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Henry McNish (1866-1930) - Biographical notes

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Henry McNish


Mrs. Chippy -
Henry's cat aboard the Endurance


Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition:
The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-Bound Cat
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Henry McNish

Carpenter
Endurance 1914-17

The Endurance Expedition

Henry McNish often collects an extra "e" in his surname name to become McNeish, how this came about is not clear, but a measure of the pervasiveness of the error is seen in the fact that in 1998 "McNeish Island" off South Georgia became renamed "McNish Island" only on submittal of his birth certificate to the relevant authorities.

McNish was one of the oldest members of the expedition, a Scot of whom Shackleton wrote was "the only man I'm not dead certain of". This somewhat curmudgeonly figure was the ships carpenter so earning the name "Chippy" (sometimes "Chips") as so many other carpenters have been. He was actually more than a carpenter, being a shipwright and so able to build boats and ships from raw materials, this placed him in the relative position of woodworking royalty compared to other carpenters. He was one of the real characters of the expedition, much respected as a sailor of long standing and experience, as well as for his exceptional skills in his chosen profession, he also had a good knowledge of metal work.

He was the owner of the only pet on the voyage, the ships cat called "Mrs Chippy" (in fact a tom-cat). Shackleton had Mrs. Chippy shot when many of the dogs were put down before the men took to the sea-ice after the Endurance was crushed and lost. He never forgave Shackleton for this act.

Chippy was kept occupied on the Endurance as practically able men ever are, by a multitude of jobs asked of him and also by those of his own devising. He built instrument cases for the scientific crew members, a chest of drawers for Shackleton's cabin, and a windbreak for the helmsman. He fixed doors and repaired tools such as ice saws. In the winter months, he set about redesigning the crews sleeping cubicles assisted by McLeod.

McNish's work was tireless in trying to aid the expedition in the way that only he of the men available was able. He built a cofferdam in the stern of the Endurance under dreadful conditions to try and stop a wide leak from flooding the whole ship and taking her down sooner, rather than later. He made the lifeboats more seaworthy for their subsequent journeys to Elephant Island, and in particular raised the gunwales (boat sides) and fitted small decks fore and aft to the "James Caird" in readiness for the epic boat journey back to South Georgia. He caulked the seams of the Caird for this journey using a mixture of flour, seal blood and oil paint donated by Marston, the expedition artist.

It is probably not an exaggeration that McNish's work in these matters was vital to the subsequent survival and rescue of the whole crew.

McNish did not get on particularly well with Shackleton however. Aside from the shooting of Mrs. Chippy, this probably stemmed from a disagreement when the Endurance was crushed and lost, McNish wanted to be allowed to build a Sloop from her salvaged timbers, Shackleton dismissed the idea.

McNish was not adverse to voicing his opinion, he was prone to questioning authority and speaking his mind, an attitude that clashed directly with one of Shackleton's main principals, that of loyalty. This came to a head 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. It is reported, though not entirely clearly, that Shackleton had threatened McNish with being shot if he did not join in with the other men and obey orders. Shackleton wrote "I shall never forgive him in this time of strain and stress".

McNish's rebellion was absurd and also logical, normal contracts on ships last as long as the ship survives, if the ship is lost, the men are no longer under obligation to obey orders, though neither are they paid. McNish thought that as the Endurance was lost, so Shackleton could no longer give orders as so McNish was a free man to do as he wanted, as were the other crew members (McNish fancied himself as something of a maritime lawyer in this respect). The absurdity came from the fact that McNish would have quickly died if alone on the sea-ice of the Weddell Sea, and could not be expected to accompany the rest of the party if he were not to obey orders and do his part. Shackleton eventually won him around logically (in addition to his pistol) with the argument that there was an unusual clause in the contract for this expedition that required the men to obey orders not only on the ship, but also ashore. There was the critical issue that this also meant the men were paid even though the ship was lost - against the normal scheme of things.

Later on, back in England, Shackleton denied Chippy the Polar Medal, given to all but 4 of the expedition members, largely due to this rebellion on the ice.

Identified as a possible insurgent, Shackleton chose Chippy for the boat journey to South Georgia mainly to remove him from Elephant Island where he felt he may ferment unrest and depress morale amongst those remaining behind and awaiting rescue. On South Georgia, Chippy ever active and inventive took 2-inch brass screws from the James Caird to make spiked boots for  Shackleton, Crean and Worsley on their trek across the uncharted mountains  and glaciers to the whaling stations and rescue.

