For a number of years, we’ve had a very exciting historical artefact hidden in our wardrobe.
And despite over ten years of history blogging, somehow I never got round to writing about him. Or even hinting at his existence, I think.
Today I thought I’d take an expedition into my wardrobe.
Hidden away in an archival box, wrapped in acid-free paper, is a toy penguin, called Ponko. He was probably made around 1912. My husband is only his third custodian in all that time. Well, fourth if you count Herbert Ponting.
Ponko was given to my husband’s great uncle, a little boy called Charlie Hunt, somewhere round about 1912. He was given by Herbert Ponting and family tradition has it that he was either a prototype or Ponting’s very own, toy penguin.
Herbert Ponting was the photographer and cinematographer for the famous, ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole (1910-1913), led by Robert Falcon Scott. And I’m assuming his amusing nickname was “Ponko”.
Ponting had been part of the shore party at the start of 1911, helping establish the Terra Nova Expedition’s camp at Ross Island, where he had a dark room and set about documenting the expedition and the South Pole wildlife.
Photo of Ponko with Ponting here, if you scroll down. As you can see it is indeed the same toy penguin or else, our’s is a prototype for the same production line. I won’t reproduce here as I don’t have permissions. I have also seen another picture of Ponting and fellow antarctic explorer, Frank Hurley, holding Ponko – probably the same photo shoot. He is identical to our’s.
Ponting lived to tell the tale of the disasterfest of 1912 because he returned to England – the final push to the Pole being deemed too much for a man of his age and his photos a precious documenting of the Expedition that Scott would need in the future, too precious to risk. Herbert boarded the Terra Nova in February 1912, with over 1700 photographic plates, documenting his 14 months in Antarctica.
Captain Scott had anticipated success and Ponting’s images were to become central to monetising the expedition, on the Expedition’s triumphal return. Ponting’s photos would form the basis of a travelling magic lantern show. Instead, the photos became a sort of memorial to the men who lost their lives and of course, have added poignancy for us, as they document an Antarctica that climate change has eroded.
Ponting’s London pied a terre was the Authors’ Club; a professional club rather than a gentleman’s. He had lived in London from 1901-1910 and returned there in 1912. By November, news came that Scott’s expedition had perished and Ponting’s cache of photographs took on a poignancy that he could never have anticipated.
I’m told Ponting used Ponko as a prop in his magic lantern shows around 1913. Charlie was born in 1908 so would have been around eight years old in 1916 if Ponting gave him the penguin then. Charlie looks like an adorable child. My husband’s grandad was the only child from a first marriage and so there was quite an age gap – he would have been away in the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 and his little brother, Charlie, was the second and last child of the family.
Amongst our papers we have a letter of recommendation Ponting wrote for William, my husband’s great grandfather. The Authors’ Club was based in Oxford Mansion, Oxford Circus – the letter we have signed by Ponting dates to 1919 and he signed for “the tenants of Oxford Mansion” implying he may have lived there some of the time … Its manager was William Hunt, my husband’s great grandfather. He managed Oxford Mansion from the 1880s to some point in the 1910s and little Charlie may well have been a familiar figure, likely the only child to be seen in the lobby or kitchens of Oxford Mansion. The Hunts didn’t live in and their family home was elsewhere in London but no doubt Charlie will have visited the Authors’ Club, as he was known to Ponting.
Charlie’s father, William Hunt was the grand master of at least one Masonic lodge – it’s not known whether Ponting was a member of any. William’s sisters had also worked as servant for Sir Clements Markham, who commissioned and set in train the whole Terra Nova Expedition and although William was a London club manager, many if not most of the male Hunts were sailors, like Markham and Scott and it’s possible served onboard with Markham, years before. It could be that my husband’s family had closer ties to the Expedition; not just through Ponting but also Markham.
Incidentally, Clements Markham was born in this very parish where I sit writing. His father, David Markham, was the Stillingfleet, Yorkshire, parish vicar who set off his Church Singers to the 1833 disaster here on the river when 11 Singers were drowned on Boxing Day. It seems David Markham’s history was to be repeated by Clements. For more info about it, see here:
My husband descends from William’s older son. His younger half-brother, Charlie was still only a child in 1912 and at some point, probably several years after his return from Antarctica, Ponting presented the little boy with Ponko. Charlie’s daughter was kind enough to give him to my husband, quite a long time ago, now. And we have taken care of him ever since.
Our Ponko has provenance like none other. I feel in my heart of hearts he is without doubt, the one Ponting toted round as part of the magic lantern show, around 1913 and if he is not the one Ponting is photographed with, his is identical. No others are known to have survived. (There is one at the National Maritime Museum but it bears no resemblance to the one Ponting is photographed with).
Might be some exciting Ponko news, soon. Ponko’s leaving the wardrobe. He may be some time.