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The Boss

Throughout this year, we’re marking the birthdays of some of the men who have been part of Discovery’s astonishing 120+ year history.

15th February 2024, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Henry Shackleton. One of the most famous Polar explorers in the world, Shackleton’s legacy is nothing short of wondrous; in this blog, we’ll delve into his time on Discovery. There are many, many stories to marvel at, so grab a cup of cocoa and chunk of pemmican and read on!

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on February 15th 1874 in County Kildare Ireland, to where his family (who were originally from Yorkshire) had moved. His father hoped for Ernest to enter the field of medicine, though Ernest had other ideas; at the age of 16 he joined his first ship sailing out of Liverpool in the merchant service. He took naturally to a life at sea and progressed through the ranks. By the time he was 24, he was qualified to command a British ship anywhere she may be.

Shackleton’s drive to work hard for the things he desired and believed in continued throughout his life.

In 1901 he joined the British National Antarctic Expedition on board the Discovery. Initially, Shackleton’s application to board Discovery on her pioneering expedition was unsuccessful. However, following a recommendation by Llewellyn Longstaff (one of the major funders of the voyage) he was appointed Third Lieutenant and in charge of holds, provisions and stores as well as being tasked with undertaking deep sea analysis.

Sir Clements Markham described the young Irishman as “a steady, high principled young man, full of zeal, strong and hard-working and exceedingly good-tempered”. His natural charm and fair temperament lead to him being very well liked amongst the men of Discovery; he was open, outgoing, and far less reserved than some of his counterparts such as Scott.

Ernest Shackleton aboard Discovery, photographed by Thomas Hodgson. (K.19.48)

He also had a passion for poetry, and would be noted as reciting his favourite poems, often in unexpected circumstances or without warning – much to the joy (and sometimes bewilderment) of his peers!

Poetry and reading were not Shackleton’s only literary pastimes during the winters aboard Discovery. He was appointed editor of the prestigious South Polar Times, a monthly publication created by the officers and crew to help ward off boredom; featuring caricatures, puzzles, poetry, marvellous illustrations by Edward Wilson, and more. The “SPT” became so popular that a secondary publication had to be produced alongside, known as The Blizzard.

Cover of the South Polar Times (SKE 5.1)

Mon 7 April 1902 – Blizzard blowing. Spent the whole morning and afternoon arranging the “Editor’s office” in one of the holds. We built up (Shackle and I) the whole of the cases leaving a small passage and a small room at one end where we arranged cases for seats and a table for Shackle’s typewriter. We sorted out some hundreds of magazines, given to us at Lyttleton, and found among them a good number of Scribner’s, quite the best of all. The place is most comfortable, not cold or stuffy and lit by candle lamps. There are cases of chocolates and raisins there, which we keep an eye on to see that they don’t get spoilt by the damp, and Shackle has fixed a rope to the door which enables him to open or shut from the other end of the hold, according to whether he wants his visitor to remain outside or to come in. It’s a select office, and strangers with no business are not admitted as a rule.

Edward wilson describing Shackleton's office aboard Discovery

As well as collating the South Polar Times, a stranger with no business sneaking into Shackleton’s office may find he and Wilson printing programmes for various theatre performances and other evening entertainments, to be held in the hut.

By the second volume of the South Polar Times, however, Bernacchi had taken role of editor; as Shackleton was sent home due to ill health.

On 2nd November 1902, Captain Scott, Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton set off on their famed Southern journey. For over 90 days, the trio battled with the elements, depleting supplies and failing dogs, on a journey during which they set a new furthest South record. The Expedition’s toils did not limit themselves to those of the weather however, as Shackleton began to fall very ill with scurvy.

Such was the lameness of Shackleton, that on the return journey, the trio discarded all except the supplies that they needed, and Captain Scott and Edward Wilson took on the pulling themselves; an act of care that caused Shackleton to write that “no man ever had the good fortune to have better, stronger and more self-denying friends”. They returned to Discovery – now alive with the presence of the Morning relief crew – on 3rd February 1903.

