I am not quite sure who coined the American aphorism “There are
a lot of things that a lot of people know that just aren’t so”.
What is certain is that in relation to a number of topics on South Georgia
and Shackleton history the aphorism is valid.
The first, and perhaps the most important of these
because it involves the misinformation of a large number of people who
might visit the island as tourists, relates to the subject of Stromness
Villa. It should perhaps be pointed out that the term ‘villa’
was used at all whaling stations to describe the main residence and
often the administrative offices.
During my sojourn on the island during 1946/47 I lived
in the villa at Leith Harbour. I was, of course, quite aware of the
significance of Stromness, the middle station in Stromness Bay, as being
the final destination of Shackleton and his companions Worsley and Crean
after their epic end indescribably unbelievable 32-hour traverse of
the island after their equally incredible 16-day journey in the James
Caird from Elephant Island.
One was certainly aware of the potential historical
significance of the Stromness villa as it existed but it was at that
time inhabited by the Salvesen Chief Engineer, Hansen, and a number
of his engineering staff. Stromness at that time was essentially the
dockyard element of the Salvesen operation. I do not think that I went
into the building more than two or three times during the whole period.
But one was aware of its apparent status and apparent physical historical
association with Shackleton and his companions. However, it must be
said that the events of 1916 were probably never a significant part
of any whaler’s thoughts or interest. These were much more likely
to be associated with the arduousness of labour and the potential and
eventual reward of penger (Norwegian for cash).
Of course later, and to a considerable extent after
the cessation of whaling activity in the mid-1950s, the emergence of
an added and completely understandable interest in Shackleton and the
consequences of the Endurance Expedition became more widely
known and admired; steps were taken to somewhat upgrade the structure
of the existing building. With the emergence of the specific interest
fostered by Harding Dunnett, the founder of the James Caird Society,
a more active interest was focused on the building and its contents.
In fact, to this end a rather splendid stately wooden
chair which had been situated in the Stromness villa was eventually
returned to Dulwich College; this might well be the chair in which Shackleton
sat during his stay in the villa after the crossing of the island.
Further to this of course, because of its historical
importance, the Villa was designated as a World Heritage Site and despite
the later ban on anybody landing or visiting within 200 metres of the
old whaling station, an appropriate World Heritage sign was erected
specifying the particular significance of the site and building.
It is, therefore, disturbing to discover that the present
building at Stromness was not present in Stromness Harbour in 1916.
It is in fact the building which was at one time the Manager’s
villa at Ocean harbour whaling station: along the coast 20 or 40 miles
east of Stromness Bay. The Ocean Harbour Station site proved to have
flooding problems associated with the very flat enclosed valley floor
where it was situated. Operations closed down in 1919 and significant
portions of the station housing were acquired by the South Georgia Company
(Salvesens) and transferred to Stromness Harbour and Leith. This or
course occurred in about 1920 and the following season.
So, the attribution of the present building as having
a physical association with Shackleton and his companions is just one
of those things that is not so.
It should, however, be added that in 1916 the Stromness
villa was the next-door building – a much smaller building immediately
to the west of the main villa. This is a relatively humble structure,
and a vision that some people have raised of Shackleton and his people
enjoying baths at the end of their walk has not, I think, very much
The next loose end relates to the subject of boats.
In an earlier note attention was drawn to the fact
that all accounts of the expedition referred to three ship’s boats.
It was only by chance that the author one day observed that in one of
the famous pictures of the icebound Endurance a fourth boat
with a very obvious propeller and exhaust pipe could be seen in the
falls on the after port side. Study of the plans of the Polar Star,
which was the original name given to Endurance when she was
built as a potential Polar tourist ship, show quite clearly the provision
of four boats; later enquiry has demonstrated quite clearly that carpenter
McNeish made use of material from his boat in strengthening and improving
the James Caird when preparing the boats and sledges for the journey
of the party across the ice to, hopefully, find open sea.
So there were four boats and one was a motor boat;
eventually publication of Orde-Lees’ journals reveals that during
the month that Endurance spent in south Georgia waiting for
ice conditions to improve before heading South, the motor boat was used
to help tow a whale in Grytviken Harbour.
