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Lawrence Oates

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Lawrence Oates

Lawrence Oates
Born (1880-03-17)17 March 1880
Putney, London, United Kingdom
Died 16 March 1912(1912-03-16) (aged 31)
Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica
Nationality British
Other names Titus Oates
Occupation Cavalry officer, explorer

Captain Lawrence Edward Grace "Titus" Oates (17 March 1880 – 16 March 1912)[1] was an English cavalry officer with the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, and later an Antarctic explorer, who died during the Terra Nova Expedition. Oates, afflicted with gangrene and frostbite, walked from his tent into a blizzard. His death is seen as an act of self-sacrifice when, aware that his ill health was compromising his three companions' chances of survival, he chose certain death.[2]

Early life

Oates was born in Putney, London, England in 1880, the son of William and Caroline Oates. His family was wealthy and ancient, having had land at Gestingthorpe, Essex, for centuries. His father moved there when his children were small.[3] He had one sister, a year older than himself, named Lillian,[4] who married the Irish baritone and actor Frederick Ranalow.[5] His uncle was the naturalist and African explorer Frank Oates. Oates lived in Putney from 1885–91, from the ages of 5 to 11 at 263 Upper Richmond Road. He was one of the first pupils to attend the Willington Prep School around the corner in Colinette Road. He was further educated at Eton College which he left after less than two years owing to ill health.[3] He then attended an army "crammer" school, South Lynn School, Eastbourne.[6]

Military career

In 1898, Oates was commissioned into the 3rd (Militia) Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He saw military service during the Second Boer War as a junior officer in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons under the command of Major Brooke Southwell Greville, having been transferred to that regiment in 1900. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1902, then to Captain in 1906. In March 1901, during the Boer War, he suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh which shattered his leg and left it an inch shorter than his right leg when it eventually healed. In that skirmish he was twice called upon to surrender, and replied "We came to fight, not to surrender."[3] He was recommended for the Victoria Cross for his actions and was brought to public attention.[7] He later served in Ireland, Egypt, and India. He was often referred to by the nickname "Titus Oates", after the historical figure.[8]

Terra Nova Expedition

Lawrence Oates tending horses during the Terra Nova Expedition

In 1910, he applied to join Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole, and was accepted mainly on the strength of his experience with horses and, to a lesser extent, his ability to make a financial contribution of £1,000 (2008 approximation £50,000) towards the expedition. His role was to look after the ponies that Scott intended to use for sledge hauling during the initial food depot-laying stage and the first half of the trip to the South Pole. Scott eventually selected him as one of the five-man party who would travel the final distance to the Pole.

Oates disagreed with Scott many times on issues of management of the expedition. 'Their natures jarred on one another,' a fellow expedition member recalled. When he first saw the ponies that Scott had brought on the expedition, Oates was horrified at the £5 animals which he said were too old for the job and 'a wretched load of crocks.'[9] He later said: 'Scott's ignorance about marching with animals is colossal.' He also wrote in his diary "Myself, I dislike Scott intensely and would chuck the whole thing if it were not that we are a British expedition....He [Scott] is not straight, it is himself first, the rest nowhere...". However, he also wrote that his harsh words were often a product of the hard conditions. Scott, less harshly, called Oates "the cheery old pessimist" and wrote "The Soldier takes a gloomy view of everything, but I've come to see that this is a characteristic of him".

South polar journey

Captain Scott, Captain Oates and 14 other members of the expedition set off from their Cape Evans base camp for the South Pole on 1 November 1911. At various pre-determined latitude points during the 895-mile (1,440 km) journey, the support members of the expedition were sent back by Scott in teams until on 4 January 1912, at latitude 87° 32' S, only the five-man polar party of Scott, Edward A. Wilson, Henry R. Bowers, Edgar Evans and Oates remained to walk the last 167 miles (269 km) to the Pole. On 18 January 1912, 79 days after starting their journey, they finally reached the Pole only to discover a tent that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his four-man team had left behind at their Polheim camp after beating them in the race to be first to the Pole. Inside the tent was a note from Amundsen informing them that his party had reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott's party by 35 days.

