Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (17 & 18 May 2016)

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Date of Auction: 17th & 18th May 2016


Estimate: £12,000 - £15,000

‘Throughout the expedition Launcelot was a strong and moral force, helping it to be an extraordinarily happy party despite its poverty of resources. Physically tough, he was the only member who, for a little bet, swam across the ice-infested creek at the Debenham Islands. Already referred to by some as the “Bishop”, he held a formal parish covering the entire British-claimed Antarctic Territory, of enormous size and utterly empty of people apart from ourselves. He was assiduous in holding Sunday services, preaching a sermon to the small company about once a month. Sincerity, goodness and friendship made this exercise of his first pastoral function acceptable in so small a community. Like all other members he was awarded the Polar Medal on return: his name is commemorated in the Fleming Glacier, Graham Land.’

Colin Bertram, Biologist, British Graham Land Expedition.
The outstanding K.C.V.O. and Polar exploration group of seven awarded to the Rt. Rev. W. L. S. Fleming, who served as Chaplain and Geologist to the British Graham Land Expedition, Antarctica, 1934-37, and as a Chaplain in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in the 1939-45 War - having then officiated as Bishop of Portsmouth and Norwich, he was appointed Dean of Windsor, Registrar of the Order of the Garter, and Domestic Chaplain to the Queen in 1971, in which latter capacity he officiated at the funeral of the Duke of Windsor

The Royal Victorian Order, K.C.V.O., Knight Commander’s set of insignia, comprising neck badge, silver-gilt and enamel, and breast star, silver, with silver-gilt and enamel centre, both officially numbered ‘1165’, in Collingwood & Co. case of issue; 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star; Africa Star; War Medal 1939-45; Polar Medal 1904, G.VI.R., silver, 1 clasp, Antarctic 1935-37 (William Lancelot Scott Fleming), mounted as worn where applicable, generally very fine and better (7)


K.C.V.O. London Gazette 12 June 1976.

William Launcelot Scott Fleming - universally known as Launcelot - was born in Edinburgh in August 1906, the youngest of four sons and fifth of five children of Robert Alexander Fleming, a surgeon, and Eleanor Mary, the daughter of the Rev. William Lyall Holland, rector of Cornhill-on-Tweed. Educated at Rugby, he went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1925, graduating in Geology, followed by two years as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow at Yale University. He then returned home to study Holy Orders at Westcott House, Cambridge and was ordained deacon in 1933 and priest in 1934.

Arctic Geologist

At Sir Vivian Fuchs’s suggestion, Fleming joined an expedition to study Vatnajokull in Iceland led by Brian Roberts in 1932, and also an expedition to study the Ny Friesland ice cap in Svalbard led by A. R. Glen in the following year, both valuable experiences in view of his forthcoming part in the British Graham Land Expedition to Antarctica 1934-37 - the first major expedition to leave Britain since Scott’s last journey. Of his trip to Iceland, Fleming wrote: ‘Vatnajokull is about the size of Yorkshire. We sledged across, spent some days mapping and geologising and botanising on the northern edge, and returned by the same route to pick up the seismograph. We enjoyed it all immensely not least because we got on very well together and everyone had some particular responsibility in the scientific and survey side of the expedition's programme. We were divided into two three-man sledge teams each pulling a Nansen sledge loaded with 1000 lbs of gear. For most of the time we were on skis, which on an uphill grade had to be fitted with skins to get a grip. Man-hauling is very hard work and is apt to make one mule-minded - with a sullen suspicion that you are the only member of your team who is really doing any work, until you discover that the others have exactly the same idea. The main constituent of our sledge rations was Pemmican. It is advertised on the tin as a meat extract rich in albumen, meat fibre and animal fat - which is exactly what it tastes like. You take it like a soup and it is more palatable with pea flour added. A plate full after pitching camp gives you the impression you've had a five course dinner; the great thing is to go to sleep before you discover you haven't - because sledge-rations are deficient in solid food and though one gets plenty of energy and vitamins, it is chiefly conveyed as liquid and the result is that one's inside is astonishingly empty. When we got back to Hohn we learned that the trawler company were unable to fetch us back. This was a serious blow. But our guide's father was a Member of Parliament, and when he learned the news he said very helpfully 'I will telephone the Prime Minister'. Now, in Iceland all the telephones were on a party line; he who speaks loudest gets through. Thorliefson was an accomplished telephonist. He blew everyone else off the line, and presently announced that the Icelandic Navy couldn't help because a third of it was off the North Coast, a third in dock, and the other third - they didn't know where it was. Eventually we managed to hire a motor boat. The crew of four kissed the entire populace of Hohn before we set off - an ominous sign. We left in sunshine setting course for the Westmann Islands. At about 4 o'clock the skipper, who appeared to be alarmist by temperament, pointed to the horizon and said 'Storm'; and storm it jolly well was. The entire night there was a vicious wind and we were uncomfortably close to a lee shore. I passed through those two stages of seasickness - first of fearing that you are going to die and then of fearing that you won't. At dawn, the skipper was obviously lost; we followed in the wake of a trawler, but as trawlers trawl in a circle that didn't get us anywhere. Eventually one of our own party sighted the Westmann Islands. We sailed home in the mail steamer to Leith, which was the only prosaic part of the trip.’

