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‘That day was one of the highlights of my life’: Memories of RRS Discovery’s return to Dundee

Jeff can be seen third from right alongside the rest of Discovery's final crew.
Jeff can be seen third from right alongside the rest of Discovery's final crew.

After a year of planning, gaining permissions and securing funding Jeff Lonsdale was one of six men that would make up RRS Discovery’s final crew as she boarded the Happy Mariner and set off on her final voyage to her home city in April 1986.

At the time Jeff headed up the Dundee Project who were instrumental in bringing the 120-year old ship back to the shores where she was built. For Jeff the 12 months of organisation was worth it when he boarded the Discovery in London and witnessed the process of transporting her up the north sea.

‘Without that fax Discovery might still be in London’

Jeff, who now resides in Cumbria to be closer to his children and grandchildren, explained the workings behind the triumphant return and how a fax to The Maritime Trust helped to secure the homecoming.

He said: “A timely chance had created the opportunity to set in motion the return of the historic vessel.

“Neil Cussons, director of the Maritime Trust in Greenwich, had phoned Mike Edwards of the Dundee Project to say that his board were to take a decision the following day regarding the future of Discovery – the prospect was for it to remain as part of a commercial redevelopment of St Katherine’s Dock – but the Trust were sympathetic to the possibility of historic vessels in its care going back to their “home” communities.

The Discovery is seen in the Thames near Tower Bridge after being eased out of St Katherine’s Dock on March 27 1986.

“An expression of interest was required and because we knew the importance of Discovery and Antarctic exploration I did not hesitate to fax that day an expression of Dundee’s interest. Without that fax Discovery might still be in London.

“I certainly stuck my neck out by sending the it at short notice, but because of the research undertaken and a clear regeneration strategy, I knew it was the correct thing to do. The action was quickly backed by my Chairman, Sir Douglas Hardie.

“We knew that Discovery was so important in Dundee’s history and the part it could play in revitalising the city – as a corner stone for the long term rebirth of the waterfront, but also as “City of Discovery” it proclaimed intent for new high tech business opportunities.

“With a great team spirit between all the partner organisations involved we were determined to succeed in binging Discovery home.

“We spent the next year gaining all necessary approvals, securing finance to pay for the move and working closely with Dundee Heritage Trust, the most appropriate long term carer of the vessel. The DHT fund raising, restoration and management of Discovery has been excellent.”

Her last six man crew

With plans in place and RRS Discovery ready to ‘piggy back’ on the Happy Mariner her final crew consisting of Jeff and fellow members of the board and Heritage Trust would be Discovery’s final crew, sleeping aboard the ship as it was transported.

“I had been on board during the delicate operation to bring her out of St Katherine’s Dock, London; moored alongside HMS Belfast and then the skilful operation to move Discovery into the semi-submersible Happy Mariner,” Jeff explained.

“We slept on board Discovery in the cabins used by Capt. Scott and his officers. Leaving London was an emotional experience.

The RRS Discovery, moored at Dundee after her return from London.

“I remember standing alone at the stern of Discovery taking in the cheering crowds along the riverbank in front of The Tower, the sound of tug boats and other craft tooting in a traditional salute – an emotional day for London where Discovery had been for 50 years, but a joyous one for Dundee as Discovery was finally on her way home.

“The day RRS Discovery retuned to Dundee was one of the highlights of my life. I was privileged to be on board as part of the last six man crew of the Discovery.”

Her final journey and the homecoming celebrations

Jeff continued: “The journey up the North Sea was a good experience. The “last crew” stayed on board Discovery and we were well looked after by the crew of the Happy Mariner.

“At one point, there was a rush of activity when loud thuds were heard as the movement of the sea caused the wooden wedges holding Discovery in place to fall out.

“The Mariner crew quickly and firmly replaced these – perhaps too firmly because once alongside in Dundee they could not be removed and Discovery’s official welcome and move into Victoria Dock was delayed.

The Coral Star out to welcome the RRS Discovery back to Dundee.

“The return to the Tay was very special. Our PR man, Nigel Hawkins had been busy and we were greeted with fly pasts by a Shackleton from Lossiemouth, Phantoms and Wessex helicopter from Leuchars, the Spirit of Tay lifeboat and the Coral Star crowded with supporters.

“Even more heart warming was the thousands of people who lined the shores of the estuary to welcome Discovery home. It was a lovely gesture by the Captain of the Happy Mariner to stop off at Broughty Castle and do a 360 degree turn so folk could get a better view of Discovery.

“In my time with both the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies I have been involved with many significant economic development initiatives, but none can surpass the satisfaction of bringing Discovery home to Dundee.

Jeff Lonsdale today with the picture of Discovery presented to him when he left the Dundee Project.

“In 2004 I retired as a Director with the Welsh Development Agency and returned to live in Tayside.

“I had the pleasure of watching from my home in Wormit the building of the V&A alongside Discovery, appreciating the efforts of many others who have worked over three decades to realise the potential of Dundee’s Waterfront.

“In 2017 we moved to Cumbria to be nearer family and grandchildren, but not before spending an enjoyable evening on Discovery with former Dundee Project colleagues Graham McKee and Nick Day reminiscing about that special time 35 years ago.”