Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence and Author of The Great Horizon.
110 years ago, the crew of ‘Nimrod’ were greeted by rapturous crowds on their return to London. As accolades poured in, Shackleton basked in the glow of victory… but in secret, he knew that he had unfinished work to do.
Just after 5 pm on 14th June 1909, a train from Dover pulled up at Charing Cross Station and one of the world’s most famous polar explorers stepped onto the platform. Ernest Shackleton, a newly-returning hero, had spent the best part of the last two years in the Antarctic. Sailing on board the Nimrod, he had discovered and named the Beardmore Glacier in honour of his sponsor, the rich businessman William Beardmore of Glasgow; he had made the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the world’s most southerly active volcano; and he had made excursions into hitherto unknown territory on the South Polar Plateau. Although the South Pole had eluded him, he had achieved a new ‘Furthest South’ of 88° 23’, just 97 miles from the Pole. With his optimism and leadership had managed to maintain a sense of camaraderie among a diverse group of men, some of whom had joined the expedition on a last-minute whim. And they had all come home alive.
On his arrival in Britain, Shackleton had travelled up from Dover with his wife, Emily, and several of the Nimrod’s crew; a large crowd of family and friends had assembled to greet them in London. According to The Globe newspaper, “conspicuous among the eager throng were Lieut. Shackleton’s little son and daughter – Raymond, a dark-haired boy of four and a-half, and Cecily, a tiny tot, two and a-half years old.” Shackleton’s first attention was devoted to his children, who had been left in the care of their grandparents while Emily was in Dover. It is unlikely that Cecily had any memory of him, as she was only about nine months old when he had departed.
Representing the RSGS on the crowded platform was Major Lachlan Forbes, the Society’s Secretary. The reception party also included the present and former Presidents of the RGS, Major Leonard Darwin and Sir Clements Markham. Robert Falcon Scott, with whom Shackleton shared an uneasy rivalry, was in attendance, and the inevitable handshake must have offered a remarkable photo opportunity had anyone been able to record it. But there was no time for awkwardness. To the cheers of hundreds of onlookers, Shackleton and his wife were swept out of the station and into a horse-drawn carriage for a triumphant procession down the Strand and into Trafalgar Square. There is a story that somewhere along the route, the horses were removed and an eager team of men drew the carriage along instead. For a man who had dreamt of glorious endeavour from an early age, the euphoria must have been overwhelming.
Needless to say, during the weeks that followed, Shackleton was an honoured guest at a string of glittering social events. Politically, it was an interesting time: Germany was a rising power, and the fear of war was mounting. In the newspapers, Shackleton’s exploits were lauded as supreme examples of courage and gallantry, raising the morale of the British public. King Edward VII described the expedition as the greatest geographical event of his reign, and awarded him the CVO (Commander of the Victorian Order); a few months later, he was knighted. Shackleton’s single regret, which he kept largely to himself, was that he had not reached the Pole. He had made the decision to turn back on his southern journey to save the lives of himself and his men; and no one could criticise him for it. But it still rankled, especially now that Scott was openly announcing plans for a new Antarctic expedition of his own.
Meanwhile, there was an ambitious lecture tour to be accomplished. With his natural showmanship, Shackleton held audiences in the palm of his hand as he described horrifying dangers and deprivations; he was capable of sudden brilliant flashes of humour, and never failed to pay tribute to his men, whose dedicated work had yielded significant findings in the fields of biology, geography and geology. The very small minority of listeners who remained slightly sceptical seemed to take the form of elderly ladies, no doubt armed with opera glasses and alligator handbags. One of these formidable dames cut into Shackleton’s rhetoric with a point-blank question: “Young man, you are doing a lot of talking. Have you been there yourself?” while another complained that she had not seen any rotifers. These microscopic water-dwellers had been the subject of much interest during the expedition, but Shackleton lamented that when he directed the lady’s attention to a bottle containing millions, “she looked less pleased than if she had seen one big one behind bars!”
After a triumphant tour of Europe, Shackleton reached Edinburgh in November, where he must have had an interesting reunion with those members of the RSGS who had been variously energised, amused or appalled by his efforts as Secretary only five years previously. The general feeling was one of warmest admiration, however. In the Usher Hall, before delivering his lecture entitled ‘Nearest the South Pole’, he was awarded the prestigious Livingstone Medal “in recognition of his Antarctic Explorations.” During his graceful acceptance speech, Shackleton remarked that, as Secretary, he had “more than once brought a Livingstone Medal to such a meeting, but had never taken one away.”
A few weeks later, while introducing Shackleton to the RSGS group in the Kinnaird Hall, Dundee, chairman Mr R B Don playfully likened the explorer to a comet, “flashing about here and there, gathering stars from Imperial hands in every capital of Europe.” Mr Don reminisced about the time when Shackleton had stood as a Parliamentary candidate in Dundee, during the General Election of 1906: “It was a fight in which a man, if he was of the right stuff, made many friends, and Sir Ernest made many on both sides of politics.” The long-standing affection was mutual, and Shackleton responded with humour. When he was last in the Kinnaird Hall, he said, he had spoken for twenty minutes – very well, as he’d thought – and was heckled for forty. “I know there will be no heckling at the end of this,” he added amid laughter; “but if there is, perhaps I will be able to reply to it better than I did then.”
By all accounts, Shackleton’s narrative was thrilling. The Dundee Advertiser reported that “from his quiet and often humorous remarks one might have thought it quite an amusing experience to be frost-bitten, to live for months on stale biscuits and ponies’ flesh, or to be pulled in the nick of time from the edge of a precipice that had just been hidden by the treacherous snow…” After the meeting, a sumptuous reception was held in the Victoria Art Galleries, an event so prestigious that two lady correspondents were tasked with noting the exquisite toilettes of every lady present and supplying the details for publication in the next morning’s paper. Although he was resplendent in his medals and decorations, Shackleton, according to one eye-witness, “did not appear as if he much enjoyed the lionising business,” and was heard enquiring for cigarettes at an early stage.
Perhaps the constant repetition of these stories, no matter how thrilling, was beginning to pall. Shackleton’s restlessness was beginning to get the better of him again; Emily, his wife, had seen the signs long ago. Before embarking on the Nimrod expedition, he had done his best to reassure her: “We intend to do our best but not to do anything foolhardy at all… for life is short enough and I do not think it is worth it.” But the Pole was yet to be gained, and others were moving towards it with a clear purpose. Behind Shackleton’s genial, well-groomed mask, the “brooding eye of the dreamer”, as an editor friend had once described it, was once more turning its inner gaze towards the south.
Quotes and reference: ‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ by H R Mill; ‘Shackleton’ by Roland Huntford
The Globe, 14th June 1909; The Scotsman, 19th November 1909; Evening News, 19th November 1909; Dundee Advertiser, 2nd February 1910; The Courier, 2nd February 1910.