Extract: Shackleton: A Biography by Ranulph Fiennes

This entry was posted on 28 September 2021.

In 1915, Sir Ernest Shackleton's attempt to traverse the Antarctic was cut short when his ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice. The disaster left Shackleton and his men alone at the frozen South Pole, fighting for their lives. Their survival and escape is the most famous adventure in history.



“THE GIGGLING, CRIES AND GASPS of awe coming from the young Ernest Shackleton’s bedroom were signs that, once again, he had his sisters in the palm of his hand. Gathering around their brother, the Shackleton sisters, of whom there would eventually be eight, were totally immersed in his grip. Standing tall, looking at his sisters one by one, the young boy, with fair hair and angelic eyes, set forth tales from his vivid imagination. He told them that just weeks before he had gone to London with one of his friends and they had encountered a raging inferno which threatened to engulf the city. Together, they had somehow managed to save the day and, as a reward, the Monument, near London Bridge, had been erected in their honour.

Despite such an outlandish tale, the Shackleton sisters believed it to be true. The story was told with such conviction and detail, that they went along with every word. If they should raise a question about one of his tall tales, Shackleton would always counter with a convincing answer. And even if they still didn’t believe a word of it, it was all such good fun that they were happy to be immersed in his world.

This Monument story indicates that from a young age Shackleton dreamed of performing a great deed, becoming a hero in the process, feted far and wide. He would spend the rest of his life trying to achieve exactly this.

It also highlights Shackleton’s rare gift of telling a story and making people believe in it, and him. This was to prove an invaluable trait in years to come. It would allow him to earn people’s trust, to fund his expeditions, to persuade others to do as he wished when he asked for the seemingly impossible, and even to make a living. For now, it was just the Shackleton sisters who believed his stories, and tended to his every need, but in the future this gift would see him have the world at his fingertips.

In his early years, despite his many dreams, it seemed it was only his family who had high hopes for him. Born in Ireland in 1874, his mother, Henrietta, was so taken by her ever- smiling boy, who seemed to always have a twinkle in his blue eyes, that she feared he was too good to live. With his sisters constantly running around after him, seemingly worshipping his every move, the young Shackleton certainly ruled the roost. This was a trait that endured his whole life, as his sister Kathleen later recalled: ‘ “Come all my wives,” he would shout when he entered the house after a voyage. He would lie down and call out: “You must entertain me. Zuleika, you may fan me. Fatima, tickle my toes. Come, oh favoured one and scratch my back.” Of course we all loved it.’

In spite of this outpouring of love, the fortunes of the Shackleton family were on shaky ground. Since 1872, his father, Henry Shackleton, had worked as a farmer in Kilkea, County Kildare, just 30 miles from Dublin. However, by 1880 things were beginning to look bleak. The Americans, with a huge surplus of wheat from their prairies, had built a spiderweb of new roads to transport their grain to ports, where it could be exported at a minimal cost. Faced with such competition, agricultural depression soon followed in Europe. Henry saw that the writing was on the wall. Finally selling his farm in 1880, he moved his brood to Dublin, where he took up medicine at Trinity College Dublin.


“School reports included the comments ‘wants waking up’, ‘is rather listless’, ‘often sinks into idleness’ and ‘must remember the importance of accuracy’.”


Yet with Irish nationalism boiling over, and trouble brewing, as soon as Henry had completed his studies, he relocated the family to England in 1884, where he set up a practice in Croydon. After six months, they left Croydon and moved to Sydenham where Henry built up his business. Shackleton was now aged ten and quite used to being the centre of attention. That would quickly change. Upon attending Fir Lodge Preparatory School in Dulwich, he found himself outcast, teased for his Irish roots and slight brogue. Nicknamed ‘Mick’, Shackleton usually responded to such taunts with his fists. One classmate recalled, ‘If there was a scrap he was usually in it.’

Although Shackleton eventually lost his accent and began to speak in a more southern tone, he would forever have to put up with the nickname Mick. However, he soon happily adopted it as his own, in later years even signing letters Mickey, giving the bullies little ammunition with which to taunt him. As we shall soon see, Shackleton’s ability to bob and weave through the pitfalls of life was one of his many talents.

At thirteen years of age, Shackleton attended the public school, Dulwich College, just a short walk from his home. Once more, he initially found himself the outcast, liable to join in with any scrap, now earning the nickname ‘the Fighting Shackleton’. It seems he disliked team games, was no sports enthusiast and was lazy in class. School reports included the comments ‘wants waking up’, ‘is rather listless’, ‘often sinks into idleness’ and ‘must remember the importance of accuracy’.

