One of the most famous people during the British Heroic Age of Polar Exploration (1900 – 1917) was Ernest Shackleton. He took part in Scott’s expedition of 1902-4 but then led the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-9 and the famous Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917 when his ship, Endurance, was slowly crushed to pieces by pack ice, leaving his team stranded on ice floes far from any vestige of civilisation or hope of rescue. Their subsequent exploits and final escape with no loss of life made Shackleton and his team the stuff of twentieth century legend. What is not so well known today, however, is the part that people from Hull play in all stages of the Shackleton polar story.
Ernest Shackleton was born in 1874. He did not do too well at school and went to sea at the age of 16 as an apprentice on a square rigged sailing ship, the Hoghton Tower. By the age of twenty he had voyaged to most parts of the world and was well on the way to making a most skilled seafarer. During the 1890s he passed a series of exams, becoming a First Mate in 1896 and in 1898 was certified as a Master Mariner which allowed him to command British merchant ships. At the outbreak of the Boer War in South Africa in 1899 he transferred to the troopship Tintagel Castle where he struck up a friendship with Cedric Longstaff, a Hull-born soldier who was travelling with his regiment to South Africa. Cedric’s father was Llewellyn Longstaff an industrialist and philanthropist, owner of the Hull-based paint manufacturer, Blundell Spence, who was the main financial backer to the British Antarctic Expedition to be led by Captain Scott.
Afterwards, Shackleton was able to use his friendship with Cedric to obtain an interview with Llewellyn with the intention of trying to get a place on the expedition. Longstaff senior was certainly impressed by Shackleton and in turn used his influence to ensure Shackleton got a berth on the expedition. Shackleton played an important part in the first year of Scott’s expedition but was dogged by ill health and was sent home early by Scott on the relief ship Morning on medical grounds.
Shackleton was mortified at what he perceived as a personal failure and determined to make amends by mounting another expedition. He was relentless in pursuit of this end and eventually managed to obtain sufficient backing and support to mount the Nimrod expedition which returned to the Antarctic in 1907. When this expedition sailed, at least three of the Nimrod’s crew were from Hull including the captain, Lieutenant Rupert G. England, who had previously been second in command to Captain Colbeck on the vessel Morning which been sent as relief to Scott’s Discovery. Two other Hull crew members were A.E. Harbord, auxiliary second officer, and Alfred Cheetham, third officer and Boatswain. Shackleton had got to know Cheetham well when he had sailed back on the Morning to New Zealand from Scott’s expedition.
The Nimrod initially sailed to Lyttelton in New Zealand and then set off for Antarctica on the 1st January 1908, being towed for the 1,650 miles to the edge of the ice by the Koonya in order to conserve coal. The ship found it extremely difficult to make its way through the packed ice but Shackleton eventually established a winter base in the McMurdo Sound. However, Captain England and Shackleton did not always see eye to eye on the voyage out and England relinquished the captaincy after dropping off the expedition and returning the Nimrod to New Zealand for the winter season. Meanwhile, after wintering at Cape Royds, Shackleton and three other expedition members set a new record for the furthest point south then reached, only ninety seven miles from the Pole. They were also the first people to set foot on the South Polar Plateau. The expedition also made the first ascent of Mount Erebus and three of the team made a journey to successfully find the approximate location of the South Magnetic Pole.
When the expedition returned to England in 1909 they were all hailed as heroes and Shackleton was knighted. During the following years the Norwegian Roald Amudsen became the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911. Captain Scott arrived there a little later, although he and his companions lost their lives on the return journey. Despite this, interest in all things Antarctic remained intense and Shackleton was able to secure sufficient support to mount the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. The idea was to travel across Antarctica from one ship, the Endurance, and be picked up by another, the Aurora, in the Ross Sea. Interest was intense and Shackleton was inundated with applications – over 5,000 – for places on the expedition. Eventually he whittled the numbers down to 56 people, half of whom were to sail with him in the Endurance and half were to travel in the Aurora to the Ross Sea.
The subsequent voyage and loss of the Endurance have become the stuff of legend but what is not well known is that five of the ship’s twenty eight man crew, were born or based in Hull. No other place supplied so many people. Shackleton, noted for the quality of his teams, had turned to what he described as the ‘great seaport of Hull’ for so many of his sailors.
The Endurance left Plymouth on the 8th August 1914, four days after the Great War had been declared. On the outbreak of hostilities, Shackleton had put his ship and expedition at the service of the country but had received the curt message ‘Proceed’ from Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. The ship sailed south by way of Buenos Aires and South Georgia but as she moved into the ice, the expedition experienced conditions which were bad even by Antarctic standards. On the 17th January 1915, when well into the Weddell Sea, the Endurance was firmly trapped in the ice. Around a month later, with no sign of quick escape at hand, Shackleton ordered the ship to be prepared for wintering. Long months were spent by the expedition in the dark, encased in the freezing ice but the real danger came with the return of the Austral spring. Towards the end of October 1915, the Endurance was forced against an ice flow and badly damaged. Water flooded the vessel and within a few days Shackleton ordered abandon ship. The party camped nearby on the ice and transferred their provisions from the stricken ship. On the 27th November 1915 the Endurance finally slipped beneath the ice.
