Elephant Island – Alfred Buchanan Cheetham: Antarctic Seaman

It has been said that if ever there was a seaman entitled worthy of the title Antarctic Seaman then that person was Alf Cheetham.

Alfred Cheetham: Antarctic Seaman

Alf had been born in Blackburn, Lancashire in May 1866, the son of John and Annie Elizabeth Cheetham but his family moved to Hull when he was about ten years old. He ran away to sea in his teens and learned his seamanship on both the Hull trawlers and in the merchant fleets. By the turn of the century he was a boatswain in the merchant service and Royal Naval Reservist. He lived with his wife and up to fourteen children, down Bean Street between Hessle and Anlaby Roads.

Cheetham made his first trip to Antarctica as part of the Hull crew of the Morning under Captain Colbeck which was sent out to the McMurdo Sound in 1902/3 and again in 1903/4 to relieve the Captain Scott and his British National Antarctic Expedition on board the Discovery which was caught in thick ice. Ernest Shackleton returned with the ship and invited Alf to sail as boatswain and third officer on the British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition of 1907. Later, he went south again, this time with Captain Scott, as boatswain on the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition. When Scott and his companions failed to return he volunteered to join the search party but was turned down because he was a family man.

Elephant Island lies off the northern coast of the Antarctica peninsula and was was made famous by people like Shackleton and Cheetham.
©2005 Linda Garrison

In 1914 he was reunited with Shackleton and joined the Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 and, at 47, was one of the oldest members of the team. The Endurance, of course, became locked in the ice, and was eventually crushed and abandoned. Afterwards, Cheetham and the rest of the crew faced a desperate struggle across ice floes and heavy seas before finding a bleak haven at Elephant Island. Here most of them waited for many months whilst Shackleton and five companions made the perilous 88 mile crossing to South Georgia and returned in a rescue vessel.

Alf returned to Hull in the middle of the Great War to learn that one of his sons, William Alfred Cheetham, aged only 16 was missing presumed drowned whilst serving on the SS Adriatic in October 1916. He returned to sea but unfortunately was killed after his ship was torpedoed by the UB-112 off Blyth in August 1918 just a few months before the end of the war. Alf was a small man and highly regarded for his ability and cheerfulness. Shackleton said ‘he had been south more than any other man’ and Frank Worsley later described him in his book, Shackleton’s Boat Journey, as a ‘pirate down to his finger tips’. The Cheetham Ice Tongue, on the east coast of Victoria Land and Cape Cheetham, are named after Alfred Cheetham.

Select Bibliography

Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of Discovery and Exploration (USA: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2000)

Bernard Stonehouse, Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans (USA, John Wiley 2002)

Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic (London 1909, popular edition 1910) Edward Wilson, Diary of the Discovery Expedition to the Antarctic Regions 1901 – 1904 (UK: Blandford, 1966)

Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s Boat Journey (UK: Folio Society 1974)

Frank Worsley, Endurance (UK: Philip Allan,1931)

On-line References

http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/cheetha m_alfred.htm Cool Antarctica. Alfred Buchanan Cheetham (1867 – 1918).