“It ain’t necessarily so”: South Georgia Loose Ends

by Michael Gilkes


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



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 Villa

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 evidential support.

The next loose end relates to the subject of boats.

The 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.

The waterfall

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 down?”

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 people since.

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 Institute).

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 Club.




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