Sisters in Endurance: An Irishwoman’s Diary on Eleanor and Kathleen Shackleton
Eleanor Shackleton on the occasion of a visit to Kilkea House in 1959
A year after finally reaching the whaling station of Stromness on South Georgia, Sir Ernest Shackleton arrived back in England to be reunited with his wife and children at the end of May 1917. He was also reconnected with his parents, his brother Frank and his sisters.
Shackleton’s biographies tell of the closeness of this large family and how his eight sisters adored their older brother.
However, once he marries Emily Dornan these women all but disappear from history. This is unfortunate as they had some remarkable stories of their own to tell – in particular Eleanor (1879-1960) and Kathleen (1883-1961).
Like Ernest, Eleanor was born at Kilkea House, Co Kildare, not long before the family moved to Dublin. Kathleen was born in Dublin and was a baby when the family travelled by ship to England. They settled in Sydenham, in south London, where the girls attended Sydenham Girls’ High School.
Eleanor went on to become a nurse, training at Guy’s Hospital. In 1909 she travelled to Canada and was one of the two pioneering nurses in the newly founded Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. Both resigned after a year, citing exhaustion and ill health, and Eleanor returned to London for a time before travelling to New York in 1912 to obtain a postgraduate qualification in paediatric nursing. When the first World War broke out, she joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, serving on the Western Front before being sent to Salonika. She eventually contracted malaria and was invalided home.
She returned to Canada in 1939 and was in Montreal when war broke out again. The nursing reserve turned down her request to reenlist as she was then 60 years old. This did not deter her desire to be useful and in 1946 she was recognised by the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for her services in relieving the suffering of the victims of war in the liberated countries.
In 1959 Eleanor retired from the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, Vancouver Island, after a career spanning over half a century.
She visited her childhood homes in Kilkea and London before returning to Victoria, where she died in January 1960, aged 80.
Kathleen’s life also brought her to Canada but along a different path. Arriving in 1912, she worked as a reporter and illustrator for the Montreal Star. In March 1916 she married, but was granted a divorce just six months later, on the grounds that her husband’s previous divorce was not legal.
She returned to her family in London and contributed to the war effort by working for the Board of Trade, work for which was awarded an MBE. Newspaper reports in 1919 said that she had volunteered to work on the Russian Front, perhaps following in her famous brother’s post-Endurance footsteps. The press also reported that she volunteered to go on Ernest’s final expedition in 1921, which may or may not be true, as that August she went to Czechoslovakia to report on that newly formed state.
She visited the old family home at Kilkea in 1925 – despite never having lived there herself – and then returned to Canada where her career as a portrait artist took off.
Over the following years she received commissions to sketch employees of the Hudson Bay Company, the Canadian Pacific Railway and other companies.
She revelled in Canada’s diversity, meeting and sketching everyone from politicians and influential businessmen to fur trappers, mill workers and maids. Her work with the Hudson Bay Company brought her to the Arctic at a time when it required a long and arduous river journey.
After spending time in Aklavik, on the Mackenzie river delta, she was involved in a war of words in the press with the bishop of the region regarding the funding of the school there. She openly voiced concerns about Anglicisation of the native population, feeling that their lifestyle and beliefs were central to their survival in that harsh environment.
Up to the second World War, Kathleen’s work was celebrated in Canada, with her portraits being acquired by various collectors and museums. She assisted Walter Gilbert in writing his memoirs of his time as an early pilot in the Far North, Arctic Pilot, and illustrated other books.
By 1950 she was back in England, and apart from a commission to sketch portraits of Hartlepool dockworkers, her career appears to have dwindled to a near standstill.
She spent her last years with her younger sister Gladys at their antique shop in the crypt of Chichester Cathedral.
Kathleen died in relative obscurity in 1961, aged 78.