Thomas Hans Orde-Lees, 1877-1958
Biographical notes

Motor expert / stores keeper Endurance 1914-17 - 37 at the start of the expedition

"Elephant Island and Beyond", The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde-Lees  buy USA   buy UK

A complex and rather eccentric character, Orde-Lees (also referred to as "Lees" in various publications about the expedition) was a captain in the Royal Marines at the time of joining the Endurance, he was responsible for the motor-sledges including some of his own design, that it was hoped would have helped carry Shackleton and his team across the continent.

Orde-Lees fulfilled the role of a Royal Navy man whom Shackleton thought it wise to take along with the expedition to gain political and military support he felt was needed. It was only after approaching Winston Churchill that permission was gained for Orde-Lees to be released from his Navy Duty, bearing in mind that the expedition was leaving England on the eve of the First World War. He was a skier at a time when this was very rare and a physical fitness expert.

A former public school boy, Orde-Lees was generally disliked by the other expeditioners, though was an effective and thorough store-keeper. He had a rather surly manner and was fundamentally somewhat lazy, with no inclination to hide the fact, simply avoiding pulling his weight if he was able to do so. In such close conditions with other men, he was frequently ridiculed. The men would take delight in antagonizing him if possible, when Shackleton insisted on extra rations for instance and so over-rode storekeeper Orde-Lees' meagre distribution of foodstuffs.

He had taken a bicycle with him on the Endurance and would often go out onto the pack ice and ride it performing "tricks" around the randomly chaotic hummocks. On one of these occasions near to midwinter, he became lost and had be rescued by a search party, he was ordered not to leave the ship alone again.

While in the lifeboat, the Dudley Docker, on the journey to Elephant Island, a gale blew up, Orde-Lees was malingering and not taking as much of a turn at the rowing with the other men when Worsley, who was in charge of the boat ordered - yelled - at him to join in as their survival may have depended on it. Despite this and the fact that the rest of the men in the boat joined in behind Worsley to get Orde-lees to row, he still refused and crept onto the sleeping bags to rest (admittedly, he was in a poor physical state due to the privations of the journey, though no more so than many others and far less so than some who nonetheless pulled their weight). He very rapidly began to bail the boat out though as it began to be swamped and disaster became an immediate possibility.


Thomas Orde-Lees was born at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in Germany or Prussia, as it was then called during a holiday his parents were taking. His father also called Thomas, was known as something of an eccentric character, he was a Barrister at Law (though not in practice) and Chief Constable of Northampton. Life was comfortable and the family had a Butler, Cook, Nurse and Housemaid.

The young Orde-Lees was given an education at Marlborough College, The Royal Naval School (Gosport) and later at Sandhurst Military Academy, he gained a commission in the Royal Marines becoming a Lieutenant Colonel. He was posted to China at the time of the infamous "Boxer Rebellion".

In 1910 Orde-Lees applied to join Scott's Terra Nova expedition, but was turned down.

On return to England after the expedition, he served in the Balloon Service and saw action on the Western front. With Shackleton's help, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) and was a pioneering figure in parachute jumping. On one occasion, he jumped off the top of Tower Bridge into the River Thames, only about 160 or so feet below to convince the British Military of the usefulness of the parachute. Although this was just a stunt, it seemed to do the trick and the R.F.C. formed a parachute division with Orde-Lees in command.

As a result of his parachuting, Orde-Lees went to Japan as a member of the British Naval Air Mission where he taught the techniques to the Japanese Air Force. Staying in Japan, he obtained a job as Tokyo correspondent with the London Times Newspaper a post he held for 3 years. This led to an appointment as an assistant at the British Embassy in Tokyo. His first wife had died, leaving a daughter and he later married a local Japanese woman.

He taught English at the Peers School of Japan and for nearly 20 years also read the English news on Japanese Radio right up until 1941 when Japan joined World War II at which point he and his family were reluctantly evacuated to New Zealand. The family had become quite wealthy living in a sumptuous Tokyo house by this time with two servants, all of which had to be left behind.

Upon arrival in New Zealand, the family settled in Wellington and Orde-Lees accepted the rather lowly position of Office Assistant with the New Zealand Correspondence School, in effect nothing more than an office boy. Suggestions were made that he was actually employed as a spy by the British Government, in all events, he became well known around Wellington. He wrote a regular travel column for children in The Southern Cross Newspaper. Shortly before his death in 1958 he was involved in the organisation of the 1955/58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

There is some dispute as to Orde-Lees actual age when he died in 1958, the Karori cemetery in Wellington show in their records that he was named Thomas Orde Hans Lees, Order of the British Empire Air Force Cross and died aged 79. Other sources show him as Thomas Hans Orde Lees and give an age at death of 81.

