Frank Oates (1840–1875) FRGS
Explorer and naturalist

Frank Oates (1840–1875) FRGSThe unspoilt green space of Meanwood Park, a favourite with families, walkers and dogs, was once the garden of the house called Meanwoodside (now demolished) built by Edward Oates in 1834. His descendants were to link Meanwood with the far reaches of the world. One of his sons, Frank, lies buried in a remote spot on the Botswana/Zimbabwe border; his second son, William, is buried in Madeira; his grandson, Lawrence Oates, known throughout the world for the manner of his death, lies lost in the Antarctic wastes. (More of Lawrence next month, on the centenary of his death.) This is the story of Frank Oates, one of the early explorers of southern Africa and a dedicated collector and student of natural history.

The Oates family was a long established and prosperous family of Leeds merchants, landowners and lawyers. Edward Oates (1792-1865) had practised as a lawyer in London and Malta before he returned to Leeds and in 1834 bought land along Meanwood Beck and built his house. He married Susan, daughter of Edward Grace, JP, and they had three sons (two other children died): Frank, born in 1840, William Edward (1841) and Charles George (1844).

At Meanwoodside Edward devoted himself to creating a garden from the rough fields, with water features along the Beck, plantations, and in one corner an ‘American garden’, with rhododendrons, pools and streams, a bridge, a column, all still identifiable today. When the boys were home from school the garden was their playground. Here Frank developed a passionate interest in nature, particularly wild birds, an interest which was to inspire him to travel into the unknown in search of new species. He went to Oxford to study the natural sciences, but fell ill from overwork and left without taking his degree. As part of his recovery, he travelled in Central and North America, where he made a collection of birds and insects. On his return in 1872 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Now he set his mind on Africa, on a journey along the Zambezi to see the Victoria Falls, first described by Livingstone in 1855, and on into the still unknown territory to the north. On 5 March 1873, accompanied by his brother William, he sailed for Natal. They trekked through the Transvaal into Matabeleland, where it had been agreed William would turn back. Frank had to negotiate the next stage of the journey with the demanding and temperamental King Lobengula of the Matabele, but while he was there he was given permission to watch the ‘Great Dance’ of the Matabele, which very few outsiders had witnessed. After three frustrated attempts to make progress, he and his two companions finally reached the Zambezi in December 1874, where he collected specimens of the flora and fauna. Although the wet season had begun, with all its health risks (he had rejected advice to take along a portable coffin!) he pressed on to the Falls, perhaps the first European to see them in full flood. ‘A day not to be forgotten’, he recorded with typical brevity. After sketching and painting the Falls, he began the return journey, but developed a dangerous fever and died twelve days later, on 5 February 1875. He was 35.

His companions buried him, and gathered up his notes and collections. After travelling on for several miles they found that his favourite dog, Rail, was missing: he was discovered back at the grave, standing guard over his master’s body. A memorial stone to Frank Oates was later erected at the grave. His collections and journals were packed up and sent on the long journey to his brother Charles at Meanwoodside, their arrival awaited with deep emotion. Charles distributed the specimens to specialist collections, and began the work of editing Frank’s journals, which he published with a personal memoir in 1881, under the title Matabele Land and the Victoria Falls, illustrated with Frank and William’s fine drawings and watercolours.

Frank emerges as a quiet, amiable but determined figure, one who according to the Leeds Mercury ‘upheld the reputation of Englishmen’ overseas. His understated style – he described his plan to travel 1600 miles into deepest Africa as ‘a little trip’ – was later to find an echo in his nephew Lawrence’s famous farewell line. Frank Oates’ name is still remembered in Africa and his grave apparently survives. In this country, the Oates collection at Gilbert White’s House at Selborne, Hampshire, commemorates Frank as well as Lawrence Oates – sadly far away from his family home at Meanwood.

Eveleigh Bradford
February 2012