The Colbecks and the Voyages of the Morning: Exploring, Overwintering and Charting in Antarctica

William Colbeck was born on the 8 th August 1871 in Myton Place, Hull, the second child in a family of six born to Christopher Colbeck, a baker, and his wife Martha. Martha’s family had a long tradition of seafaring and, after attending Hull Grammar School, William followed in their footsteps, much against his father’s wishes. In 1884, he signed on as an apprentice on the sailing vessel, Loch Torridon, voyaging between Britain and Calcutta and, with the help of Zebedee Scaping, headmaster of Hull Trinity House he obtained his master’s ticket in 1894.

Captain Colbeck and Captain Scott
from: Ann Savours, The Voyages of the Discovery (UK: Virgin Books, 1992)

By 1894 William was working on the Wilson Line steamer, SS Draco as second mate and later transferred to the SS Montebello under Captain Pepper. He was promoted to First Officer and whilst on the Montebello a chance encounter with one of the passengers, E Borchgrevik, led to William signing up for the Southern Cross Antarctic Expedition. He became magnetic officer after undertaking an intensive course at Kew. The Southern Cross Expedition (1898-1900) was the first to erect dwellings and overwinter on Antarctica.

Colbeck, together with a Finnish colleague Ole Larsen, set a new exploration record by travelling further south than anyone before them and he also made the first accurate map of the Ross Ice Shelf. Colbeck was convinced he had found the best route to the South Pole and indeed this was later followed by Roald Amundsen in 1912 who afterwards sent Colbeck a letter of thanks.

William returned to the southern oceans again in 1902 after being selected by Sir C. Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society, to command the SY Morning sent out to relieve R.F. Scott’s expedition on the Discovery. The original plan for Scott’s expedition was for the Discovery to spend one winter in Antarctica but, the Morning was sent to communicate with her and, if necessary, provide assistance and fresh provisions.

Colbeck’s crew was made up of Wilson Line men, many from Hull. The Morning left London on the 15th July 1902 and voyaed to Lytellton in New Zealand where it took on stores before leaving there on the 6th December for the Antarctic voyage. During the voyage Colbeck discovered Scott Island and named its most prominent feature Haggitt’s Pillar after his mother’s maiden name. The Morning’s steam engines were not very powerful and the vessel found it hard going against the ice flows but the ship located the ice bound Discovery on Christmas Day, 1902. William Colbeck initially got to within ten miles of where the Discovery was imprisoned and at one stage got to within five miles of her but, finding it impossible to extricate Scott’s ship, he began to transfer provisions. This was no mean feat and the crew worked day and night hauling 14 tons of supplies and 20 tons of coal across the ice that separated the two ships. The ships were in contact for six weeks before the Morning had to return north to avoid being frozen in.

After the voyage back to Lytellton, Colbeck left his ship for the austral winter and returned to London to make plans for a second relief voyage. He managed to snatch a few days in Hull with his family before voyaging back to New Zealand to rejoin his ship and crew. By now the relief operations were being directed by the Admiralty and an additional ship was brought in. When the Morning headed for Antarctica once more in October 1903 she was sailed first to Hobart in Tasmania where she was joined by the Terra Nova. When the two ships got within twenty miles of Discovery on the 5th January 1904 they immediately commenced blasting a way through the ice.. Conditions, that summer, however, allowed them to make progress and by the 14th February they had got within a hundred yards of the ship. Two days later, the Discovery floated free from her ice dock. Had it proved impossible to free the Discovery that year then Scott had been ordered to abandon the ship and indeed all the scientific reports and provisions had already been transferred to the relief ships as a precaution.

After the Discovery was freed, the three ships faced a few days of awkward conditions but eventually made their way northwards and after nearly three weeks rendezvoused again at the Auckland Islands. The little Morning had been knocked about considerably in the ice and finally arrived back at Lyttelton under sail having given the Discovery nearly all of their coal. After a couple of months spent refitting in Littleton, the Morning and her crew headed north and home, voyaging by way of the Falkland Islands. They finally reached Plymouth in October 1904 after considerable delay because of head winds; the little ship’s old engines were by this time virtually unserviceable.

Altogether, 18 members of the 27 people who served on one or other of the Morning’s two relief voyages came from Hull and 12 of them took part in both trips. Thousands of people greeted Colbeck and his crew when they arrived at Paragon Station in Hull. In an attempt to keep control only immediate family and friends were allowed on the platform, apart from the Wilson band which played Auld Lang Syne as the train drew in. The city was awash with enthusiasm for its polar heroes but ironically this great day of rejoicing was almost immediately overshadowed by a maritime incident much closer to home. A couple of days later the Russian fleet opened fire on Hull’s Gamecock fleet in the North Sea in the mistaken believe that the unarmed trawlers were Japanese torpedo boats. The world was plunged into a diplomatic crisis and newspapers were covered with talk of war.

William Colbeck was to speak highly of the courage and enthusiasm of his crew. They had certainly found diversions to overcome the monotony of the Arctic winter. The Morning was home to a veritable menagerie of goats, dogs and cats whilst some crew members formed a forecastle hold band consisting of drums, triangles, cymbals and zithers. Every Saturday night a smoking concert was held and when possible football, hockey and boxing matches had taken place on the ice. Fencing with sticks was another popular pursuit. Several members of the Morning’s crew were to return south with later expeditions but after this voyage William Colbeck returned to the Wilson Line. Scott named Cape Colbeck and Colbeck Bay after him. In 1914 he received the Polar Medal and later became a founder member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. He died in London in 1930.

William Colbeck had four sons and one of these, William Robinson Colbeck (1906- 86), joined the British Australia and New Zealand Antarctic Expeditions of 1929-1931 as second officer and navigator in the old Discovery. He was responsible for much of the charting during the two voyages and the Colbeck Archipelago off the Mawson Coast is named after him.