The Headstone

in Features

A story of bravery in the Antarctic


One normally associates a cemetery with ghosts and darkness. However, a study of the headstones at North Front reveals an incredible source of interesting and often tragic stories. In the next few issues we are going to reveal some of the stories that lie behind the headstones. 

In 1898, a Norwegian explorer obtained backing from a British publisher and put together the British Antarctic Expedition,1898 to 1900. The President of the British Geographical Society considered this an affront since they had been planning a similar expedition for some time and considered a British-funded Norwegian operation a travesty.

The prize was to be the first to reach the South and Magnetic Poles. The Norwegians proved that it was possible to survive a winter in the Antarctic, having spent the winter of 1898 in huts at Cape Adare. Our first is a tale of adventure, suffering and courage in a hostile environment in the days when there were still areas of our planet to be conquered.

With the backing of the British Geographical Society, the Government and businessmen in the City, a British expedition was assembled under Commander Robert Scott RN. Subscriptions and donations amounted to £90,000 (approximately £3.6m today). This sum enabled them to purchase a purpose-built ship from the Dundee Shipbuilders Company and launch it on March 21st 1901. The ship was built to withstand the pressure of the ice in the event that it became ice-bound.  

RGS Discovery was a three-masted barque-rigged ship with coal-fired engines. With a length of 52m and a beam of 10m, she had a displacement of 1570tonnes. Capable of 8 knots, she was unable to carry enough coal for a long voyage, hence the sails. Her wooden hull was reinforced to withstand the pressure of the ice pack. The rudder and propeller were capable of being withdrawn to prevent damage from ice. Her bow was sheathed in iron and racked to enable her to ride up on the pack ice and break through. Her shallow draft and streamlined hull was designed to work in the Antarctic waters but made her uncomfortable on the high seas. Her sailing qualities were criticised by Captain Scott, who complained that she carried too much sail aft and not enough forward. No doubt the position of the engines had something to do with this. The construction of the hull was designed to withstand compression and included five different types of wood. The keel was made from a single eucalyptus tree. The ballast consisted of old cannon balls. In order to facilitate scientific study of the earth’s magnetism, all the ship’s metal fittings were made from bronze, including the anchor and chains.

Captain Scott had a crew of 11 officers and 36 men (other sources state 49 officers and men). 

The Discovery sailed from London on July 31st to the Isle of Wight for the regatta, where she was visited by the King. On August 6th she set sail for the Antarctic, calling in at Madeira for coal. 

The next we hear of her she is in Littleton, New Zealand, where they picked up provisions to last years. 45 live sheep were donated by local farmers. Other items were also loaded, including some prefabricated wooden huts.

The leader of the scientific group, Professor Gregory, resigned before the Discovery sailed on December 21st. On leaving harbour, Corporal Arthur Blissett of the Royal Marines fell to his death and was replaced at Port Chalmers by Able Seaman Jesse Handsley. After picking up coal at Port Chalmers, and a stop at Cape Adare, Scott headed for the ice. On February 4th, he, accompanied by Sub Lieutenant Shackleton RNR, took the Balloon “Eva” up over the Ross Ice Shelf , where the first aerial photographs of the Antarctic were taken. 

Camp was set up on Ross Island, where the huts were quickly set up; however, the permafrost caused some difficulty during the erection. The Discovery was originally scheduled to leave the area for the winter, but Scott decided that she should stay and the ship was secured to the ice, where it was soon totally encased in ice. The Discovery was to remain so for the next two years. 

The expedition arrived at Ross Island with a crew of 47. This was made up of 30 from the Royal Navy, eight from the Merchant Navy and marines, four civilians and five scientists.

A number of expeditions were carried out, among them a trip across Ross Island, where the Emperor penguin rookery was discovered, and the first photographs a of a penguin chick taken. On December 30th 1902, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson reached 82 deg 16 sec. South and Lieutenant Armitage reached the Polar Plateau and the Glacier later named Hartely Glacier, at a height of 2,740m. 

In January 1903, the relief ship Morning arrived and took off Shackleton, who had contracted scurvy due to the rigors of the long sledging treks with insufficient vitamins in the diet. Eight other crew were put on board, leaving 37 at the base. 

The Discovery remained ice-bound until February 1904, when she was freed using explosive charges to break though the final barrier of ice.

Conditions in the Antarctic were rough. The clothing available at the time was inefficient, the huts were basic, and food, although plentiful, lacked the variety to maintain good health for such a long period. The Discovery returned to England, arriving on 16th February 1904.

What has this to do with Gibraltar?

Among the crew of Discovery was an AB called Jesse Handsley, born in Skegness, in Lincolnshire, England on March 29th 1876. He joined the navy at 18 and was transferred from the Ringarooma in New Zealand as part of the South Depot under Barne on December 31st 1901. Indications are that he was nominally part of HMS President while attached to Discovery, since the latter was not a Royal Navy vessel. As he was part of Barne’s crew, he probably took part in the expedition of March 4th 1902 led by Royds. The party consisted of three other officers and eight men. Using four dog sleds, they set off for Cape Crozier, the site of the penguin rookery. Fresh snow made progress difficult. Finally, with the dogs going lame, Royds decided to carry on with Koettlitz and Skelton, sending the rest back to base. The expedition never did get to the Cape, turning back, unable to deal with the conditions.

In recognition of their gallantry and perseverance under extreme conditions, all the crew were awarded “The Antarctic RGS Silver Medal,” including Jesse Handsley. On December 29th he was put forward for promotion to Petty Officer 1st Class, to be retroactive from September 1904 in recognition of his service with the Discovery expedition. 

In 1916, while serving on HMS Swiftsure, he was taken ill and transferred to the (Old) Naval Hospital, Gibraltar, where he died on June 3rd 1916 from gastric ulcers. He is buried at North Front Cemetery in the War Graves area. 

We acknowledge the great help provided by Jane Handsley in compiling this story, without whose help it could not have been written.

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