‘Southern Party Sledging’ by Stanley L. Wood. (DUNIH 445.1)

Given his poor health, Shackleton was invalided back to New Zealand a year before the end of the expedition. He busied himself however in fitting out the Discovery relief expeditions under the Admiralty Committee, and also helped in fitting out the Argentine expedition on the ARA Uruguay that went to the relief of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition.

He married Emily Mary Dorman in 1904 on his return from the Antarctic and the Discovery  Expedition and so, followed a time pursuing a career back home as befitted a gentleman. He became secretary and treasurer of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; a post he resigned from to contest the Dundee seat at the 1906 election as a Unionist candidate. In this he was unsuccessful and found a position as personal assistant to William Beardmore, head of a Glasgow firm of battleship builders and armour plate manufacturers.

Ernest Shackleton and Emily Shackleton. Public domain via Library of Congress.

Such normality did not suit Shackleton. So, he  took an expedition to Antarctica in 1907 on the Nimrod. On this expedition, Shackleton established a “furthest south” record for the time – just 97 miles from the South Pole – while another party from the expedition were the first to reach the magnetic South Pole. They also took the very first motor car to Antarctica.

During the Nimrod expedition, Shackleton also reignited his polar publishing career, producing the Aurora Australis – the first book to ever be published in Antarctica. Again, this incredible piece of publishing was created to ward off boredom during the long winter and features illustrations, written pieces, lithographs and more.

Perhaps inspired by his days as editor of the South Polar Times, Ernest took with him a printing press and all of the other materials required to produce a fully-bound book; of which only a handful were made and are identified by their unique packing-crates-turned-book-covers. We are extremely fortunate to hold a copy in our Recognised Collections, which you can adopt and join the Shackleton fans nationally who proudly support the continued care of this significant artefact.

Spread in Aurora Australis (K. 14)

After Amundsen and Scott had reached the South Pole in 1912, Shackleton thought that the next great conquest was to traverse the Antarctic continent from coast to coast via the Pole and with this end, so set forth the Endurance expedition of 1914-17. Although this expedition was possibly the least successful Antarctic Expedition at the time in terms of achieving the goal – through no fault of planning or foresight – it became one of the greatest adventure stories of all time and enshrined Shackleton’s reputation in legend. It also almost reunited the intrepid explorer with his first Antarctic ship, Discovery, as she was Captained by James Fairweather (an experienced merchant navy captain from Dundee) and set out to save the men of Endurance.

However, on reaching South America, Captain Fairweather was notified that Ernest Shackleton had in fact managed to save all of his men, with use of a Chilean ship.

Endurance in the pack ice. (ROY.30.1.61)

Return to England was once again an anti-climax for Shackleton, and he thus spent a long time on a lecture tour circuit. He put together another expedition to Antarctica aboard the Quest in 1921 in an attempt to map 2000 miles (3200 km) of coastline and conduct meteorological and geological research. By this time he was in poor health, though was disguising it well from those around him, blaming muscular pains or the like.

Black and white portrait of Ernest Shackleton. Side view. Shackleton is wearing a light grey suit jacket and white collared shirt. Plain backdrop.
Portrait of Shackleton, from a Discovery album compiled by Sir Clements Markham. (DUNIH 444.1)

He died of a suspected heart attack on board the Quest as she was at anchor in King Edward Cove, South Georgia at the age of 47 in 1922. Shackleton was buried on South Georgia and his death brought to a close the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration. The grave was marked by a headstone of Scottish granite in 1928.

Knighted in 1909, to this day Sir Ernest Shackleton remains one of the world’s most famous Polar explorers – and it is little wonder. His leadership skills are revered, and we are privileged to teach them to the next generation of young explorers from all over the world who participate in our education programme!

Immerse yourself in the National British Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904 at Discovery Point; as you walk aboard the ship in the footsteps of Captain Scott, Shackleton, and more!

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