 

Biography

Chippy was the third eldest of eleven children born to his father John McNish a shoemaker and journeyman and mother, Mary Jane McNish (nee Wade).

Chippy McNish married three times:

  • Jessie Smith 1895 ( died February 1898 )

  • Ellen Timothy December 1898 ( died December 1904 )

  • Lizzie Littlejohn 29th March 1907 ( divorced 2nd March 1918 )

  •  

He held strong socialist views all his life which explains his attitude on the ice with Shackleton where he saw the perceived lack of wages as reason not to obey orders. He was a member of the United Free Church of Scotland and was known to detest the use of foul language.

After the expedition McNish returned to the Merchant Navy and worked on various ships. He 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. He suffered poor health and after a serious work accident had to retire at 60 years old.

Unable to work, Chippy fell on had times and became destitute, he entered the Ohiro Benevolent Home, New Zealand where his illness worsened, he died in 1930 in Wellington Hospital.

The New Zealanders looked upon McNish in a more sympathetic light than Shackleton, and on his death the New Zealand Ministers of Internal Affairs and of Defence arranged a funeral with full Naval honours at the expense of the New Zealand Government. The British warship H.M.S. Dunedin just happened to be in port at the time:

"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.

Ironically as they did not get on at all on the expedition, McNish is buried just 41 plots further along from Thomas Hans Orde-Lees who was laid to rest some 28 years later. They both write in their diaries of their dislike for each other, though there are entries which suggest that in other ways they respected one another's skills.

McNish's cat "Mrs Chippy" is also honoured, the New Zealand Antarctic Society has remodelled McNish's grave to include a small statue of his beloved cat who now sits comfortably at his feet watching the world go by.

 

References to Chippy McNish in Shackleton's book "South!" buy USA   buy UK

  • The quarters in the 'tween decks were completed by the 10th, and the men took possession of the cubicles that had been built. The largest cubicle contained Macklin, McIlroy, Hurley, and Hussey and it was named "The Billabong." Clark and Wordie lived opposite in a room called "Auld Reekie." Next came the abode of "The Nuts" or engineers, followed by "The Sailors' Rest," inhabited by Cheetham and McNeish.

  • I finally selected McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent in addition to Worsley and Crean. The crew seemed a strong one, and as I looked at the men I felt confidence increasing. The decision made, I walked through the blizzard with Worsley and Wild to examine the James Caird. The 20-ft. boat had never looked big; she appeared to have shrunk in some mysterious way when I viewed her in the light of our new undertaking. The weather was fine on April 23, and we hurried forward our preparations. It was on this day I decided finally that the crew for the James Caird should consist of Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy, Vincent, and myself.

  • The final stage of the journey had still to be attempted. I realized that the condition of the party generally, and particularly of McNeish and Vincent, would prevent us putting to sea again except under pressure of dire necessity. Our boat, moreover, had been weakened by the cutting away of the topsides, and I doubted if we could weather the island.

  • The weather was bad on Tuesday, May 16, and we stayed under the boat nearly all day. The quarters were cramped but gave full protection from the weather, and we regarded our little cabin with a great deal of satisfaction. Abundant meals of sea-elephant steak and liver increased our contentment. McNeish reported during the day that he had seen rats feeding on the scraps, but this interesting statement was not verified. One would not expect to find rats at such a spot, but there was a bare possibility that they had landed from a wreck and managed to survive the very rigorous conditions.

  • We turned in early that night, but sleep did not come to me. My mind was busy with the task of the following day. The weather was clear and the outlook for an early start in the morning was good. We were going to leave a weak party behind us in the camp. Vincent was still in the same condition, and he could not march. McNeish was pretty well broken up. The two men were not capable of managing for themselves and McCarthy must stay to look after them. He might have a difficult task if we failed to reach the whaling station.

  • We turned out at 2 a.m. on the Friday morning and had our hoosh ready an hour later. The full moon was shining in a practically cloudless sky, its rays reflected gloriously from the pinnacles and crevassed ice of the adjacent glaciers. The huge peaks of the mountains stood in bold relief against the sky and threw dark shadows on the waters of the sound. There was no need for delay, and we made a start as soon as we had eaten our meal. McNeish walked about 200 yds with us; he could do no more.

