Update: The Discovery expedition medal sold for $14,112.
What you see: A silver sporting medal awarded to First Lieutenant Charles W.R. Royds during the British National Antarctic Expedition, better known as the Discovery Expedition, between 1901 and 1904. Bonhams estimates it at $11,000 to $16,000.
The expert: Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams.
What was the Discovery Expedition? It was the first official British expedition to the Antarctic region in more than 60 years. Both Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton were on the expedition, and it was a launch pad for both of them in terms of Antarctic exploration.
What were the Discovery Expedition’s notable accomplishments, and how successful was it, compared to other British expeditions to the Antarctic and other countries’ expeditions? They reached a new further south, they got a little further to the South Pole. It was pretty successful in as much as others proved particularly fatal. It laid the trail for expeditions that followed.
Who was Charles Royds, and why would he have been selected for the Discovery Expedition? He was in the British Navy already, and had built himself a career in the navy. What’s interesting is the Discovery Expedition was driven and instigated by naval officer Clements Markham. It had a very naval core to it. Royds served as a first lieutenant in the British expedition, and there’s a cape in Antarctica named after him.
Do we know how many of these Discovery Expedition medals were struck, and how many survive? No, sadly, to either question. Bonhams has handled two–this one and another. I’ve found traces of records of other ones, but they’re pretty rare. I’d say there’s a dozen or fewer, but that’s a pure guess.
The Discovery Expedition medal is silver. Does silver mean “second place” in this context, or were all the sporting medals given out on the expedition made of silver? All the ones we’ve seen are silver. I think that’s just what they were. Other 19th century medals that aren’t sporting medals–medals for valor and achievement–tend to be silver as well. I think this continues the theme.
Do we know if the Discovery Expedition medal is 100 percent silver, or sterling silver, or a silver alloy? I don’t think I could say without having it in my hands, but it looks like it’s solid silver.
I see what looks like a penguin on the front of the Discovery Expedition medal, but I can’t identify which species of penguin it is. Is it a penguin? The neck of the bird seems too long to be a penguin. It was probably designed to be a penguin, and probably designed to be a King penguin, based on the dimensions. I agree that the neck seems too long to be a penguin. I think it’s like Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros–trying to depict an animal without having seen it in real life.
Do we know what Charles Royds won the silver sporting medal for, and when? We know that on King Edward VII’s birthday on November 8, 1902, they declared a holiday and decorated the ship with flags and organized a sports day. That’s the day we believe the medal was won.
But we don’t know what Royds won it for? We don’t know for what, but it’s confusing. On the day of the event, Royds was on a sledging expedition, and probably did not participate in the sports day. The hypothesis is maybe there was another sporting event after he got back one to two weeks later, or he was awarded the prize even though he wasn’t there.
I see a hoop on top of the Discovery Expedition medal, and I’m guessing it’s for stringing a ribbon. It strikes me, though, that it makes no sense to wear a metal disc around your neck in Antarctic temperatures. How did the winners wear their silver sporting medals? I think rather than wearing a ribbon around their necks, they wore it like they wear medals in the military–hanging from a bar pinned to their chests. The idea of pinning it to their chests would have seemed more natural than hanging it around their necks.
What does it say about the people who planned the Discovery Expedition that they were far-sighted enough to strike silver medals to give out in Antarctica as awards for sports and games to be held on the ice? I find it pretty extraordinary, honestly. They had to arrange for food, tools, sledges, protective clothing–I find it remarkable they went to that level of detail.
It occurs to me that sports and games–they engaged in sledge-pulling, skiing, and rifle shooting–that all costs calories. The planners of the Discovery Expedition felt it was important to include enough food so the men could spend calories on having fun while they explored Antarctica. Yes. I always find it remarkable. They had a relief ship that went on runs to New Zealand, but they had no sense of what they would be consuming. When they actually made sledging expeditions to the South Pole, they were constantly thinking about rationing. When I go to the store for groceries, it’s hard for me to think a week ahead.
I’ve marinated in Monty Python and British culture, and it strikes me that holding sports days on the Antarctic ice is a very public school, very Boy’s Own thing to do… Totally. What’s key to the British public school system, which is actually the private school system, is it was keen on sport. Sport was a huge part of British upper class culture, and these guys were in the British Navy as well–there were sports competitions between forces in the military. It makes sense as a pastime. But there were intellectual pursuits as well. Shackleton was responsible for The South Polar Times, and others on the Discovery Expedition contributed to it. Another lot in the same sale features a watercolor from The South Polar Times.
The back of the Discovery Expedition medal has Charles Royds’s name engraved on it. I had assumed Royds had it done in Britain, after returning home, but I should ask if it was done in Antarctica, to be sure. The explorers were capable of doing a lot of surprising things in Antarctica, such as publishing books… My guess is he did it back in England. I say that because the other Antarctic medal we sold was blank on the back, and that came through Royds–he gave it as a gift to a woman he was courting.
Did Charles Royds leave a memoir or a diary? If he did, did he talk about the sporting day at all? He kept a diary, and it was published in 2001 in Australia. I have not seen it. It may shed light on things and it may not. Very often, they [the explorers] were more interested in the wider picture: “We landed here and sledged to here,” not the smaller stuff that we’d be more interested in.
Very much in the style of a Captain’s log? No emotions, just facts? Exactly, yeah. Very occasionally, they introduce medical issues. Often, these are slightly whitewashed for the public.
...Because they’re British and Edwardian and they didn’t talk about emotional stuff, even in their own diaries? Yes. [laughs]
The Discovery Expedition medals are so weird in that they seem utterly frivolous and on second thought, they seem absolutely necessary to buck up morale among a group of people who had no radio and virtually no mail. It’s completely bizarre, and I think also absolutely brilliant. You forget the extent of time they had there when they were not achieving heroic deeds. A lot of it was very dull and ordinary. And they were stuck with the same group of people for years. Tempers flared. It was tough.
What is the Discovery Expedition medal like in person? It’s pretty unremarkable, really. It’s pleasantly tarnished with age. It looks like something that’s 120 years old. It’s not particularly large, an ordinary size of medal. Nothing striking about it except the actual context.
What is it like to hold the medal? It’s quite a satisfying object. It’s bigger than a coin, and thicker. It begs to be held, and it’s connected with the Antarctica of the period.
What’s your favorite detail of the medal? The fact that they actually chose to put a penguin on it. They could have picked so many other things–the ship, someone skiing… there are no human figures, and that’s odd. Usually, there’s a member of the royal family or the leader of the expedition, but here, they put a penguin on it. And is it even really a penguin?
Why will this piece stick in your memory? You mentioned Monty Python earlier. There’s an element of the surreal nature of Olympics on ice. There’s also the optimism that it symbolizes, the optimism of keeping spirits up in adversity. If you want to be topical, there’s an element of similarity with the COVID-19 lockdowns. We’re confined with the same people all the time. The explorers’ solution was to get involved in sport.
Images are courtesy of Bonhams.
Matthew Haley has appeared once before on The Hot Bid, speaking about a pair of mittens worn by Apsley Cherry-Garrard during the Terra Nova expedition.
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