It is perhaps germane to the subject of boats that
Shackleton himself seemed a little concerned for the ultimate fate of
the James Caird after the remaining three had been collected
from King Haakon Bay by the whale-catcher Southern Sky. It
was a little later that it was Norwegian whalers who determined that
the boat should be brought back. It was eventually, through the good
offices of Shackleton’s supporter, Rowett, transported back to
Bromborough Dock in Birkenhead. Certainly, at this time, it is understandable
that Shackleton’s fundamental preoccupation was with the companions
still on Elephant Island and uncertain of their fate.
A potential loose end which has now more or less been
completely tied up concerns the ‘waterfall’. In January
or February 1947 I had the good fortune to meet Neil Rankin, whose book
Antarctic Island (a consequence of his voyages in the converted
RNLI lifeboat Albatross which had come south on the Southern
Venturer with two Shetlanders as crew) remains one of the fundamental
source books for the history and natural history of the island. It is
a pleasure to recall that many of the photographic plates in the book
(quite a number of them taken on glass slides) were originally developed
using the X-ray developing tanks in my hospital.
One day Rankin had been reading in South,
Shackleton’s account of the Endurance Expedition, how
at the end of their incredibly arduous traverse of the island and well
in sight of the whaling station in Stromness Harbour, they had come
across a waterfall in the river that they had been following from the
col at the head of the bay and had had to rope down it. Ranking said,
“Doc, where is this waterfall that they are said to have come
I said that I had not at that time ever walked up the
Stromness Valley, to which he replied: “In the next day or so
before the next Albatross venture, we should go over and see
if we can find it.”
Accordingly, on a fine sunny day, we took the Buoy
boat with its ‘chug-chug’ single Bolinder engine over to
Stromness and set off up the valley. The obvious way to the col at the
head of the valley leading over to Fortuna Bay was up the scree-ridden
slopes on the east side of the valley. After some quite uncomfortable
scrambling we followed the ravine of the watercourse until finally we
could look down into Fortuna Bay and the Konig Glacier coursing down
into the fjord from the central mountain ridge.
This, of course, represented the last part of Shackleton,
Worsley and Crean’s island traverse which, it is reasonable to
presume, had never been done by anybody before and probably very few
We had some difficulty in identifying any specific
waterfall in the quite small head of valley stream. It did seem that
even very tired men would not have followed the stream but rather the
steep but more accessible slope down the side of the valley.
Certainly there did not seem to be anything that merited
the description in South of roping down a waterfall. This very
pleasant expedition involved my first exposures to the attacks of Antarctic
skuas nesting in the valley. The Antarctic terns prompted my learning
of their incredible 20,000-mile annual polar migrations from north to
south and south to north. Rankin was an ideal and enlightening guide.
The matter more or less ended here on this occasion,
but it was many years later that on returning to the various accounts
of the crossing of South Georgia one I became aware that there was a
contradiction and confusion in the various accounts between Stromness
Harbour and Husvik Harbour.
As a consequence of my knowledge of the Husvik where
I paid a weekly medical visit, one was aware that there was certainly
a quite substantial waterfall in that valley; fed by a not insubstantial
lake just under the head of the valley.
We had had a splendid day. But we did not identify
a significant waterfall.
But there is one in the Stromness Valley, and it was
in the 1950s at a later visit with the Explorer that Angus
Erskine was able to convince me with a photograph.
But it became clear that there was an inconsistency
and it simply could not be the waterfall referred to by Shackleton and
Worsley. Not only would roping down it be stupid but even with snow
cover in May it would be obvious that a small diversion to either side
would readily bypass the obstruction.
At a later visit in the 1990s, when a party retraced
the route from Husvik over to Fortuna Bay, Konig Glacier and Stromness
col, it became obvious that the waterfall of South was almost
certainly one of the steep scree-bounded rivulets along the east side
of the Stromness Valley. Particularly with snow and ice on the slop
in May one of these would impede the descent to the valley floor. Particularly
for exhausted men, this would be facilitated by the use of the rope
which would be left behind. Quite probably within yards of the site
of the Stromness graveyard.
