frank debenham

So currently I´m reading this biography of Captain Lawrence Oates, the man who commited suicide on the journey back from the south pole in 1912. I guess we all know his famous last words „I am just going outside and may be some time.“

The Person who wrote the book was Sue Limb and it was published in 1982, being the second biography of Titus ever written. The story of how she got the idea of writing the book and how she got inspired is as good as the book itself. Sue Limb had been interested in polar exploration already as a young girl and found a mentor, to whom the book is also dedicated. She called him „Uncle Deb“.

I really think this is a super cute story and it made me so happy to hear about it, so I thought I should share it with you all and everyone interested in polar exploration.

The following extract is from the introduction of the book, where Sue tells us the story:

In 1962, antarctic enthusiasts commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Scott´s death. At Cheltenham, the home town of Scott´s companion Dr. Wilson, there was an exhibition, and Herbert Ponting´s cinefilm of the Terra Nova Expedtion, 90° South, was shown. Among the many interested townspoeple who attended was Sue Limb, whose schoolgirl susceptibilities led her to an enduring fascination with the whole story. Wishing to make contact with a surviving member of the expedition, she decided on Frank Debenham, whose books she had greatly enjoyed. Debenham had been one of Scott´s geologists and had later founded the Scott Polar Research Institue in Cambridge.

Christmas was near, so she made a Chritsmas card in the style of the South Polar Times, a light-hearted magazine which had been produced in Antarctica during the winter of 1911. Trembling slightly at her temerity, she posted the card (signed also by two friends for moral support) and waited for any response. If she was lucky, she thought, there might be an official note from a secretary. After all, an Emeritus Professor is a very august personage for a schoolgirl. But soon after Christmas a thick envelope dropped onto her doormat.

My dear dear incredible trio“, the astonishing letter began,“You have sent me the most delightful, the cleverest and the most understanding christmas card I have ever received in my life.“ He wrote of his life in Cambridge, was full of teases, and ended: „ If your parents would entrust you to Mrs Deb and me here for a few days on your next holidays we would be delighted to see you. The advantage of three Mahomets coming on their camels to one immobile mountain is that there is the Polar Institute where you would get closer contact with things you alredy know a great deal about.“

Sue had the great fortune to become one of Debenham´s „adopted nieces“, and though he was eighty, fairly deaf and almost totally incapacitated by heart disease, „Uncle Deb“ had a razor-sharp mind, a flawless memory and an endearing personality which made him an enchanting friend and an invaluable companion. He steered her youthful literary aspirations towards the idea of a biography of Captain Oates.


Debenham also introduced Sue to Violet Oates, the sister of Captain Oates, who was also in her eighties, though very active and alert. (Miss Oates would provide Sue with hundreds of letters she had saved from the destruction ordered by her mother.)

The important thing“, wrote Debenham after the first meeting, „is that Miss Oates is ready to consider the idea of your someday writing a biography of her brother. I would not advise your attempting such a book until you have finished your school and other training so there´s no hurry about that, but there should be no delay in finding or hearing the material, that is, making contact with certain people. That is so partly because those of us who knew him are becoming rather thin on the ground, but even more because Soldier was far from being a letter writer and you will have to depend more on circumstantial evidence, what he said or hat he did, than what he wrote down. His character will only appear from his deeds and not from his words.“


during the 1960s, others, too, did more than just to encourage. Mrs Debenham, whose hospitality to Sue was overwhelming, was also full of useful background stories.


conscious of her good fortune, the aspring biographer pored over these manuscripts in the company of Violet Oates, an irresistibly sympathetic woman. From the manuscipt sources and from conversations with Miss Oates and Professor Debenham, she produced a first draft of the book shortly before going up to Cambridge in 1965.

Sadly, „Uncle Deb“ died during that Michealmas Term in 1965 and never got to read that first draft…

I dont know why, but this whole story really touched me and since I´m also a great fan of Frank Debenhams books or simply all the things he did, I thought this short story would show what a nice, kind, warmhearted and wonderful person he was. Thanks to him we dont only have amazing books and the Scott Polar Research Institute, but also the best biography of Captain Oates ever written. I bet Deb would have been proud of her and proud of this excellent biography of his close friend.



4. Frank Debenham: Quiet, intelligent expedition geologist. After surviving being severely wounded in World War I, he became a geography lecturer at Cambridge University and founded the Scott Polar Research Institute, which is still one of the foremost polar research organisations in the world. And, to cap it all, he was effortlessly good-looking and, by all accounts, such a gentleman. Yes, he’s wearing a lot of clothes, but a guy’s got to keep warm in minus 40! Despite being kept under wraps, he’s still got it all going on. I love his insouciant pose against the sledge, and those eyes … I was spoilt for choice with pictures of Deb, so I’ve given you a choice, including those with silly headgear and everything else gear.

At the stern are gathered most of the officers, dressed for the last time for many months in gold-laced uniforms, awaiting the arrival of the Bishop for the parting service.  Someone among them suddenly says ‘There’s Bill,’ and immediately a chorus of 'Come on, Uncle,’ 'You’re late, Bill,’ and 'Shake your long legs, Director,’ draws attention to a tall, grave-looking man coming through the crowd.  The chorus and the answering smile reveal more than many words could do the perfect understanding that already existed between the Chief of the Scientific Staff and his subordinates, an understanding that did more than anything else to promote and sustain the harmony which will always remain one of the chief features of Captain Scott’s Last Expedition.

– Frank Debenham, writing in The Caian, 1913; quoted in Edward Wilson of the Antarctic, pg 206

The photo is of the parting service onboard the Terra Nova in November, 1910.  Debenham is (probably) the man furthest left.  If anyone can spot Bill, they have keener eyes than me!

Get it? Because Deb was Australian … and … Silas, Canadian … basically I’ve been listening to a lot of shanties and feeling colonial lately.

The story goes* that no one on the expedition could carry a tune, but that didn’t stop them singing with gusto at any opportunity.  No wonder the penguins were curious; it must have sounded amazing.

Terra Nova pumping time reference photo!

*Capt. Scott, writing about Christmas 1910 (around the time this photo was taken) –

For five hours the company has been sitting round the table singing lustily; we haven’t much talent, but everyone has contributed more or less, and the choruses are deafening.  It is rather a surprising circumstance that such an unmusical party should be so keen on singing.

Today, I learned ...

… that on her visit between the two years of the expedition, the Terra Nova carried down back issues of the satirical magazine Punch.  During the winter that followed, it became clear that Debenham had a gift for reading aloud the articles written by A.A. Milne, and he was frequently called upon to deliver slightly-out-of-date topical comedy after tea.

From 2011

According to Frank Debenham: 

Oates pretended to have a grudge against the ‘medical faculty’ in that certain medical comforts, namely brandy, taken for emergencies on sledge journeys, were never opened.

He asked what brandy would be given as treatment for and one of the answers was ‘a fit.’

Later in the day Oates went out to where Wilson and others were shovelling snow and threw a very realistic fit at Wilson’s feet. An accomplice said to Wilson: “It looks as if Oates had got a fit.” “Yes,” said Wilson, “he’s got a fit all right; rub some snow down his neck, and he’ll soon get over it.”