Captain Scott’s Welsh Flag

Elen Phillips

The Terra Nova leaving Cardiff on 15 June 1910. The Welsh flag flies from the mizzen mast, while the White Ensign flies from the mizzen gaff. On the foremast is the flag of the City of Cardiff.

The Welsh flag made by Howell & Co and presented to Captain Scott's Antarctic Expedition.

Full-page advertisement for James Howell & Co - featured in a guide to the National Pageant of Wales, 1909. Published by the Great Western Railway Co.

The textile collection of Amgueddfa Cymru includes several Welsh flags. Most were originally hoisted above civic buildings; one has even flown in outer space! The oldest and largest example in the collection is associated with another daring mission — Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910–13 British Antarctic Expedition.

The flag in question was displayed at a departure dinner held for Captain Scott and his officers in Cardiff on 13 June 1910 and was flown on the Terra Nova as the ship sailed from Cardiff and when she returned in 1913.

On St David’s Day 1911 and 1912, the flag was hoisted in Antarctica at Scott’s expedition base hut.

Made from a coarse woollen fabric, with selvages at the top and bottom edges, the flag measures an impressive 3.45m x 1.83m. The dragon motif is a cut-out which has been machine stitched to the green and white ground fabric. Details — such as its claws, tongue and eyes — have been achieved using black and white paint.

James Howell & Co. of Cardiff

We do not know who stitched and painted the flag, but we do know that it was made by James Howell & Co in Cardiff, probably by its dressmaking department.

During a lunch held for Lieutenant E. R. G. R. Evans of Scott’s expedition on 1 November 1909, Howell’s offered to make a large Welsh flag for him ‘to take to the South Pole’. Evans had given up plans for his own Welsh Antarctic Expedition and had joined Scott as second-in-command.

Evans was particularly influential in drumming up publicity and donations to the expedition, largely through the editor of the Western Mail, Willie Davies — it was Davies’s wife who came up with the idea of presenting a Welsh flag to the expedition.

Cardiff ‘one of the most enterprising cities in the Empire’

The inhabitants of Cardiff, in particular, had embraced the British Antarctic Expedition like no other region. Having achieved city status in 1905, Cardiff’s civic leaders were on a re-branding mission. They wanted, in the words of the Town Clark, J. L. Wheatley, to promote Cardiff ‘as one of the most enterprising cities in the Empire’.

Closely associating the city with Scott’s voyage to Antarctica — one of the last great frontiers — was indicative of this newfound civic confidence.

James Howell was a prominent figure within Cardiff’s business community. His department store, James Howell & Co., established in 1865, was the largest of its kind in Wales. It is of no surprise that James Howell felt compelled to contribute in some way to Scott’s venture. He had a track-record of ‘sponsoring’ civic events in Cardiff. In early 1909, he supplied one of his buildings on Wharton Street free-of-charge to the National Pageant of Wales.

Postcard issued to commemorate the National Pageant of Wales, 1909

The Marchioness of Bute as 'Dame Wales' at the National Pageant of Wales, July 1909.

In the summer of 1914, the Museum held a temporary exhibition of Edward Wilson's Antarctic watercolours and sketches. Wilson was Chief Scientist on Scott's expedition and died with him on the return journey from the South Pole in 1912. The exhibition was held in the City Hall as the Museum building was still under construction at that time.

The Welsh flag and the flag of the City of Cardiff, both flown on the Terra Nova were displayed on the wall at the back of the exhibition. The two penguins in the display case are still in the Museum's collections.

National Pageant of Wales

The National Pageant was essentially the great and the good of high society re-enacted scenes from Wales’s heroic past. The Pageant organisers required 40,000 items of costume and a team of 800 ‘lady workers’ were drafted in to help. For six months, the ladies set up camp in Wharton Street. As a Pageant sponsor, Howell would have also supplied professional dressmakers from his own workforce. Indeed, the iconic ‘Dame Wales’ dress worn in the Pageant’s opening scene on 26 July 1909 is remarkably similar in execution to the Terra Nova flag.

Both the dress and the flag have similar, naïvely designed, appliquéd Welsh dragon motifs. Made probably only months apart in workrooms associated with James Howell & Co., could they have been stitched by the same hands?

The Welsh Dragon of the 1890s

The dragon on the Terra Nova flag is noticeably different from that on today’s flag. It is more upright, a dragon segreant, rather than a dragon passant. This style of dragon was common during the 1890s and early 1900s. It can be seen, in various guises, on eisteddfod bardic chairs from this period, as well as on a host of other national insignia. The dressmakers of Howell’s probably adapted the Terra Nova dragon from such sources.

Standardising the Welsh Flag

In 1910, the National Eisteddfod of Wales wrote to the Museum asking for advice on the design of the dragon: ‘We are anxious to have as near as possible the true form of the device’. A curator replied: ‘I regret to say that we have no authentic specimen of the animal in the National Museum’. The letter was handed to Mr Thomas Henry Thomas, a recognized authority on these matters, who had for many years attempted to standardise the Welsh dragon. His sketches and papers are now deposited at the Museum.

The flag gets cut up for souvenirs

When the Terra Nova returned to Cardiff in June 1913, with this Welsh flag flying from the mainmast, the Western Mail noted that it was ‘considerably smaller than when first hoisted three years ago. While the Terra Nova was berthed at Lyttleton, in New Zealand, the representatives of the Welsh societies at that port were allowed to cut away portions of the flag and to keep them as mementoes of the expedition’.

At a dinner held in the Royal Hotel on 16 June 1913 to mark the expedition’s return to Cardiff, Teddy Evans announced that the flag was to be given to the National Museum of Wales. However, following the festivities there seems to have been some confusion as to what Evans had done with the flag. He thought he had given it to the Lord Mayor, but in fact it was found in the Royal Hotel some four months later!


Dragon passant

Facing and walking toward the viewer's left with one front leg raised.

Dragon segreant

Standing on its hind foot, with the two forelimbs raised up, as if rearing, and with its third leg lifted as well.

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