  • McCarthy, McNeish, and Vincent had been landed on the Monday afternoon. They were already showing some signs of increasing strength under a regime of warm quarters and abundant food. The carpenter looked woefully thin after he had emerged from a bath. He must have worn a lot of clothes when he landed from the boat, and I did not realize how he had wasted till I saw him washed and changed. He was a man over fifty years of age, and the strain had told upon him more than upon the rest of us. The rescue came just in time for him.

Landmarks named after Henry McNish

Feature Name: McNish Island
Feature Type: island
Latitude: 5409S
Longitude: 03728W
Description: The larger of two islands lying at the E side of Cheapman Bay on the S side of South Georgia. Surveyed by the SGS in the period 1951-57. Name changed from McNeish to McNish 1998 after submittal of Henry McNish's birth certificate to the United Kingdom Antarctic Place-Names Committee.
Variant Name(s) - McNeish Island

Endurance
Personnel

Summary

Bakewell, William
Able Seaman

Blackborow, Percy
Steward (stowaway)

Cheetham, Alfred
Third Officer

Clark, Robert S.
Biologist

Crean, Thomas
Second Officer

Green, Charles J.
Cook

Greenstreet, Lionel
First Officer

Holness, Ernest
Fireman

How, Walter E.
Able Seaman

Hudson, Hubert T.
Navigator

Hurley, James F. (Frank)
Official Photographer

Hussey, Leonard D. A.
Meteorologist

James, Reginald W.
Physicist

Kerr, A. J.
Second Engineer

Macklin, Dr. Alexander H.
Surgeon

Marston, George E.
Official Artist

McCarthy, Timothy
Able Seaman

McIlroy, Dr. James A.
Surgeon

McLeod, Thomas
Able Seaman

McNish, Henry
Carpenter

Orde-Lees, Thomas
Motor Expert and Storekeeper

Rickinson, Lewis
First Engineer

Shackleton, Ernest H.
Expedition Leader

Stephenson, William
Fireman

Vincent, John
Able Seaman

Wild, Frank
Second in Command

Wordie, James M.
Geologist

Worsley, Frank
Captain

Recommended Books DVD's and VHS

Endurance, The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told, book
Endurance : Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Alfred Lansing (Preface)
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Free world delivery


South with Endurance:
Frank Hurley - official photographer
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Free world delivery

South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-17
South! Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton's own words
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Free world delivery
Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer
Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer
Buy USA   Buy UK
Free world delivery

Shackleton's Boat Journey: The narrative of Frank Worsley
Buy USA  Buy UK
Free world delivery

Shackleton
biography by Roland
Huntford
Buy USA   Buy UK
Free world delivery

The Quest for Frank Wild
biography by Angie Butler
USA  UK
Free world delivery

The Endurance : Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
by Caroline Alexander
Buy USA   Buy UK
Free world delivery

Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition:
The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-Bound Cat
Buy USA   Buy UK
Free world delivery

Shackleton's Forgotten Men
Lennard Bickel
Buy USA
   Buy UK
Free world delivery
Tom Crean an Illustrated Life: Unsung Hero of the Scott & Shackleton Expeditions
Tom Crean: Unsung Hero
biography by Michael Smith

Buy USA  Buy UK
Free world delivery
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World, The True Story of the Endurance Expedition
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World -
Jennifer Armstrong
for ages 12 and up
Buy USA    Buy UK
Free world delivery
Movies / Documentaries
South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition
South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919)
original footage
Buy from Amazon USA DVD  Buy from Amazon UK DVD
Shackleton - The Greatest Survival Story of All Time (3-Disc Collector's Edition)
Shackleton
dramatization
Kenneth Branagh (2002)
Buy from Amazon USA DVD  Buy from Amazon UK DVD
Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (Large Format)
Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (2001)
IMAX dramatization
Buy from Amazon USA DVD  Buy from Amazon UK DVD
The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Expedition (2000)
PBS NOVA, dramatization with original footage
Buy from Amazon USA DVD  Buy from Amazon UK DVD


Shackleton's 1914-17 Trans-Antarctica Expedition on Twitter - follow us now to get the story 100 years to the day later.  @danthewhaler



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Lonely Planet travel guide Antarctica
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Frozen Planet
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Shackleton
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The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Expedition
Dramatization with original footage

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