By Roger Barnes
This year  is the centenary of the start of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition during which he showed remarkable endurance, bravery and leadership. Over a period of 21 years (1901 to 1922), he made several expeditions to Antarctica and the islands of the Southern Ocean, travelling via New Zealand on numerous occasions.
Ernest Henry Shackleton was born at Kilkea House, in the County of Kildare, Ireland, on 15 February 1874, the second child and elder son of Henry Shackleton (1847-1921) a farmer, and his wife Henrietta Letitia Sophia Gavan (1845-1926). Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage (1963) gives a male-line descent from John Shackleton, of Shackleton House, Bingley, Yorkshire, born in the 16th century. John’s great-grandson Abraham settled at Ballitore (about 50 km south-west of Dublin, and also in the County of Kildare) in the early 18th century. The family was prominent among the Quakers. The surname is probably derived from a small Yorkshire hamlet of the same name, 16 km south-west of Bingley, and 2 km from Hebden Bridge. The hamlet’s name is possibly of Old English origin: scacol (tongue of land), and tun (farmstead).
Henry abandoned farming, and trained as a physician. In 1884, the family moved to Croydon and then to Sydenham, both now southern suburbs of London. Henry had a medical practice in Sydenham, and Ernest attended nearby Dulwich College, where he was a below average pupil, but did well in English history and literature, and mathematics. He left Dulwich at the age of 16 to join the mercantile marine. In 1901, he joined Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition (on Discovery), having been commissioned a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. This expedition travelled via New Zealand. Scott and Shackleton did not get on well with each other, and in 1903, Scott sent Shackleton home on the pretext that the latter was ill. He spent a period of “convalescence” in New Zealand.
In January 1904, Shackleton was appointed to the secretaryship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and in April of that year, he married Emily Mary Dorman. (They subsequently had two sons and a daughter. The second son, Edward Arthur Alexander, was created Baron Shackleton (life peer) in 1958.) In August 1907, King Edward VII appointed Shackleton a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.
Shackleton commanded another Antarctic expedition on the ship Nimrod which left Lyttelton Harbour in New Zealand on 1 January 1908. He and three other men travelled over the ice, reaching about 88° 23’ south (about 190 km from the pole) before turning back on 9 January 1909. It was the closest that anyone had been to the South Pole. The expedition returned (via New Zealand) to England, arriving a few months later. On 10 July, King Edward promoted Shackleton to the rank of Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. In November 1909, he was made a Knight Bachelor. He and others in the Nimrod shore party received the Polar Medal. The Irish press claimed him, quite rightly, as their own.
After Roald Amundsen reached the South pole in 1911, Sir Ernest turned his attention to the making of a crossing of the great southern continent. One of the Trans-Antarctic expedition’s ships (previously named Polaris) was re-named Endurance when it was acquired, apparently on the assumption that Fortitudine in the Shackleton family motto meant “By Endurance”. Despite the out-break of war on 3 August 1914, Endurance was directed to proceed to Antarctica. The ship’s captain was a New Zealander, Frank Worsley. The ship was crushed by ice in the Weddell Sea in October 1915, and after some months camped on the ice and several days at sea in three small boats, the party reached Elephant Island, named for its elephant seals which, by this time, had been hunted to extinction. After about ten days, Sir Ernest and a smaller party (in one boat) crossed the Scotia Sea, and landed on South Georgia on 9 or 10 May 1916. He, Worsley and Tom Crean then crossed the island, arriving at a Norwegian whaling station on 19 or 20 May. Those left on the other side of the island were then rescued. After three failed attempts, Shackleton returned to Elephant Island (in a Chilean sea-going tug-boat) to rescue those men left there. He also returned (via New Zealand) to the Antarctic to rescue the Ross Sea party which had been establishing supply depots on the opposite side of the icy continent from where he had started. Three of these men had died.
