1904 – 1959

august courtauld cropped

“The silence outside was almost terrible.  Nothing to hear but one’s heart beating and the blood ticking in one’s veins.”
“Easter Sunday, 5 April 1931.  There is only a cupful of paraffin remaining and two candles.  He has finished the chocolate.  His tobacco is almost gone; on 13 April he smokes his last pipeful.  “There is now precious little to live for”, he notes in his diary.  On 20 April he lights his last candle.  On 26 April just two biscuits remain.  He is smoking tea leaves.  Only half a cup of paraffin is left; there will be no way to melt snow for drinking water when it is ended.  On 1 May he finishes his final biscuit.  He still has a little pemmican and some oatmeal, but later that same day the stump of the last candle burns out.  For the following four days he lies in cold, continual dark.  Now on 5 May, as he kneels over the saucepan heating porridge for his breakfast, the jets of the Primus falter, splutter ... and expire.  The last of the paraffin has gone.

No fuel, no light, no hot food, nothing to smoke.  No drinking water, only ice to suck.  The weather station buried.  Beneath him a layer of ice 8,500ft deep; above and around him almost a million square miles of snow-covered desolation where nothing lives.  Entombed beneath the ice cap, it is his 149th day of solitude.  He is more alone than anyone on earth ...” Dancing on Ice by Jeremy Scott

Augustine Courtauld was born on 26 August 1904 and brought up in Essex, where his family had lived for generations. He was educated at Charterhouse and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied engineering and geography.  He married Mollie Montgomerie, his childhood sweetheart in 1932 and had six children.  He loved his native country and explored the seas around its coast and beyond in his boat “Duet”.

He was an adventurous and courageous man and in 1930, aged twenty-six, he joined Gino Watkins’s British Arctic Air Route Expedition, as an experienced and outstanding explorer, with two Arctic expeditions behind him.  His final visit to Greenland was leader of the British East Greenland Expedition, 1935-1936 (with Professor Lawrence Wager), to explore and conquer the highest mountain in the Arctic, called originally Hvitserk (meaning “white shirt”) referred to by Viking Gunnbjorn. The name by which it is now known is Gunnbjornsfjeld. It measures 3,693m and wasn’t climbed again until 1971. .  August took his wife Mollie who became the first white woman to land on the East coast of Greenland.  On 4th July 1935, they sailed from Aberdeen Harbour on board a sailing boat “Quest”.  The Courtauld Glacier and Courtauld Fjord can be found in Ostgronland, Greenland in his memory.


"The following pleasures I would like to have granted most, if wishing were any good. One: sitting in an armchair before dinner, in front of a roaring fire listening to Mollie playing and singing. Two: eight o'clock on a fine summer morning at sea, at the helm of a small boat, a fresh breeze blowing, all sail set, with Mollie and a smell of breakfast coming up to say good morning." (Journal: August Courtauld 1930)

Between December 1930 and May 1931, whilst on the British Arctic Air Route Expedition, August spent five months in solitude in the middle of the Greenland ice-cap, cut off from all communication, conducting meteorological observations. Ferocious storms caused his weather station to become completely buried, leaving August trapped in his camp under the snow for the last six weeks, before he was rescued on 5th May 1931. In 1932, he was awarded the Polar Medal by King George V, for his achievements.



“Yet as time went on, I began to feel complete confidence.  I knew that even if Gino was having to wait for better weather, he wouldn’t let me down.  I began to realise that I should not be left to die.  I came to know that I was held by Everlasting Arms” (August Courtauld 1931)


On May 5th, exactly five months since I was left here and on the day I had told Gino the rations would run out, the Primus gave its last gasp.  Very soon there was a noise like a football match overhead.  They had come!”



The leader knelt on the snow beside the pipe and shouted down.  Then, after an ageless second while three hearts stopped, there came a faint shout in answer from the depths.  The voice was tremulous, but it was the voice of a normal man, or “just an ordinary chap” as he called himself.

A hole of brilliant daylight appeared in the roof.  There was Gino’s voice saying “Put these on”.  He handed me a pair of snow-glasses.  How different it was from the last time I had seen the outside world!  It was May and now dazzling sunshine.  I had not realized it would be like this.  They lost no time in pulling me out and I found I was quite all right.  My legs were a bit weak ... We set out for home next day.  I rode on a sledge the whole way, reading The Count of Monte Cristo.  Conditions were good and we completed the journey in five days; it had taken us six weeks on the way up”.

Before World War II, August joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and in the summer of 1939, he was asked by Naval Intelligence to use his outstanding navigational skills to undertake reconnaissance on the Norwegian Coast.  On the outbreak of World War II, August was summoned to work in Intelligence at the Admiralty and served with the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve.  

In later years, he was able to fulfil a long held interest and with the help of a young researcher from Oxford, he put together an anthology of polar writings, “From The Ends of The Earth.”  He also became deputy lieutenant and High Sheriff of Essex. Between 1948 and 1951, he served as honorary secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. In his late forties he was cruelly afflicted by multiple sclerosis and became increasingly disabled.  He died in 1959 aged fifty-four and was buried at sea from a Lifeboat in Essex that he had given in memory of his mother.

The Courtauld family are descended from the Huguenots and they came from the Ile d'Oleron, near La Rochelle (which is on the mainland) from where they escaped after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and came to England as refugees in 1685.