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Albert Borlase Armitage R.N.R. (1864 - 1943) - Biographical notes

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Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition (1905)
Two Years in the Antarctic: Being a Narrative of the British National Antarctic Expedition (1905) [Paperback]
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    Navigator - Jackson-Harmsworth Arctic expedition 1894

    Lieutenant R.N.R. - second-in-command and navigator
    Discovery 1901-04

Lieutenant Albert B. Armitage of the Royal Naval Reserve (R.N.R.) had already spent many years at sea before joining Scott on the Discovery expedition.

His first ship was the training ship "Worcester" which he joined in 1878 and passed through with credit, he then proceeded to several years of practical seamanship training on sailing ships before being given a position with the P & O company. He was still in this companies employ at the time of the Discovery expedition, though had been given leave to join the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition to Franz-Josef in 1894. This expedition was absent without communication for four years though his employers gratefully recognised his service on his return, he was also presented with the Murchison Award from the Royal Geographical Society.

On his return to the UK, Lt. Armitage resumed his duties as ship's mate with P & O until January 1901 at the age of 37 when his services were lent once again for the Discovery expedition as navigator and second in command.

Armitage was appointed mate and navigator by Scott on the Discovery expedition though was soon made second-in-command of the expedition by Scott after himself.

His responsibility on the expedition was survey amongst the Victoria Land mountains to the west of McMurdo Sound. He led sledging parties exploring the Ferrar Glacier reaching an altitude of about 2750m (9000ft) finding the route that Scott used later on to reach the Polar Plateau on his journey to the pole.

"Armitage was an excellent practical navigator, and of the value of his Polar experience I shall speak late on"
- Scott "The Voyage of the Discovery"

 

The following is courtesy of Andrew Payne, March 2008

Albert Borlase Armitage was born at Balquhidder, Perthshire, Scotland on 2 July 1864, his parents were holidaying there at the time. Albert's parents were Bradford born Samuel Harris Tatham Armitage M.D. and Alice (formerly Lees) Armitage from Ashton under Lyne, who had married at St Michael's church, Ashton under Lyne on 18 June 1857 (info from International Genealogy index). In 1860 Armitage snr. had been appointed Honorary Surgeon to the 31st Lancashire Rifle Volunteers.

Albert Armitage had six brothers, three of whom went to sea. He was the only one of seven boys who would eventually marry.

SHT Armitage might have been a mason; I have a copy of Two Years in the Antarctic (by Albert Armitage) inscribed by SHT Armitage to Sir Edward Letchworth who was the Grand Master of the English/British freemason in 1905.

His fairly brief childhood was largely spent in Scarborough where his father had a practice at the time. It seems likely he had, by today's standards, a rather harsh childhood. At the age of six he is a boarder at the Clifton Villa school in Scarborough. At the time of the 1871 Census all his brothers bar one (Cecil, aged one year) were away from home, presumably at boarding school, despite the family having a housemaid, a cook and two nurses. In his biography, Cadet to Commodore, Cassell & Co, 1925, he takes some pride in his prowess with his fists and relates how he fell out with one of his brothers and later with his father. By his own account he was a quick tempered man. Once, by his own account, during a boxing bout on a P & O vessel he went "berserk" and felled a man with a massive blow to his heart.

Armitage joined the naval training ship HMS Worcester at Greenhithe at the age of 14 years and graduated from the same two years later. "Birdie" Bowers trained in the same vessel some twenty years later. By this time of his graduation Armitage's parents had moved to London. His father conducted a distinguished practice from premises on the corner of North Audley Street and Grosvenor Square into the early 1900s.

Armitage's first voyage was aboard the Plassey, a cargo sailing ship, which took 158 days to reach Calcutta without sighting land on the way. He describes the Calcutta docks and the unforgettable sight of 300 sailing ships berthed four abreast in serried ranks. On the return leg of his second voyage the Plassey ran ashore in a storm near Sandgate, there she eventually broke up, still with some of the crew aboard, who died.

After further experience of sail he joined the P & O company with whom he remained in employment, apart from his two periods of Polar exploration, until his retirement in 1924.

Although Cadet to Commodore was expressly written to encourage boys to go to sea, Armitage's view of his own life seems to be one of disappointment and frustrated ambition. He complained bitterly of the time it took for him to have his own command: "twenty eight years since I was entered on the books as a cadet, twenty one of which had been, with the exception of such time as my poor person had been loaned to Polar people, in the service of the P & O. A long time to wait, to work and strive for (sic). Many grow weary of waiting; many grow stale and grooved by so many years of little varied routine; many sicken and die from the result of striving apparently so fruitlessly, "

Yet, even aside from his Polar adventures he had a most interesting life. His first employment with the P & O was aboard the Bokhara, a 4000 ton vessel which carried livestock and passengers to the Far East with a cow for fresh milk, an ice-room for fresh meat and vegetables, no refrigeration, no electric light, just oil lamps and candles, most of which including those of the passengers had to be extinguished every night at 10.30 pm.

