This article about Ernest Shackleton, written by Barry Milton, first appeared in the Sydenham Society newsletter and in the January 1999 issue of Sydenham Life.
In the quadrangle of Dulwich College stands 'The James Cair', a tiny wooden ship only about twenty two feet long. At first sight, it looks no bigger than one of the rowing boats you'd expect to find in a public park.
Yet it was on this small ship that Shackleton, who spent many of his formative years in Sydenham, embarked on one of the greatest voyages of all time. Sailing across almost 759 miles of stormy southern ocean he rescued the crew of his apparently doomed expedition stranded on an island close to Antarctica. This, and many of his other southern expeditions, have led many observers to name him (rather than Scott or Amundsen) as the greatest Antarctic explorer of all time.
Shackleton's childhood home was St. David's on Westwood Hill. The large house just west of St. Bartholomew's Church is clearly marked with a blue plaque. His father, Henry, was a local doctor, trained at Trinity College Dublin, who moved to South London from Ireland in 1884 when Ernest was ten. He first set up practice in Croydon, and when that did not succeed, moved to Sydenham shortly afterwards.
Ernest was the second child and elder son of a family of ten which included two brothers and eight sisters. All of the children were born within the first ten years of their parents' marriage - quite a production line - but not unusual for the late Victorian period.
Ernest's mother, Letitia, became ill with a mysterious illness within a few years of moving to Sydenham and spent all of her waking hours in a sickroom well away from the family. Ernest, like the rest of the children, was largely brought up by his father, with help from his mother-in-law and a number of female relatives from Ireland.
As a hardworking doctor, Henry Shackleton treated many local residents. One of his most famous patients was Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, who lived just around the corner in Jew's Walk. One day in 1898 Dr. Henry received a summons to attend the house immediately. Although he arrived within minutes, he was too late to save Eleanor, who had committed suicide by taking a dose of prussic acid in the aftermath of an unhappy love affair.
Ernest was educated by a governess at home until the age of eleven and a half. He then went for a short time to a preparatory school nearby and enrolled at Dulwich College when he was 13. School fees were then £15 per year, relatively low compared with other London Public Schools.
Shackleton's first biographer, Fisher, contacted a few boyhood friends who attended school with Ernest and accompanied him over the hill to the College. They remember him as a friendly and good-natured boy but one who was earnest in nature as well as name, joining the Band of Hope and persuading his sisters and friendly and good-natured boy but one who was earnest in nature as well as name, joining the Band of Hope and persuading his sisters and friends to sign a pledge against the demon drink. He retained a noticeable Irish accent due to his early upbringing in Ireland, which stayed with him throughout his life.
Although Dulwich College had a fine academic record, Ernest was not one of their star pupils. He was a keen reader of literature and poetry but was always close to the bottom of the class and did not shine in team games.
After leaving Dulwich at the age of sixteen, he spent eleven years in the Merchant Navy and then embarked on a series of Antarctic expeditions which established his reputation and made him a household name.
His first expedition to reach the South Pole with Scott in 1901, nearly ended in disaster; when Shackleton, Scott and Wilson set off from base camp they barely made four miles a day and were forced to turn back with Ernest close to death from the effects of scurvy and a suspected heart murmur. In his second attempt in 1907, this time in an expedition under his own command, Shackleton got to within 100 miles of the Pole. He returned as a national hero and was knighted soon afterwards.
The next few years were spent in the doldrums. Haunted by crippling debt and occasional chest pains, Shackleton had to sit at home moping when Scott and Amundson fought it out over who was to be the first to the Pole. When the race ended with Amundsen's success and the death of Scott and his party, only one last great Antarctic adventure remained - the crossing of the continent - and Ernest was determined to claim it as his. So began one of the greatest journeys of all time.
When his ship, The Endurance, reached Antarctica in 1914 it became firmly stuck in the pack ice and eventually sank. Under Ernest's leadership the expedition then drifted on pack ice and in the lifeboats for five months until they reached Elephant Island just off the north coast of Antarctica. There was little hope of rescue and even less of long-term survival in such a place the nearest point of civilisation was a whaling station 750 miles away on South Georgia across one of the wildest seas in the world.
His journey to South Georgia in one of the lifeboats The James Caird with six of his expedition, remains one of the greatest achievements of polar exploration. Buffeted by huge seas, soaked to the skin and bailing the boat incessantly, they finally made land after 17 days at sea. After a 36 hour climb over the unexplored South Georgia mountains they finally reached the whaling station. From there, Shackleton and his crew were able to commandeer a ship to rescue their companions. After two years on the ice not single life had been lost. The Boss as he was affectionately known by his men, had come up trumps again.
Ernest died of a heart attack in 1922 at the age of 48 on board a ship carrying him to Antarctic for his fourth expedition. Appropriately, he was buried in South Georgia, the destination had struggled so manfully to reach during his epic sea journey on board The James Caird.
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