To the Antarctic with ShackletonOn Board the Endurance | Cheetham Landmarks


In 1914 the explorer Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to the Antartctic. On board the ship Endurance was a crew member with a Blackburn connection. His name was Alfred Buchanan Cheetham.
If there was a seaman worthy of the title “Antarctic Seaman” then it must surely apply to Alf Cheetham.
Shackleton writes of Cheetham….. ‘Cheetham the veteran of the Antarctic had been more often south than any other man’
Alfred Cheetham was born in 1867 in Liverpool. He was a small, lean man and was well known for his cheerfulness. He married a woman named Eliza Sawyer from Hull in Yorkshire. They moved to Hull in Yorkshire and had 13 children. Alf died on the 22nd August 1918 at sea.
Alfred was the son of John Cheetham who was born in 1835. He was from Blackburn and was a railway clerk. Alfred’s grandfather was a school master. Alfred’s mother Anne Elizabeth Cheetham was born in 1832 and she was from Brampton Cumberland. The family left Blackburn between 1861 and 1866. In 1871 they were in Liverpool and by 1881 they were in Hull.
Alfred ran away to sea as a teenager working on the fishing fleets of the North Sea and further afield.
Alf made his first visit to the Antarctic on the relief ship Morning during the Discovery Expedition of 1901-1904. He returned with the Terra Nova Expedition, he served as a boatswain, and volunteered for the search party that was to look for Scott’s party, but he was turned down as he was a family man.
Then he travelled again to the Antarctic under the command of Ernest Shackleton on the Nimrod Expedition. He was third officer and boatswain.
By the time of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, when he was 47, Cheetham was the crew member with the most experience of the Antarctic, having spent almost 6 years in the seas around the continent.

Chronology of the expedition of the Endurance
• On the 4th August 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out from Southend-on-sea, England on a daring expedition. His goal: the first crossing of the Antarctic continent.
• Cheetham was serving as third officer. After crossing the southern ocean Endurance arrived at south Georgia on 5th November 1914
• After loading supplies of food, coal and winter clothing, Endurance steamed form the Cumberland Bay on the 5th December 1914 bound for the Weddell Sea.
• The next day the ship was surrounded by large bergs. So it would be, with few exceptions, for the next several weeks, until January 19th, 1915, when Shackleton and his men found themselves within sight of their goal- and due to the gale they had just weathered in the lee of a berg, locked immovably in ice.
• Hurley finally admitted the obvious on January 28th, noting that a fall in temperature had caused what open water remained around the ship to go completely solid.
• Their last hope of breakout came on the 14th February, the eve of Shackleton’s 41st birthday, when an opening in the ice 300 yards ahead gave hope.
• They only managed to get around 300ft. 
• On February 24th Shackleton ordered everyone to help turn the ship into a winter station.


• There they spent the lonely Antarctic winter were the sun never rose above the horizon.
• Midwinter’s Day June 22nd, which heralded the return of the sun, deserved celebration and was observed as a special holiday with generous meals fashioned from special treats. Following a grand dinner, a “smoking concert” was held on stage built by Hurley.
Cheetham in the middle, helping to wash the lino on the ship.


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On Board the Endurance​

• As the days lengthened and breakout seemed imminent, the ice tightened its grip. The ship endured repeated nights of heavy pressure, the floor of the Ritz buckling while Cheetham and the others, unable to sleep, lay in their bunks anticipating the ship being crushed as the wood between their cubicles cracked, groaned, and sometimes splinted. Topside, they occasionally found it difficult to perform their duties as the ship would sometimes contort like a bow, leaving ominous voids in the deck while the wood groaned and fractured around them.
• At midnight on the 15th October, a thunderous crack compelled all hands to rush up on the slushy deck where, gazing out, they observed a widening fissure expanding through the ice. Settling into the water, the ship was suddenly free for the first time since the 15th February.
• A sail was raised and Endurance actually sailed- for a scant 100 yards (91 metres) - before coming to a rest in a narrow lead surrounded by large, menacing floes which, they knew, would eventually come together.
• On 26th October, extremely heavy pressure once more assailed the ship, opening planking beneath the men’s feet. Shackleton immediately ordered sledges, lifeboats, and emergency stores lowered onto the ice and to move away from imminent harm.

