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Remembering the Dundee polar explorer who survived treacherous Arctic expedition only to die from a lip ulcer

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He was the polar explorer from Dundee who survived a treacherous Arctic expedition only to die of a lip ulcer.

Thomas Fenton was second officer on Benjamin Leigh Smith’s vessel Eira which set out in April 1881 and included 25 crew, a cat, a canary and Bob the dog.
The vessel was a wooden-hulled icebreaker, an elegant steam yacht with a 50-horse power engine, built to Leigh Smith’s specifications at Peterhead, from where it sailed to the Arctic.

Smith had already made a journey to the Arctic the previous year in 1880 where a remarkable photograph recorded a meeting at sea with another ship from Peterhead which included Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle was the ship’s surgeon on the Hope which was seven years before he earned immortality by writing “A Study in Scarlet” and bringing Sherlock Holmes into the public gaze.

Fenton joined the Eira in 1881 with a lip injury after smoking a new pipe during a sealing expedition in the spring.
His lip being subsequently frost-bitten gave rise to an ulcer.
He was a great favourite with the crew and his experience of voyaging in the Arctic was considerable.

The Eira was crushed between two ice floes and sank off the Russian Franz Josef Land archipelago, north of Siberia, in August 1881.
The leak gained so rapidly that in two hours after it was discovered it was necessary to abandon the ship.
Eira sank rapidly.

A tent was first erected on the ice before a house was subsequently built.

Fenton’s lip ulcer by now had increased in size during the last two or three months.
The detrimental effect on Fenton’s general health became apparent after the crew built a shelter – called Flora’s Cottage – made from driftwood, rocks and ship masts.
They survived for 10 months, living off provisions salvaged from the ship and hunting walrus and polar bears.
Leigh Smith then led a voyage of escape to Novaya Zemlya in June 1882 in four lifeboats with sails made from salvaged tablecloths.

Smith, commander of the Eira expedition, would later give this explanation.
He said: “On the 21st the Eira got nipped between the land floe and the pack ice, a mile east of Cape Flora, and sank before we were able to save much of the stores.
“We built a hut on Cape Flora of turf and stones, and covered it with sails.
“We wintered there, and during the whole time no sign of scurvy appeared.
“Twenty-nine walrus and 36 bears were killed and eaten.
“We left Cape Flora on June 21, 1882, in four boats, and sailed 80 miles without seeing any ice.”

The Hope, with a new crew, was one of the vessels that rescued them in August 1882.

Every man survived but Fenton was exceedingly ill and could not take part in active labour.
The ship’s surgeon offered to cut out the ulcer but Fenton would not consent to the operation taking place.
Fenton rapidly grew worse when the party were brought back to Aberdeen by the Hope.
He was struggling to walk and was taken to Aberdeen Infirmary where he died on August 24.
He was survived by a wife and a child.

He was only 44.

Fenton’s story was discovered after Dundee actor Gordon Morris stumbled upon his gravestone in Dundee’s Eastern Cemetery.
Gordon, from Douglas, stars in the supernatural drama The Terror which is based on the lost expedition of Arctic explorer John Franklin.
The expedition involves two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which become trapped in ice and were lost to the harsh Arctic cold in the mid-1800s.
Gordon plays John Weekes, a carpenter on board HMS Erebus, and features alongside Mad Men actor Jared Harris and Game of Thrones star Tobias Menzies.
Appearing in the 10-part thriller was Gordon’s biggest role to date after previously featuring in Taggart, Bob Servant, Armchair Detectives and Schemers.
“I was actually having a walk around the cemetery as part of my daily hour long outdoor exercise when I spotted the ship’s carving on the headstone which initially drew me towards it,” he said.
“When I read the inscription I was absolutely amazed to see Thomas Fenton had been an Arctic explorer from Dundee.
“I’m really interested in anything to do with arctic exploration since my wee stint on HMS Erebus playing the ship’s carpenter for The Terror so it was wonderful to find out Thomas’ story and to know he was such a well respected man.
“I think his story definitely needs to be told.
“I’ve walked through that cemetery hundreds of times and never spotted his grave before.
“I have nothing but respect for all of those explorers who risked their lives and lost their lives broadening our knowledge of the planet.
“I do think there is something almost karmic in a Dundee man who plays an Arctic explorer discovering a Dundee man who was an Arctic explorer.
“And yes I am definitely up for playing him in a film.
“If the screenplay ever gets written I’ll get it sent off to my agent!”
Fenton’s headstone was erected by Leigh Smith “as a mark of respect”.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh.
The Doyle family offered to pay for his studies from the age of nine.
He spent seven years in a Jesuit boarding school in England before graduating aged 17.
Years later he wrote, “Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her.”
He went on to study medicine where he met a number of future authors who were also attending the university, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson.
It was back in February 1880 when the 20-year-old medical student decided to embark on a whaling expedition to the Arctic.
Doyle had just completed his third year of medical studies when he signed on as the ship’s surgeon of the Peterhead-based whaler Hope.
His job involved tending to the bruises and injuries sustained by the crew – the majority of whom were Scottish, with a significant contingent from Shetland – but Doyle was also required to join the sailors’ largely unsuccessful efforts at whaling.
The youngster kept a diary of his experiences and Doyle’s life was in danger several times during the voyage.
Doyle fell into the sea no less than three times.
The crew nicknamed him “The Great Northern Diver.”
On April 4, for instance, he wrote: “Working all day. I fell into the Arctic Ocean three times, but luckily, somebody was always there to pull me out in time.
“The danger is that with such a heavy swell on the ocean, you may be cut in two by two pieces of ice coming together.”
Just a few days later, on April 7, even Doyle thought his time was up.
He said: “I tried to get on the ice and I was swinging down onto it by means of a rope.
“But suddenly, the ship gave a turn of her propeller and I went into the sea with minus 28 degrees of ice on it.
“It was freezing and you couldn’t survive long in these conditions.
“But fortunately, I was hauled out [by his colleagues] and was carried back on board. It was hard, hard work.”
The Hope returned home In September of 1880.
Of that time Conan Doyle would later say, “I came of age in 80 degrees north latitude.”
He wrote about his experience in both fiction and non-fiction, which helped him first catch the eye of publishers.
In March 1886, Conan Doyle started writing the novel which catapulted him to fame.
It was named A Tangled Skein and the two main characters were called Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker.
Two years later this novel was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, under the title A Study in Scarlet which featured Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.