On 22 August, 1918, Alf Cheetham, veteran of Scott and Shackleton Antarctic expeditions, died aboard S.S. Prunelle when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Blyth in the North Sea.
Alf Cheetham was born 6 May, 1867. There are numerous places mentioned as the birthplace of Alf—Liverpool, Hull, Blackburn—but it seems safe to say that his family moved around quite a bit in Alf’s childhood. Alf ran away from home as a teenager and began a life at sea. He was married to Eliza Sawyer and they lived together in Hull. Their marriage was certainly productive as they had thirteen children.
Cheetham had his first encounters with Antarctica while aboard the SY Morning, the relief vessel for Captain Robert F. Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition. Under Captain William Colbeck, the Morning was sent out to McMurdo Sound in 1902-1903 to restock the expedition. Ernest Shackleton joined the ship then due to his scurvy illness following the trek in search of the South Pole. Morning returned to Antarctica again in 1903-1904, to relieve Captain Scott and the Discovery which was caught in thick ice.
Cheetham returned to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton for his British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. On this expedition, aboard the Nimrod, Cheetham was third officer and boatswain. Shackleton described him as ‘an old hand in the Antarctic’ due to his experience aboard the Morning. Cheetham was a hard worker, led by his example and proved himself a genial fellow.
In a back-and-forth manner between Captain Scott and Shackleton, Cheetham was again in the Antarctic for Scott’s Terra-Nova expedition of 1911-1913. He was boatswain of the crew of the ship and was, by then, rather experienced. He put his knowledge to good use, managing the ship and the ice in difficult situations. Alf volunteered for the party that was to search for Scott and the South Pole party, but he was turned down as he was a married man with children.
Cheetham had the most time spent in the waters and ice of Antarctica by the time Shackleton was organising the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In his book, South!, Shackleton wrote that Cheetham was ‘the veteran of the Antarctic, who had been more often south of the Antarctic circle than any man’. Alf was third officer of the expedition aboard the Endurance, 1914-1917. Alf and Henry McNish inhabited the part of the ship named the ‘Sailors’ Rest’.
South! recounts an amusing penguin chase, with Cheetham involved, on 3 May, 1915. It began with three emperor penguins emerging from an ice lead near the ship. ‘The men imitated the emperor’s call and walked slowly, penguin fashion, away from the lead.’ The penguins followed these men while other crewmembers cut off their retreat. After the penguins were shepherded towards the ship, they were seized. From South!:
One bird of philosophic mien goes quietly, led by one flipper. The others show fight, but all are imprisoned in an igloo for the night…In the afternoon we see five emperors in the western lead and capture one. Kerr and Cheetham fight a valiant action with two large birds. Kerr rushes at one, seizes it, and is promptly knocked down by the angered penguin, which jumps on his chest before retiring. Cheetham comes to Kerr’s assistance; and between them they seize another penguin, bind his bill and lead him, muttering muffled protests, to the ship like an inebriated old man between two policemen. He weighs 85 lbs., or 5 lbs. less than the heaviest emperor captured previously. Kerr and Cheetham insist that he is nothing to the big fellow who escaped them.
After the Endurance was abandoned, Alf occupied tent number four at Ocean Camp, with Leonard Hussey and George Marston, under the charge of Tom Crean. Cheetham was in the Dudley Docker boat when the three boats were launched from the ice. Frank Worsley was captain of the Dudley Docker and in command of Cheetham, Lionel Greenstreet, Thomas McLeod, Thomas Orde-Lees, George Marston, possibly Dr Alexander Macklin and three others. The boat filled with water regularly, so the men were bailing just as often. As Worsley recorded in his diary:
As it was we shipped several bad seas over the stern as well as abeam and over the bows, although we were ‘on a wind.’ [Orde-] Lees, who owned himself to be a rotten oarsman, made good here by strenuous baling, in which he was well seconded by Cheetham. Greenstreet, a splendid fellow, relieved me at the tiller and helped generally.
