On 18 August, 1909, Shackleton wrote a letter to Emily, his wife, informing her that the Prime Minister, Herbert H. Asquith, had confirmed a parliamentary grant of £20,000 towards his debts and the cost of the Nimrod expedition.
Shackleton’s life was always overcast with matters of money and debt. He was far too generous for his own good, often had little time for the details of finance and always hoped for his fortune to be made on his next big venture. Michael Smith has written that ‘Shackelton’s nemesis was money’.
An example of Shackleton’s actions with money was seen when the Nimrod was opened as an exhibition on the Thames. In two months it had raised a much-needed £2,000. Shackleton gave this money to local hospitals. Whether he thought that these donations would bring him goodwill and esteem as a man of generosity or he truly had no concept of what money meant, he made these charitable donations frequently and spontaneously, despite needing the cash rather desperately himself.
Following the return of the Nimrod expedition to England, Shackleton was busy trying to pay the expedition’s debts. Money was raised by giving the Daily Mail the exclusive on the story of the expedition. Shackleton hoped to make an unrealistic £100,000 from the sales of a book that would be the definitive account of the expedition.
With an eye on a general election, the Prime Minister, Herbert H. Asquith, needed to bolster popular support and pressure was put on the government to assist Shackleton financially and contribute to the costs of the expedition. On Asquith’s recommendation, the Westminster parliament made a grant to Shackleton of £20,000.
In an official letter from Downing Street on 19 August, 1909, Asquith wrote:
The Government have been induced to take this course as they are as much impressed both by the great value of the discoveries made in the course of your voyage, and by the efficient and economical manner in which your whole enterprise was conducted, as is shewn by the fortunate return of your entire party and by the comparatively small total outlay incurred.
In other words, not only was Shackleton good, but he was cheap! Also note that Asquith referred to the fact that no fatalities occurred—were fatalities expected on these expeditions? Looking back over the previous expeditions south and north, it would seem reasonable for Asquith to be surprised that everyone returned alive.
On 18 August, the day before Asquith send the letter above, Shackleton wrote to Emily in jubilant mood:
Isn’t it splendid!! £20,000 will be paid in a few days & Asquith congratulated me on the Expedition & said the whole Cabinet was in favour of the grant. I am so glad my darling. Just think your boy getting £20,000 from the Country. What oh!
After the return to the world of creditors and debtors from the Antarctic continent, Shackleton was very relieved to have the support, moral and financial, of the political elite. He wrote to Emily: ‘It is splendid darling that things have turned out so well.’ He was looking forward to being with his family and spending time at home (how long would it last?).
Goodnight Sweeteyes we will be tucked up tomorrow night all night together again.
Daly, R. W. The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition. Norwich, 2009.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.