GESTINGTHORPE 'THEN & NOW' PHOTOGRAPHIC BOOK - COMING LATER THIS YEAR
The Oates had been Yorkshire gentry since the eighteenth century at least before Lawrence’s parents, William and Catherine decided to move south, probably under Catherines influence.
With a large income from land, rents and investments, William accurately styled himself a ‘Gentleman of private means’. Both he and his brother Frank were Victorian amateur explorers and Frank indeed died exploring in Africa.
Lawrence had three siblings: Lilian (born 1878),
Violet (born 1881) and Bryan (born 1883).
The family moved to Gestingthorpe Hall from Putney in 1891, when Lawrence was eleven. They also owned a London flat in Evelyn Mansions, near Victoria.
In 1896, on a trip to Madeira, William died suddenly of typhoid. Lawrence became technically Lord of the Manor. But the real power in the village was Caroline who remained at the Hall until her death in 1937.
Lilian and Bryan both married and left home but Violet remained as Caroline’s companion until her death, finally selling the Hall in 1948.
In 1891, the Gestingthorpe Hall estate consisted of approximately 359 acres, a farmhouse and twelve cottages (roughly 13% of the land and 6.3% of the dwellings in the parish). Over the following twenty years, additional cottages and parcels of land were purchased, including Pump Yard Cottages, Pound Farm and Tucklands Farm.
The Oates initiated extensive improvements to the estate and Hall. Both William and Caroline greatly expanded the Hall. The substantial Victorian extension to the rear was erected around 1892, together with a new stable block and a service cottage. About 1914, in memory of her beloved son, Caroline added a further extension, featuring a large chapel on the first floor dedicated to his memory.
From 1887 until his death in 1917 the devoted Rector of Gestingthorpe was the Revd. C.T.D. Bromwich. In the 1890’s St Mary’s was described as in a highly unsafe condition, over the following decades, under Bromwich’s direction, the church was lovingly restored. Leaning walls were stabilised, the south arcade rebuilt, a magnificent new organ provided, tower bells recast, a new ringing platform built, much of the stained glass inserted, the brass lectern and some church plate donated and the rood screen restored. Bromwich got on well with the Oates, and the family provided a large proportion of the restoration funds.
The improvements by the Oates family to Gestingthorpe’s two most prominent buildings greatly benefited the village, in a way that must have appealed to the parochial pride of all the inhabitants.
With these words, Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates set out to meet his death just over 100 years ago, he died on his birthday (17th March 1912) aged 32, and entered the history books.
He was one of five men who died as they tried to return home from Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
Capt Oates is remembered because of his act of self-sacrifice, committed because he believed he was slowing the others down.
Capt Oates, whose body was never found, was "an ordinary man who was made extraordinary by the circumstances he faced at the end of his life".
1880: Born 17 March in Putney, London
Studied at Eton before sickness meant he was transferred to a school in Eastbourne
1898: Joined 3rd West Yorkshire (Militia) Regiment
1900: Joined the Army, posted to 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons
1901: Injured during Boer War
1910: Joins Capt Scott's expedition to Antarctica
1912: Dies after uttering his famous last words
Capt Oates was born into a moneyed family, yet he is said to have had a self-effacing demeanour which made him popular with most of those he met.
He was unable to pass the necessary exams to join the Army and instead joined a militia regiment. But later, to his immense delight, he was given an attachment to the British army's 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons.
In March 1901 during the Boer War in South Africa, he refused to back down in the face of an ambush. Instead, he sent out the message: "We came here to fight, not to surrender."
Although the Boers were repulsed, an enemy bullet shattered Capt Oates's thigh, leaving him with a limp and one leg shorter than the other. This injury would cause him further pain towards the end of his life, when the chill of the Antarctic intensified the effect of his injuries.
Yet his war wounds did not deter him from leading an active life. While in India in 1909, his love of hunting - one of his favourite pursuits along with racing and boxing - resulted in him taking an unusual step.
He was so unimpressed with the foxhounds he found in the country, he got his brother to send out a fresh pack of dogs from England so he could hunt to the standard he desired.
And when Capt Scott advertised for crew for his scientific expedition, the soldier raised the funds needed to secure a place on the team.
He just needed to tell his mother, who reportedly controlled the family estate, and make sure he got the necessary permissions from the War Office.