Antarctica - Chaplain and Geologist

And so to the British Graham Land Expedition to Antarctica 1934-37, in which Fleming acted variously as Chaplain, Geologist and Glaciologist, and firmly established himself as a popular mainstay of the expedition, passing three years away on the ice, studying rock formations, glaciers and fossils, and being one of three who went on the sledge journey of discovery that mapped hundreds of miles of coastline that no one had ever seen before - and ran so short of food for the dogs that they had to kill seven of them. Of the voyage to Graham Land, Fleming - with his usual modesty and good humour - wrote: ‘The voyage out was an unusual experience because ... the members of the party were the crew. It was less expensive that way. We had one paid hand - a cook. He was a nice chap but our leader when he interviewed him forgot to put the leading question as to whether he could cook. Only a minority of our party knew which rope to pull and this made the task of the Captain and two mates doubly anxious. We ran into bad weather five days out when we got into the Bay of Biscay. One incident will illustrate the kind of problem which faced our officers. The storm gathered force at night, and we had to shorten sail with all hands on deck. I was given a rope by the second mate. When he said to let go I paid out the rope round the belaying pin. He got a bit agitated and shouted Let go; so I took the rope off the pin and let it go. Up shot the rope into the inky skies and down came the top yard on the cross trees with an almighty crash. It then transpired that one of my shipmates was somewhere aloft in the vicinity of that yard ... when he got back on deck he said a lot of things which were not at all proper for a parson to hear ... The sailors terminology, however, often lacks clarity; 'Vast heaving'; well, the first time we got that order we gave a vast heave, and felt a bit hurt by the Mate's pitying smile. However, we got the way of it; 68 days to Montevideo; about 20 more to Port Stanley the capital of the Falklands, and another 16 or so to Graham Land; working watch to watch. It was a good way to get our party settled down, and once we were into the fair weather of the Trade Winds belt it was most enjoyable for all of us except for one of our party who was sick every day from England to Montevideo.’

And of his epic journey of discovery, undertaken with biologist Colin Bertram and experienced explorer Steve Stephenson - a journey that nearly ended in disaster in circumstances not dissimilar to Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition - he recorded in his diary in early November 1936, as they became trapped in appalling weather:

‘November 1st.  A day of lying up but it cleared this afternoon. Steve and Colin efficiently despatched those dogs which we had to part with - Silver, Whiskey, Jim, Cyclops, Pie and Rosie. It's horrid to lose them but thank God the deed is done. They also fed the dogs and I prepared tea for the three of us. Then we had a short All Saints Day service; a Psalm, two lessons and some prayers. We now have 20 days dog-food and 19 1/4 days man-food to take us to Terra Firma Island, where John has promised there will be a depot for us ... ’

