James Wordie was a remarkable man who left an indelible mark on the
history of Polar exploration. But it is reasonable to assume that few
people, except the most avid enthusiasts of the Polar past, will know
very much about the quiet, unassuming Wordie.
Only now has it been possible to gain access to Wordie's previously
unpublished diaries and papers and compile the first biography of the
man. The book, which is called Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader,
sheds new light on a largely overlooked figure and places Wordie in
his rightful place in the pantheon of influential British explorers.
James Wordie is perhaps best known as chief of scientific staff on
Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance expedition between 1914 and
1916. But Endurance was merely the starting point of an extraordinarily
rich life as explorer, scientist and academic whose career spanned the
heroic age of exploration and successfully made the transition to the
more mechanized and scientific era.
Wordie became the elder statesman of British exploration, travelling
on a further eight expeditions to the Polar regions after Endurance,
nurturing a new generation of young explorers and leading the change
in how exploration was carried out. In later life he was instrumental
in planning the first climbing of Mount Everest in 1953 and played a
key role in Vivian Fuchs's ground-breaking first crossing of the Antarctic
continent between 1955 and 1958.
Wordie sprang from a wealthy, old-established Scottish family who gave
him a passion for the outdoors. After studying geology at Glasgow University,
he travelled to Cambridge to continue his studies and bumped into the
survivors of Scott's disastrous last expedition like Debenham, Priestley
Wordie was captivated and in 1914 volunteered to join Shackleton's
Endurance expedition, which intended to make the first coast-to-coast
crossing of the southern continent.
He proved to be a stalwart member of the party and his diary of the
voyage, which has never been published before, provides an engrossing
insight into the epic adventure. Wordie was meticulous, jotting down
almost everything he saw from the depth of the seas or the currents
to the breakfast menu or the individual players and their positions
for football matches played on the ice.
His diary charts the initial optimism of the venture and slow deterioration
in morale, particularly during the four and a half months' confinement
on Elephant Island. The book also reveals that, 30 years after being
rescued by Shackleton, Wordie went back to Elephant Island with surprising
The ordeal of Endurance only served to ignite Wordie's fierce
ambition to travel and explore the Earth's most hostile regions. He
went to Spitsbergen in 1919 and 1920 with the Scottish explorer, William
Speirs Bruce, and in 1921 sailed to the desolate Jan Mayen Island where
he made the first ascent of Mount Beerenberg.
Over the next 17 years Wordie led five more expeditions to the Arctic,
including voyages to East Greenland and Baffin Bay. Once he considered
attempting to navigate the North West Passage, but chose to turn back.
His last major expedition was in 1937, though he made a brief final
visit to the ice in 1954 at the invitation of British North Greenland
During this era he became the most influential figure in British exploration,
who advised and guided dozens of other explorers and pioneered the use
of small, lightweight expeditions which did not over-winter. Few expeditions
left Britain without first consulting Wordie and his 'students' included
Gino Watkins, August Courtauld and Vivian Fuchs.
During the war, Wordie was instrumental in the Naval Intelligence's
top-secret Operation Tabarin, which framed British policy towards the
Antarctic and its dependencies like the Falklands and South Georgia.
He was responsible for establishing the first permanent British base
on the Antarctic continent.
Wordie turned to administration when his active Polar career came to
an end. He became chairman of the Scott Polar Research Institute in
1937 and held the post for 18 years. It was an era marked by rapid change
at SPRI and several acrimonious disputes and controversies.
Wordie enjoyed a long relationship with the Royal Geographical Society
and became President in 1951 at time when the first ascent of Everest
was a top priority. It was Wordie, as President, who was a key figure
in the planning of the successful climb and the removal of the charismatic
Eric Shipton as leader of the party.
Further controversy followed in the mid-1950s with Fuchs's first crossing
of Antarctica, the original ambition of Shackleton in 1914. Wordie was
Fuchs's key adviser and had to endure considerable opposition from the
Polar establishment at SPRI and the RGS who objected to the expedition.
was vindicated by Fuchs's great success and became chairman of the British
arm of the multi-national International Geophysical Year in 1957-58.
At his suggestion, the British base was established at Halley Bay in
Coats Land, the terrain he had first seen from the decks of Endurance
He was knighted in 1957 and the Halley Bay Station exists to this day,
a lasting memorial to the remarkable figure from the Polar past, Sir
© Michael Smith 2004. Michael Smith is a freelance journalist
and author of Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader, published by
He is also the author of I am Just Going
Outside, a biography of Captain Oates, and An
Unsung Hero - Tom Crean: see this website for details. Anyone
wishing to contact Michael may do so via e-mail: Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org