On 26 September, 1974, Charles Green, the cook aboard the Endurance, died in Hull, England. He was known as the ‘Antarctic Chef’.
Charles Green was born on 24 November, 1888, in Richmond, Surrey, the eldest of four children of Ernest Frederick Green and Sarah Annie (née Stocker). Charles’s father was a master baker and Charles followed the family trade. However, at age twenty-two, Charles ran away to sea. Clearly a life as a baker was not enough for the young man. He joined the merchant navy and began his career on SS Sardinian, sailing mostly from Liverpool to Canada.
In late-September, 1914, Green sailed to South America as baker aboard the Andes. He arrived in Buenos Aires in late-October—as did the Endurance. The cook initially employed for the expedition was dismissed at Buenos Aires for drunkenness and Green went along for an interview. He was among twenty applicants who received interviews with Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Worsley. The next day Frank Wild went to the Andes to inform Green that he had been chosen and he was signed on at the salary of £8.10s per month.
Green had an enormous task in front of him. He was to cook four meals a day for the crew of the expedition. He was the first one to rise in the morning and probably the last to bed. He was given one day off in the week and the role was cook was then passed around the others. Perce Blackborow, the young, Welsh stowaway ably assisted Green in the preparation and cleaning in the galley.
Food was an important theme all the way through the expedition. Any occasion for a feast or something special was used for morale purposes. Midwinter’s Day, 22 December, 1915, was an important event. The day was observed as a holiday, with only necessary work being done. In South! Shackleton wrote:
…and, after the best dinner the cook could provide, all hands gathered in the Ritz, where speeches, songs, and toasts occupied the evening. After supper at midnight we sang ‘God Save the King’ and wished each other all success in the days of sunshine and effort that lay ahead.
To make such an evening possible, Green would have worked very hard and perhaps only get the leftovers!
Once the Endurance was abandoned, Green’s job became more difficult. Worsley wrote that
The cooking was done over a blubber stove which our cinematographer, Hurley, had made from a five-gallon oil-drum.
To add some form of protection for Green and his stove, a makeshift galley was created. Hurley:
A ‘galley,’ or more correctly speaking, a wind screen, had been rigged up, by pushing four oars into the snow and straining round them an old sail.
As blubber was used to cook, the black smoke created was thick. Hurley wrote that it ‘gave him [Green] the appearance of a merry chimney sweep who had not washed for many months.’ Worsely also wrote of the smoke of Green’s stove:
Green, attended to his job, great volumes of black, greasy smoke would pour out and almost stifle the poor wretch. Every two or three minutes he would rush from his ‘galley’…coughing and gasping and wiping the tears from his eyes.
In South! Shackleton wrote of an exchange between the men and Green about their preferred strength of tea:
The cook got the blubber-stove going, and a little later, when I was sitting round the corner of the stove, I heard one man say, ‘Cook, I like my tea strong.’ Another joined in, ‘Cook, I like mine weak.’ It was pleasant to know that their minds were untroubled, but I thought the time opportune to mention that the tea would be the same for all hands and that we would be fortunate if two months later we had any tea at all. It occurred to me at the time that the incident had psychological interest. Here were men, their home crushed, the camp pitched on the unstable floes, and their chance of reaching safety apparently remote, calmly attending to the details of existence and giving their attention to such trifles as the strength of a brew of tea.
In South! Shackleton recorded words from Hurley’s diary:
The cook deserves much praise for the way he has stuck to his job through all this severe blizzard. His galley consists of nothing but a few boxes arranged as a table, with a canvas screen erected around them on four oars and the two blubber-stoves within.
During the week of the journey to Elephant Island in the three boats, Green was probably in the James Caird. To facilitate the cooking or heating of drinks in the first few days in the boats, Green and other men was landed on the floes with his blubber stove, fuel and packets of dried milk.
On 20 April, 1916, on Elephant Island, Green collapsed. Shackleton, who noted that Green had worked well during the boat journey, was first at his side. From South!:
I happened to be at the galley at the moment and saw him fall. I pulled him down the slope to his tent and pushed him into its shelter with orders to his tent-mates to keep him in his sleeping-bag until I allowed him to come out or the doctors said he was fit enough.
Shackleton ordered one of the men who was feeling very hopeless to replace Green as cook until he was well enough again. Not named, this man was absorbed by the difficult work of keeping the fire lit and cooking, and Shackleton wrote that ‘[o]ccupation had brought his thoughts back to the ordinary cares of life’ and away from despair.
Green, once recovered, continued to do the cooking during the men’s time on Elephant Island. At times of heavy blizzard, it was too difficult to cook outside and so, one day, Green started cooking in the makeshift hut. This was not only for Green’s relative comfort, it was also because the winds of the island were blowing sand and grit into the cooking pots. Hurley wrote Wild’s recollections of it:
He [Green] did cook a meal all right, but the blubber smoke was enough to poison us, and we all had a bad time. Some of the fellows got smoke blindness, which was very like snow blindness. It was very painful and Micky and Mac [the two doctors, James McIlroy and Alexander Macklin] had to attend to them. Kerr made a chimney out of the tin lining of one of the biscuit cases, and after that our little home was a happier one.
Green was cook until 9 August, 1916, when he was given a rest. Shackleton noted that he ‘had carried on so well and for so long’. Each man then took it in turns to be cook for one week. When the Yelcho arrived at Elephant Island on 30 August, 1916, and all the men were aboard, Green was back to work! Green, himself, noted that
Shackleton sent me down to the galley to do the cooking—for all their crowd [the Chilean crew of the Yelcho] and our crowd too. That was a bit thick I thought!