He signed up to be a midshipman on the Terra Nova - the ship taking the men to their destination - but Capt Scott did not send him to Siberia to get the ponies required for the expedition, despite this being his area of expertise.
This was a source of irritation to Capt Oates, and in a letter sent at the start of the endeavour, he wrote that the £5 ponies which had been bought and shipped over were "very old for this sort of job" and described them as "a wretched load of crocks".
But in a letter to Mrs Oates in October 1911, Capt Scott acknowledged that her son had played an integral role on the team by caring for the beasts.
"I really don't know what our party of sailor and scientific men would have done without him. Everything depends on the successful work of these animals and your son kindly took charge of them," he wrote.
Capt Scott sought sponsorship and publicity for the expedition - at least before Norwegian Roald Amundsen decided he would also compete for the crown of being the first one to conquer the south pole.
In a letter Capt Oates wrote to his mother in 1910, his distaste for this showmanship was clear: "I must say we have made far too much noise about ourselves, all the photographing, cheering, steaming through the fleet etc etc is rot, and if we fail will only make us look more foolish."
In another letter to his mother, dated 28 October 1911, he voiced the thought of returning home, but added he did not want to "spoil" his chances of being on the final leg of the journey as "the regiment and perhaps the whole Army would be pleased if I was at the pole".
But the men struggled to reach the point where they believed the south pole was. It became more apparent that the ponies chosen were not fit for the job - proving Capt Oates right.
And Capt Oates noted he was facing constant trouble with his wet feet as the party travelled along the hardened ice.
When the men eventually came across the remnants of the Norwegian expedition's camp, a sombre mood came over them. They had lost.
But Capt Oates commended Amundsen's team: "I must say that man must have had his head screwed on right. The gear they left was in excellent order and they seem to have had a comfortable trip with their dog teams, very different from our wretched man-hauling."
The men began their difficult journey back but the freezing conditions led to Capt Oates's big toe turning black and his body turning an unhealthy yellow colour.
Capt Scott wrote in his diary: "If we were all fit I should have hopes of getting through, but the poor soldier has become a terrible hindrance, though he does his utmost and suffers much I fear."
Explorers knew the risks, that there would be no evacuation in cases of serious illness or injury. As team member Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote in his account of the expedition: "There is no chance of a 'cushy' wound. If you break your leg on the Beardmore (glacier), you must consider the most expedient way of committing suicide, both for your own sake and that of your companions."
On 15 March, Captain Oates suggested that the remaining explorers should leave him in his sleeping bag, but they refused.
But the man they affectionately called "the soldier" knew the end was near and, it seemed, had had enough.
He awoke on 16 March 1912 and, leaving his shoes behind, walked out into the storm blowing outside.
"He went into the blizzard and we have not seen him since," Capt Scott recorded in his diary the next day.
In her grief, Capt Oates's mother Caroline had ordered the destruction of the diaries of her "baby boy", but her daughter Violet transcribed many of the documents so they were not lost to history.
"His final words are typical. It was his way of saying goodbye but without drawing too much attention to what he was actually doing. He died so they could have a chance of living.
"That was simply the sort of man he was."
He was tough, Gestingthorpe’s most famous son, strong, an expert and knowledgeable horseman, a skilled sailor, a capable shot, a fine cricketer, an enthusiastic footballer, a good amateur boxer, well-capable of defending his corner, a daredevil who calculated his risks.
Popular, amusing when he chose to speak, fond of a drink and a ‘rough-house’, he was also a man of absolutely sound judgement, a straight-talker, able to mix with all sorts, not one to stand upon ceremony, happy to turn himself to any task in hand, a man who led from the front.
Brave to a fault, constantly testing his courage, rock-solid, trustworthy, perseverant to a fault, capable of sustained physical endurance, able to bear immense pain uncomplaining, indomitable. Heroic, but with a dislike of show that would have detested celebrity,
Oates’ death was one with his life. The same grain ran through both, the same values. The integrity of his heroism shines past failings and through publicity and propaganda.
Since the legend is founded in fact, the moral victory remains.
In Shakespeare’s words -
Nothing became his life/Like the leaving it.
In his legend, Oates’ values live on. All the more important to try to maintain them in the daily life of the village.
We can do this by telling Oates’ story to children and grandchildren.
The Celebrations are reaching into the future via the planting of the Oates Memorial Oaks and the founding of The Oates Volunteer Scheme.
In Lawrence Oates’ memory, thank you for your visit.