This lead to interesting research amongst others who
had actually been in the island at various times and some correspondence
in the Polar Record (the journal of the Scott Polar Research
This was brought to a satisfactory conclusion by the
advantageous discovery of a Norwegian octogenarian’s letter of
1916. The then Manager of Husvik Harbour had written home to Norway
and in his letter described how Sorlle, the Stromness Manager, had just
told him that Shackleton and his men had arrived at Stromness Harbour
(Station), so that problem was put to bed.
It should, however, be noted that Shackleton in his
account describes how these three ruffian-looking men walking into Stromness
Harbour Station were greeted by two little boys. The reality is that
these were in fact Sorlle’s daughters.
Slightly less misunderstanding surrounds the topic
of Shackleton’s White Ensign flag.
The White Ensign
I was invited to the Royal Yacht Squadron’s headquarters
in Cowes for lunch, passing though the kitchen corridor of the building,
a large white ensign framed behind glass was observed. The flag looked
somewhat the worse for wear, but one was informed that it was in fact
Shackleton’s white ensign, a flag which, exceptionally, he had
been allowed to fly from the time of his first South expedition in Nimrod
in 1907. I commented that it was a very important artefact and wondered
whether it might not benefit from some attention.
It was quite a little later that the RYS’s archivist,
Diana Harding, very kindly informed me that my comments had been noted
and the flag was now receiving expert conservation. It somewhat later
transpired that not only had a similar flag been in use on Endurance,
but later when Shackleton died on board The Quest the flag
had been used to cover the coffin. Indeed a picture of the coffin being
lowered from the hip appeared in the Illustrated London News.
It was the original intention for Shackleton’s
body to be returned to England and the coffin was taken to Montevideo
on the SS Woodvill. However, Lady Shackleton decided that he
should be buried in South Georgia, and eventually the body and coffin
were returned to Grytviken. Internment in the Grytviken cemetery took
place in February 1922.
It was therefore with some interest that I received
a further letter from Diana Harding informing me that during the course
of their activities the conservation people had detected traces of formaldehyde
in the flag. This seemed to be a very convincing confirmation that this
was indeed Shackleton’s flag. It is good to be also able to report
that it occupies a deserving place of honour on the wall of the Platform
veranda, the RYS’s starting line overlooking Cowes roads.
There are, of course, many other loose ends relevant
to South Georgia’s history. For example, the site of Peggotty
Camp. From the moment you see it, it has got to be the place where Shackleton
and his men landed. But that also engenders further questions. How did
the six men get the James Caird up to the central position
to provide shelter? And how did the whalers collect her in 1916? It
is important to remember that when one looks at the head of King Haakon
Bay now, 90 years ago the snouts of the glaciers which debouch into
the bay were much larger and formidable. The problem of which route
to take out to reach the assistance of whalers even more uncertain.
The three who made it across the island took a primus
stove with them. If anybody who has tried to walk over hilly country
reflects on this, there remains an interesting conundrum. It has been
suggested that they finally abandoned it at Whistle Cove in Fortuna
Bay and there have even been suggestions of expeditions to see if it
could be found. An interesting objective.
A last thought. Railways and South Georgia would seem
to be strange bedfellows. Certainly the southernmost working railway
is El Tren Fin del Mundo, the restored convict line at Ushuaia
on the Beagle Channel in Argentina.
But the abandoned 0-4-0 steam engine of the Ocean Harbour
Station (used to transport coal from the still-floating hulk of the
Bayard) is still my favourite South Georgia artefact. Its origins
remain obscure: probably German, Krauss? Perhaps some enlightened enthusiast
can tell us?
Meanwhile, young fur seals nestle in the comfort of
its wheels and coupling rods – if it had any.
© Michael Gilkes 2007. Michael Gilkes, FRCS,
FRCOphth., FRGS, was the Station Medical Officer and Ship’s Surgeon
at Leith Harbour and on board Southern Harvester during 1946-48.
He is also an ophthalmic surgeon, a founder Friend of SPRI, founder
member of the James Caird Society, and member of the Royal Cruising