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William Colbeck

Looking again at the register, Rachael and I saw that, just above the Shackleton entry, there was another, equally interesting: a Mr Colbeck, living in Forest Hill, had given us a 'Collection of his father's Antarctic relics (S.S. Relief Ship "Morning".)' A quick check of the separate registers maintained by the natural history collection provided a little more detail about some of the objects: received on 29 January 1938 were listed 'Eggs (4) of Pygoscelis adeliæ' (ie Adélie Penguin), and an 'Egg of Megalestris maccormicki' (the Antarctic Skua, now named Stercorarius maccormicki), both collected in South Victoria Land, where they were 'Obtained by Capt. Colbeck, National Antarctic Relief Expedition 1902'.

handwriting on page

The Natural History accession register page showing Mr Colbeck's gift of bird eggs to the Horniman (detail of ARC/HMG/CM/001/017)

 

Colbeck, although little-known today, was at one time one of the most experienced Antarctic sailors. Apprenticed into the merchant marine aged 15, in 1898 he joined Carsten Borchgrevink's British Antarctic Expedition (the Southern Cross expedition), which was the first to over-winter ashore in Antarctica. Colbeck was one of those responsible for making measurements of the earth's magnetic field, and his readings helped identify the position of the South Magnetic Pole.

Two years after his return from Antarctica in 1900, Colbeck – aged only 31 – was given the command of the Morning, sent to relieve Captain Scott's British National Antarctic Expedition whose ship, the Discovery, had been frozen into the ice at the far end of McMurdo Sound. Colbeck found the Discovery, but she remained frozen in 10 miles from the open sea, and he was only able to resupply Scott's expedition before returning to New Zealand – carrying a disgruntled Shackleton, who had been invalided home after becoming seriously unwell during his trek to reach a new farthest south of 82º 17" with Scott and E. A. Wilson. This was the 'National Antarctic Relief Expedition 1902' referred to in our natural history register; if the eggs really were collected in 'South Victoria Land' during that expedition, then they must have come from Cape Adare, where Colbeck had previously over-wintered with Borchgrevink – he does not seem to have landed anywhere else in Victoria Land during the relief expedition.

  • Antarctic Skua eggs collected during the Southern Cross expedition. , Plate IX from British Museum (Natural History), 1902. Report on the collections of natural history made in the Antarctic regions during the voyage of the Southern Cross. London: British Museum. Horniman Library shelfmark A 816.32 BRI
    Plate IX from British Museum (Natural History), 1902. Report on the collections of natural history made in the Antarctic regions during the voyage of the Southern Cross. London: British Museum. Horniman Library shelfmark A 816.32 BRI

Antarctic Skua eggs collected during the Southern Cross expedition.

The following year, Colbeck was sent back to McMurdo Sound in overall command of the Morning and the more powerful Terra Nova, with orders to retrieve Scott's expedition regardless, abandoning the Discovery if necessary. But the ice cleared out of McMurdo Sound at the last possible moment, and all three ships returned to New Zealand in April 1904.

Three years later, Shackleton asked Colbeck to captain the Nimrod for his British Antarctic Expedition. Despite being offered a £500 salary and £2,000 bonus if the expedition were a success, Colbeck declined, recommending instead that Shackleton take his old first mate from the Morning, Rupert England. One of Colbeck's four sons, W. R. Colbeck, continued his father's Antarctic connections, sailing with Sir Douglas Mawson on the Discovery in the British Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) voyages from 1929 to 1931. But the natural history register states that the eggs were presented by another son, C. T. Colbeck.

  • Adélie Penguin eggs (bottom three) collected during the Southern Cross expedition, Plate X from British Museum (Natural History), 1902. Report on the collections of natural history made in the Antarctic regions during the voyage of the Southern Cross. London: British Museum. Horniman Library shelfmark A 816.32 BRI
    Plate X from British Museum (Natural History), 1902. Report on the collections of natural history made in the Antarctic regions during the voyage of the Southern Cross. London: British Museum. Horniman Library shelfmark A 816.32 BRI

Adélie Penguin eggs (bottom three) collected during the Southern Cross expedition

The eggs, too, had been listed in our collection database; but again without a location and, despite asking for an eye to be kept out for them during our Natural History Bioblitz review, they have yet to be found.

2016 Update: These eggs have now been found by Justine Aw, Collections Assistant; Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History: and May Webber, Volunteer,  as they were working through the collection of birds' eggs whilst following up the results of the Museum's Bioblitz collection review. They are clearly identified by accompanying paperwork, and in fact comprise four Adélie Penguin eggs and two (not one) Antarctic Skua eggs. They were presented by Clements Markham ('Mark') Colbeck (not C. T. Colbeck), one of William Colbeck's sons, but, as he was living in Deptford at the time, probably not the son who donated the 'relics' recorded in the anthropology register, who was then living in Forest Hill. According to information provided by Mark Colbeck's daughter, Sandra Margolies, the latter was most likely John Christopher Colbeck, known as Chris, Mark's brother and Captain Colbeck's son.