Sir James Wordie

by Michael Smith


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




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Only now has it been possible to gain access to Wordie's previously unpublished diaries and papers and compile the first biography of the man.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 and Wright.

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 results.

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 Expedition.

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.

Wordie 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 in 1914.

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 James Wordie.

© Michael Smith 2004. Michael Smith is a freelance journalist and author of Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader, published by Birlinn. 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:



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