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Northampton and Discovery : Scout Training Ships

'Discovery' tea card
As a Wolf Cub I knew that RRS Discovery was in Scout ownership from pictures of her in my Wolf Cub Annual, or was it my Lett's Wolf Cub Diary? I had, however, never heard of its predecessor the Northampton until 2002, when I started researching this article. This is not altogether surprising as little is known about her. Like the more famous Discovery, she was used for the same Scouting purposes, in the same location, and met, as far as Scouting was concerned, the same fate.

TS Northampton

ON November 30th, 1888 HMS Sharpshooter was launched. A torpedo gunboat displacing 875 tons, 235ft in length and 36ft in beam, she was the last word in modern warship design and gave rise to the 'Sharpshooter Class' of twelve Royal Naval Torpedo Boats.

In 1904, HMS Sharpshooter was leased from the Royal Navy to the Marquis of Northampton, who wanted to use her as a floating technical night-school to train "poor boys in handicrafts." Surprisingly, their Lordships of the Admiralty allowed the engines and other gear to be removed, so that lathes and training equipment could be installed. She was moored at Temple Pier on the Victoria Embankment of the Thames, renamed HMS Northampton, and the training of the "poor boys" began.

HMS Speedwell

The Marquis of Northampton died in 1914 and his son, although on Active Service abroad, did his best to maintain the venture, but clearly he could not personally supervise activities. By 1918 the then Lord Northampton determined to hand the ship over to some other organisation that would most closely continue with his father's charitable objectives. He chose the Scout Association. The Association's Committee of the Council, in accepting this donation, decided that the Northampton should to continue with its present name in honour of the late Marquis. The new Lord Northampton was offered and accepted a role on the Sea Scout Committee.

In April 1919, Headquarters Gazette carried news of the hand-over of the Northampton and outlined its future use. "Thanks to the generosity of Lord Northampton, we have now acquired the training ship the Northampton to serve as the head centre for Sea Scouting, and as such to supply a training school for officers, as well an intensive course for those Sea Scouts who may desire a career at sea." It would appear that the donation had caught the Scout Association somewhat by surprise, as the same issue proclaimed that as far as the Northampton was concerned, there was a need to, ". . .rope in good men for Scoutmasters and instructors. An energetic local campaign is the best for this . . . will you try it?" There were rumours that Northampton might just be the first of such Scout Training Vessels and that another similar donation might be forthcoming. "Is this the start of a squadron round our coast (for wonders never cease)?" As far as I am able to discover however there were, at that time, no other 'ship-sized' donations to the Association.

Provisional Objectives were soon drawn up:

The last objective may seem a little out of place, but the latest craze in Scouting at that time, (they were called 'isms' by the sceptical) short-lived though it was, was Athleticism. This was no doubt prompted by various official reports, often quoted by Baden-Powell, that concluded that the youth of the nation would not be fit enough for active service should the need ever arise.

In August 1919, Lieut. G Malzard R.N. was appointed Captain and by January 1920, the Training Ship TS Northampton was a going concern. Course-work took place through the week, but Saturday afternoon was reserved for boatwork with Northampton's two cutters and two whalers. Later on that year she was used as a floating hostel to house 115 Sea Scouts whilst they attended the Imperial Jamboree.

The Headquarters Gazette of September 1921 was a 'Sea Scouting issue', and tucked away amongst all the good news was a short article by Lieut. Malzard. He began dramatically - "The Northampton will very shortly be only a memory to Sea Scouts. . . " It would appear that whilst some training courses did take place, there was never the demand to justify the Northampton's expense. In moving the adoption of his AGM Report to the Council in 1922, Baden-Powell wrote:

"One reverse we have been forced to suffer has been the closing down of our Training Ship, the Northampton, as a matter of economy. She was doing good work but at a cost we could not afford under present conditions and I can only hope that with the coming of better times we shall be able to able to revive the organised training which the Northampton made available to the Movement."

Regrettably, the Northampton went to the breaker's yard in 1922. A further nine years were to pass before B-P's dream of a replacement became a reality.

