Polar Exploration and Research: A Historical and medallic record with
by Lieutenant Colonel Neville W. Poulsom and
Rear Admiral J.A.L. Myres, CB
Publications, 2000, 742 pp
Price: £80.00 hardback
As a longtime researcher and collector of polar medals, an updated and
revised edition of Lieut.-Col. Poulsom's 1968 work The White Ribbon
had been anticipated for several years. The result is a book three times
the length of its predecessor, and though it may seem expensive at £80,
one should bear in mind that scarce used copies of the original White
Ribbon sell for £50–60.
Regarding descriptions of the primary medals concerned
(Arctic 1818–55, Arctic 1875–76 and 1904 Polar Medals) and
related expedition histories, the text of the new work was essentially
taken directly from The White Ribbon. Additions and corrections
were made, most notably much additional information on the Hudson's
Bay Company recipients.
Glancing at the early Antarctic scene, the reviewer
notes that Ross did request an Arctic 1818–1855 Medal (First Arctic)
for his crews, but it was refused by the Admiralty. As several of these
men also participated in Arctic voyages which qualified for the award,
it's a pity that a full listing of these “north and south men”
was not included in the book.
heart of this reference work lies in the biographical and medallic information.
There is no doubt that there has been a wealth of data added since the
publication of The White Ribbon, and that this information
will benefit collectors and researchers for years to come. However,
I am mystified by the minefield of errors and omissions due to the severe
underutilization of published data and original research made available
to the authors.
Some 250 pages contain in alphabetical listing of persons
eligible for the First Arctic Medal, along with varying amounts of biographical
information, whether or not the medal was issued to the individual or
next of kin, and if a named/attributable medal is known to exist. The
award was issued with a plain edge, though several recipients/family
members had it engraved with individual details. Though this section
has many biographical details, much of what is currently in print has
been left untouched.
Whether or not the First Arctic Medal was issued to
an individual or his next of kin is supposedly indicated on the original
roll in a column titled “When delivered or sent. Remarks &c.”
I write supposedly indicated because medal rolls are known
to contain inaccuracies and omissions. When Poulsom has “No medal
issued.” by a man’s name, he is assuming the blank in the
Remarks column means a medal was never issued for that individual. I
asked a longtime medal researcher about this, and he replied: “I
agree that the lack of positive information is an insecure basis to
decide categorically whether or not a medal has or has not been issued.”
The third point, named/attributed medals known to exist,
is of particular concern to collectors, since Poulsom rarely gives naming
details, the question of provenance rears its head in no small way.
The omission of documents and artefacts accompanying medals is frequent
throughout the book, and thus a golden opportunity to highlight the
historical integrity/dubious provenance of such items was lost.
One section of the book that I was particularly keen
on seeing covers the Arctic 1875–76 Medal (Second Arctic). The
medal was issued named in a distinct style, and a wealth of information
exists in published sources alone regarding both officers and
other ranks. However, a mere 14 pages are devoted to the 155 recipients
of HMS Alert and Discovery, and the private vessel
Pandora. Oddly, there is no mention that the Pandora
was purchased and renamed Jeannette, and used in the tragic
1879–82 American Arctic expedition. Yet, the medal issued for
this venture is described in the book.
Chapter 2’s narrative of the 1875–76 expedition
mentions that a Greenland native named Hans Hendrik (Hans Henry on the
medal roll, and also spelled Hendrick/Henri/Heindrich in various sources)
joined the Discovery at Proven, Greenland. His full name was
Hans Christian Hendrik, and his prominence during Arctic exploration
over 20 years is not even hinted at in the text. He served as a dog
sledge driver and hunter on four expeditions: Kane/1853–54, Hayes/1860–61,
Hall/1871–73, and during the 1875–76 venture. Hendrik’s
participation in the Kane Expedition qualified him for the
First Arctic Medal. His name never made it on the official medal roll,
and therefore he missed out on being one of possibly only four men entitled
to both First and Second Arctic issues. [In 2008, I discovered that
five men appear entitled to both medals, but evidently only four actually
received both awards.— GMS] Poulsom treats the Hans Christian
for 1853–54 and the Hans Henry for 1875–76 as two different
It is difficult to understand why two well known books
about the 1875–76 voyage were not consulted (at least, they are
not listed in the bibliography): Nares’ Narrative of a Voyage
to the Polar Sea (two volumes/1878) and Markham’s The
Great Frozen Sea (1894). These works would have at least allowed
for a far fuller picture of sledging activities. In addition, Nares’
book identifies each sailor’s rating, allowing several men to
escape the bland rank descriptions of Petty Officer 1st or 2nd Class
found in Poulsom and Myres.
