An Irishman’s Diary: Mrs Chippy, the Scottish carpenter and the Antarctic

The fate of a cat on the British Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1915 was an issue between its owner Harry McNish, the ship’s carpenter, and the renowned leader, Ernest Shackleton. It affected relations between the two men.

McNish took the cat, named Mrs Chippy, on board the expedition's vessel Endurance in an era when ships' cats were commonly regarded as part of the crew. A tiger-striped tabby, it endeared itself to members of the expedition by displays of "character" and an ability to tread along the ship's railings even in rough weather.

McNish, an independent-minded Scotsman from the Glasgow area, was to demonstrate his considerable skills in terrible conditions. The Endurance pushed into the pack ice of the Weddell Sea to reach a place from where a party of men could begin the journey across the ice-covered continent. However, the moving ice floes began to close round the ship, holding it in a frozen grip. The party were hoping the ice might move and release them. They waited in the sub-zero temperatures week after week. Instead, the pressure began to crush the stout vessel.

Shackleton was forced to abandon ship. McNish played a key role in prising open some of the deck timbers so that provisions could be retrieved. The lifeboats were taken off the wrecked ship and a camp set up. McNish built makeshift huts from timber salvaged from the vessel. The hope was that the moving ice would carry them to open water.

When the movement of the ice proved to be slow, Shackleton decided to drag the three lifeboats towards the open water. He jettisoned any unnecessary baggage and ordered that some of the dogs and the cat should be shot. McNish and Tom Crean, the indomitable, iron-hard Irishman from Annascaul in Kerry, were both upset by this decision. The Scottish carpenter had become very attached to his cat and was said to have never forgiven Shackleton.

Confrontation

McNish, the oldest member of the crew, who was suffering considerable pain, objected to getting into harness with the others to haul the lifeboats. There was a confrontation between him and Shackleton but McNish had to back down.

Trying to manhandle lifeboats over the rough ice proved a very difficult and exhausting business. After three days Shackleton gave up the attempt. They set up another camp to wait until they were carried to the edge of the ice-pack and open water. After five trying months this eventually happened.

Shackleton decided the three boats should try to reach a rocky outcrop called Elephant Island. They did so after a terrible five-day journey in rough seas.

They pulled the boats up on the bleak, stony shore. However they were completely isolated there, without any hope of rescue. Shackleton resolved to take the best of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to try to reach the island of South Georgia, where a whaling station was located.

To prepare for this hazardous journey McNish raised the sides, strengthened the keel, built a rough and ready deck of wood and canvas.

On April 24th, 1916 Shackleton and five companions, including McNish and Crean, set off on what proved to be an epic journey of survival. After 15 harrowing days it reached the shore of South Georgia.

Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, the captain of the Endurance, had then to climb over ice-covered mountains for 35 hours before eventually reaching the sanctuary of the whaling station.

Then Shackleton set about rescuing all of the party. Later, almost all of the men were awarded the Polar Medal in recognition of their bravery and endurance. However, McNish was denied it. Some in the expedition felt this was unfair on the part of Shackleton.

McNish went back to the British merchant navy as ship’s carpenter. Towards the end of his seafaring career he sailed with the New Zealand Shipping Company. When he retired he worked on the waterfront in Wellington. He became disabled by injury and died destitute in 1930.

His grave lay unmarked for many years but the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a good headstone in 1959. Many felt that all the skill and effort he had contributed to the expedition by far outweighed his moments of insubordination. The story of the cat became part of his legend. As the momentum to commemorate him grew, a life-size bronze figure of his cat was placed on his grave by the NZAC in 2004.