Captain Lawrence Edward Grace Oates, 1880-1912
Soldier and Explorer - member of the Scott Antarctic Polar Expedition, 1910/12
‘A Very Gallant Gentleman’

CAPTAIN LAWRENCE EDWARD GRACE OATES, 1880-1912This month marks the centenary of Lawrence Oates’ death, which established him as an inspirational model of courage, self-sacrifice and understated heroism. His final words, recorded by Captain Scott in his diary, remain etched in the world’s memory 100 years on.

Lawrence Edward Grace Oates was born in Putney on 17 March 1880, the eldest son of William and Caroline Oates, both from Meanwood, Leeds. His father, William Edward Oates (1841-1896) was born and brought up at Meanwoodside, the house built by his grandfather in what is now Meanwood Park, and his mother, Caroline Anne (1854-1937) was the daughter of the foundry owner Joshua Buckton of nearby West Lea, Meanwood. (Both houses are gone now).

Lawrence’s father came from a wealthy background and could afford to pursue his gentlemanly interests in travel and natural history. The family lived initially in London and then bought Gestingthorpe Hall, an idyllic Georgian manor house in Essex. However there were frequent visits back to Leeds, and Lawrence spent several periods of time as a child and a young man at Meanwoodside with his uncle Charles Oates, and also at nearby Hollin House which the family owned. (When his uncle died in 1902 Lawrence inherited a half share in Meanwoodside.)

After prep school, Lawrence was sent to Eton, but he had to leave after two years because of illness. Then, when he was only 16, his father died suddenly of typhoid fever on a family visit to Madeira. His uncle at Meanwoodside became his guardian, but his formidable mother was his mainstay and their relationship was especially close. Lawrence’s heart was set on a military career, but in spite of intense cramming he failed to get into Oxford, the usual route to a commission. He joined the volunteer militia, and in 1900 the Boer War provided the opportunity of a commission in the elite 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. He served with distinction, sustaining a severe injury to his leg in battle. He subsequently served in Ireland, Egypt, and India, winning promotion to Captain.

He was a keen huntsman, horseman and yachtsman, with a thirst for action and adventure. Army life in India was beginning to pall when he read of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s proposed Antarctic expedition in 1910. He applied to join, offering £1000 towards expedition funds. He was accepted on the strength of his military record and his expertise with horses, as Scott planned to use ponies to haul the sledges. But he had no part in the selection of the ponies, which he later described as ‘cripples’, the first of several sources of discontent.

He joined the expedition ship in London in Spring 1910 for the long voyage south. In early 1911 they landed at Cape Evans to lay down depots of stores. During this exercise and the following winter he won admiration for his hard work and care of the ponies. Though independent and taciturn, he was well liked and respected, but was often at odds with Scott. Nevertheless in January 1912 he was selected by Scott to be in the final party of five to make for the Pole.

The five men never returned. The rest of the team had to wait through the winter before a search party could set out. In November 1912 they found the tent in which the bodies of Captain Scott and two of his companions lay, starved and frozen, only 11 miles from supplies. Evans and Oates were missing. The diary Captain Scott left told the tragic story: their arrival at the Pole, only to find that the Norwegian Amundsen had got there before them; the agonies of the return journey, hauling their sledges through crippling weather; the death of Evans, and Oates’ appalling suffering from frostbite; his final decision to leave the tent in the midst of the blizzard and walk to his death, hoping to save his comrades. The diary recorded his now famous last words – ‘I am just going outside and I may be some time’. The search party could not find Oates’ body, but erected a memorial cairn to commemorate ‘a very gallant gentleman’. 

News of the fate of the expedition reached the world in February 1913. The international press fell upon the story: the tragic outcome was translated into victory and ‘deathless glory’. Oates’ death in particular struck a powerful emotional chord, especially during the First World War. Many memorials to him were erected - two in Leeds, one in the Parish Church the other at Meanwood Church. At Gestingthorpe, Oates’ mother remained in mourning all her long life. She preserved his letters and diaries but ordered them to be destroyed when she died. However, extracts from his diaries and letters were published in the 1970s, when his critical comments on Scott and the expedition’s organisation opened the door for revisionist views of Scott’s competence and even of Oates’ own death. Later writers like Ranulph Fiennes have redressed the balance, giving particular value to Scott’s scientific programme, and underlining the enduring emotive power of Oates’ chosen end. His quiet heroism will be remembered and celebrated in many places this year, including at the site of the Oates home in Meanwood.

Eveleigh Bradford
March 2012