RRS Discovery

Discovery's Halo

THERE are few ships that, for my generation at least, could be said to be of part our culture. We grew up knowing their importance: Sir Francis Drake's The Golden Hind; Captain Cook's Endeavour, Resolution and his own Discovery, and Admiral Lord Nelson's Victory sailed across the pages of our Boys' Annuals. Captain Scott's Discovery comes into this class, but her claim to fame is more recent, from the same century as that of our youth. This ship was perhaps more of a reality to us because we could see it, not only as an artist's impression, but on photographs, cinema film, and, if we were lucky enough to visit the capital, afloat at its moorings at Temple Pier on The Embankment in London. It was an icon of the last days of Empire and all that it meant to be British.

History prior to Scout Ownership

Discovery, the first-ever ship to be constructed specifically for polar research, was built for Captain Robert Falcon Scott R.N.'s Antarctic Expedition by the Dundee Ship Building Company. She was launched in March 1901 and was 121 feet overall. Her wooden sides were over 2 feet thick and her bow was of 8 foot thick oak, with further outside strengthening of galvanised steel plating.

She was on-station in McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic in 1901 and spent two winters totally locked into the polar ice whilst her crew carried out their planned scientific experiments. Relief ships were sent out by the Admiralty with the order to abandon Discovery but thankfully, though it was touch-and-go, Scott managed to extricate his ice-locked ship with the rescue vessels in sight. During the voyage home, Discovery ran aground and was held fast for over eight hours before she could be floated-off. She arrived back in England in September 1904.

In 1905, the Hudson Bay Company purchased the ship for the import of furs from Northern Canada until 1911. At the outbreak of war in 1914, having been laid-up in London, she was brought to Falmouth. There were hopes for another polar expedition, but the would-be promoter, J Foster Stackhouse, returning from a fund-raising mission in the U.S., was amongst nearly 1,500 people who lost their lives whilst when the Lusitania was torpedoed in April 1915.

Discovery spent the rest of the war ferrying supplies between England and France.

In 1916 Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was on Scott's 1901 expedition, found himself once more locked into the Antarctic ice, this time aboard his ship the Endurance. He was forced to abandon ship and, in an epic story of unbelievable adversity, reached Elephant Island. 'The Boss', Shackleton, with three men navigated the 750 miles of open seas in a small boat to reach South Georgia. Before help could be found they had to cross the mountainous interior of the island on foot to eventually raise the alarm. Unfortunately there was not a relief ship available locally and eventually Discovery had to be dispatched from England. Fortunately, Shackleton's men were rescued before Discovery arrived at Montevideo. Shackleton was a fervent supporter of Scouting and was later to offer a place, on what was to be his last polar expedition aboard the Quest to two Scouts, Patrol Leaders Norman Mooney and James Marr.

Discovery returned to her duties with the Hudson Bay Company but was very nearly lost in 1918 when she was driven to within half a length of destruction on jagged cliffs.

This extremely rare piece of postal history is probably the only mail surviving TO Discovery on the BANZARE expedition, whilst in Antarctic Waters. Bearing the Expedition penguin hand stamp, it is addressed to RA Falla, the expedition Ornithologist, and was delivered by the James Clark Ross

In June 1919, the ship was chartered by a company supplying the White Russians, via the Black Sea, during the conflicts subsequent to the Russian Revolution. She continued with this work until 1920, when she laid-up awaiting further charters at the East India Dock in London. It was at this time that she had her first contact with Boy Scouts, being used as the headquarters of the 16th Stepney Scout Group until 1922.

In that year Discovery was purchased by Crown Agents for further Antarctic exploration. She was given a major refit and was designated for the first time as Royal Research Ship (RRS) Discovery. Between 1925 and 1927 she cruised 37,000 nautical miles, to chart the migratory patterns of whales. Her finest hour, as far as Polar Exploration is concerned, came between 1929 and 1933 with the British, Australian, and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (B.A.N.Z.A.R.E.) who used her to do much valuable research. This was achieved with the help of a seaplane secured, when not in flight, suspended above Discovery's main deck.

