On This Day in 1874: McNish’s Birthday

September 11, 2016

On 11 September, 1874, Henry ‘Chippy’ McNish was born at 8 Lyons Lane, Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, Scotland. He was the third eldest of eleven children of John McNish and Mary Jane McNish (née Wade). It seems little is known of McNish before the Endurance expedition. By the time he was aged 30, however, McNish was a time served Shipwright, skilled at working wood as well as having excellent knowledge of metal work.

In 1914 Henry McNish was taken on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition as carpenter. It was rather important to have a carpenter on board a wooden ship in the early-twentieth century and it was a respected position. McNish, one of the oldest on board, was a skilled craftsman from the Clyde with a sharp temper and, as Smith has written, an unerring ability to rub people up the wrong way. McNish, with his working-class socialist ideals, was the antithesis of many of the middle-class officers and scientists of the Endurance. Although admiring him as ‘a very good workman and shipwright’, Shackleton wrote that McNish was ‘the only man I am not certain of’. Regardless of how he was perceived, McNish was always busy aboard the ship—he fixed small issues with the physical ship and its fixtures, he built the dog kennels aboard for the sixty-plus dogs of the expedition and attended to any other job that needed a skilled hand.

Despite his unpopularity, McNish got on best with Thomas McLeod, a Shetland Islander—they often shared walks on the ice in the evenings and McLeod served as McNish’s assistant once the Endurance was abandoned.

During August and September, 1915, the pressure exerted on the Endurance from the ice was considerable, buckling and bulging the wood and iron of the ship. McNish wrote that there ‘were times when we thought it was not possible the ship would stand it.’ On 24 October, 1915, there was a tremendous crash. The ship was under assault from the ice on three sides and McNish responded by building a cofferdam to hold back the tide.

When the ship was abandoned and only the necessary items of the ship’s cargo and supplies were taken, McNish was permitted to keep some of his vital and valuable tools.

During the boat-hauling days after leaving Dump Camp, McNish was at the centre of a minor mutiny. It was 27 October, 1915, and as Smith wrote:

McNish, a combustible barrack-room lawyer with a rasping Scottish accent, had refused to obey Worsley’s orders. To McNish, the exhausting daily labour of hauling the boats was futile and he refused to take another step.

Thomas Orde-Lees wrote in Elephant Island and Beyond:

This abrupt termination to our march, begun under such propitious circumstances, has had a distinctly depressing moral effect on our party, especially the sailors, but it has also brought out the best in all, though it has shown up one or two in their true colours, notably the objectionable, cantankerous carpenter who was so grossly insubordinate to Captain Worsley on the march when handling the boats that Sir Ernest found it expedient to call a muster and read over Ship’s Articles for disciplinary purposes.

Feeling that the hauling of the boats was pointless, McNish had had enough—he was in pain himself from piles, his cat, Mrs. Chippy, had been killed (2.55pm, Saturday, 30 October, 1915) and his idea of building a sloop big enough to hold all twenty-eight men had been rejected leading McNish feeling excluded. Claiming that the Ship’s Articles no longer applied after the abandonment of the ship, McNish argued he was no longer obliged to carry out orders. Shackleton addressed his men telling them of the Articles’ continued worth and restating the duties and responsibilities of both himself as master and the men as crew. He also told them that they would be paid until they arrived at a port, unlike traditional protocol of stopping wages following the loss of a ship. Shackleton was hurt by McNish’s disobedience. He wrote in his diary the day after the clash:

I shall never forget him in this time of strain & stress.

During the journey to Elephant Island, McNish was in the James Caird and was one of the few men not much weakened following the dreadful week in the boats. Once the decision was taken to use the James Caird to sail to South Georgia, McNish set to work. His big challenge was to make the James Caird as seaworthy as possible for the Southern Ocean. Elephant Island had few resources to offer. McNish wrote ‘I don’t think there will be many survivors if they have to put in a winter here.’

McNish stripped off the extra timbers from the Dudley Docker that had been used to raise its gunwales. These were used to build up the James Caird. Nails were taken from the food crates and canvas was used to create a deck covering, held tight by sledge runners. Improvisation was McNish’s greatest skill here. The mast of the Stancomb-Wills was used to reinforce the keel of the James Caird from bow to stern. McNish also added two strakes, raised the thwarts and added two half-decks into the boat. All the work that was done to improve the state of the boat was done on Elephant Island when the weather was at its best. With no shelter at Cape Wild, this was an extraordinary feat of craftsmanship and courage. With limited resources and tools, McNish measured mostly by eye and worked assiduously with the assistance of the other men.

