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Book Extract: Shackleton's Whisky Chapter 5 - Shackleton's Men

This is the second of five extracts from Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat, available now, published by Random House. 

The book tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's heroic 1907 expedition to Antarctica with 14 other adventurers, and the case of  Mackinlay's Scotch whisky left under their hut, not to be found until 2007.

This extract is from Chapter 5: 'Shackleton's Men''. It describes the genesis of Shackleton's 'British Antarctic Expedition', how he acquired the funds, and who he chose to go with him.


In 1906, too, he put together a four-page proposal, in the form of a printed pamphlet, for an expedition to ‘the Ross Quadrant of the Antarctic with a view to reaching the Geographical South Pole and the Magnetic South Pole’.

He would take ponies, dogs and, yes, a specially designed motor vehicle. He envisaged the motor vehicle steadily hauling a train of 10 sledges towards the Geographic South Pole, and on the way back it would explore outlying areas east and west of the Pole route.

Although he wanted to lead a private expedition, it would be British through and through. It would plant a Union Jack at the Pole. It would erase Terra Incognita, and fame would follow. The plan brimmed with confidence, but who would fund it?

Shackleton knew that financing Antarctic expeditions was not easy and, as he told an associate, he was ‘rather more than ordinarily handicapped’ — likely a reference to a string of refusals he had received from men of wealth and influence.

In the end, his employer became his main patron. William Beardmore agreed to guarantee a bank loan to the tune of £7,000 — a substantial lump sum, the kind of money that could lever additional support.

Additional support came in the form of personal loans and a rough guess of what a book, magazine and newspaper articles, and illustrated lectures could bring in after the expedition — £30,000.

Shackleton broke the news of his windfall and his firming polar plans to his wife shortly after she had given birth to Cecily, their second child, in December 1906.

She did not stand in the way. Two months later, in February 1907, her husband made his plans public in a newspaper announcement and followed this up in more detail in the March edition of the Geographical Journal.

A shore party of ‘nine or twelve men’ would undertake three separate sledging journeys. The most important would try to reach the Geographic South Pole.

Another sledging team would seek the Magnetic South Pole, and the third would explore King Edward VII Land east of the Great Ice Barrier.

A scientific programme would be carried out throughout the expedition. Its predecessor, the National Antarctic Expedition of 1901–04, had been sponsored by two venerable and learned organisations with the backing of the Admiralty and a naval way of doing things.

The 1907 expedition would be a smaller venture, which he would organise and lead. It acquired a proud and punchy title, the British Antarctic Expedition. Government involvement would be minimal.

Shackleton originally intended using Scott’s base in McMurdo Sound, the Discovery Hut at Hut Point, but changed his mind after Scott, promoted to captain since returning to Royal Navy duties, responded tersely to that scenario.

McMurdo Sound was ‘primarily mine’, Scott argued. He claimed, as he put it, ‘a sort of right to my own fieldwork’, and intended leading a second expedition there in a year or two.

Shackleton described the revelation of another Scott-led national expedition as ‘staggering news’, but took the hint about occupation rights in respect of Discovery Hut.

He would instead aim to set up a base on King Edward VII Land and lead a Pole party across the Barrier well clear of the rugged backbone of mountains.

Scott’s plans did not necessarily conflict with his own, but they did stymie his hopes of recruiting National Antarctic Expedition expertise.

One after another, starting with Edward Wilson, Scott’s men — officers and scientists — rejected Shackleton’s feelers.

He had to widen his search for men who would make up the shore party. At the same time, he had to arrange a ship, a prefabricated base hut, and all the food, fuel and provisions to last a year at least.

When it came to the stores, he had no qualms, having been in charge of them on the previous British expedition. This time he could be innovative and use his powers of persuasion like never before.

First, the expedition needed a headquarters. A furnished office upstairs at 9 Regent Street, Waterloo Place, was chosen, right in the middle of an avenue of five- and six-storey stone buildings in the heart of Edwardian London’s white-collar precinct, the hub of the illustrious St James–Soho–Mayfair triangle.

This concrete jungle was about as far away, physically and naturally, from the ice expanses of Antarctica as you could get.