She returned to the East India Dock in 1931 and was again laid-up. This time, there was to be no reprieve to polar waters. She was now something of an old lady, a wooden triple-masted square rigger from a bygone age, awaiting her fate.

Boy Scout Occupation : The Gift

On October 7th 1936, Sir John Middleton, a member of the Discovery Committee, called at Boy Scout Headquarters, on Buckingham Palace Road in London, and suggested that the Discovery should become a training ship and hostel for Sea Scouts. This suggestion prompted the following reaction from Baden-Powell:

"One day I can remember him registering particular hand-rubbing pleasure, at the end of the morning. The Discovery, the renowned ship in which Scott made his first voyage at the Antarctic, had been advertised for sale. Moored in the Thames, wouldn't it make a splendid Headquarters for the Sea Scouts? But how to acquire it? How could the money be raised? To whom could he appeal? He took a piece of ordinary Pax Hill headed writing paper and wrote to 'Dear Lady Houston' and then drew a most superb pen and ink sketch of the Discovery in full sail, and explained the circumstances. How could this lovely vessel be left to go to the breaker's yard? Could she not be preserved? Would it not be an opportunity for posterity. . .? He was genuinely pleased with the drawing and later had even greater satisfaction with the result, for there came an enormous cheque from Lady Houston with which to buy the vessel outright, to be moored at The Embankment, as he had visualized, as the Sea Scout Headquarters."
(From Heather Baden-Powell's book, Baden-Powell. A Family Album.)

Where, I wonder, is that sketch today? We would be very pleased to display a copy of it on these pages.

THE SCOUTER of January 1937 ran a feature headlined, The story of OUR ship:-

Polar Heroes' Signatures
This sheet of headed notepaper of the National Antarctic Expedition includes the signatures of Captain Scott, Captain Armitage, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson
"A week or so ago the Colonial Office made an announcement of this important gift. Lady Houston has presented funds for the upkeep of Discovery.
It will serve a number of purposes:
  • Memorial to Captain Scott
  • Headquarters for Sea Scouts
  • Training centre for 'poor and unemployed' Scouts
  • Rendezvous for Deep-Sea Scouts
  • Hostel for overseas Scouts passing through London."

The BBC, Home and World Services, carried news of the 'gift'. In June 1937, Headquarters Gazette announced that the newly-crowned King, George VI, had graciously sanctioned the retention of the title Royal Research Ship (RRS) for Discovery whilst she was in Scout ownership. Before the Scout Association could take over the vessel from the Government of the Falkland Islands, with the approval of the Colonial Office, much had to be done. It was unthinkable that, in Scout ownership, this historic ship should look anything but her best. It was, after all, a national memorial to the Antarctic heroes who had sailed aboard her, foremost amongst whom were Scott, Oates and Wilson, so high standards would need to be achieved and maintained. (Discovery was not used on Scott's last expedition but Oates and Wilson had sailed with him on earlier expedition.)

The permission of the Port of London Authority was obtained to moor the Discovery in the most accessible part of the Thames near Temple Tube Station on The Embankment. (The same location as its predecessor the Northampton.) There was much to do in preparation; dredging, pier building, dis-masting, reconditioning, docking, towing, mooring, re-masting, painting and many smaller but necessary details, such as providing facilities for parties of 20 Scouts to sleep on board. All this and more had to be completed before the ship could be handed over.

The Opening

On the October 9th, 1937, both sides of the ship and the piers were lined with lusty Sea Scouts as HRH the Duke of Kent, Commodore of the Sea Scouts and Deep Sea Scouts, accepted Discovery from Sir Herbert Henniker-Heaton, the Governor of the Falkland Islands, in the presence of the Chief Scout and the Rt. Hon. W G Ormsby-Gore, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Opening Ceremony
Baden-Powell and the HRH The Duke of Kent inspect Sea Scouts prior to the Opening Ceremony

Besides the expected dignitaries and VIPs, amongst whom was Scout Marr of the Quest, there were men present who had sailed aboard the ship and the widows of notable polar explorers including Lady Kennet, the widow of Captain Scott. The Duke of Kent, dressed in his uniform of Commodore of Sea Scouts, reminded the assembly of the ship's outstanding history and Captain Armitage, who had sailed with Scott in the Discovery, also made a speech as, of course, did B-P. Later, Lady Kennet, with her son Peter, took tea with B-P and his family in what must have been a very crowded wardroom. This meeting led to Heather Baden-Powell becoming Lady Kennet's secretary.

