Wilfred White FRGS - A Profile

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp.55-57, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
Wilfred White

Wilfred White is a truly local man. He was born in Idle, and except for a period of war service, never moved far from home. When he married in 1936 he settled down in his old neighbourhood, brought up a family there, and continued working in Bradford. Through long association with Upper Chapel, Idle, he served the community in many ways, as scoutmaster in his younger days and later as secretary to one or more Congregational Societies. Private interests, however, were not entirely crowded out, and at the age of 83, Mr White recalled how, when a boy, he embarked upon a pursuit which was to occupy him for the rest of his life.

Wilfred was no more than eight or nine when his father first told him stories of Shackleton's adventures in the south and Nansen's in the north, but these tales of daring and hardship took such a hold on his boyish imagination that before he was twenty he had read all the polar literature he could lay his hands on and had begun to build up his own collection. In what has become a small treasury of rare books, first editions and autographed copies, mention must be made of a work which holds a special place in Mr White's affection, a collector's piece in a way, but not a rarity - in fact a reprint of William Scoresby's classic, in two volumes, An Account of the Arctic Regions, first published in 1820. Scoresby was then a successful whaling captain, but three years later he decided to retire from the sea and take Holy Orders. In 1839 the Rev. William Scoresby DD became Vicar of Bradford, and so his life and works are of more than usual interest to students of local history in these parts.

The Antarctic Manual in Wilfred White's library was the Chart House copy aboard Scott's 'Terra Nova' and made the trip southwards three times, while Nordenskjold's Antarctica spent a year in Graham Land in 1921. But Mr White, keen to dispel the impression that geography swamps all else, points to two shelves devoted to cricket (he is a member of Yorkshire CC), and one to J.B. Priestley, many of the books bearing the great man's signature. To complete the picture there is music: shelves of scores and records displaying a wide taste, especially in opera, from Mozart and Wagner to Benjamin Britten.

It was undoubtedly some compensation for a land-locked career that in his leisure moments Mr White was able to endure the perils of the northern whaling run with William Scoresby and the rigours of the long trek south with Shackleton and Scott. In due course his studies embraced every major voyage and expedition, with such attention to detail that he was able to converse with scientists and explorers from a deep knowledge of their accomplishments. By the time he was 30 he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, whose meetings he attended whenever possible, and had begun to travel up and down the country to hear lectures given by famous men of the day. His visits to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, where he is a member of the Friends, have always given hinl special pleasure.

Retirement at 65 brought more leisure for reading and lectures, but polar studies offer few opportunities for active participation, especially to the elderly. A surprise was in store, however.

On 6 May 1986 Wilfred White received a telephone call from his son, Peter, who is in the Ministry of Defence, telling him to prepare for a flight to the North Pole in a few weeks. What at first seemed to be an obvious joke turned out to be part of a carefully planned operation. Peter White had heard about a flight trial to 900 North, and asked if his father might be included in the mission. Permission was given, subject to medical tests and the presence of a doctor on the flight, which it was decided might then become a public relations exercise. This meant an additional complement of reporters, television crews and local radio commentators, who were to flash hourly messages to earth.

The plane, a VC 10, left Brize Norton at 09.30 on 5 June, with its special guest aboard and was soon in total cloud over the North Atlantic. It landed for refuelling at Kevlafik in Iceland, and again passed quickly into the clouds. Wilfred White feared greatly that he might miss what he had most come to see - the north-east coast of Greenland, but suddenly the clouds parted, and there was Scoresby Sound. For the next 750 miles he looked down on fjords, mountains and glaciers - names that rang like a bell: Jameson Land, Scoresby Land, King Christian Land and King Frederick Land. The huge glacier, Stortstrommen,reminded him of the explorers Mikkelsen and Iversen, who had sledged there in 1910, and there were others, some of whom he had known: Sir James Wordie and Sir Vivian Fuchs working in the Nordenskjold Glacier area, and further south the members of the Watkins Expedition of the 1930s. Over the pole he paid his own tribute to the men who first flew there, in 1926 - Byrd by plane and a few days later Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth in the airship NORGE. After Peary Land came Cape Morris Jesup, the northernmost point of land on earth, and then the Arctic pack for 400 miles. Finally, rising into bright sunlight, the instruments told them that they had reached 90° North and the journey home had begun.

Turning south - there is nowhere else to go - the cloud cleared, revealing the whole of the west coast of Spitsbergen, and then the route lay towards Shetland. In darkness the aircraft flew over patterns of light which gave shape to English towns and cities: the landing was as smooth and efficient as all the journey had been.

Wilfred White received a 'hero's welcome' and became a celebrity overnight, much pursued by radio, television and press interviewers. The Bradford Telegraph & Argus carried the story of the flight on its front page, in colour, only hours after the plane touched down.

To the members of the RAF crew 'Aries 86', a long-range flight trial to the North Pole and back in under 13 hours had been a routine operation, but to Wilfred White FRGS, excessively loaded with souvenirs and memorabilia of all kinds, the experience was the climax to a lifetime's study of the polar regions.

© 1987, The Bradford Antiquary