The six-man crew of the James Caird comprised Sir Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, Tom Crean, Tim McCarthy, John Vincent and Henry McNish. Both McNish and Vincent were considered troublemakers—this was perhaps a consideration in Shackleton’s decision to take them with him, to have them close at hand, and not allow them to be a morale nuisance on Elephant Island. Also, McNish’s skills would certainly be of more use in the small boat than back on Elephant Island. As Smith has written, ‘despite his tetchiness, [McNish] was a robust character whose carpentry skills were invaluable.’

After the Nimrod expedition, Shackleton mused in his book The Heart of the Antarctic that

It is true that the explorer is expected to be a handy man, able to contrive dexterously with what materials he may have at hand, but makeshift appliances mean increased difficulty and added danger. The aim of one who undertakes to organise such an expedition must be to provide for every contingency…

These words can be said to hold true for Shackleton, but also of the resourcefulness and innovation of Henry McNish.

The departure of the boat on 24 April, 1916, started badly—McNish and Vincent fell overboard while loading the supplies. They had to return to shore and find someone prepared to swap clothes. During the boat journey, all six men were constantly wet, suffered from raw and bleeding sores & saltwater boils and were frostbitten to varying degrees. Vincent had by 5 May broken down and McNish was struggling.

In South!, Shackleton wrote that the six men would not have survived had it not been for McNish’s work on the James Caird on Elephant Island:

We certainly could not have lived through the voyage without it.

After landing on South Georgia on 10 May, 1916, it was decided that the men should cross the interior of the island on foot. Another exertion such as that was, at that stage, beyond McCarthy, McNish and Vincent. These three men were left at King Haakon Bay while Shackleton, Crean and Worsley trekked the island. McNish, son of a boot-maker, put brass screws through the footwear of the three to assist with grip as they crossed the island. Andrew Leachman, Master of the New Zealand research ship Tangaroa, has written that ‘McNish was an inventive, imaginative and totally committed craftsman.’ Before leaving on 19 May, 1916, Shackleton wrote in McNish’s diary a short note leaving McNish in charge of the three men and that he hoped to ‘have you relieved in a few days’. In the meantime, the three men lived under the upturned James Caird.

When Worsley returned to King Haakon Bay aboard the steam whaler Samson, McCarthy didn’t recognise him as Worsley had bathed, shaved and borrowed clean clothes at Stromness whaling station. After only a few days at Stromness, the first attempt to return to Elephant Island was underway and separate arrangements were made to ship McNish, McCarthy and Vincent back to Britain.

McNish eventually arrived back in Liverpool, England, on 2 August, 1916 along with McCarthy and Vincent, having sailed from South Georgia on a Norwegian whaler, the Orwell. On 3 August, 1916, the London press interviewed the three men. Of McNish, they said:

He is quite optimistic as to the chances of the men on Elephant Island. Confidence in Frank Wild as an organiser and leader of men is only second in degree among them to their supreme faith in Sir Ernest Shackleton.

McNish, speaking to the journalists, after returning to England from South Georgia, said:

Every man in the party owes his life to the boss…Perhaps the worse fact we have to reckon with among the men left on Elephant Island, is that they may think that the small boat on which we reached South Georgia has foundered with all hands, and that consequently the world is still ignorant of their fate. It was I suppose one chance in a hundred that the boat would ever get through, and time and time it was only by a miracle that that we escaped drowning.

As soon as we got there [Elephant Island] I was set to work to fit out our largest boat for her adventurous voyage. It was a difficult job, but with the help of Marston and McCarthy, who made a great hand at sewing frozen canvas, the most difficult proposition in the way of sewing that there is, we managed to make good.

A week after we started out [from Elephant Island], while hove to in a gale, we lost our sea anchor, the rope being cut by the ice. This seemed to be almost the last straw, but Sir Ernest Shackleton rose, as usual, to the occasion, and I never saw him in better form than he was that day. ‘We’re going to get there all right,’ he said, when things seemed perfectly hopeless, and sure enough we did.