After the guests were escorted off the vessel, B-P came back on board to have a word with the Sea Scouts.

The Operation

The Scouter, of January 1938, carried details of how members of the Movement could visit and use the facilities on board:

"Scouts and cubs admitted free of charge - Sat. 10-12 a.m. then 2-4 p.m. provided uniform is worn and a permit is obtained giving 7 days notice.
There is a charge of 2.10s p.a. for the use of Discovery as a HQ for Sea Scout Groups."
It was hoped that Discovery could act as 'a nursery' for newly-formed Sea Scout troops.

A museum of relics relating to Antarctic exploration was assembled, together with a small library and a shop. The public were then invited on board at a small charge. Without this important revenue it would have been impossible for the Scout Association to have maintained Discovery as a viable training establishment.

Personal Reminiscences

The Embankment
Discovery at her Embankment Mooring, from a Scout Shop Christmas Card painted by JW Vinall. A.R.C.A. F.R.S.A. probably for Christmas 1937

'Dusty' Miller started a Senior Sea Scouts Patrol within the 201st North London Scout Group, prior to the arrival of Discovery at The Embankment. The new patrol sought, and was soon given, part of the sail-locker as their base on board. The boys met once a week on-board, cycling there from North London. Soon after, the advent of the Second World War meant that most of the Patrol's members were called up and those that were too young became Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Messengers. A re-union was held after the war and it was found that only one member had 'been called to higher service'. 'Dusty' went on to become a Group Scout Leader and was, in 2002, still a member of the Ramsey Service Team in Islington.

Douglas Robertson joined the 22nd Walthamstow Sea Scout Group in 1930 and, from the start of the war, had been an active Rover Scout. He could not find paid-work as prospective employers knew his 'call-up' to the services might be imminent. Rather than live in this limbo, he decided to join a course for signallers on the Discovery, as he had been told this would ensure his call-up to the Royal Navy. In fact 2,500 Sea Scouts were to pass through special entry courses for the Navy, one in four of these boys being successful in gaining Naval Commissions. Douglas well remembers the names of the polar explorers written above the doors of the cabins surrounding the main wardroom. Unfortunately, Douglas's ruse did not work as well as he had hoped. He was promptly called up, but into the army!

Baden-Powell saw the ship for the last time in 1938, prior to his departure to Africa, knowing it was likely to be his last visit. He went for a stroll along The Embankment and went on board unannounced. Naturally, he was soon recognised and spoke to visitors and crew and stayed for tea.

David Jefferies of Edinburgh, had applied to become a member of a team of Scouts to tour Australia and New Zealand, to help inform the Australian public of circumstances in war-time Britain. A similar group of four Scouts successfully toured the United States and Canada. David was invited to London for an interview, and travelled down by train to spend the night aboard the Discovery. Unfortunately for him there were air raids over the East End of London that night, which David and others on board watched from the deck. Later, he slept in black-out conditions in Captain Scott's cabin. It must have been an exciting if not terrifying experience. David was selected for the tour, but unfortunately this had to be cancelled because of the progress of the War in the Far East. After the fall of Singapore, there was an increased Japanese submarine menace and threat to Australia. David eventually fulfilled his ambition to visit Australia when he led the Scottish Contingent to the World Rover Moot in Melbourne in 1960 and he went on to become Chief Executive Commissioner at Scottish Scout Headquarters. In his retirement he still took an active interest in Scouting, attending the Gilwell Re-union of 2002 and was a good friend of Scouting Milestones up to his death in 2004.

Discovery escaped bomb damage in the blitz, but a trailing cable from a barrage balloon snagged her rigging, ripping off one of the yard-arms. It was subsequently found that the yards were rotten and so they were removed.

In the latter years of the war, the Admiralty ordered that Discovery's engines and boilers be removed for scrap, a fact that some conservationists still blame on the Scout Association.