The return journey

Map of a segment of Antarctica, identifying the polar marches of Scott and Amundsen. The track of Scott's journey shows the approximate locations of the deaths of the members of his polar party.
The routes to the South Pole taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red), 1911–1912.

Map of a segment of Antarctica, identifying the polar marches of Scott and Amundsen. The track of Scott's journey shows the approximate locations of the deaths of the members of his polar party.

Scott's party faced extremely difficult conditions on the return journey, mainly due to the exceptionally adverse weather, poor food supply, injuries sustained from falls, and the effects of scurvy and frostbite all slowing their progress. On 17 February 1912, near the foot of the Beardmore glacier, Edgar Evans died, suspected by his companions to be the result of a blow to his head suffered during a fall into a crevasse a few days earlier.[10] Oates' feet had become severely frostbitten and it has been suggested (but never evidenced) that his war wound had re-opened due to the effects of scurvy. He was certainly weakening faster than the others. In his diary entry of 5 March, Scott wrote "Oates' feet are in a wretched condition... The poor soldier is very nearly done." Oates' slower progress, coupled with the unwillingness of his three remaining companions to leave him, was causing the party to fall behind schedule. With an average of 65 miles (105 km) between the pre-laid food depots and only a week's worth of food and fuel provided by each depot, they needed to maintain a march of over 9 miles (14 km) a day to have full rations for the final 400 miles (640 km) of their return journey across the Ross Ice Shelf. However, 9 miles (14 km) was about their best progress any day and this had lately reduced to sometimes only 3 miles (4.8 km) a day due to Oates' worsening condition. On 15 March, Oates told his companions that he could not go on and proposed that they leave him in his sleeping-bag, which they refused to do. He managed a few more miles that day but his condition worsened that night.[11]

We knew that Oates was walking to his death... it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.

Robert Falcon Scott[2]

Waking on the morning of 16 March, Oates walked out of the tent into a blizzard and −40 °F (−40 °C) temperatures to his death. Scott wrote in his diary, "We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman."[2] Oates' sacrifice however made no difference to the eventual outcome. Scott, Wilson and Bowers continued onwards for a further 20 miles (32 km) towards the 'One Ton' food depot that could save them but were halted at latitude 79°40'S by a fierce blizzard on 20 March. Trapped in their tent by the weather and too weak, cold and malnourished to continue, they eventually died nine days later, only eleven miles short of their objective. Their frozen bodies were discovered by a search party on 12 November 1912. Oates' body was never found. Near where he was presumed to have died, the search party erected a cairn and cross bearing the inscription; "Hereabouts died a very gallant gentleman, Captain L. E. G. Oates, of the Inniskilling Dragoons. In March 1912, returning from the Pole, he walked willingly to his death in a blizzard, to try and save his comrades, beset by hardships."[12]

Last words

According to Scott's diary, before Oates exited the tent and walked to his death, he uttered the words "I am just going outside and may be some time."[13] However, Edward Adrian Wilson, who was also present in the same tent, made no reference to these words in his own diary. There was also no reference to the words made in the letters to Oates' mother that Wilson was entrusted to write, by Oates himself, upon knowing he wasn't going to survive.[14]


Monument to Oates, close to Holy Trinity Church, Meanwood, Leeds

Oates' reindeer-skin sleeping bag was recovered and is now displayed in the museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge with other items from the expedition.

The Oates Museum at Gilbert White's House, Selborne, Hampshire focuses on the lives of Lawrence Oates and his uncle Frank.

The Royal Dragoon Guards have a regimental day to remember Oates.[7][15] His Queen's South Africa Medal with bars and Polar Medal are held by the regimental museum in York.[16]

In 1913 his brother officers erected a brass memorial plaque to him in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Gestingthorpe, Essex, which his mother faithfully polished weekly for the rest of her life. The church is opposite his family home of Gestingthorpe Hall.