‘November 4th. This is a bad place to be held up and we may yet be hard put to it to make rations last to get to Terra Firma Islands, and thereafter who knows but that the sea-ice be breaking up. However sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and one must trust to God's good providence. Meanwhile we spend our time lying up in idleness whiling away the hours as best we may - and we are in very good spirits I'm glad to say ... ’

‘November 7th. A wretched day of snow and so we have been forced to lie up and open our last 3 boxes of food. We are likely to reach Terra Firma very hungry and having to sacrifice more of our dogs. However there is no use fretting and we must needs learn to accept the conditions which come and there is no saying but that we may have a change of conditions to help us on our way ... ’

In the event the weather finally broke on 11 November, and the three men reached safety on the 19th, having covered and mapped near 600 miles of territory and established that there was no break through in Graham Land from the Bellinghausen Sea to the Weddell Sea. Colin Bertram later wrote: ‘He was unquestionably the only member of the Expedition who was always welcome, whenever, wherever, whoever. Launcelot treated me to my first cigar; he acquainted me with Axel Munthe; he employed me as labourer-with-the-ice-chisel to chip out samples of sea-ice, a job that got me away from the mock service discipline of the ship. Launcelot's contribution to the morale of the Expedition was incalculable; he upheld and comforted and counselled, he kept the peace while trenchantly arguing Christian dogma and ritual with Quintin Riley; he helped maintain standards of civilised behaviour just by being himself.’ Fleming was awarded the Polar Medal, in silver, one of just 16 such awards for the expedition.

One of the indirect benefits derived for his time in Antarctica was a knowledge of naval ways, care of Lieutenant-Commander R. E. D. Ryder, R.N., who had commanded the expedition’s vessel the
Penola, and would be awarded the V.C. for his gallant part in the St. Nazaire Raid. And that knowledge would shortly be put to good use.

Naval Chaplain - under fire in the Queen Elizabeth

Having since his days in Antarctica pursued an academic career, acting as an examining chaplain to a number of bishops while retaining a base at Trinity Hall, of which he became Dean in 1937, Fleming was appointed ‘Probationary Temporary Chaplain, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, additional to the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth’ in July 1940, and, after but a week’s indoctrination, was posted as Chaplain to the officers’ training establishment King Alfred in Hove. Here, such was the rapidity of training that it is said he became acquainted with nearly half of all serving R.N.V.R. officers over the next six months: indeed he found it ‘something of a problem to remain decently sober when invited to attend three passing-out parties each week.’

An excellent summary of Fleming’s subsequent wartime career appears in The Bishops, by Trevor Beeson: ‘Then in November 1940 [he was appointed to] the battleship H.M.S.
Queen Elizabeth, which after service in the North Atlantic became the flagship of Admiral Cunningham, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. Operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the closing stages of the Battle of Crete, brought the ship under frequent attack. During an engagement Fleming, who never wore uniform - preferring a flannel suit and a battered soft hat - would often ascend the bridge and use the intercom to give a running commentary for the benefit of the majority of the crew who were working below and could see nothing of the action. On 25 November 1941 he used the intercom for a unique spiritual purpose. Twenty-four hours earlier, the Queen Elizabeth, in company with two other battleships - Barham and Valiant - sailed from Alexandria but, in spite of an escort of eight destroyers, Barham, which was close to Queen Elizabeth, was struck by three torpedoes. The ship turned on its side, blew up, and within minutes was sunk, leaving 450 survivors in the water and more than 850 others, including the captain, dead. All this was witnessed from the Queen Elizabeth and amid the chaos Fleming obtained permission to say prayers for the dead and dying, and for the Fleet, over the intercom system. Shortly before Barham left Alexandria its chaplain, Gerald Ellison, who was destined to become the Bishop of Chester, then of London, left the ship following a disagreement with the captain. His successor was among those killed. Just over three weeks after the Barham disaster, the Queen Elizabeth was herself hit by a torpedo while in harbour at Alexandria and so badly damaged that repairs and refitting occupied more than eighteen months. This led to Fleming’s appointment in 1943 as senior chaplain of H.M.S. Ganges - a large training establishment at Shotley, near Ipswich.’ Following Ganges, Fleming served as Director of Service Ordination Candidates from December 1944 until the War’s end.

