Charles Seymour Wright - Physicist
(1887 - 1975) - Biographical notes

Physicist Terra Nova 1910-13

Charles Wright

Charles Wright - Silas
7th April 1887 - 1st November 1975

Born in and educated in Toronto, Canada Wright won a scholarship for postgraduate studies at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, England carrying out research on cosmic rays at the Cavendish laboratory. While at Cambridge he met Douglas Mawson just returned from Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition.

He applied to Scott for the Terra Nova expedition and was was initially rejected so walked the 65 miles from Cambridge to London to see Scott in person at which point he was accepted. Sometimes known as "Silas" from his middle name.

In Antarctica, Wright carried out numerous experiments and observations on the physics of ice and snow, gravity, the aurora and magnetism, he also assisted in meteorology.

 He was part of a four man team who mapped the western mountains of Victoria Land and made geological observations during an 11 week summer and autumn journey from January to April 1911.

On the 1st of November 1911 he set off with the Southern Party to the South Pole initially leading a pony called Chinaman, like all of those present, he hoped to be one of those chosen to go with Scott to the pole but was part of the first support party sent back on the 22nd of December 1911 with around 300 miles to go.

In November 912, nearly a year later he was part of the search party that went to look for traces of the Polar Party, it was Wright himself who noticed "a small object projecting above the surface", which turned out to be the tip of a tent, the last camp of the Scott, Bowers and Wilson, just 11 miles from supplies at One Ton Depot. "It was a great shock", when dug out, the the tent was found to contain the bodies of the three men who had died on the return journey from the pole.

On his return to England, he married the sister of fellow Terra Nova expedition member Raymond Priestley. He served with distinction in WW1 being awarded the Military Cross and the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 1919 he joined the Admiralty Research Department, rising to become Director of Scientific research from 1934-36.

In the Second World War he was involved in the development of radar and the detection of mines and torpedoes, he was knighted for this work in 1946. He was made the first chief of the Royal Naval Scientific Service on its formation in 1946, in 1951 he became Director of the Marine Physical Laboratory of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the USA, returning to Canada again on the Defence Research Board of Canada's Pacific Naval Laboratory in 1955.

He visited Antarctica again in 1960-61 during the 50th anniversary of Scott's expedition working at Byrd Station and elsewhere. While in Antarctica he refused to talk about Scott's expedition, even when refreshed with a few drinks. At the end of the season, as a large crowd gathered to say goodbye, he was about to get on the plane and someone asked how he liked Antarctica after so many years. "Personally, I hate the f - king place!" He then turned and disappeared into the plane, he returned once more however in 1965. He retired in 1969 at the age of 82.

Charles Seymour Wright by Ponting, 1912
Charles Seymour Wright by Ponting, 1912

References to Charles Wright by Cherry-Garrard in "The Worst Journey in the World"

  • Simpson was obviously a first-class scientist, devoted to his work, in which Wright gave him very great and unselfish help, while at the same time doing much of the ship's work.

  • Wright on Ice Problems, Radium, and the Origin of Matter had highly technical subjects which left many of us somewhat befogged.

  • Incidentally big icicles formed upon the ponies' noses during the march and Chinaman used Wright's windproof blouse as a handkerchief.

  • The man-hauling party consisted of Lieut. Evans and Lashly who had lost their motors, and Atkinson and Wright who had lost their ponies. They were really quite hungry by now, and most of us pretty well looked forward to our meals and kept a biscuit to eat in our bags if we could. The pony meat therefore came as a relief.

  • Archer had been landed to take Clissold's place as cook; another seaman, Williamson, was landed to take Forde's place, and of our sledging companions he was the only fresh man. Wright was probably the most fit after him, and otherwise we had no one who, under ordinary circumstances, would have been considered fit to go out sledging again this season, especially at a time when the sun was just leaving us for the winter. We were sledged out.

  • Wright now told Atkinson how much he had been opposed to this journey all along: "he had come on this trip fully believing that there was every possibility of the party being lost, but had never demurred and never offered a contrary opinion, and one cannot be thankful enough to such men."They made up the Butter Point Depot, marked it as well as they could in case Campbell should arrive there, and left two weeks' provisions for him. They could do no more.

  • Atkinson and his party got in about 7 p.m. after a long pull all day in very bad weather. They are just in the state of a party which has been out on a very cold spring journey: clothes and sleeping-bags very wet, sweaters, pyjama coats and so forth full of snow. Atkinson looks quite done up, his cheeks are fallen in and his throat shows thin. Wright is also a good deal done up, and the whole party has evidently had little sleep. They have had a difficult and dangerous trip, and it is a good thing they are in, and they are fortunate to have had no mishaps, for the sea-ice is constantly going out over there, and when they were on it they never knew that they might not find themselves cut off from the shore.

