development of the exact same sled shown in the Wolseley negatives. While Wolseley was pre-occupied with the engineering and testing, of course the booklet told story by putting the emphasis on the wonders of Shell fuel. We immediately had context to the unusual images.

This brochure celebrating the start of the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition was published by Shell and features expedition leader Captain Robert Falcon Scott on its title page.

Although a great feat of engineering, the sled appears to have had some very definite flaws. The Shell brochure describes it as a ‘strange looking vehicle carrying an abundance of villainous spikes and evil-looking cog wheels that suggest an instrument of torture’. This is a fairly accurate depiction, especially from the image outside the factory which shows the treads on full display due to the lack of snow.

In addition to its unattractive exterior, the sled doesn’t seem to have been entirely useful. It had no mechanical steering, no brakes, no reverse and only two speeds – 2 mph (which the Shell brochure describes as ‘a quiet canter’) and 3½ mph. This seems a less than satisfactory substitute for the Scandinavian dogs which were relatively agile and fast.

While the Wolseley negatives are pre-occupied with the engineering and testing of the sled, the Shell brochure is more concerned with how it is fuelled. This picture, however, shows that the loading capacity which had been carefully tested in Norway had to be given over to carrying the fuel required to run the sled, which rather limited its usefulness.

It could be argued that, despite its shortcomings in speed and manoeuvrability, the sled could carry more weight than a team of dogs, would be more resilient to the fierce weather and did not need feeding. This can be easily questioned. Though it could carry more weight, most of the pulling capacity was taken up in carrying the many cans of fuel needed to go any distance. The sled could cope with the snow, but it constantly overheated and the severe cold meant that the engine was difficult to start. Though it did not need feeding with perishable food, it did need a considerable amount of the 2000 gallons worth of fuel taken on the mission. 

Things did not start well. One of the sleds fell through the ice as it was being unloaded and was lost in the sea. Of those that were unloaded, frequent breakdowns led to constant delays until they were finally abandoned. The words of the booklet now seem very poignant, expressing confidence in the ultimate success of the expedition which would demonstrate the superiority of the British Empire and celebrating the role the sled was to play. The whole expedition is now remembered as an heroic failure, and the sled’s part in it is long forgotten. Captain Scott was beaten to the South Pole by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in December 1911, while Scott and his companions died on the return trip.

Although the sled itself proved to be a failure, learning this story from two different sources has provided a unique insight into the early years of the British motor industry. And it demonstrates that we greatly enjoy receiving donations of anything to relating to the motor industry, not just cars!

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