Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904 (leader Robert Falcon Scott), the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909 (led by Shackleton), the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917 [Weddell Sea Party and Ross Sea Party] (led by Shackleton), the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, 1921-1922 (led by Shackleton), correspondence with his family and general correspondence, miscellaneous papers and biographical information.

Administrative / Biographical History

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 in Kilkea, Ireland, one of six children of Anglo-Irish parents. The family moved from their farm to Dublin, where his father, Henry studied medicine. On qualifying in 1884, Henry took up a practice in south London, and between 1887 and 1890, Ernest was educated at Dulwich College. On leaving school, he entered the merchant service, serving in the square-rigged ship Hoghton Tower until 1894 when he transferred to tramp steamers. In 1896, he qualified as first mate, and two years later, was certified as master, joining the Union Castle line in 1899.

In 1901, he became a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, and joined the British National Antarctic Expedition, 1901-1904 (leader Robert Falcon Scott), serving as third officer in Discovery. During the expedition, he was responsible for seawater analysis and was editor of the expedition newspaper South Polar Times. In November 1902, Shackleton accompanied Scott and Edward Wilson on the first major sledging journey, exploring inland across the Ross Ice Shelf toward the South Pole. On 30 December 1902, they reached a record farthest south of 82° 17'. Although weakened by scurvy on the return journey, Shackleton struggled back on foot with the others and to his intense disappointment, was invalided home in March 1903 on the relief ship Morning.

On his return to Britain, Shackleton married Emily Dorman and settled in Edinburgh, becoming secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. After standing unsuccessfully for Parliament as liberal-unionist candidate for Dundee in 1906, he became personal assistant to Mr William Beardmore, head of the Glasgow firm of naval ship builders and armour plate manufacturers. In 1907, he announced his plans for an expedition to the South Pole and, after raising funds set out with the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-1909.

Departing from London in the expedition ship Nimrod in July 1907, he landed at Ross Island in February 1908. In October 1908, the main polar party, consisting of Shackleton, Eric Marshall, John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild and Jameson Adams, set out from Cape Royds, crossing the Ross Ice Shelf and discovering a way through the mountains by means of the Beardmore Glacier. On inadequate rations, they man-hauled across the polar plateau, reaching 88° 26' South on 9 January 1909 before turning back.

On his return, Shackleton was knighted and was awarded several medals, including the Special Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society. After experiencing limited success in various business enterprises, Shackleton began to plan an expedition to cross Antarctica between the Ross and Weddell Seas. One ship, Endurance, would land a sledging party in the Weddell Sea while another Aurora, would land a party at McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea to lay depots in support of the crossing party. Following months of fund-raising, Endurance set out from Plymouth in 1914

. In December 1914, Endurance sailed from South Georgia towards the Weddell Sea, where she became beset in heavy pack ice in January 1915. After the ship was crushed, the crew lived for six months on drifting ice until this broke up northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Proceeding in three open boats, the party of twenty-eight men reached Elephant Island on 15 April 1916. To seek help, Shackleton set out with five men in the James Caird on an epic sixteen-day voyage to South Georgia. On arrival there, Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean made the first crossing of the rugged mountain interior, reaching Stromness Bay whaling station on 20 May 1916. After three unsuccessful attempts to rescue the Elephant Island party, Shackleton finally reached the stranded men in the Chilean naval steam tug Yelcho on 30 August 1916.

Returning to Great Britain, Shackleton was sent by the British government on a propaganda mission to South America, and between 1918 and 1919, served with the North Russian expeditionary force, receiving the OBE (military) in 1919. After the war, he became involved in a succession of business enterprises, all of which ended in disappointment, as did a plan for an expedition to Arctic Canada.

With the support of John Quiller Rowett, he decided to head south once more, leading the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition, 1921-1922, to the Southern Ocean. Sailing from London in Quest on 21 September 1921, the expedition arrived in South Georgia on 4 January 1922. Shackleton suffered a heart attack and died the next day at Grytviken, where he was buried in the whalers' graveyard overlooking the bay.

Published work The heart of the Antarctic; being the story of the British Antarctic expedition, 1907-1909 by Ernest Henry Shackleton edited by Carroll & Graf, New York (1999) SPRI Library Shelf (7)91(08)[1907-1909 Shackleton] South by (Sir) Ernest Henry Shackleton, edited by Peter King, Pimlico London (1999) SPRI Library Shelf (7)91(08)[1914-1917]


The collection is split into seven sub-fonds comprising of expedition material (4 sub-fonds), correspondence (2 sub-fonds) and miscellaneous papers respectively.

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Antarctic Chronology, unpublished corrected revision of Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events by Robert Keith Headland (1 December 2001) Cambridge University Press (1989) and Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) SPRI Library (7) and Shackleton and the Antarctic by Margery and James Fisher, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston (1958) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Shackleton E H] and The life of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton by Hugh Robert Mill, William Heinemann Ltd. London (1924) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Shackleton E H] and Shackleton by Roland Huntford, Hodder and Stoughton London (1985) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Shackleton E H] and Dictionary of National Biography, 1922-1930 Oxford University Press, London (1937)

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


Further accessions possible.

Related Material

The Scott Polar Research Institute holds a number of photographs, film and other illustrative material in the Picture Library, some of which covers the expeditions of Shackleton. The catalogue can be searched on line by going to the Picture Library Database and selecting the Enter Polar Pictures link.