‘When disaster strikes, pray for Shackleton…’

Ernest Shackleton explored the South Pole three times. He was hailed a hero and knighted by Edward VII. He died during the third attempt. But then, especially around the making of the 1948 movie Scott of the Antarctic, his rival, Captain Scott, was more famous. Now fashion has come full circle, because Shackleton’s egalitarian leadership is seen as more modern than Scott’s hierarchical, doomed approach, writes TOBY PORTER

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who died a century ago in January 1922, led three British expeditions to the Antarctic which are being remembered at his former school, Dulwich College, and by the BFI on the South Bank.

Irish-born Shackleton and his family moved to Sydenham when he was 10 in 1884, as his father Henry had qualified as a doctor and was looking for work.

Anxiety at the worsening situation for English people in Ireland may also have contributed.

His brother Frank was later accused – and later exonerated – of stealing the Irish Crown Jewels.

He was taught at home by a governess until going to Fir Lodge Preparatory School in Sydenham.

The young man did not particularly distinguish himself as a scholar at his next school, Dulwich College – and was said to be bored by his studies.

Ernest Shackleton Picture: Wiki Commons

“I never learned much geography at school,” he said.

He was allowed to leave at 16 and to go to sea, in 1890.

By 1898, he had sailed to all corners of the globe and was certified as a master mariner, qualifying him to command a British ship anywhere in the world.

Shackleton’s first experience of the polar regions was as third officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901–1904, from which he was sent home early on health grounds – he and his companions Scott and Edward Adrian Wilson set a new southern record by marching to latitude 82°S.

But when Scott published his account, the two became rivals.

The James Caird Picture: Wiki Commons

During the Nimrod expedition of 1907–1909, he and three companions established a new record – Farthest South latitude at 88°S – only 97 geographical miles from the South Pole.

The largest advance to the pole in exploration history.

Also, members of his team climbed Mount Erebus, the most active Antarctic volcano. For these achievements, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII on his return home.

From 1909-14 he tried to launch a tobacco company, a scheme for selling to collectors postage stamps overprinted King Edward VII Land – Shackleton had been appointed Antarctic postmaster by the New Zealand authorities – and a Hungarian mining concession he had bought near the city of Nagybanya, now part of Romania.

The Discovery Picture: Dulwich College

None of these prospered. His main income came from lecture tours.

After Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in December 1911, Shackleton turned his attention to crossing Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole with the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–1917.

Shackleton used his considerable fund-raising skills, and the expedition was financed largely by private donations, although the British government gave £10,000 (about £900,000 in 2019 terms).

His selection methods were unusual. Physicist Reginald James was asked if he could sing. He also doled out the ship’s chores equally among officers, scientists, and seamen and joined crew members every evening with sing-alongs, jokes, and games.

But disaster struck when its ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice in January 1915 and was slowly crushed.

A (male) cat named Mrs Chippy, owned by carpenter Harry McNish, was shot in the belief he would not have survived the ordeal that followed.

The crew escaped by camping on the sea ice until it disintegrated and then sank 11 months later in November.

The James Caird with Dan Snow. Picture: Dulwich College

They sailed on lifeboats to Elephant Island and ultimately South Georgia island, a stormy ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles – and Shackleton’s most famous exploit.

During the journey Shackleton gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley, who had lost his during the boat journey.

Shackleton suffered frostbitten fingers as a result.

He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 1919 King’s Birthday Honours list for his efforts in the Allied Expeditionary Force fighting the Bolsheviks in northern Russia.

Later that year, the British had to abandon the White Russians to the advancing Red Army.

In 1921, he returned to the Antarctic with the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition.

In the early hours of January 5, 1922. Shackleton summoned the expedition’s physician Alexander Macklin to his cabin, complaining of back pains and other aches.

The doctor said he had been overdoing things and should try to “lead a more regular life”, to which Shackleton answered: “You are always wanting me to give up things. What is it I ought to give up?”

“Chiefly alcohol, boss,” replied Macklin.

A few moments later, at 2.50am on January 5, 1922, Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack on board his ship Quest, anchored off Grytviken in South Georgia.

He died heavily in debt.

He was famous for a few months, but his rival Captain Scott was more celebrated.

Emily Dorman, Lady Shackleton. Picture: Wiki Commons

In his 1956 address to the British Science Association, Sir Raymond Priestley, one of his contemporaries, said “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton”.

In 2002, Shackleton was voted 11th in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.

By then, Scott’s rigid authoritarian approach had fallen out of favour. His exertions in raising funds to finance his expeditions and the immense strain of the expeditions themselves were believed to have worn out his strength.

At his wife’s request, he was buried on South Georgia. His spirit had no place in England, she said.

He was buried on March 6 in South Georgia and the simple cross and stone provides a shrine for pilgrims.

A service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, at which the King and other members of the royal family were represented.

But he had £40,000 in debts – the equivalent of about £2million today.

Dr John Quiller Rowett, a school friend and sponsor of Shackleton’s final expedition on the Quest, presented the ship James Caird to Dulwich College where it remained on display in a memorial setting until an enemy bomb destroyed its housing in 1944.

In 2015, the college completed The Laboratory, dedicating a new space to the James Caird.

The design of the building and placement of the boat mean that she can now be seen from every angle at ground level and, for the first time from above, allowing every visitor to reflect on, and be inspired by, the achievement of Shackleton and his crew.

The Blue Plaque of Ernest Shackleton at 12 Westwood Hill Picture: Wiki Commons

On January 5, 2022, a sledge used during Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition was given a new home in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Also on the centenary of Shackleton’s death, Dan Snow, the historian and television presenter announced he will join an expedition to find Shackleton’s Endurance, in the Antarctic.

At the end of this year Dr Joe Spence, Master of Dulwich College, plans to join the Shackleton 100 trip where he will visit the Antarctic.


Main Pic: Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton in wind clothing designed and made by Burberry
Picture: Dulwich College




Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ

Former Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.

So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.

Everyone at the South London Press thanks you for your continued support.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.