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Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922)

Shackleton first went South in the Discovery with Scott, during the National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904. He took part in the Southern Journey to 82° 15' with Scott and Wilson. He organised three subsequent expeditions to the Antarctic:

  • The British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909 in the Nimrod, during which he sledged to within 97 miles of the South Pole
  • The British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1916, during which the Endurance was beset, drifted for ten months and was crushed in the sea ice of the Weddell Sea and during which Shackleton made his historic rescue voyage in the James Caird
  • The Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, 1921-1922, in the Quest, during which Shackleton died at Grytviken, South Georgia on 5 January 1922, following a coronary thrombosis. He was buried on 6 March in South Georgia and the simple cross and stone provides a shrine for pilgrims, among them many Old Alleynians

James Caird was a jute manufacturer in Dundee. Caird had known Sir Ernest Shackleton when he was Secretary at the Scottish Geographical Society, and became a staunch supporter of all his ventures. When Shackleton proposed the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916 James Caird became a major sponsor. The 23'4" whaler, built to Frank Worsley's design, was named after him.

The James Caird

Designed by Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance, the James Caird was built in 1914 by Messrs WJ Leslie of Coldharbour, Poplar, for Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1915. Double-ended and carvel built, her original length overall was 23'4" by 6'9" beam. Strong and relatively light, the James Caird had planking of Baltic pine, the keel and timbers of American elm, and the stem and stempost of English oak.

After the Endurance was crushed in the ice while drifting on the pack ice, the ship's carpenter built the James Caird 15" higher, constructed a whale back at each end and fitted her with a pump from part of the ship's compass. With the two other boats, the Stancomb Wills and the Dudley Docker, the James Caird enabled the twenty-seven-man crew from the Endurance to reach Elephant Island in six days. There, as the largest of the three whalers, the James Caird was prepared for sea again to seek rescue in South Georgia more than 800 miles away across the treacherous Southern Seas. She was fitted with sledge runners, and the space between the whale backs was covered with lids of boxes and old canvas. The canvas was sewn by holding it in the blubber fire until it thawed. One of the other boats' masts was bolted inside the keel of the Caird to prevent her from breaking her back in stormy seas.

Her sails were jib, standing lug and small mizzen. Additional stability was provided by ballast in bags made from canvas, filled with l5cwts. of shingle and another I5 cwts. of large stones (as shown in the artist's impression in the display).

Shackleton left Frank Wild in charge and set out to seek help in the James Caird with Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, John Vincent, Tim McCarthy and Harry McNeish. They took stores to last six men one month, since they reckoned that if they had not reached South Georgia in that time, they would all have died on the way.

During the sixteen days' voyage, which began on 24 April 1916, three men were on watch at a time, one steering, one bailing and one watching the sail, while the other three rested below. Navigating the Southern Ocean for more than 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia, through icy weather and mountainous seas, Shackleton and his men undertook the greatest of all small boat voyages.

Shackleton insisted on a strict routine of hot meals. Conditions were extremely uncomfortable. They were soaked constantly, and towards the end of the voyage they suffered from extreme thirst, as one of the water barrels had been damaged while loading.

On 10 May 1916, they came ashore on the west coast of South Georgia at 'Cave Cove' where they sheltered and rested in a cave for four days. Then they sailed the boat round to the north arm of King Haakon Bay, to 'Peggotty Camp', so named because they shored up the James Caird and lived inside her. After a short recuperation Shackleton, Worsley and Crean set off on 19 May over the unknown glaciers, mountains and snowfields of the island, equipped only with fifty feet of rope and a carpenter's adze. They reached the whaling station at Stromness on the following day, to the astonishment of the whalers who feared they must be dead. Theirs was the first crossing of South Georgia.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's skill, courage, leadership and above all, his concern and commitment towards his men, ensured, even in war-time, that throughout the world he became a hero. The Chief Scientist of the Expedition, J.M. (later Sir James ) Wordie wrote, "Shackleton possessed in unusual measure the highly poetic imagination which is traditionally associated with a love of exploration. He possessed the faculty of leadership to a pre-eminent degree. That, together with his generosity, made all the best men who served with him his staunch adherents. They had implicit faith in his judgement".

Shackleton rescued every member of his crew, and they received a tumultuous welcome on their return.

After Shackleton's death in 1922, Dr JQ Rowett OA, a school friend and sponsor of Shackleton's final expedition on the Quest, presented the James Caird to Dulwich College where it remained on display in a memorial setting until an enemy bomb destroyed its housing in 1944. In 1967, The National Maritime Museum offered care of the boat and it was restored by Cory's Barge Works in Charlton. After a time on display in The Neptune Hall, it was moved to the Polar Gallery in the National Maritime Museum in 1974. In 1985, the James Caird was returned to Dulwich College. On 12 September 1989, Lord Shackleton, Sir Ernest's younger son, viewed the James Caird in its new location in the North Cloister, on the occasion of the opening, by Lord Shackleton, of the new Third Form Building, to be known as The Shackleton Building. The boat, on its bed of stones from South Georgia and Aberystwyth, is now the background for the twice-yearly dinners of the James Caird Society held in the North Cloister.

A major exhibition was held at the College from October 2000 to February 2001, entitled 'Shackleton: The Antarctic and Endurance'. It coincided with a major worldwide revival of interest in Shackleton as a heroic figure. In September 2001 Melinda Mueller, a poet from Seattle, Washington, visited the College and gave a reading from her acclaimed volume of poems published last year about Shackleton's Endurance expedition called What the Ice Gets. Frank Hurley’s film of the Endurance expedition, South, was restored by the British Film Institute and issued on video. A three-dimensional Imax documentary was released in February 2001, and Columbia Tristar are shooting a feature film about the fate of Endurance and the boat journey, with direction by Wolfgang Peterson (director of Das Boot), and (it is rumoured) text by Werner Herzog. Shackleton was played by Kenneth Branagh in a new Channel Four film directed by Charles Sturridge. All this has resulted in what the Wall Street Journal called ‘Shackletonmania’.

Sir Ernest Shackleton