Discovery Shoulder Tape
Discovery shoulder tape for permanent members of the crew such as Brian Ewart and Doug Myers

Brian Ewart was a member of the ship's company for around 8 months in 1947/8 until he had to be carried off Discovery with suspected Infantile Paralysis. This dreadful affliction became more commonly known as 'Polio'. Fortunately, it turned out to be nothing worse than the 'flu. Brian well recalls the smell of the tar and rope below decks. The River was very busy in those days and the ship was constantly rising and falling to the wash of passing vessels, causing the gangplank to scrape along the paved embankment. A more evocative sound was that of the tramcars rattling their way along The Embankment. Brian has a host of other memories, which include the accidental drowning of a shipmate, and being inspected by Peter Scott at the opening of the Scott of the Antarctic Film at the Odeon, Leicester Square. He also recalls how the public would always stand and stare when any member of the crew paid a visit to the 'crows' nest' high above the decks on the main mast, and how crowds stood three-deep along The Embankment when an exhibitionist member of the crew performed handstands holding on to its sides!

Discovery Booklet
This booklet, produced by the Scout Association, was for sale on-board Discovery in 1951, and so could have been one of the many sold by Doug Myers

Mike Cudmore was a Sea Scout in the early 1950's at Bexhill on Sea and joined Discovery for a week's course in January, when the Thames was in full flood. The gangplank from the Victoria Embankment was under water, but the tops of the handrails were visible. Mike hoisted his kit bag on his shoulder and daringly made his way along the sunken gangplank to the side of the ship which had to be ascended via a Jacob's Ladder. Still with kit bag on one shoulder he mounted the ladder, having to leave go with the hand not holding the kitbag, in order to gain the next step above. The procedure worked, one step at a time, until he got to the top and had to grasp the final step, the ship's rail. This was over a foot wide and he could not reach over far enough to grasp its edge.

"Nature took its course and I fell over backwards into the water, kit bag and all, fortunately within the handrails of the walkway below. They fished me out with (to me) inappropriate merriment. And so I had joined my first ship."
But it was not to be his last! Mike signs himself, Mike Cudmore, Commander R.N. (Retired).

Doug Myers served as a 'crew boy', living and working on board Discovery. He had first visited the ship with his Scout Troop and had found that the ship's compliment included three 'crew boys'. Doug decided to apply for the next vacancy. In May 1951, aged 16, he went aboard as the 'pantry boy', looking after the wardroom and serving the ship's officers and, during the time the public was on board, he often ran the ship's shop. In time he was promoted to 'Head Boy'. He remembers the 1951 floods when Discovery was in danger of breaking loose from her moorings and the ship's whalers and gigs were used to help evacuate people from Canvey Island. It fell to the ship's first Officer and Doug to take the motor-boat down to Canvey Island, after the floods, to bring the other boats back. Doug remembers that it was a very foggy day and progress was slow. They had to spend the night moored alongside a pair of Thames barges.

He recalls, with pleasure, his duties as an escort taking important visitors around London. Doug was sorry to leave the ship when he had to start his National Service in 1953. He was active in Scouting in the Colchester area until his retirement in 2000.

Discovery becomes a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Drill Ship

AS a part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, 'Discovery' became the centre of a Sea Scout Antarctic Exhibition, complete with 'snow', tents and polar exploration equipment, and was much visited. The revenue raised from the visitors during this relatively short windfall was not sufficient to defray the high year-on-year maintenance costs. Discovery had become a drain on Scout funds, and unfortunately had to go. She was offered to the Admiralty and, after being used as a hostel for programme sellers during the June 1953 Coronation festivities, and was transferred to Royal Navy ownership.

Discovery Pennent
The pennant marked virtually the last Scout use of Discovery

There was controversy surrounding the use proposed for the ship. Peter Scott, son of Captain Scott, did not want to see the public excluded, as the ship might then by gutted, to allow more accommodation and storage, which would destroy its historic layout. A question was asked in Parliament and the "Discovery Trust" was established to try to ensure the preservation of the ship in its historic form.