In May 1914 a memorial to Oates was placed in the cloister of the newly built School Library at Eton College, itself part of the Boer War Memorial Buildings. It was executed by Kathleen Scott, the widow of the expedition's leader.[3]

The Lawrence Oates school in Meanwood, Leeds (closed 1992) was named after him.[17] On the 100th anniversary of his death, a blue plaque was unveiled in his honour at Meanwood Park, Leeds.[18]

In the media

A Very Gallant Gentleman, John Charles Dollman
  • In the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, Oates is played by Derek Bond.
  • In the 1985 BBC mini-series dramatisation of Roland Huntford's book, Scott and Amundsen, (1979), entitled The Last Place on Earth,[19] Oates was played by Richard Morant.
  • The tragic Antarctic expedition is portrayed in Douglas Stewart's 1941 radio play The Fire on the Snow (first produced 1941, published 1944).
  • A biography by Michael Smith, I am Just Going Outside: Captain Oates – Antarctic Tragedy, (Spellmount Publishers 2002) claimed that a 20-year-old Oates fathered a daughter as the result of a brief affair with an 11-year-old Scots girl named Ettie McKendrick.[20][21]
  • Brenda Clough's 2001 Hugo—and Nebula—nominated science fiction novella May Be Some Time has "Titus" Oates transported to the year 2045 where he is healed via advanced medicine. This novella formed the basis for her later novel Revise the World, which also centred on Oates.
  • In the episode entitled "White Hole" of the British TV series Red Dwarf, the characters plead with the hologram Rimmer to sacrifice himself by agreeing to be turned off, thus providing the currently-low-on-power ship to sustain them for longer than it could do so if he was still running, comparing the act to that of Oates. Rimmer simply dismisses him as a "prat", suggesting instead that since the only record of Oates' sacrifice was from Scott's journal, it's likely that Scott had eaten Oates to avoid starvation after he had "whacked him over the head with a frozen husky" (which is what Rimmer said he'd do, had he been there), the diary entry simply being made because, in Rimmer's view, it was "better to say 'Oates made the supreme sacrifice' while you're dabbing up his gravy with the last piece of crusty bread".
  • British comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring made frequent references to "Captain Oates" both in their 1990s television series Fist of Fun and BBC Radio 1 shows. An initial sketch parody implied that Oates only announced his departure in the hope that his colleagues would stop him leaving. Subsequent sketches depicted Oates in other social situations where he would announce his actions in the hope that others would understand the subtext. One such example depicted Oates offering the last potato to someone else at the dinner table when he clearly wanted it for himself. Following these sketches Lee and Herring occasionally referred to people displaying similar behaviour as being "Captain Oates-type figures".
  • In Geraldine McCaughrean's 2005 book The White Darkness a teenage girl, Symone Wates has an obsession with Captain Titus Oates; she even creates an imaginary friend of him.
  • In Frank Capra's movie Dirigible, depicting an American expedition to the South Pole in the 1930s, a fictional character played by Roscoe Karns incurs injuries similar to those of the real-life Oates, and chooses to sacrifice himself in a manner clearly inspired by the circumstances of Oates' death.
  • The 1985 poem Antarctica by Derek Mahon details the last moments and sacrifice of Oates. It repeats the quotation "I am just going outside and may be some time" four times throughout the poem.
  • In the episode entitled "Shedding the Load" of the British TV series Are You Being Served?, as the staff are discussing who should leave, Captain Peacock recounts the tale of Scott's Antarctic expedition, and Oates' sacrifice. To which Mr Lucas remarks, "If that happened today, they'd have eaten Captain Scott."
  • Terry Pratchett uses Captain Oates' last words at least three times in his Discworld Series in similar situations.[22][23][24]
  • In Tom Stoppard's 1972 play Jumpers, Stoppard describes two fictional British astronauts named "Oates" and "Captain Scott" whose lunar landing craft is damaged when setting down on the moon, such that the rockets appear to have only enough lift to carry one of the astronauts off the surface. Stoppard has Scott and Oates fight to be the one to get back in the landing craft. Scott wins the fight and closes the hatch to the craft with the words "I am going up now. I may be gone for some time."
  • In Margaret Atwood's 2009 novel The Year of the Flood the character Adam One makes reference to "Saint Laurence 'Titus' Oates of the Scott Expedition" in a speech made to the followers of the God's Gardeners eco-fanatic religious group. One of the characters is also named after Oates.
  • The Doctor (Tom Baker) quotes Oates' last words as he heads into a deadly alien-filled spacecraft in the Doctor Who serial "Planet of Evil".
  • The Doctor (Peter Davison) quotes Oates' last words as he leaves the TARDIS after a fight with Adric in the Doctor Who serial "Earthshock".
  • Spanish heavy metal band WarCry song "Capitán Lawrence" of El Sello De Los Tiempos album tells his sacrifice to save his comrades.
  • In China Miéville's SF novel Embassytown (2011), several human characters 'take the Oates Road' when they walk out in the alien city that surrounds them, where they hope to die. Oates-like brave polar explorers are also mentioned earlier in the novel when humans trade with the aliens.
  • In "living with Ricky," comedian Robin Ince compares Ricky Gervais to Captain Oates, implying that he moans too much.