On the other hand, it was a brisk 20-minute walk through St James Park to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, where there were people of influence. They might be useful.

Picture, then, Shackleton at his new place of work . . .

The British Antarctic Expedition office is a small, lean enterprise. There is a manager, Alfred Reid, whom Shackleton has recruited on the strength of his efficiency and experience with previous polar expeditions, and an office assistant who is the secretary and courier.

Secretarial backup, in the form of a typing agency, occupies the same building — the same floor, in fact.

A telephone connects the expedition leader with the outside world. In Regent Street, men in bowler hats (and an occasional top hat) ride in open-topped buses.

Renault taxis with newfangled meters have all but displaced horse-drawn hansom cabs. On the political front, always of interest to Shackleton, the Women’s Suffrage Movement is planning a traffic-stopping demonstration in nearby Trafalgar Square.

One of the first requirements for this new Antarctic venture is a supply of letterhead. An order form, printed from the main run of letterhead, carries the lines: Messrs . . . . . . . . . . . . Please put in hand the following goods for the above Expedition for delivery in London in . . . next:

The office is soon a receiving house for all manner of provisions and equipment that Shackleton has sourced and costed even before the expedition is made public.

He opts for ‘the best of everything’. One of his ideas is to use space at 9 Regent Street to display examples of the goods and gear he and the mustachioed Reid will order over the coming months — show them off  to friends and supporters of the expedition, and potential sponsors.

It is good public relations, and the smallest donations are welcome. Visitors will marvel at the sledges, tents, cooking apparatus, scientific instruments and the special foods for sledging, including the Plasmon biscuits enriched with dried milk and vitamins.

All this is state-of-the-art provender for polar work, much of it donated. Shackleton and Reid have been meeting the heads of businesses supplying the expedition, negotiating discounts and gratis deals.

(What he loves about the office set-up and the procurement process is that he is ‘not hampered by committees of any sort’. There is no higher authority, no reference group, no steering committee. He is the boss.)

But above all when it comes to organising this expedition, Shackleton wants to personally select the men who will help him attain the Pole.

Some will come to the office to be interviewed, some he will go out of his way to contact and visit. A few he will simply bump into. He wants 11 good men and true.

An early recruit is Ernest Joyce, who was an able seaman on the Discovery expedition. His signing up for the British Antarctic Expedition is an example of Shackleton opportunism at its flukiest.

Shackleton is looking out the window of his office one day when a bus passes. On its open upper deck he spots the familiar face of Joyce and his thick mop of hair.

Joyce impressed the officers under Scott for his sledging expertise and resilience in the field. At once, Shackleton calls on his office assistant to run after the bus, intercept Joyce and bring him back to the office.

Joyce is pleasantly surprised to be offered another trip to Antarctica. He can look after the dogs as well as the sledges, says Shackleton.

Joyce, a year older than the expedition leader, is still a naval rating but tells his new-found leader he will make himself available by resigning from the Royal Navy.

Although the Joyce sign-up was swift and effortless, others took time. Months passed before the shore party had a substantial look to it.

He received more than 400 applications and carefully sifted through them, looking for men after his own heart — strong of mind and body, for sure, but also adventurous, unafraid to take risks, and solidly optimistic.

There was another attribute, which he wrote about: ‘They must be able to live together in harmony for a long period without outside communication, and it must be remembered that the men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality.’

Another expedition member recruited early on was Lieutenant Jameson Boyd Adams. Like Shackleton, he had a background in the Merchant Navy and the Royal Naval Reserve.

Solidly built, Adams had met Shackleton in Scotland the previous summer, learnt of the yet-to-be-revealed shot at the Pole and asked if he could join the shore party.

By telegram in early 1907 Shackleton made the offer. Adams accepted. He would be named second-in-command, aged 27.

Another recruit whom Shackleton had met in 1906 was a young baronet, Sir Philip Brocklehurst. Sir Philip was tall and strapping and in his 20th year in 1907, with romantic notions of polar travel.

But he had means, with a family fortune behind him, and his mother readily agreed to contribute funds to the expedition.

Intent on making himself useful, Sir Philip took courses in geology and surveying at Cambridge University.