Many years later, however, in the summer of 1977, Fleming was delighted to be offered a month-long appointment as Honorary Chaplain in H.M.S.
Kent. Admiral Sir Jock Slater, then C.O. of the Kent, later wrote: ‘I will never forget the weeks he spent with me in H.M.S. Kent in 1977 ... Despite the difficulty he experienced in getting about the ship at sea, he did just that and there wasn't a single sailor who didn't know - and love - the “Bish” after only a few days. When Launcelot asked me if I thought the sailors might like to hear about the Graham Land Expedition and see some of his slides, I immediately agreed but was concerned that not many would turn up. Little did I know! The dining room was packed to bursting.’

Bishop of Portsmouth and Norwich - and Dean of Windsor

To his surprise, probably on account of his lack of parochial experience, Fleming was called to be Bishop of Portsmouth in 1949, becoming the youngest Bishop at the age of 43 years. But it was an entirely appropriate appointment - being a largely naval diocese - and one in which he flourished, soon winning over clergy and laity alike. And by the time of his departure to take up the reins at Norwich in 1959, Portsmouth was a busy and exceptionally well run diocese. Nonetheless, he also found time to Chair the Church of England Youth Council and get involved in the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. Norwich, with 650 churches and a shortage of clergy, proved more challenging, but with characteristic determination, he set about making notable improvements, among them the development of rural group ministries and, as an uncanny judge of character, and good in one-to-one encounters, attracting some first rate new clergymen. In 1971, however, as a result of a rare spinal disorder that affected his legs, he was compelled to resign, but he continued to lend valuable service in the House of Lords where, after a maiden speech about cruelty to whales, and piloting through the Antarctic Treaty bill, he was appointed to the Standing Committee on Environmental Pollution. Fleming was also an Honorary Vice-President of the Royal Geographical Society and onetime Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, but whether his daring driving habits also emanated from his years as an explorer remains unknown: ‘Driving with Launcelot, even when he was not pressed for time, could be a nerve-wracking experience in itself. He enjoyed driving fast, scoring plus one for every car which he passed and minus one for every car which overtook him. He drove well unless preoccupied with what he had been doing, and so the emergence from the Bishopswood drive on to the main Southampton road was a daily hazard. It was generally believed that the Portsmouth police were indulgent, though a group of young men about to be ordained in the Cathedral were asked to keep a sharp look-out for any police cars’ Donald Lindsay’s Friends for Life refers). On resigning as Bishop of Norwich in 1971, Fleming was appointed the Queen’s Domestic Chaplain and Dean of Windsor, in which capacity, among other duties, he officiated at the funeral of the Duke of Windsor, and acted as Registrar of the Order of the Garter. During this appointment in particular, Fleming received wonderful support from his wife, Jane, though she could become a little exasperated when her husband gave little notice of visitors: thus the occasion the Duke of Edinburgh appeared for lunch, only moments after the Bishop had told her of his imminent arrival - and proposed that cheese sandwiches would suffice. He was appointed K.C.V.O. on his retirement in 1976. Launcelot Fleming, ‘the sort of man one never forgets’, retired to Dorset, and died in Sherborne in July 1990. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints’ Church, Poyntington.

Sold with a selection of original photographs (approximately 30 images, including a fine large image of H.M.S.
Queen Elizabeth), mainly relevant to his wartime career in the R.N.V.R., copies of the biographies, Launcelot Fleming, by Giles Hunt, and Friends for Life, by Donald Lindsay, in addition to a copy of Portrait of Antarctica, the photographic contributors including Fleming, and from which all three publications much of the above information has been taken, in addition to reference to Trevor Beesom’s The Bishops.