Joseph Russell Stenhouse was born on 15 November, 1887, in Dumbarton, Scotland. He was educated at Barrow Higher Grade school but left at age fourteen. He was employed at the Barrow offices of Lloyds Register of Shipping but found the desk job was not for him. He heard the ‘strange, strange call’ of the seas. Joseph’s grandfather, also Joseph, was a ship’s carpenter but also went on to found Birrell, Stenhouse & Company shipbuilding business. As Tyler-Lewis has noted, Stenhouse’s upbringing instilled in him a love of sailing ships and ‘an enduring sense of propriety and principle.’
Stenhouse then joined the Merchant Navy and served a Merchant Officer’s apprenticeship on tall ships rounding Cape Horn, such as the Springbank. As Haddelsey has written:
For eight long years Stenhouse stuck manfully to his profession, not simply enduring but actually relishing the physical punishment and dangers inseparable from shipboard existence.
In September, 1912, Stenhouse achieved his second Master’s Certificate and, armed with these qualifications and experience of the seas, he joined the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC), serving as third, and then second, officer in their Coastal Service. He acquired a reputation as a sharp navigator and a meticulous officer while with the BISNC.
Stenhouse received a very late appointment to be part of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition—that of First Officer of the Aurora, the ship to take the supply-laying missions to the McMurdo side of the Antarctic continent. At McMurdo Sound, Captain Aeneas Mackintosh left the Aurora on 25 January, 1915, and took charge of the landed party, leaving Stenhouse in command of the ship and its crew.
The Aurora was moored at Cape Evans and its engines decommissioned for winter maintenance. However, the power of the winter storms and ice of the Antarctic proved too strong for the men and the ship. On 6 May the Aurora was wrenched from her moorings and taken out to sea with the ice. In South! Shackleton included the following, written by Stenhouse on 9 May:
The Aurora is fast in the pack and drifting God knows where. Well, there are prospects of a most interesting winter drift. We are all in good health, except Grady, whose rib is mending rapidly; we have good spirits and we will get through. But what of the poor beggars at Cape Evans, and the Southern Party? It is a dismal prospect for them. There are sufficient provisions at Cape Evans, Hut Point, and, I suppose, Cape Royds, but we have the remaining Burberrys, clothing, etc., for next year’s sledging still on board. I see little prospect of getting back to Cape Evans or anywhere in the Sound. We are short of coal and held firmly in the ice. I hope she drifts quickly to the north-east. Then we can endeavour to push through the pack and make for New Zealand, coal and return to the Barrier eastward of Cape Crozier. This could be done, I think, in the early spring, September. We must get back to aid the depot-laying next season.
Stenhouse was put in an immediately severe position. As temporary commander of the Aurora, the survival of the crew and the ship was in his hands. He suffered from contemplating his decisions to anchor at Cape Evans. Not only was Aurora stranded in the pack-ice but the ten men of the shore party were stranded on the continent. Stenhouse, however, did his best to maintain high morale on board. He showed a confident attitude and reassured the crew that they would find a way out of their situation. He decided that ‘unremitting toil seems to be the panacea for most’ and kept the men busy painting, scrubbing, sewing and restoring cargo.
Despite several plans to abandon ship, the Aurora continued to live on through the pressure of the pack-ice. On 13 November, 1915, Stenhouse wrote:
This waiting for we know not what & the fact that the lives of men are at stake weighs heavy.
Much like the crew of the Endurance in the Weddell Sea, the Aurora crew were constantly on the lookout for leads and breaks in the pack-ice through which they could free themselves.
On 12 February, 1916, after their months of drift in the ice, the Aurora took advantage of an opening in the pack-ice, fired up the engines and broke free. After much tension and huge use of fuel, the ship cleared the ice on 14 March, 1916.
On 24 March, 1916, a wireless message sent from the Aurora was received in Australia:
Hull severely strained. Ship released from ice March 14th…drift 500 miles…Wireless appeals for relief ship sent during winter no acknowledgment. Ship proceeding Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Jury rudder no anchors short of fuel.
As Roland Huntford observed in his book, Shackleton, ‘It was the first news of Shackleton’s expedition, either branch, since its departure in 1914.’ In ‘a battered, rudderless ship, with only a few tons of coal left in the bunkers’, Stenhouse oversaw the ‘one of the most difficult voyages on record, in an ocean area notoriously stormy and treacherous’. Shackleton praised Stenhouse for displaying ‘fine seamanship and dogged perseverance’ throughout. After liberation from the pack-ice, the Aurora made the 1,000-mile journey back to New Zealand arrived safely in Port Chalmers on 3 April, 1916.
Stenhouse, having successfully seen through the task of seeing the Aurora and her crew to safety, saw his next priority as getting the ship refitted and returning to the stranded men of the shore party. Money and politics, however, were to have their part here. The cost of getting the ship back in shape and back to Antarctica was over £20,000 and it took the governments of New Zealand, Australia and of the United Kingdom to foot the bill. Stenhouse assumed that he would command the rescue mission as Captain of the Aurora, however, the authorities (civil and naval) decided to appoint Captain John King Davis. Claiming that Stenhouse was inexperienced, the Admiralty et al were not prepared to allow Shackleton, who had arrived following his Weddell Sea adventures, nor a Shackleton proxy—Stenhouse—to command the mission. Shackleton had to agree to Davis’s appointment and Stenhouse was overlooked. He returned to England.
As so many of those returning from Antarctica, Stenhouse served during the remaining years of World War I. He served as Gunnery Officer to mystery Q-ship PQ61 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for anti-submarine actions. He later served with Sir Ernest Shackleton in northern Russia, advising on polar equipment and transport. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1920.
On 2 October, 1923, Stenhouse married Gladys Mackintosh, Aeneas Mackintosh’s widow, and they had, on 22 June, 1924, a daughter, naming her Patricia. They lived at Horley in Surrey and then in London. Stenhouse was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Navy Reserve on 1 August, 1924. Between 1927 & 1929 he was Captain of the Discovery on oceanographic and whaling research voyages, returning to southern waters and those of the Antarctic. In attempts to make a living for his family, he attempted business endeavours and even went treasure-hunting in the Cocos Islands. In April, 1928, Stenhouse was awarded the Decoration for Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve (RD) and after a long career, he retired from the Royal Navy Reserve on 31 December, 1931, with the rank of commander.
However, at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Stenhouse signed up for active service. On 12 September, 1941, he was reported missing, presumed killed. The ship on which he was serving, the Tai Koo, exploded and rapidly sank, presumably after hitting a mine. The Admiralty telegram arrived at 48 Spenser Road, Bedford, on 18 September, 1941, to Gladys and Patricia Stenhouse. Having lost her first husband in Antarctica, the loss of her second husband at sea was devastating for Gladys.
Frank Worsley wrote an obituary for Stenhouse in the Polar Record:
Two-thirds of his fifty-four years were spent in sail, on war service, or on polar work. With a wide and varied sea experience and a high sense of duty, he became he of the most efficient seamen of this century. He had sailing ships in his blood…With enthusiasm and his retentive memory, it was only natural that his knowledge of sailing ships should be practically unique…His epitaph should be –‘A seaman—he served his country well.’
See Stenhouse’s awards and medals at the website below:
Haddelsey, S. Ice Captain: The Life of J. R. Stenhouse. Stroud, 2014.
Shackleton, Sir E. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917. London, 1919.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.
Tyler-Lewis, K. The Lost Men: The Harrowing Story of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party. London, 2016.
Video footage of Shackleton, Worsley and Stenhouse: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/video/portraits-of-sir-ernest-shackleton-frank-worsley-captain-news-footage/457286194