On one of the nights in the Dudley Docker, Cheetham was having bad luck and his pipe went out. As Worsley wrote, smoking their pipes was ‘their only solace,’ as their ‘raging thirst prevented us from eating anything’. Matches were prized commodities in the circumstances and the others in the Dudley Docker were indignant when Worsley gave a match to Cheetham. When ‘misfortune had again overtaken his pipe and he tried to cadge another,’ Worsley refused. However, Alf was ‘a pirate to his finger-tips’. Worsley recalled the interchange between them then:
Seeing how crest-fallen he was, however, I had not the heart to keep one from him, and said, ‘Look here, I’ll sell you one.’
‘Right, sir,’ said Cheetham;
‘A bottle of champagne,’ I replied, laughing in spite of myself.
‘Done, sir,’ he retorted; ‘as soon as I get back to Hull and open my little pub the champagne’s yours.’
Anything to lighten the mood and keep the sense of doom at bay was used. As Worsley wrote, they had by then ‘had one hundred and eight hours of toil, tumbling, freezing, and soaking, with little or no sleep.’
Cheetham remained on Elephant Island while the James Caird sailed over the horizon with Shackleton, Tom Crean, Tim McCarthy, Frank Worsley, John Vincent and Henry McNish inside. Similar to the reason that Cheetham wasn’t taken on the search party for Scott years earlier, it is thought that Shackleton didn’t choose Cheetham for the James Caird party because Cheetham was married with children. On 17 May, 1916, Dr James McIlroy took a poll—what would the men on Elephant Island have to eat if they could have anything. The responses were mostly sweet desserts like Frank Wild’s answer of apple pudding and cream. Cheetham went instead for pork, apple sauce, potatoes and turnips. Perce Blackborow’s answer is touching and poignant—he said plain bread and butter.
Following the successful rescue of the men on Elephant Island, Cheetham returned home. Tragically, he was to find out that his son, William Alfred Cheetham, had lost his life at sea, at the age of sixteen. He was presumed drowned whilst serving on the S.S. Adriatic on 31 October, 1916. Alf, like so many of the men returning from Antarctica, joined the Merchant Navy as the Great War was still in progress. On 22 August, 1918, while serving as Second Officer on the S.S. Prunelle, Alf was killed, with at least nineteen others, when the ship was torpedoed by the German U-boat, UB-112, off Blyth in the North Sea. Alf was fifty-one years old.
In his book, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure, Worsley wrote that he was never to receive his bottle of champagne as, unfortunately, ‘poor Cheetham was killed in battle in the North Sea towards the end of the War.’ In South!, Shackleton wrote that ‘Cheetham…was drowned when the vessel he was serving in was torpedoed, a few weeks before the Armistice.’ While Alf was away, his youngest daughter, Ella, had died. Another of his sons was on active service in France. Alf’s wife, Ella, was left with her nine children—a family broken by conflict, like innumerable others across the world.
Cheetham is commemorated at Tower Hill Memorial, Trinity Square, Tower Hill, London:
In Memory of Second Officer ALFRED BUCHANAN CHEETHAM
S.S. “Prunelle” (London), Mercantile Marine
who died age 51 on 22 August 1918
Son of the late John F. and Annie Elizabeth Cheetham; husband of Eliza Cheetham (nee Sawyer), of 40, Bean St., Hull. Born at Hull.
Remembered with honour
Fiennes, R. Captain Scott. London, 2004.
Shackleton, Sir E. The Heart of the Antarctic: Being the Story of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909. 2 vols. London, 1909.
Shackleton, Sir E. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917. London, 1919.
Smith, M. An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean—Antarctic Survivor. Cork, 2000.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.
Strathie, A. From Ice Floes to Battlefields: Scott’s ‘Antarctics’ in the First World War. Stroud, 2015.
Worsley, F. A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. London, 1931.
Endurance Obituaries biography of Alf Cheetham.
Wikipedia entries for Alfred Cheetham; SY Morning.
Cool Antarctica page about Alf Cheetham. Info on the two places named after Cheetham.
Alfred Cheetham: A Mainstay of the Endurance, The James Caird Society website. Images galore here.
‘Alfred Buchanan Cheetham: Antarctic Seaman,’ Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull.
Photo of Alf Cheetham (on right in the photo)
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Entry for Alf Cheetham.