The men of the expedition knew how hard it was for Green to constantly create meals for them throughout the time on Endurance, on the ice, in the boats and on Elephant Island. He was respected and it has been written that he had a very positive outlook.
Hurley: ‘He did his cooking thoroughly—too well at times—and if chided about the leathery toughness or cinder-like crispness of a seal steak, had a ready fund of wit which always completely exonerated him and laid the blame on the seal.’
Worsley: ‘Wonderful to relate, the grin never left his face. All of us were grateful to him, for under the most trying conditions he would always manage to scrape together some sort of a hot meal.’
When Green returned to England in November, 1916, he met with some surprised people. His parents had presumed that he was dead and cashed in his life assurance policies. The young woman he had hoped to marry had also given up hope and married another man. Pretty rough stuff for a returning cook. Green, like most of the other men of the expedition, joined the navy for the remaining years of the Great War. Green served as cook aboard the destroyer HMS Wakeful and was wounded in August, 1918, when the ship rammed into a German submarine in the Skagerrak, the strait running between the southeast coast of Norway, the southwest coast of Sweden, and the Jutland peninsula of Denmark.
Charles Green and Ethel May Johnson were married in November, 1918, the same month that Green received his Bronze Polar Medal for his services to the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Following the end of the war and his demobilisation, Green continued to serve as cook aboard merchant ships.
In 1921, Green, among others from the Endurance, joined the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition aboard the Quest. Frank Worsley was Captain of the ship and was delighted to see Green, ‘the good old cook’, as part of the expedition. Worsley wrote that
Green, the cook, a permanent grin on his face, appeared to me a beautiful sight ‘for old time’s sake.’
Frank Wild wrote that
Sir Ernest Shackleton, as has already been said, in choosing his personnel selected first of all a nucleus of well-tried and experienced men who had served with him before, appointing me as second in command of the expedition. They included Worsley, Macklin, Hussey, Mcllroy, Kerr, Green and McLeod.
The Quest rolled quite a lot and this affected Green in amusing ways. Wild asked him what was for breakfast on one particular morning.
‘Bacon and eggs,’ he replied.
‘What sort of eggs?’
‘If I did not scramble them they would have scrambled themselves’—a sidelight on the liveliness of the Quest.
Green had his cabin beside his galley, which was always warm from the heat of the engine-room. This wasn’t much of an advantage in the tropical waters but was wonderful in the colder regions. His galley aboard the Quest was small and he only had a small oven. Wild wrote that Green’s control over his pots and pans ‘proved more often than not to be elusive and refractory’ due to the ship’s motion.
After hunting penguins with Marr and Macklin, Wild was with Green as Green ‘came out of his galley to regard with a professional eye this new addition to his larder.’ Wild asked him if he had forgotten how to cook seal and penguin meat.
Not likely! If I was to live to be a hundred, I would not forget that.
The two men had camped together on Elephant Island awaiting Shackleton’s return. What an experience to share.
During the expedition, the men also took advantage of the fish for their diets. Macklin noted that:
The fish here are of excellent quality and have the peculiarity that when cooked they do not taste fishy. Green usually fries them in olive oil and they are particularly good.
During the Quest expedition, Shackleton gave Green a set of glass lantern-slides of the Endurance expedition. A very nice gesture in any case, this must have increased in significance for Green following the Boss’s death in January, 1922. Following the end of the expedition, Green returned to his cook role on merchant vessels and, at every port, he used his precious lantern-slides to give a lecture about Shackleton and the Endurance.
While in hospital in New Zealand, Henry McNish heard Green on the radio giving a lecture about the Endurance. 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.
Green continued to take his lantern-slides and lectures with him until he left the Merchant Navy in 1931. After that, he looked after his wife (ill with cancer) during the day and worked in a bakery in Hull at nights. Ethel died early in 1936. The couple had no children.
During the World War II, Charles became a Fire Watcher on the roof of a large garage in Hull city centre. He spoke of being bombed out nine times, losing everything and living in an Air Raid Shelter for over a fortnight. He took new lodgings with an old neighbour and lived there for over thirty years.
Green continued to give his lectures across Britain, in schools, societies, institutions, organisations, etc. Many people today still fondly recall having heard Green speak about his experiences as the ‘Antarctic Chef’. Green wore his Polar Medal with great pride at every lecture and official event.
Green stayed in touch with his companions from his Antarctic days. He attended the fiftieth anniversary reunion of the launch of Endurance in 1964 and also was present at the commissioning of the Royal Navy’s new Antarctic Survey ship HMS Endurance at Portsmouth Dockyard in 1968. He went to visit this ship again in 1970 with the two other Endurance men still alive— Lionel Greenstreet and Ernie How.
Charles Green died of peritonitis in Beverley Hospital, near Hull on 26 September, 1974, aged eighty-five.
To listen to the podcast of the Food Programme’s episode about Charles Green, entitles ‘An Antarctic Chef’, presented by Gerard Baker, please see the link below. It is well worth a listen!
Hurley, F. Argonauts of the South. London, New York: 1925.
Shackleton, Sir E. South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914–1917. London, 1919.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.
Wild, W. Shackleton’s Last Voyage: The Story of the ‘Quest’. London, 1923.
Worsley, F. A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. London, 1931.