We first sighted the island [South Georgia] during a break in a snow storm. We knew nothing about the tide of the island and had to hold off until daylight. The next day the wind was blowing a hurricane and we had the greatest difficulty keeping the boat afloat. It was touch and go, and if Sir Ernest had not set a reefed sail I believe none of us would be alive now.

When we got to South Georgia – the wrong side of the island – we were just about at the end of our water. We were all frostbitten too, but the main thing we troubled about was something to fill our stomachs. Where the British flag flies you are forbidden to kill the Albatross. But there are no laws where hungry men are concerned. We knocked over three of those birds, and with their feathers off and trussed they must have weighed 14lbs apiece. Each of us accounted for half a bird.

McNish returned to his home in Scotland, which at that time he gave as being Cathcart, Glasgow, and re-joined the Mercantile Marine and continued to serve for many years. During his lifetime he served a total of twenty-three years in the Royal Navy.

In 1925 he was offered a job on Wellington Docks by the New Zealand Shipping Company, then aged almost fifty. He decided to emigrate and worked his passage to Wellington on one the Ruapehu, leaving Liverpool on 2 May, 1925. The frostbite and continued exposure that McNish underwent on the James Caird left his hands with long-lasting aches and it is said by those close to him that he would not shake hands due to these pains.

While in a hospital in Wellington, New Zealand, McNish heard Charles Green, the cook of the Endurance, on the radio giving a lecture about the expedition. McNish went to visit a surprised Green who asked McNish to talk about the James Caird journey. Green never said too much about the 800-mile voyage, as he wasn’t part of it. ‘It is a wonderful story. I don’t repeat it because I was not there,’ as he said himself.

McNish was to marry three times: Jessie Smith, 1895 (died February, 1898); Ellen Timothy, December, 1898 (died December, 1904); Lizzie Littlejohn, 29 March, 1907 (divorced 2 March, 1918).

When Shackleton was writing up the list of recipients for Polar Medals from the Endurance and Aurora parties, McNish was among those missing. (Ernest Holness, William Stephenson and John Vincent were also not on the list.) Despite McNish’s carpentry skills being essential to the success of the James Caird voyage, McNish fell short of the total loyalty demanded by Shackleton. Smith wrote that withholding the medal to McNish was ‘a deliberate snub’ and particularly vindictive considering that he was deserving of the honour. Andrew Leachman agrees with Smith that McNish was deserving of the award.

In 1919, Dr Alexander Macklin wrote

I was disheartened to learn that McNish, Vincent, Holness and Stephenson had been denied the Polar Medal…of all the men in the party no-one more deserved recognition than the old carpenter. I think too that withholding the medal from the three trawler men was a bit hard. They were perhaps not very endearing characters, but they never let the expedition down.

Andrew Leachman raised questions about the portrayal of McNish in Shackleton’s South! concerning his contribution to the expedition and to his physical health, particularly at King Haakon Bay.

Gerald Bowman, a pilot turned seaman, spent years with McNish sailing on tramp steamers. In his 1958 book, From Scott to Fuch, Bowman wrote:

Chips was neither sweet-tempered nor tolerant and his Scots voice could rasp like a frayed wire cable…I loved him not, yet in the course of the next few weeks I discovered him to be one of the most courageous and skilful men I have ever met…we actually became friends, and I found in place of a tormentor a good shipmate with a shrewd wit and a power of describing men and high adventure that was admirable.

 

Books

McGregor Dunnett, H. Shackleton’s Boat: The Story of the James Caird. Cork, 2015.

Shackleton, E. H. The Heart of the Antarctic Vol. I. Philadelphia, 1909.

Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.

 

Online resources

http://theinvisibleworkshop.blogspot.ie/2007/01/henry-mcneish.html

http://www.antarctic.org.nz/pages/journal/articles/art33.php

Campaign to posthumously award McNish a Polar Medal: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/henry-mcnish-the-shipwright-shackleton-forgot-1813181.html

Commemorative plaque at Port Glasgow Library unveiled 18 October, 2006 http://www.portglasgow4u.co.uk/People/McNish/IMAG009A.JPG

Cool Antarctica biography of McNish with photos of his grave with Mrs. Chippy statue http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/History/biography/mcnish_henry.php

Wikipedia entry for McNish https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_McNish

John F. Mann’s Endurance Obituaries page biography of McNish. Essential reading. http://www.enduranceobituaries.co.uk/mcnish.htm

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