  • Nelson was to continue his marine biological work: Wright was to be meteorologist as well as chemist and physicist: Gran was in charge of stores, and would help Wright in the meteorological observations: ...

  • Gran lost himself for some time on the hill when taking the 8 a.m. observations, and Wright had difficulty in getting back from the magnetic cave. Men had narrow escapes of losing themselves, though they were but a few feet from the hut.

  • Wright wanted a lamp to heat a shed which he was building out of cases and tarpaulins for certain of his work. He brought a lamp (not a primus) into the hut, and tried to make it work. He spent some time in the morning on this, and after lunch Nelson joined him. The lamp was fitted with an indicator to show the pressure obtained by pumping. Nelson was pumping, kneeling at the end of the table next the bulkhead which divided the officers' and men's quarters: his head was level with the lamp, and the indicator was not showing a high pressure. Wright was standing close by. Suddenly the lamp burst, a rent three inches long appearing in the join where the bottom of the oil reservoir is fitted to the rest of the bowl. Twenty places were alight immediately, clothing, bedding, papers and patches of burning oil were all over the table and floor. Luckily everybody was in the hut, for it was blowing a blizzard and minus twenty outside. They were very quick, and every outbreak was stopped.

  • Wright's sleeping-bag is bad, letting in light through cracks in a good many places. But he makes very little of it and does not seem to be cold - saying it is good ventilation.

  • That scene can never leave my memory. We with the dogs had seen Wright turn away from the course by himself and the mule party swerve right-handed ahead of us. He had seen what he thought was a cairn, and then something looking black by its side. A vague kind of wonder gradually gave way to a real alarm. We came up to them all halted. Wright came across to us. 'It is the tent.' I do not know how he knew. Just a waste of snow: to our right the remains of one of last year's cairns, a mere mound: and then three feet of bamboo sticking quite alone out of the snow: and then another mound, of snow, perhaps a trifle more pointed. We walked up to it. I do not think we quite realized - not for very long - but some one reached up to a projection of snow, and brushed it away. The green flap of the ventilator of the tent appeared, and we knew that the door was below.

  • Once more we have come along in thick, snowy weather. If we had not men on ski to steer we could never keep much of a course, but Wright is steering us very straight, keeping a check on the course by watching the man behind, and so far we have been picking up all the cairns.

  • Our mules were of the best, and they were beautifully trained and equipped by the Indian Government: yet on November 13, a fortnight from the start, Wright records, "mules are a poor substitute for ponies. Not many will see Hut Point again, I think. Doubt if any would have got much farther than this if surfaces had been as bad this year as last."

References to Charles Wright by Scott in "Scott's Last Expedition"

  • Discussed with Wright the fact that the hummocks on sea ice always yield fresh water. We agreed that the brine must simply run down out of the ice. It will be interesting to bring up a piece of sea ice and watch this process.

  • We find quite a lot of sketching talent. Day, Taylor, Debenham, and Wright all contribute to the elaborate record of the bergs and ice features met with.

  • Wilson, Cherry-Garrard, Wright, Griffith Taylor, Debenham, Crean, and Browning have been driving ponies, a task at which I have assisted myself once or twice.

  • Simpson and Wright are worthy of all admiration: they have been unceasingly active in getting things to the fore and I think will be ready for routine work much earlier than was anticipated.

  • Yesterday the last Corner Party started: Evans, Wright, Crean, and Forde in one team; Bowers, Oates, Cherry-Garrard, and Atkinson in the other. It was very sporting of Wright to join in after only a day's rest. He is evidently a splendid puller.

  • Wright, good-hearted, strong, keen, striving to saturate his mind with the ice problems of this wonderful region. He has taken the electrical work in hand with all its modern interest of association with radio-activity.

  • In the evening Wright lectured on 'Ice Problems.' He had a difficult subject and was nervous. He is young and has never done original work; is only beginning to see the importance of his task.

  • Wright has been swinging the pendulum in his cavern. Prodigious trouble has been taken to keep the time, and this object has been immensely helped by the telephone communication between the cavern, the transit instrument, and the interior of the hut. The timekeeper is perfectly placed. Wright tells me that his ice platform proves to be five times as solid as the fixed piece of masonry used at Potsdam. The only difficulty is the low temperature, which freezes his breath on the glass window of the protecting dome. I feel sure these gravity results are going to be very good.