On the 12th June, 1954, the Admiralty announced that they had taken over the ownership of "HMS" Discovery. This HMS designation meant that Discovery was no longer a "Royal Research Ship", but a warship! It was to be used as a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Drill ship and as the flagship of the Admiral Commanding Reserves. Youth organisations were encouraged to use facilities on board and Sea Scout boats were still allowed to be kept at the mooring. Some very necessary renovation work was carried out at Blackwall Naval Repair Yards, and HMS Discovery was returned to her mooring on the Victoria Embankment in 1955. The public were permitted access and there were over 300,000 visitors in the year that followed.

By the 1970's however, the future of Discovery was again in jeopardy as the Ministry of Defence, like the Scout Association, found that the rising maintenance costs for essential repairs could no longer be justified. Yet again, a new owner had to be found.

Discovery Model
This model of Discovery in the U.K. Scout Archive was presented by an ex-master TH Harkness

The Discovery Today

OWNERSHIP was transferred to the Maritime Trust on April 2nd, 1979. They raised over £500,000 to restore the ship to her 1923 condition and, for the third time in her life, the ship again became "RRS" Discovery. On March 28th, 1986, she was towed to her new home in Dundee, the city in which she was built. She is now a visitor attraction, a living museum of the highest order, whose presence now extends into the virtual reality of the Internet at Discovery Point.


FEW could argue that Scouting could or should continue to afford the constant outlay required to keep Discovery in the condition necessary to maintain the dignity required of a national monument to our polar heroes. The Association still lacks a purpose-built Scouting museum and it is hard to see how it could justify the costs that would be associated with maintaining a historic ship which, no matter how important, is only just one small part of Scout history. To maintain the ship to the standards of the wonderfully interactive resource that Discovery provides today, would be an impossibility. Ledger-watchers would argue that, given the example of the Northampton, a replacement vessel, no matter how famous, never stood a chance! The thousands of Scouts, some of whom I have the privilege to meet and quote above, who had the opportunity to stay or work onboard, would disagree. Their imagination was stirred, fires were kindled, and what sort of price can you put on that?


2007 Falkland Discovery Stamps2007 Falkland Discovery Stamps
Stamps issued by the Falkland Islands in connection with the 2007 Scouting Centennial

THE images on the stamps opposite come from a beautiful photograph album presented after the ceremony to the then Governor of the Falkland Islands, Sir Herbert Henniker-Heaton K.C.M.G., by the Scout Association. Sir Herbert was the key figure at the handing over of Discovery to the Scout Movement in 1937. (See above.)

Scouting Milestones is proud to have been associated with these very fine stamps. The press release associated with the issue, which also forms an enclosure provided with the First Day Cover for the issue (23rd July 2007) entitled 'Our Ship', has been adapted by Milestone's author Colin Walker from these pages. Scouting Milestones has then taken a new twist, not only have we recorded the Scout History of Discovery but have also, in a very minor way, become part of its ongoing story.

Discovery Stamp


My particular thanks to:
Mr Roy Masini, for permission to quote from forthcoming book, The History of Sea Scouting, and the individual Sea Scouts whose stories are quoted above, most of whom responded to a request from Roy Masini on Ed Stewart's Where Are You Now? radio feature;
Mr Peter Ford, Scout Historian and Badge Collector, for the images of the pennant and Souvenir Booklets;
Mrs Pauline Lee, for the scan of the Embankment Christmas Card
Printed Sources
Headquarters Gazette, 'The Story of our Ship', Arthur Groom, Jan. 1937
Scouts in Ships Issue No. 65, 'Scott's Discovery for the Scouts', BSA, 1937
My Record Book, The Discovery and Sea Scouting, Ed. Frank Grey, 1938
1936-37 Year book of the BSA, RRS 'Discovery', Admiral AV Campbell, 1939
Royal Research Ship Discovery, BSA, 1951
HMS Discovery, Freedman Bros Printers, 1959
Baden Powell A family album, Heather Baden-Powell, 1986
Internet Sources
Discovery Point
HMS Sharpshooter Class
Polar Philatelists

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