Prince of Wales’s positive pressure

“Black spider” letter helps to save Antarctic Shackleton and Scott huts

The newly released letters from Prince Charles to UK government ministers include one about Antarctica, with a plea for the conservation of historic huts used by the early explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. A decade ago, the prince asked Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, whether she could help with funding. This letter is among those released on 13 May by the Cabinet Office after a protracted legal battle (the “black spider” correspondence, so-called because of the prince’s handwriting).

Prince Charles had written to Jowell on 30 March 2005, following a dinner in Wellington. He had been sitting next to the New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, who asked whether British funds might be available to conserve the four huts, dating to the early 20th century.

The prince acknowledged that the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport did not have a mandate to support projects outside the country, but pleaded for “a bit of imaginative flexibility in the interpretation of these rules”. Prince Charles wrote: “I thought there was something called ‘The Government of the British Antarctic Territory’, which must mean there is some British Territory to be ‘governed’! So I am at a loss to understand how this restoration project can be correctly described as ‘overseas’?” The prince signed off his typed letter to Jowell with a handwritten “yours affectionately”.

Prince Charles appears to have over-estimated the limits of the Queen’s domain, since the huts are actually located in the Ross Dependency, a New Zealand territory. The British Antarctic Territory lies on the opposite side of the continent, with the two wedge-shaped areas only touching at the South Pole. Under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty all territorial claims are on hold, although the British Antarctic Territory still exists, administered by the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Heritage Lottery Fund told The Art Newspaper that it had decided against supporting conservation work in Antarctica. Although Scott and Shackleton were UK citizens, the fund only supports projects which are “accessible” to UK lottery players. "We do not fund projects that people cannot get to," a spokeswoman explained. Only around 2,000 people of all nationalities visit the huts every year and most are on very expensive tours.

But the UK government did eventually assist the conservation and in 2007 Jowell’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office pledged £250,000. In January 2015 the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand completed work on three of the huts, at Cape Evans, Hut Point and Cape Royds. They have been weatherproofed and the contents, comprising 18,202 items, have been conserved. Work is now beginning on the fourth hut, at Cape Adare.