Geological expertise was also recruited through Raymond Priestley, who was only nine months older than the baronet and halfway through his geological studies at University College, Bristol.

He was puzzled about being chosen when he knew of at least a dozen honours graduates who wanted to go. But Shackleton, an astute judge of character, liked the conscientious look of Priestley and that, along with the prospect of sponsorship, was enough.

Shackleton’s shore party would include only two members with Antarctic experience. The second, after Joyce, was Yorkshireman Frank Wild.

Like Joyce, Wild, now a petty officer, had been a naval rating with Discovery, practical and keen in the field and an experienced sledging hand.

Despite his slight build he seemed impervious to cold. Ten months older than Shackleton, Wild would also quit the Royal Navy and a decent naval pension for a life of adventure in cold places.

Wild worked hard and played hard. Shackleton had observed first hand Wild’s liking of strong drink, especially whisky, but did not hold that against him.

Wild would look after the all-important stores. Eric Marshall was enlisted as the expedition’s senior surgeon.

Tall, physically powerful and at times dogmatic, Marshall had just graduated in medicine from Cambridge University at the age of 27.

At one point he had studied to be a Church of England minister, but finally chose medicine and practised as a surgeon at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

He had met Shackleton at a house party in 1906, heard of the possibility of another Pole expedition and offered on the spot to contribute his services.

He would take on map work and navigation as well as medical duties and photography.

The assistant surgeon was a Scotsman from Argyllshire, Alistair Mackay, two years older than Marshall. He had been in some challenging situations — a naval surgeon for four years, a trooper in the South African War and a member of Baden- Powell’s national police force in South Africa.

The Manchurian ponies would be among his responsibilities on the Ice. One of the most specialised recruits was a motor mechanic, Bernard Day, who had been working for William Beardmore’s Arrol-Johnston Motor Company in Scotland. Day, aged 23, would be the mechanic and driver of the expedition car and the electrician at the base hut.

Shackleton expected a lot from the car. It would have special adaptations for polar use. The mechanic was part of the Beardmore package because the car was experimental.

It was going to undertake the first road test of a motor vehicle in Antarctic conditions.

The cook’s position was also full-time and it fell to a hotel chef, William Roberts, one of those who formally applied.

Shackleton wanted his team well fed, and the 35-year-old Roberts got the nod both for his competence and his experience of working in various parts of the world. He liked a challenge overseas.

Although the expedition’s scientific programme did not rank above its geographical aims, the studies in geology, biology, meteorology and oceanography were important in any Antarctic expedition, and Shackleton knew the scientific component would help sell the 1907 British Antarctic Expedition to sponsors.

The appointment of principal biologist went to James Murray, one of the oldest members of the expedition at 42.

Born in Glasgow and self-taught, he had studied microscopic life in the Scottish lochs and was keen to see what Antarctica had to offer.

The 11th position in the team, one of Shackleton’s favourites, was that of expedition artist.

It would be the artist’s job to put together a graphic record of expedition life in various media, complementing the photographic record that would be ensured by the rapid development in cameras and the art of photography.

From the 30 applications for the job, Shackleton selected three contenders. He asked them all to report to his Regent Street office on a Saturday morning.

One said he was busy and could not come till Monday, a second wanted to know if he could be certain of selection because he had to travel four hours.

The third did not reply but showed up at the office, dripping wet and dishevelled, just as Shackleton was leaving.

The latecomer explained he had been on a walking tour in Cornwall and caught a train as soon as he could. He was sorry for his lateness but there had been several changes on the rail journey.

'I promptly engaged him,’ Shackleton wrote later. He had hired George Marston, an art teacher who had studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic.

His burly physique belied a playful sense of humour. Marston’s selection was vintage Shackleton, based on first impressions, a quick summing up and natural instinct.

Including the leader the shore-party complement of 12 was now decided.

There was a good balance of field and scientific expertise, and service roles. But Shackleton eventually came to realise that the expedition could benefit from bolstering the scientific side.

Australia, on the way south, would provide the personnel. 

Next week's extract is from Chapter 8: 'Voyage to New Zealand', describing Shackleton's ship Nimrod's departure from England and its journey to Christchurch.

More by Neville Peat