After eight years service with the P & O he was nominated by the company for the proposed North Polar Expedition. His initial appointment was that of Observer for which he was given some training at Kew Observatory but by the time the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition set sail for Franz Josef land he was made second in command of the expedition. For three years the expedition was cut off from the world on Franz Josef Land, extensively exploring and surveying the region. He claims he was the first person to sight Nansen coming in off the Arctic ocean after his epic journey from the Fram but it was Jackson who first met Nansen and Johanssen. Armitage remained a most ardent admirer of Nansen for the rest of his days. According to Armitage the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition "fell rather flat" achieving very little other than the slaughter of a great number of bears and other wild life. "It was one of the worst [experiences] and one of the best that can be imagined, and affected all my subsequent life." The main effect of both this expedition and his time with the Discovery Expedition seems to have been his loss of promotion with P & O, and this rankled. He certainly lost four years employment with P & O by virtue of this first expedition. However, this did not deter him from volunteering for Scott's Discovery Expedition.

Sir Clements Markham and Scott both wanted the expedition to be manned entirely by members of the Royal Navy but Sir Alfred Harmsworth, who donated the very large sum of 5000 toward the expedition, made the condition that Armitage and Koettlitz (also of the Jackson-Harmworth Expedition) be included as members of the expedition. Armitage got on very well with Scott during the preparations for the voyage and his RNR rank of lieutenant ensured that he was made second in command of the Discovery expedition. However, he later fell out with Scott and claimed that he and Markham failed to honour a number of promises they had made. He claimed he was to be given an independent sledging command in Antarctica, with no restrictions on his sledging, and he claimed that his pay by the expedition was to commence on the date he left his P & O ship and continue until he rejoined another P & O ship. In the event Armitage led one major sledging expedition onto the Polar Ice Cap over the Western mountains, the first man ever to do so, thus proving its very existence. This achievement was later eclipsed by Scott, who with Lashly and "Taff" Evans, sledged a much greater distance beyond Armitage's furthest west. Scott refused to allow Armitage a second attempt toward the Pole (the season following Scott, Wilson and Shackleton's furthest south), and on his return to Britain Armitage was paid off by the expedition and it took him nearly nine months to find an appointment with P & O. The Admiralty wouldn't even sanction his promotion within the RNR from lieutenant to commander, claiming that he was not yet qualified for that rank.

Armitage financed this uncertain period by giving lectures around the country on the subject of the Discovery Expedition. He claimed that, during his absence in Antarctica, six Chief Officers of the P & O had been promoted over his head, and that he had lost 18 months seniority. In Cadet to Commodore he wrote, "I did rankle under a sense of injustice." During this period he also wrote Two Years in the Antarctic, Edward Arnold, 1905. A row followed with Scott's publishers because Scott's Discovery Expedition didn't come out until after Armitage's book. However, according to Armitage, he was at sea when this happened and he and Scott later met up for lunch "and all was sunshine." They never met again.

Eventually he was given his own command, the Royal Mail Steamer Isis, carrying mails between Brindisi and Port Said. And this was essentially the story of his life until retirement, carrying passengers and mails on "little ferry boats" across the Mediterranean and later, in command of the Salsette between Bombay and Aden, living for many years away from England. Toward the end of the First World War the Salsette was torpedoed with a loss of life of 14 crew and Armitage was given command of the Karmala which was used to transporting cargo and troops across the Atlantic and, later, for repatriating Australian soldiers.

His last command was the 11,000 ton mail steamer the Mantua on the Bombay to China run. After over 40 years at sea he was appointed Commodore and, by the company rules, required to retire at the age of 60 years, just one year later. A disappointed man.

Armitage's diaries of his time in the Antarctic were sold at auction for 36,000 in 2004 to a private buyer.

References: International Genealogy Index (IGI)

UK Censuses 1871 to 1901

Medical Directories 1860 to 1905

Armitage, Albert B. Two Years in the Antarctic, Edward Arnold, 1905

Armitage, Albert B. Cadet to Commodore, Cassell & Co. 1925

 

Landmarks named after Albert B. Armitage

Feature Name: Armitage Saddle
Type: gap
Latitude: 78°09S
Longitude: 163°15E
Description: The saddle at the head of Blue Glacier, overlooking the Howchin and Walcott Glaciers which drain toward Walcott Bay in the Koettlitz Glacier. The saddle is at the S end of the "Snow Valley" (upper part of Blue Glacier) mapped by Armitage in 1902, and subsequently wrongly omitted from maps of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1910-13. The New Zealand Blue Glacier Party of the CTAE, 1956-58, established a survey station on the saddle in September 1957. They named it for Lt. A.B. Armitage, in recognition of his exploration in this area.

Feature Name: Cape Armitage
Type: cape
Latitude: 77°51S
Longitude: 166°40E
Description: Cape forming the S end of Hut Point Peninsula and the southernmost point on Ross Island.

Biographical information - This is a difficult area to research, I am concentrating on the Polar experiences of the men involved. Any further information or pictures visitors may have is 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?


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