The story behind a rediscovered hero

The Discovery crew on their return from the Antarctic on September 16, 1904. Jesse Handsley is on the back row, sixth from the right. Credit: 'Dundee Heritage Trust: Discovery Point'.
The Discovery crew on their return from the Antarctic on September 16, 1904. Jesse Handsley is on the back row, sixth from the right. Credit: 'Dundee Heritage Trust: Discovery Point'.

LEGENDARY explorer Captain Scott praised him during their Antarctic expedition together as a ‘fine figure of a man, always willing, always obliging and very zealous’.

His courage, bravery and dedication earned him a silver Polar Medal, and two landmarks in the frozen continent were later named in his honour

But it wasn’t until a Lincolnshire woman’s own personal voyage of ancestral discovery brought Jesse Handsley’s phenomenal achievements to the attention of his home town, that Skegness finally began to recognise the heroic accomplishments of its forgotten son.

Jane Handsley said: “I just randomly typed ‘Handsley’ into an internet search engine and came across his name in TH Baugham’s publication ‘Pilgrims on the Ice’ - and that really got me excited.

“I’ve found researching the family connection incredibly interesting but it’s also very absorbing - it can almost take over your life - just when you’re ready to give up, something comes along that spurs you on.

“I started out trying to find Russian relatives and I found none but I’ve discovered other things I never imagined - I’ve had some really lucky breaks and found family I never even knew I had.”

Trawling through old census reports, naval records and Captain Scott’s own expedition journals, Jane has been able to piece together fascinating details about Jesse’s life and his role in the famous Polar expedition.

Born on March 29, 1876, to parents John and Rebecca, Jesse first worked as baker on Lumley Road before joining the Royal Navy in 1891.

He served on numerous ships until, by chance, while stationed in New Zealand on the HMS Ringarooma, Captain Scott called upon him to replace crew he had discharged for misbehaviour.

Upon the Discovery expedition, Jesse proved himself a dedicated and able crew member, who was selected for Scott’s ‘elite team’, travelling on gruelling expeditions to the farthermost southerly reaches of the exploration.

The journey was filled with shocking tales of unimaginable hardship, isolation and endurance, from the day-to-day rigmaroles of life in sub-zero conditions to deadly mistakes on the treacherous glacial ice, which robbed several crew members of their lives.

Jane said: “It’s spine-chilling when you read what they were doing; struggling across glaciers, falling down crevasses and coping with the conditions.

“And it’s not as if there was any GPS back then, they were all just relying on their courage and intelligence.”

Though she shares a surname with the Antarctic explorer, Jane is yet to prove the family connection, but during her time researching the man, she has forged a deep respect, irrespective of blood ties.

She said: “I get goose bumps when I think about his achievements - having learned about the sheer expanse of the vast unknown which they were dealing with, the bravery and courage these men must have had is hard to imagine.

“Even if we’re not related I’m so proud that a man from Lincolnshire has done what he did.”

With the assistance of Skegness archivist Angela Gooch, Jane’s research into Jesse’s incredible achievements has now captivated the imagination of Skegness Town Council, which recently agreed to honour him posthumously with a monument in Compass Gardens.