Two glaring errors regarding the Northern Sledge Party
need to be addressed. In describing this party’s rescue, it is
stated that “... they were all recovered.” Yet, under Gunner
Porter's entry is written, “Died of scurvy on June 8, 1876 at
27 years of age whilst returning with the Northern Sledge Party with
HM Sledge Victoria." Equally inexplicable is the information
under Feilden—“…he was in the Northern Sledge Party
towards the North Pole.” Feilden, a naturalist with the expedition,
never served with the Northern Sledge Party.
Poulsom indicates a survival rate of over 45% for Second
Arctic Medals, yet several additional medals have survived [and were
noted in this review when originally published in 2001. Afterward, Poulsom
and Myres' Addenda and Corrigenda Sheet No. 2 showed a survival
rate of 49%.]
to the 1904 Polar Medal, which is still issued today, it is pleasing
to see many details under the recipients' biographies. Unfortunately,
mention is not always made of polar services for which no medal/clasp
was awarded to the individuals. In addition, it is worthy to note that
some recipients were awarded military campaign medals for scientific
work in vastly different climes. The particularly frustrating thing
about the biographies concerns the listing and handling of recipients'
medals and artefacts, which in several cases are not mentioned at all.
Oddly, the style of noting individuals' awards changed
from the First and Second Arctic Medals to the Polar Medal. In the former,
the existence of medals is stated in the text, but in the latter, individuals'
entitlements are simply noted in the vast majority of cases.
Again, as with the Arctic Medals, it would have been so much more meaningful,
from a collector's and researcher's point of view, to include various
artefacts and documents accompanying the Polar Medals. The omission
of this information also damaged the provenance of the items, as does
the lack of naming details and styles. There have been excellent published
articles on the latter. Finally, the medal rolls do not differentiate
clasp only awards (except in one instance) to men who already possessed
a Polar Medal.
I have written much about omitted information throughout
this review, and in fact, there is wasted space in the book's design,
which would have allowed for more information if more thought had been
put into this area. For example, in a large number of cases, the information
of name, rank/rate, ship, years served and whether or not the First
Arctic Medal was issued, could have been placed on one line and not
three lines. Surely abbreviations for ratings could have been made in
the medal roll, and the same for clasp entitlements, and silver/bronze
issues for Polar Medal biographies. Also, it was repetitious to print
the various Gazette entries, and other authorities, three
times—in the section's introduction, the Polar Medal rolls
and the biographical listings. The Discovery Investigations'
Bronze awards (1925–39) could have been condensed down to a couple
of pages, with years of service included in brackets after the men's
The next area of concern is the chapter titled “Other
Medals and Medallions”. The RGS medallic information is enhanced
by a list of recipients of Royal Medals, but remarkably, descriptions
of the RGS Special Medals lack any naming data. For medals issued by
the United States government, some were issued officially named, but
this is only noted in one case. In describing the reverse of the Jeannette
Arctic Expedition Medal, the following misleading words appear, “...
towards the top, is a space for the recipient's name to be engraved.”,
leading one to believe the awards were issued unnamed. The latter is
not the case, and I have noted at least two styles of naming for the
notable medals which are mentioned among the First Arctic medal roll
biographies are strangely missing from this chapter. They are the Sea
Gallantry Medal (Foreign Services) and the Grinnell Medal. Poulsom incorrectly
describes the former, under Jefferson Temple Baker's heading, simply
as a Sea Gallantry Medal (SGM)—still issued today as a British
award for lifesaving, as opposed to the SGM (Foreign Services), which
is issued to foreigners for humanity and lifesaving involving British
subjects. A special SGM (Foreign Services) was given to the 1853–55
American Kane Arctic Expedition in gold and silver (named and without
The Grinnell Medal was awarded as a result of the Franklin
search during 1850–51, by two whaleships privately purchased by
American businessman Henry Grinnell, and renamed Advance and
Rescue. They were crewed by US Navy personnel, who were presented
with these named silver medals.
A final note addresses the images of recipients. Only
officers' pictures are published for the First and Second Arctic Medals,
and the quality of these varies. It seems odd that the engraving of
George Strong Nares wearing only his First Arctic Medal was used, since
a fine portrait photograph exists showing him as a Vice Admiral, wearing
both Arctic Medals mounted together, and the insignia of the Knight
Commander of the Bath (Civil). This photograph is even noted in the
It was a pleasure to see a photograph of one of the
very few women to receive the Polar Medal, Mrs Margaret Ann Bradshaw.
She is a New Zealand scientist who “made a major contribution
to the New Zealand Antarctic Programme over a period of 17 years.”
The clasp reads “Antarctic to 1992” and Bradshaw is pictured
wearing her award.
Book review by © Glenn M. Stein, FRGS: This is an edited version
of a lengthy review that originally appeared in the Journal of
the Orders and Medals Research Society (UK) in 2001.