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




British Polar Exploration and Research: A Historical and medallic record with biographies 1818–1999

by Lieutenant Colonel Neville W. Poulsom and Rear Admiral J.A.L. Myres, CB
Savannah Publications, 2000, 742 pp
ISBN: 1-902366-05-0
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.

The 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 individuals.

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%.]

Turning 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 names.

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 medal.

Two 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 suspensions).

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 text.

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.





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