The only thing that truly interested Shackleton was literature. At home, his father encouraged his children to read poetry, with Shackleton becoming an admirer of Tennyson and able to quote verse after verse. He also loved reading stories, particularly tales of derring-do set in the far-flung realms of the British empire. A favourite was Boy’s Own magazine, which he bought every Saturday for a penny. He also devoured books by Rider Haggard and Jules Verne, especially the adventures of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

While Shackleton readily consumed fictional tales of heroic adventures, neither did he have to look too far for the real thing. At the end of the eighteenth century the British empire was the largest in history, covering a fifth of the Earth’s landmass, with one in four people on Earth – over 400 million

– classed as British subjects. In 1887, when Shackleton was thirteen, Britain’s frenetic celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee saw patriotism and pride in the empire at their zenith. Any explorer who could bravely defy the odds and conquer new lands for Queen and country was to be exalted far and wide.

The likes of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who made his name exploring remote and hazardous regions, made front- page news, as did the Indiana Jones- like Colonel Percy Fawcett, who had earned fame due to his search for a fabled lost city deep in the Brazilian jungle, where he had subsequently disappeared. A key factor that ensured such explorers became the most famous stars of their time was the passing of the Forster Education Act in 1870. This had made education compulsory for children aged between five and twelve, and enabled, for the first time, many of the working class to read. With more people now reading than ever before, they delighted in stories focusing on the brave and daring deeds of the empire’s explorers and conquerors.

As Shackleton read about these explorers, he must have noticed how adored they were by the British public and establishment alike. For a young boy struggling to fit in at school this seemed the answer to his prayers.

Having honed his gift for storytelling with his sisters, he now proceeded to tell fantastical stories to his classmates, whether his own, or read directly from the pages of Boy’s Own. Such was his storytelling knack, he soon earned a gang of followers who were happy to play truant in the local woods so that Shackleton could regale them with his tales.

When Shackleton told his gang a particularly thrilling story set at sea, such was the fervour he created that the boys immediately set off for London, where they prowled the docks, hoping to get jobs as cabin boys. To their frustration, and humiliation, they were instead sent packing.


“Shackleton had also learned from his father’s example that doing what might seem sensible did not always guarantee a happy life.”


Yet this trip to the docks lit a spark in Shackleton. Upon seeing the boats, all setting off for exotic locations, he realized that a life at sea held the key to his dreams of adventure. Most of his friends only really day-dreamed of such things, but he truly meant it. One of his many sisters later commented, ‘He had no particular hobbies as a boy, but anything to do with the sea was his special attraction.’

Another event around this time might also have inspired him to expand his horizons. Soon after the Shackleton family’s move to Sydenham his mother became sick, and spent the following forty years more or less confined to her bedroom. Seeing his beloved mother trapped in such a manner, through no fault of her own, perhaps made Shackleton realize that if he wanted to see the world, there wasn’t a second to lose. Perhaps he might one day meet his mother’s fate, and the world which now seemed so exciting and endless would forever be confined to the four walls of a bedroom.

Shackleton had also learned from his father’s example that doing what might seem sensible did not always guarantee a happy life. His upbringing may have been relatively comfortable, but Henry Shackleton certainly sailed close to the wind a few times during his career as a farmer and then as a doctor. Shackleton may well have thought, why submit to a ‘sensible’ profession if it was just as precarious as an exciting one?

So, when it came time to leave school, Shackleton announced he was ready to explore the world on the ocean waves. Henry Shackleton was not amused. The family could not afford the Royal Navy, and he had hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and be a doctor, but he also knew how determined the stubborn Ernest could be. Grudgingly, he gave in, but at the same time, he had a plan of his own. He knew that if his son’s ocean- going apprenticeship was sufficiently unpleasant, he would willingly switch to medicine on his return. Henry Shackleton therefore looked to sign his son on to one of the most testing apprenticeships the sea had to offer.

Remembering that his cousin Revd G. W. Woosnam was the superintendent of the Mersey Mission to Seamen in Liverpool, he asked him to utilize his contacts at the docks. A berth for Shackleton was subsequently found on board the Hoghton Tower, a cargo- carrying three- masted sailing ship. This would see him travel across some of the most treacherous seas in the world, alongside as rough and rugged a crew as you could imagine. And all for just a shilling a month. ‘No fool,’ Shackleton later wrote, ‘my father thought to cure me of my predilection for the sea by letting me go in the most primitive manner possible as a “boy” on board a sailing ship.’ Shackleton didn’t care. At long last he was on his way, and his adventures could begin.

Shackleton’s last three months at school saw an immediate change in his attitude to his studies, especially in mathematics, since it provided the basics of navigation. His maths teacher subsequently reported, ‘He has given much satisfaction in every way. There has been a marked improvement both in his work and in his behaviour.’

Still, this didn’t persuade Shackleton to stick around. He left school as soon as he could, finally saying his goodbyes at the tender age of sixteen in April 1890 and making his way to Liverpool to begin the first of his life’s many great adventures. However, while he might have been bubbling with excitement at the prospect of freedom and adventure, it would prove to be an experience that would almost cost him his life.”


Extracted from Shackleton: A Biography, out now.




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