  • One of the greatest successes is Wright. He is very thorough and absolutely ready for anything. Like Bowers he has taken to sledging like a duck to water, and although he hasn't had such severe testing, I believe he would stand it pretty nearly as well. Nothing ever seems to worry him, and I can't imagine he ever complained of anything in his life.

  • It appears that Atkinson says that Wright is getting played out and Lashly is not so fit as he was owing to the heavy pulling since the blizzard. I have not felt satisfied about this party. The finish of the march to-day showed clearly that something was wrong. They fell a long way behind, had to take off ski, and took nearly half an hour to come up a few hundred yards. True, the surface was awful and growing worse every moment. It is a very serious business if the men are going to crack up. As for myself, I never felt fitter and my party can easily hold its own. P.O. Evans, of course, is a tower of strength, but Oates and Wilson are doing splendidly also.

  • I have just told off the people to return to-morrow night: Atkinson, Wright, Cherry-Garrard, and Keohane. All are disappointed - poor Wright rather bitterly, I fear.

Landmarks named after Charles Seymour Wright

Feature Name: Wright Valley, Wright Upper Glacier, Wright Lower Glacier
Type: valley
Latitude: 77°31,46'S
Longitude: 161°52'E
Description: Large E-W trending valley, formerly occupied by a glacier but now ice free except for Wright Upper Glacier at its head and Wright Lower Glacier at its mouth, in Victoria Land. Named by the Victoria University's Antarctic Expeditions (VUWAE) (1958-59).

Feature Name: Mount Wright
Type: summit
Latitude: 71°33,00'S
Longitude: 169°10,00'E
Description: A peak over 1,800 m in the N part of the Admiralty Mountains, Victoria Land. It rises between Shipley Glacier and Crume Glacier, 8 mi SW of Birthday Point. The feature was named by the British Antarctic Expedition (BrAE), 1910-13.

Feature Name: Wright Bay
Type: bay
Latitude: 66°34,00'S
Longitude: 093°37,00'E
Description: A small bay formed between the W side of Helen Glacier Tongue and the mainland. Discovered by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) (1911-14) under Douglas Mawson.

Other Crew of the Terra Nova Expedition

Abbot, George Percy - Petty Officer, R.N.  - 1, 2, N
Atkinson, Edward L. - R.N. - surgeon, parasitologist - 1, 2, D, P, S
Balson, Albert  - Leading seaman, R.N.- 1, 2
Bowers, Henry Robertson - Lieutenant - 1, 2, D, C, Po
Browning, Frank Vernon - Petty Officer  - 1, 2, N
Campbell, Victor - Lieutenant, R.N.  - 1, 2, N
Cheetham, Alfred B. - Boatswain (Bosun), R.N.R.
Cherry-Garrard, Apsley - Assistant zoologist - 1, 2, D, C, S
Crean, Tom - petty officer, R.N. - 1, 2, D, P, S
, Frank - Geologist - 1, 2, iW, iiW
Dickason, Harry - Able Seaman  - 1, 2, N
Evans, Edgar - petty officer, R.N. - 1, iW, Po
, Edward R.G.R. - Lieutenant, R.N. "Teddy Evans" - second in command, and Captain of the Terra Nova - 1, D, P
Girev (Geroff), Dmitriy - Dog driver - 1, 2, D, P, S

Gran, Tryggve - ski expert - 1, 2, D, iiW, S
Lashly, William - chief stoker, R.N. - 1, 2, P, S
Levick, G. Murray - Surgeon, R.N.  - 1, 2, N
Lillie, Dennis Gascoigne - Biologist on the ship
McLeod, Thomas F. - Able seaman - 1, 2
, Cecil H. - in charge of dogs - 1, D, P
, Lawrence - Capt. 6th Iniskilling Dragoons - 1, D, Po
, Herbert G. - Camera artist - 1
Priestley, Raymond E. - Geologist  - 1, 2, N
, Anton - Groom - 1
Scott, Robert Falcon - Commander, R.N. - Expedition leader - 1, D, Po
Simpson, George - Meteorologist - 1
Taylor, T. Griffith - Geologist - 1, iW, iiW
Wilson, Edward Adrian - chief of scientific staff and biologist - 1, D, C, Po
Wright, Charles Seymour - Physicist - 1, 2, iW, P, S

1 - first winter
2 - second winter
iW - first western party
iiW - second western party
N - northern party

D - depot laying for south pole journey
P - south pole party
C - winter journey to Cape Crozier
S - search party for south Pole party
- reached South Pole

Biographical information - I am concentrating on the Polar experiences of the men involved. Any further information or pictures visitors may have will be gratefully received. Please email  - Paul Ward, webmaster.

What are the chances that my ancestor was an unsung part of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration?