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10 facts about Lawrence Oates

10 facts about Lawrence Oates

St. Patrick’s Day is a very special day for us at Gilbert White & The Oates Collections…

1. It’s his birthday and death day. 

Lawrence Edward Grace Oates was born on the 17th March 1880, to William and Caroline Oates at their home Gestingthorpe Hall in Essex. Lawrence, was his mother’s favourite, who she fondly called ‘baby boy’. Lawrence was a sickly child and was taken by his father to winter in South Africa. On the 16th March 1912, on the eve of his 32nd birthday Lawrence Oates would heroically surrender his life, and would have likely died on the 17th March.

2. His Uncle was an explorer too.

William Oates’ brother was the explorer, Frank Oates, who shares his gallery with his nephew. Although the two never met, they shared the same passion for exploration and adventure, both dying tragically in their early thirties.

3. He walked with a limp. 

From the age of 20 Lawrence Oates served in the Boer war. On the 23rd January 1901, Oates’ patrol was ambushed and they were forced to take cover in a dry river bed. As the battle ensued his men began to run out of ammunition. After getting most of his men to safety he was invited by the enemy to surrender. Oates simply replied ‘We came here to fight not to surrender.’ Finally they were rescued but not before Oates sustained a serious injury to his leg, which left him with a permanent limp. Lord Baden-Powell (founder of the scouts) reported ‘There’s a boy in the Inniskillings who did very well in the late war. A boy named Oates- one of those youngsters that will go far.’

4. Applied to go to Antarctica without telling his mother! 

After the Boer war Oates was posted in India, at a time of relative peace. There was much time for leisure and Oates even brought up his dogs so that he could hunt. However his thoughts were on new adventures, he disliked the tea parties and genteel activities around him so applied to part of Captain Scott’s next expedition to Antarctica. He was accepted on the grounds of his excellent military reputation, experience and a donation of £1,500 he made towards the expedition. However the acceptance caught him off guard and he had to write a rather apologetic letter to his mother back at home. ‘I have now a great confession to make. I have offered my services to the Antarctic Expedition which starts this summer from home under Scott. […] Now I don’t know whether you approve or not but I feel that I ought to have consulted you before I sent in my name. I did not do so as I thought there was very little chance of my being taken.’

5. His job on the expedition was to look after the ponies 

Lawrence Oates was a Midshipman on Scott’s expedition, and was expected to be in charge of the ponies. However he didn’t have the opportunity to select them. As a result Oates was very disappointed in what he saw ‘A load of wretched old crocks’ he called them.

6. He and Scott not always see eye to eye

Scott and Oates disagreed about the ponies, Lawrence was sceptical that they would last long, and was proved right. Three of the ponies were sent back, but two of those died before they made it back to the boat. Oates suggested that they kill the weakest pony then march on till the others could go no further. They could then be used for meat for the journey to the pole. ‘I have had more than enough of this cruelty to animals, and I am not going to defy my feelings for the sake of a few days’ march’ reported Scott, to which Oates replied ‘I am afraid you will regret it sir’, to which Scott retorted ‘Regret it or not, my dear Oates, I’ve made up my mind, like a Christian.’ The team struggled on with the ill equipped horses until disaster struck and ponies had to be killed to save them from being eaten alive by killer whales. With his transport method in tatter’s Scott reportedly said ‘Everything is out of joint with the loss of the ponies’. But the disagreement couldn’t undo the respect they had for each other as Scott chose Oates to form part of his five man team to reach the South Pole.

7. Wasn’t he Titus Oates?

Often people have heard more of Titus Oates, than of Lawrence. Titus was a nickname friends and team mates sometimes called Oates. Possibly referring to the historical Figure of Titus Oates who tried to overthrow Charles II.

8. He was reading about Napoleon!

At the Museum we have a copy of a book on Napoleon that Lawrence took to Antarctica with him.

9. What he thought of the South Pole.

When the world heard that Scott was planning on being the first to reach the South Pole, the Norwegian explorer Amundsen, dropped everything and quickly set up his own expedition to get there first. The Norwegian team, having a clear goal headed straight to the pole and reached it on the 14th December 1911. Scott’s team, unaware they were in a race didn’t get there till January 18th 1912. On reaching the Pole, Scott wrote ‘Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured here without the reward of priority’. Oates simply marvelled at Amundsen’s achievement ‘I say that man must have had his head screwed on right… they seem to have had a comfortable trip with their dog teams, very different from our wretched man-hauling.’

10. He died in the hope that his team mates would make it home. 

The return trip was no easier than the journey to the Pole, dejected and suffering the men started their return journey, blighted with mishaps, exhaustion and ill health. Edgar Evans very seriously ill from injuries he had sustained on the journey died a month before Oates. Oates was suffering acutely from frostbite, his feet were blackened and by the 16th March 1912, Scott reported that his hands and feet were ‘pretty well useless’. Oates’ condition was jeopardising the lives of the three other team mates who’s progress to safety was now very slow. They had been expecting dog sleds to meet them by now, which hadn’t come, and Oates’ knew in order for his team mates to live, he needed to die. Scott wrote in his diary on the 17th March 1912 ‘He was a brave soul. This was his end. He slept through the night before last hoping not to wake, but he woke in the morning-yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said ‘I’m just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.’