It started with a Penguin…!

By Imogen Russell, Searchroom Supervisor

Penguins and Glass

Front page of a faculty applying for a stained glass window at Aldingbourne church
EP I/98 Aldingbourne Faculty, 12th May 1954

A little curiosity we have in Aldingbourne Church is a stained glass window located in the Lady Chapel. This is not your typical stained glass window depicting saints, sinners and heroes, but something far more intriguing: a submarine and – even more unusual – a penguin!

The faculty we hold for this window says it was designed by Christopher Webb of Orchard House, St. Albans, in 1956/57 and is dedicated to Engineer Vice Admiral Sir Reginald William Skelton, who died on 5th September 1956. The window was gifted to the church by his three children as a memorial to a remarkable man; whilst elsewhere in the church, we have a memorial to his wife, Sybil Isobel Skelton, who died on 5th May 1953.

Front page of a faculty applying for a stained glass window at Aldingbourne church
EP I/98 – Aldingbourne Faculty 24th Aug 1957

The submarine in this window serves as a reminder that Skelton served in the Submarine Service, firstly between 1906-1912 and then in the First World War between 1916-1918.

However, the apparent randomness of the penguin in Aldingbourne’s window is intriguing. When we investigate Reginald’s life, we find not just a naval man and engineer, but also a key member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic. This expedition is not to be confused with the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition in 1910-13, which Skelton had hoped to join but was – in hindsight – fortunately overlooked in favour of Edward Evans.

The Discovery

Short article reading: Mr Reginald Skelton, who is to act as chief engineer on board the Discovery, has been in Dundee for some months representing Captain Scott in the superintendence of the construction of the vessel. He is a native of Long Sutton, Lancashire, and entered the service in 1887 as a naval engineers' student. He went to sea in 1892 and served in the flagship for the China Station on the East India Station, and the Mediterranean. He also served in the Channel Squadron.
Dundee Courier Wednesday 20th Mar 1901

From this report in the Dundee Courier, we know that Reginald was the chief engineer/superintendent overseeing the construction of the ship Discovery. However, once in Antarctica, he not only took on scientific duties but was also put in charge of the sledging work. He became the official photographer, producing some of the best pictures of the continent obtained up to that date, including the first photographs taken of the Penguin Breeding Colony at Cape Crozier. Nearly all of Skelton’s photographs are available to view online via the Scott Polar Research Institute’s website at https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/picturelibrary/catalogue/bnae1901-04/browse/.

The Discovery set sail from the Isle of Wight on 6th August 1901 with the intention of determining the nature, condition, and extent of the polar lands including carrying out magnetic, meteorological, oceanographic, geological, biological, and physical investigations. Some success was made in achieving these aims including discovering King Edward VII Island, dry valleys free of snow, and an Emperor Penguin colony at Cape Crozier. In addition, Scott and his team made a few failed attempts to reach both the geological and magnetic South Poles, going further than their predecessors James Clark Ross and Carsten Borchgrevink.

Two sepia photgrpahs side by side. They are of penguin colonies on an icy beach. White mountains are visible in the background.
PH 14199 – Photographs tracing the steps of Scott and Shackleton c.1959

New marine species were identified, and a fossil was found that helped to discover Antarctica’s relationship to an ancient super continent. Yet life in the Antarctic was hardly a bed of roses. In fact, several of those on the expedition fell ill with scurvy, and two of the ship’s crew members died from accidental falls: Able Seamen Charles Bonner and George Vince.

Reginald Skelton

A black and white photo of a cottage with a well maintained garden and plants on the walls and surrounding the building
PH 2278 – Meadow Cottage, Aldingbourne

Reginald Skelton was born at Long Sutton, Lincolnshire on 3rd June 1872, starting his career in the Navy in 1887 where he began studying at the Royal Naval Engineering College at Keyham in Devonport. Between 1894-1900 he served aboard HMS Centurion in China, HMS Anson in the Mediterranean, and HMS Majestic in the Channel. Presumably, this is where he first met Robert Falcon Scott. Both served aboard the Majestic – Scott as a Torpedo Lieutenant and Skelton as a Senior Engineer.

Black and white photo of a cottage covered in plants and flowers.
PH 2277 – Meadow Cottage, Aldingbourne

After the Discovery Expedition, Skelton returned to the Navy, being promoted to Engineer Rear-Admiral in 1923, Engineer Vice Admiral in 1928 and Engineer-in-Chief of the Fleet, serving between 1928-1932.

In 1916, Skelton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his service at the Battle of Jutland. In 1919, he was appointed Companion to the Order of the Bath (CB) for his service in Russia and he was eventually knighted in 1931. Retiring from the Navy in 1932, he joined the ship building and engineering firm J I Thorneycroft & Co Ltd as one of its company directors.

Black and white photo of the front of a cottage. Vines climb up the walls, and the front lawn is neatly maintained.
PH 2779 – Meadow Cottage, Aldingbourne

In January 1905 at Plymouth, Skelton married Sybil Isabel Devenish-Mears, a native of Christchurch, New Zealand and daughter of businessman William and his wife Louisa Devenish-Mears. Skelton had met Sybil when the Discovery was docked in New Zealand before and after the Expedition.

From the 1911 census, we find the Skeltons living in Gosport, Hampshire, with two of their children. They would later move to Surrey, where one of their children was born and another was married.

West Sussex Gazette July rainfall – Skelton submitted Aldingbourne’s reading

By 1939, Reginald and his wife Sybil had moved to Sussex and were living at Meadow Cottage, Hook Lane, Aldingbourne. According to a sale particular in the 19th October 1956 edition of the Bognor Regis Observer, the cottage was a remarkably spacious house with a hall, two pleasant reception rooms, five bedrooms, two bathrooms, modern kitchen, a single and a double garage, a greenhouse, outbuildings, and a ‘delightful’ garden with bowling green.

Towards the end of his life, we see that he was fined 10 shillings by Chichester Magistrates for disobeying a ‘No Waiting’ sign at Eastgate Square. He became a regular correspondent in the West Sussex Gazette, reporting on the rainfall in Aldingbourne every month. In addition, his obituary remarks that he was a Member of the Aldingbourne Parish Council and Parochial Church Council.

Papers at the Record Office

A blue papered letter. Short, only 9 lines long.
MP 6720 – Letter from Skelton

Sadly, we do not have access to his personal papers, including the journals written during his time on Discovery. These were instead deposited with the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge (https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/). However, a transcript of his journals was published in December 2004.

One item we do have in the archive is MP 6720 – a copy of a letter written by Reginald to ‘Dick’ in 1951 whereby Reginald is congratulating him on his forthcoming marriage. The only mention of the Antarctic is a note written in someone else’s hand.

Equally disappointing is the lack of records we hold for the Discovery Expedition itself, but a brief search of our online catalogue suggest we hold records associated with the later Terra Nova and Nimrod Expeditions captained by Shackleton and Scott in 1907 and 1910.

In 1959, former RAF officer, author and explorer Richard Pape retraced the steps of Scott and Shackleton’s 1907 and 1910 expeditions and photographs of the camp, the penguin colony and his archaeological finds, including a cotton reel used by Shackleton and an ink well used by Scott, are catalogued as PH 14199.

Sponsorship of expeditions would not always be monetary, but instead be given with the supply of provisions and our Shippams collection features a photograph and letter from Captain Scott aboard the Terra Nova, thanking the firm for the supply of provisions (Shippams 1/6/1 and Shippams 1/9/16).

Thus, our penguin in the glass has a story – and what a story it is!

Aldingbourne stained glass window featuring Reginald’s penguin. Photograph by Susie Duffin.

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