Shackleton and his men then spent a couple of months camped on an ice floe in the hope that it would drift towards Paulet Island some 250 miles away. Later, they tried sledging towards their destination then attempted once more to set up camp on a moving ice floe. Although they had edged closer to Paulet Island it was evident that their way was blocked by more ice. It became clear that they were drifting northwards and past the island and on the 9th April 1916 their ice floe broke into two. Shackleton then ordered his men into their three lifeboats which they had dragged along with them. After seven days at sea, the three tiny craft arrived at Elephant Island. It was land, but what an inhospitable place, far from the shipping lanes and from any hope of rescue.
In order to save the day, Shackleton and five others set out in the lifeboat, James Caird, for South Georgia, some eight hundred miles away. Although they modified the vessel for the trip, the James Caird was still a tiny craft only seven metres in length and her voyage through some of the worst seas in the world was an epic. Amongst the crew chosen to accompany Shackleton was John Vincent, a Hull trawlerman. Although some have said that Shackleton chose Vincent because it was thought he might cause trouble if left on Elephant Island, he was in fact one of the strongest men in the party and thus ideal as an oarsmen. They encountered huge waves and constant ice but finally made it to South Georgia after fourteen days. The navigation skills of Frank Worsley were crucial for if they had missed the island then all would have been lost.
However, they still faced an overland journey across peaks of Alpine proportions in order to reach the whaling stations and safety on the other coast of South Georgia. Shackleton and thee companions made the journey and were the first people to cross the island. They were successful, finally staggering into the manager’s office at Stromness. No one else was to cross South Georgia until 1955.
It took Shackleton several attempts before he finally got through to his party left on Elephant Island aboard the Chilean Navy tug Yelcho in August 1916. All were rescued after 105 days on the island. Despite their ordeal and adventures, everyone in the Endurance party returned safely to Great Britain. Ironically, not all were to survive the war which was then still raging. Alfred Cheetham was amongst who lost their lives before the war ended in November 1918. His ship was torpedoed in August 1918.
Despite their traumatic experiences, all the other Hull based men seem to have gone back to the sea. John Vincent returned to Hull and skippered trawlers, apparently also sailing on merchant navy vessels during the inter-war years. He also worked for some time as a pilot and fishing instructor to the Finnish government before moving with his wife to Grimsby where they brought up their family. Although he was nearly sixty when the Second World War broke out, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was given command of the armed trawler, Alfredian, operating in the North Sea. He developed pneumonia whilst on patrol and died in hospital in Grimsby on 19th January 1941, aged sixty one.
William Stephenson, the chief stoker, was also a Hull trawlerman and after returning to Hull he seems to have gone fishing again. He died of cancer in hospital in Hull in 1953, aged 64. Ernest Holness, the other fireman, also returned to Hull and married Lillian Rose Bettles in June 1917; they subsequently had three children. He returned to trawling and was washed overboard from the trawler Lord Lonsdale off the Faroe Islands on the 29th September 1924.
Perhaps the best known local in later years was Charles Green, the expedition’s cook. When he returned home in 1916 he found that his parents, having not heard anything of him for two years, had presumed him dead and cashed in his life insurances. His girlfriend had also married someone else. In 1918, however, he married Ethel May Johnson in Hull and the following year returned to the merchant navy. Shackleton had requested he join his later expedition but his unexpected death put paid to this. Charles Green voyaged across the world in merchant navy during the 1920s but retired from the sea when his wife was taken ill in 1931 and took a job on the night shift in a Hull bakery, looking after his wife by day.
Ethel died in 1936 and during the Second World War Charles became a fire watcher during the worst of the blitz. He also lost his own house and at one point lived in an air raid shelter for over two weeks. Shackleton had given him a set of magic lantern slides of the expedition and in later years Green engaged many people in Hull and beyond with over a thousand lectures. He lived long enough, not only to attend the commissioning of the new Antarctic Survey ship, HMS Endurance at Portsmouth in 1968, but also to attend the reunion of the survivors of Shackleton’s expedition aboard HMS Endurance in 1970. He died in hospital at Beverley in 1974.
Such is the story of the Hull people who went south with Shackleton. The man, known to his team as ‘The Boss’ himself, of course, had returned south on board the Quest at the end of 1921, intending to circumnavigate the Antarctic. He died of a heart attack on board his ship in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia in January 1922 and his grave at Grytviken, little more than a stone’s throw from the ex-Hull steam trawler Viola, is now visited by thousands of visitors from Antarctic cruise ships each Austral summer.
Marjorie Fisher, Shackleton (UK: Barrie 1957)
Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic (UK: Heineman, 1910)
Ernest Shackleton, South: the story of Shackleton’s last expedition 1914 – 1917 (UK: Heineman, 1919)
Bernard Stonehouse, Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans (USA: John Wiley and Sons, 2002)
Frank Worsley, Shackleton’s Boat Journey (UK: Folio Society 1974)
Frank Worsley, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (UK: 1931 republished W.Norton & Co., 2000)
Sir Ernest Shackleton 1874 – 1922. Trans-Antarctica Expedition 1914 – 1917
Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition: The 2001 Documentary