See also



  1. ^ "Online Reader – Project Gutenberg". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c "British history in depth: The Race to the South Pole". BBC. 3 March 2011. We knew that Oates was walking to his death... it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. 
  3. ^ a b c d Article by Andrew Robinson in Eton College News and Events Lent 2012
  4. ^ "1881 British Census Household Record". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  5. ^ Roll of Honour: Charterhouse School
  6. ^ The Times Correspondence relating to Henry van Esse Scott, founder of South Lynn July 1927
  7. ^ a b "How the last words of Titus Oates still inspire his regiment". BBC News. 9 July 2012. 
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Dhruti Shah (10 March 2012). "Antarctic mission: Who was Captain Lawrence Oates?". BBC news. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  10. ^ "Online Reader – Project Gutenberg". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  11. ^ Shadows of death p. 89. Time-Life Books, 1992
  12. ^ Journals: Captain Scott's last expedition p. 454. Oxford University Press, 2006
  13. ^ Paul Simpson-Housley (1992) Antarctica: exploration, perception, and metaphor p. 36. Routledge, 1992. "I am just going outside and may be some time."
  14. ^ Roland Huntford (1979)Scott and Amundsen: The last place on Earth p. 523 "Wilson was writing a very personal letter and, if Oates had expressed heroic intent, he would have told Mrs Oates so, including presumably his last words"
  15. ^ Asquith, Stuart. Regiment Issue 34. Nexus Special Interests,1999, p. 15.
  16. ^ Polar medal now in regimental museum" ''The Evening Press'' 13 September 1999""". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Plaque to mark South Pole explorer Captain Oates BBC News, 17 March 2012. Retrieved 17 March 2012.
  19. ^
  20. ^ John Ezard (14 October 2002). "'"Antarctic hero Oates 'fathered child with girl of 12. London:  
  21. ^ "Antarctic legend's secret scandal".  
  22. ^ "Annotated Pratchett File—Small Gods". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  23. ^ "Annotated Pratchett File—Reaper Man". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  24. ^ "Annotated Pratchett File—Soul Music". Retrieved 8 October 2011. 


  • Smith, Michael I Am Just Going Outside. ISBN 1-903464-12-9
  • Scott's Last Expedition Vols I and II Smith, Elder & Co 1913 (Vol I is Scott's diary)
  • Preston, Diana: A First Rate Tragedy. ISBN 0-618-00201-4
  • Huntford, Roland: The Last Place on Earth. ISBN 0-689-70701-0
  • Scott, Robert Falcon: Scott's Last Expedition: The Journals. ISBN 0-413-52230-X
  • McCaughrean, Geraldine: The White Darkness. ISBN 0-19-271983-1
  • Limb, Sue & Cordingley, Patrick: Captain Oates: Soldier and Explorer. ISBN 0-7134-2693-4
  • Goldsmith, Jeremy: British Army officers' records; Career Soldiers in the Family Tree Magazine (London) of June 2007, which shows Oates' Record of Service (with a birth date of 16 March 1880).

External links

  • Gilbert White's House and the Oates Museum
  • Ward's Book of DaysThe Life and Death of Lawrence Oates @
  • Lawrence Oates Biography
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