Sir Ernest Shackleton spent the remainder of the First World War on diplomatic missions to South America and Russia. He was commissioned a Major in 1918, and appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division) in 1919. His last voyage was on the Quest to South Georgia, arriving on 4 January 1922. He died of a heart attack in the early hours of the next morning. He was buried, at his wife’s request, at Grytviken on South Georgia.
Alexander Macklin, who had been senior surgeon aboard Endurance and was with Shackleton when he died, described him as “an outstanding personality — there radiated from him something strong and powerful and purposeful so that even to meet him was an experience …”.
During his life-time, Sir Ernest Shackleton was received by kings and queens, and was awarded many honours within the UK and from overseas, and numerous places have been named after him. Although his standing was, for several decades, eclipsed by that of Robert Falcon Scott, there has been, in the last half century, greater recognition of the qualities of the former, and some criticism of the latter.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who had been with Scott on his Terra Nova expedition (1910-13), wrote: “For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen; and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”
The Armorial Bearings of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
The earliest reference that I have found to a Shackleton coat of arms is in Kennedy’s Book of Arms, sub-titled or originally titled “Sketches Collected chiefly from the Records in Ulster’s Office and other authentic Documents by Patrick Kennedy Herald Painter”, and dated 1816. The arms (reproduced here) have the tinctures tricked. The blazon would therefore be: Or, on a fess Gules, three lozenge-shaped “Buckels” fesswise Or. The crest is “a Buffaloes Head ”. No motto is shown. Burke’s General Armory (1884) gives similar arms but with a poplar tree as the crest, for Shackleton (with no place of residence shown).
The arms, with the buckles being more specifically described, and with the addition of a cross humettée (couped at the ends of its arms) on a canton, were confirmed to Joseph Fisher Shackleton (a cousin of Sir Ernest’s father) of Lucan in the County of Dublin, and to the other descendants of his grandfather Abraham Shackleton (Sir Ernest’s great-grandfather), on 21 December 1898 by Sir Arthur Edward Vicars, Ulster King of Arms (who at that time had jurisdiction over all Ireland). However, the crest granted or confirmed by Ulster was a poplar tree charged with a buckle.
Arms: Or, on a fess Gules, three lozengy buckles, tongues paleways Gold; on a canton of the Second, a cross humettée of the Third.
Crest: A poplar tree Proper charged with a buckle as in the arms.
As Sir Ernest inherited the arms and crest, they show no symbolism that is particular to him. What the various charges mean, if anything, is not entirely clear. The “lozengy buckles” (i.e. lozenge-shaped buckles) might be an attempt at a play on the surname, in that both shackles and buckles fix together belts, chains, etc. The poplar tree may well be a reference to the family’s being Quakers, or a play on the surname, in that the leaves of the poplar quake or shake in the wind. The significance of the buffalo’s head in the earlier crest is unclear. The Latin motto means: By strength we conquer.
The helmet, with its raised visor, is that of a knight or baronet. As the achievement shows no other indication of knighthood or baronetcy, then the helmet means that the bearer is a Knight Bachelor. (The badge and neck ribbon for knights bachelor were not introduced until 1926 and 1973 respectively.)
Below the shield, and to the dexter, is the badge (suspended by the neck ribbon) of a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. To the sinister is the (breast) badge and ribbon of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (Military Division). The central design of the badge includes Britannia pointing to her overseas empire, with the sun in the sky, and is surrounded by the Order’s motto “For God and the Empire”. (In 1937, the central design was changed to crowned heads of King George V and Queen Mary.) The purple ribbon’s central scarlet stripe indicates the Military Division. (Also in 1937, the ribbon was altered to rose pink with edges of pearl grey, with the central stripe of the latter colour for the Military Division.)
Sir Ernest’s younger brother Francis Richard (1876-1941), Dublin Herald of Arms (1905-07) of the Order of St Patrick, was probably involved in, but later officially exonerated of, the 1907 theft from Dublin Castle of the Sovereign’s insignia of the Order, also known as “Ireland’s Crown Jewels”.