The story of the men of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship S.Y. Endurance

Henry McNish

( 11/09/1866 – 24/09/1930 )



Henry “Chippy” McNish, was one of the older members of the expedition being in his 40th year when the expedition set out. Chippy was born in 1874 at 8 Lyons Lane, Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, Scotland. However, one or two newspaper obituaries as well as cemetery records incorrectly state that he was 64 years old when he died and was born in Irvine. Ayrshire in 1866.

Chippy came from a large family and was the third eldest of eleven children in the McNish household. His father was John McNish a shoemaker and journeyman. His mother, Mary Jane McNish (nee Wade).who married on 5th November. 1869.

McNish was to marry three times:
  1. Jessie Smith. 1895 ( died February 1898 )
  2. Ellen Timothy. December 1898 ( died December 1904 )
  3. Lizzie Littlejohn. 29th March 1907 ( divorced 2nd March 1918 )

Sometime prior to his divorce from Lizzie Littlejohn, McNish had met one Agnes Martindale who already had a daughter named Nancy. McNish refers to Nancy on a number of occasions in his diary, however he was not her father.

He held strong socialist views all his life and was a member of the United Free Church of Scotland and was known to detest the use of foul language.

As ship’s carpenter, he was to play a major part in the ”Endurance“ saga.

McNish was a time served Shipwright skilled at working wood, he also had a good knowledge of metal work.

He was kept busy on board the Endurance with a multitude of jobs including fashioning the iron knees into the pram dinghy “Nancy Endurance”. Building instrument cases for the scientific crew members, constructing a chest of drawers for Shackleton’s cabin, erecting a windbreak for the helmsman. He fixed doors made ice tongues and ice saws.A major project was redesigning the crews sleeping cubicles once winter had set in . Quite often McLeod would assist him in these tasks.

McNish built the cofferdam to help keep the ship afloat as long as possible. He asked Shackleton to be allowed to build a Sloop from the timbers of the sinking “Endurance”. Shackleton dismissed the idea. He raised the gunnels and decked out the “James Caird” in readiness for the epic boat journey back to South Georgia. Using a mixture of flour, seal blood and oil paint he caulked the seams of the Caird.

With old 2-inch brass screws from the same deck he even managed to cobble spiked footwear to assist Shackleton, Crean and Worsley on their epic trek across the uncharted mountains of South Georgia.

After the expedition McNish returned to the Mercantile Marine and spent several years working on various ships .During his lifetime he served a total of 23 years in the Navy. He is mentioned in some detail in Gerald Bowman’s 1958 book “From Scott to Fuch” where the author recounts the time he spent at sea with McNish, and writes…….

“I had the great luck to find myself shipmates with one “Chips” McNish, who had been Shackleton’s carpenter on the Imperial Trans –Antarctic Expedition. Chips was neither sweet-tempered nor tolerant and his Scots voice could rasp like a frayed wire cable…….. I loved him not, yet in the course of the next few weeks I discovered him to be one of the most courageous and skilful men I have ever met. Finally after two notable incidents , we actually became friends , and I found in place of a tormentor a good shipmate with a shrewd wit and a power of describing men and high adventure that was admirable.”

Bowman goes on to describe the two incidents that changed his opinion of McNish.

McNish secured a job with the New Zealand Shipping Company and made five trips to N.Z. In 1925 he was offered a job on Wellington docks New Zealand by the same company and decided to emigrated and worked his passage on the ship “Ruapehu”.

Chippy often complained that the extreme cold and soaking conditions he had experienced in the boat journey on the James Caird , had left him so that his bones permanently ached. Other people who knew him say that he would often refuse to shake hands because of the pain.

To add to his poor health he suffered a serious accident at work and had to retire at the age of 60. He never was to recover his health.

Charles Green, the ships cook, who whilst giving a lecture on the expedition in New Zealand, one of his many world-wide , wrote…….

“I gave some lectures in New Zealand. They asked me to go on the radio there. When I returned to the ship next morning I found I’d got a visitor –McNish ! He was in hospital in Wellington and had heard my broadcast on the Radio. When it came to the bit in the lecture about the boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, I said to Mac, “Will you come on the platform ?” Mac stepped up and he took over the lecture and told them all about the boat journey. It is about the only one that’s ever been given - apart from Shackleton, himself. It is a wonderful story. I don’t repeat it because I was not there. I only talk about the part that I’ve been on. I don’t repeat other men’s yarns.”

Being unable to work , Chippy eventually fell on had times and became destitute. A place was found for him in the Ohiro Benevolent Home where his illness worsened and he eventually died in 1930 in Wellington Hospital.

It is known that McNish never forgave Shackleton for having his cat “Mrs Chippy” (who in fact was a Tom cat ) shot.

In the late 1920’s McNish made a voyage between Wellington and Bluff and befriended the father of Baden Norris a noted Antarctic historian. Baden as a young child was introduced to McNish and he remembers:

“ A grey man in bed, leaning up on his elbows and telling him “Shackleton shot my cat!”

Shackleton had denied Chippy the Polar Medal, mainly because of his rebellion on the ice, when he questioned the wisdom of dragging the boats across what at times seemed impassable terrain, and possibly causing them irreparable damage. Indeed on that occasion it was almost McNish’s turn to be shot. Shackleton wrote “I shall never forgive him in this time of strain and stress”.

This incident was probably not the only reason why Shackleton denied him the Polar Medal. Chippy, although a first class seaman and shipwright was something of an awkward character, prone to questioning authority and speaking his mind. This clashed with one of Shackleton's main principals that he looked for in his crew, that of loyalty.

However, the New Zealanders looked upon McNish in a more sympathetic light. When news of his death and his involvement in Antarctic expeditions reached the ears of the New Zealand Ministers of Internal Affairs and of Defence they promptly arranged a funeral with full Naval honours at the expense of the New Zealand Government. (see photograph below)

Coincidentally the British warship H.M.S.Dunedin was in port at the time and the cortege was as follows:

“The remains were borne on a Gun Carriage provided by The Royal New Zealand Artillery, draped in the Union Jack flag and led by a firing party of 12 men from H.M.S. Dunedin with arms reversed. The horse drawn Gun Carriage was escorted by 4 pall-bearers either side (Petty Officers from the Dunedin).”

His coffin was conveyed to Karori Cemetery, Wellington where Chippy lies buried in plot 30C.O.C.2.

It is well documented that McNish and Orde -Lees did not exactly hit it off on the expedition. They both write in their diaries of their dislike for each other. Yet there are also entries which suggest that in other ways they respected one another’s skills. The irony is that some 41 plots further along from McNish, is one Thomas Hans Orde-Lees who was laid to rest there some 28 years later.

What, one wonders , are the odds of two such men ending up in the same cemetery thousands of miles from their homeland ?

In 1958 the British Antarctic Survey named a small island in honour of Chippy….” McNish Island” which lies in the approaches to King Haakon Bay. South Georgia. A fitting tribute to a truly remarkable skilled and brave British seaman.

McNish’s cat “Mrs Chippy” is soon also be honoured. The New Zealand Antarctic Society has plans to remodel McNish’s grave to included a small model of his beloved cat. No doubt the carpenter will rest there now with an even bigger grin on his face!




With Thanks to Isabel Laws ( Great-Niece of Henry McNish)
Roy Cockram (Nephew of Charles Green )
The National Library of New Zealand
Andrew Leachman. Master of R.V. “Tangaroa”.

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