He died an ignominious death of senility in a mental hospital, and lies in a neat, well attended plot in the servicemen's section of the cemetery, just a hundred or so yards from the last resting place of one Chippy (Henry) McNish.

References to Orde-Lees in Shackleton's book "South!" buy USA   buy UK

Shackleton refers to him as "Lees".

  • The celebration of Christmas was not forgotten. Grog was served at midnight to all on deck. There was grog again at breakfast, for the benefit of those who had been in their bunks at midnight. Lees had decorated the wardroom with flags and had a little Christmas present for each of us.

  • Lees, who was in charge of the food and responsible for its safe keeping, wrote in his diary: "The shorter the provisions the more there is to do in the commissariat department, contriving to eke out our slender stores as the weeks pass by. No housewife ever had more to do than we have in making a little go a long way.

  • By this time we had got into a bad tide-rip, which, combined with the heavy, lumpy sea, made it almost impossible to keep the Dudley Docker from swamping. As it was we shipped several bad seas over the stern as well as abeam and over the bows, although we were 'on a wind.' Lees, who owned himself to be a rotten oarsman, made good here by strenuous baling, in which he was well seconded by Cheetham.

  • From Frank Worsley's account
    "The temperature was 20° below freezing-point; fortunately, we were spared the bitterly low temperature of the previous night.
    Greenstreet's right foot got badly frost-bitten, but Lees restored it by holding it in his sweater against his stomach.

Orde-Lees in his own words: "Elephant Island and Beyond", The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde-Lees  buy USA   buy UK

  • This has been the red letter day of my Antarctic life so far, for I have succeeded in breaking down the sailors' prejudice against seal meat. The whole ship was permeated with the savoury odour. Meanwhile I warmed up four 2lb tins of rabbit in the oven. When the duty man from the fo'c'sle came to collect food for the crew , I got the tins ready "What's that we smelled cooking this morning?" asked the sailor.  "Oh, just some seal I was roasting for the wardroom" was the reply. "Well if the wardroom can have it we can can't we?" asked the crewman, putting down the tinned meat. So the sailors had seal meat of their own free will and were much more healthy as a result.


Other Crew of the Endurance Expedition

Bakewell, William - Able Seaman
Blackborow, Percy - Stowaway (later steward)
Cheetham, Alfred - Third Officer
Clark, Robert S. - Biologist
Crean, Thomas - Second Officer
Green, Charles J. - Cook
Greenstreet, Lionel - First Officer
Holness, Ernest - Fireman/stoker
How, Walter E. - Able Seaman
Hudson, Hubert T. - Navigator
Hurley, James Francis (Frank) - Official Photographer
Hussey, Leonard D. A. - Meteorologist
James, Reginald W. - Physicist
Kerr, Alexander. 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/stoker
Vincent, John - Able Seaman
Wild, Frank - Second in Command
Wordie, James M. - Geologist
Worsley, Frank - Captain

Biographical information - I am concentrating on the Polar experiences of the men involved. Any further information or pictures visitors may have will be gratefully received. Please email  - Paul Ward, webmaster.

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  Ernest Shackleton Books and Video

South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition
South - Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition (1919)
original footage - DVD

Shackleton - The Greatest Survival Story of All Time (3-Disc Collector's Edition)
Kenneth Branagh (2002) - DVD

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (Large Format)
Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure (2001)
IMAX dramatization - DVD

The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
The Endurance - Shackleton's Legendary Expedition (2000)
PBS NOVA, dramatization with original footage - DVD
Endurance, The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told, book
Endurance : Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Alfred Lansing (Preface) - Book

South with Endurance:
Frank Hurley - official photographer

South: The Story of Shackleton's Last Expedition, 1914-17
South! Ernest Shackleton
Shackleton's own words

 Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer
Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer

Shackleton's Boat Journey: The narrative of Frank Worsley


biography by Roland

The Quest for Frank Wild, biography by Angie Butler

The Endurance : Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition
by Caroline Alexander

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

Shackleton's Forgotten Men
Lennard Bickel

Elephant Island and Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees Book
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