Some of the sledge dog puppies
• The next day the ship was too dangerous to live on so they had to abandon her.
• Shackleton called his men together. In a speech often portrayed as his most inspiring address, one that asked the men to put aside their individual difficulties to achieve the impossible for all, he informed them of his plan to march 300 miles (480 km) across the ice to Snow Hill where he knew there was a supply of stores. He then reached into his pocket and discarded some items including a gold watch and a cigarette case, ordering the men to do likewise.
• On the 21st November, at 5pm, as the men were resting in their sleeping bags, Shackleton noticed a movement in the wreck. Calling out, he alerted the men who ran quickly from their tents to the highest vantage points available. In 5 minutes the stern of the endurance rose critically in the air and then dove forever beneath the ice.
• After moving camp back a few miles ‘Mark Time Camp,’ later to become ‘Patience Camp,’ was established at the dawn of 1916. And here they sat, cold, bored, increasingly agitated, and hungry for three months waiting for the ice to open.
• It was on the 30th March when the floe cracked in half. Then finally on Sunday the 9th April 1916, after 156 days on the ice, their small floe split again and they took to the boats.
• There were three boats, the James Caird, Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb-Wills. Cheetham was on the Dudley Docker with Worsley, Greenstreet, Kerr, Orde-lees, Macklin, Marston, McLeod and Holness.
• During the next five horrid days, hungry, delirious with thirst, frozen to the core, and unable to sleep, they battled high waves, freezing temperatures, pack-ice, diarrhoea, and seasickness in ice-encased boats and clothing.
• But finally they sighted Elephant Island 30 miles off at dawn on April 14th. They toiled at the oars for hours, approaching to within 10 miles. But here, nearly landed, they were gripped by an offshore current that forced the boats to remain at sea one remaining night- in a blizzard during which the Dudley Docker disappeared from sight and was thought lost. The Caird and the Wills landed on Elephant Island on 15th April just in time. Several men were near death. Then the Docker hove in sight. All were saved!
• After setting up camp, they waited for an opening to appear so that Shackleton could go get help. On Easter Monday on the 24th April an opening in the ice appeared. When the Caird was ready Shackleton came ashore had a cigarette with Worsley then wished the men good-bye and was rowed out to the Caird for the last time.
• Shackleton and his crew endured 17 hellish days at sea, bitterly cold, wet to the core, their boat pitching, rolling and jerking heavily with massive waves breaking over her at all hours.
• All hope of rescue had been surrendered on Elephant Island. On 28th April, a hut was fashioned by overturning the Wills and Docker atop two 4 ft-high stone walls, 18ft apart.
• Then 5 months later after another bitterly cold winter and scarce food Marston came charging up the path shouting ‘Ship-O’ again and again.
• Hurley gathered up some paraffin and a handful of sennegrass. When he struck the match the resulting explosion thundered across the water like a cannon’s roar. The Yelcho signalled her response, and a boat was lowered. Shackleton landed, throwing cigarettes and tobacco at their feet. Like giddy school children they cheered his arrival. In less than an hour, they were gone. That night, aboard Yelcho, flung from side to side like a cork on the wide ocean’s waves, all were raving seasick- hysterically happy.
• Amazingly not one person died from the trip.
• Cheetham was awarded the Silver Polar Medal (Clasp Only).
After the expedition Alfred returned to Hull only to learn that one of his sons, William Alfred Cheetham aged just 16, had lost his life at sea, presumed drowned whilst serving on the S.S Adriatic on the 31st October 1916.
Alfred then enlisted in the Mercantile Marine and was serving as second officer on the S.S Prunelle.
Unfortunately he was to have the same fate as his son, when on the 22nd August he was killed when his ship was torpedoed 2 miles from Blyth by a German U-Boat (UB 112, commanded by Wilhelm Rhein). He was aged 51 at the time. Twelve lives were lost including Cheetham's.
Cheetham has no known grave, but you can find him on the Tower Hill Memorial in London.
The Commonwealth War Graves has this citation for Alfred Cheetham:
Initials: A B
Nationality: United Kingdom
Rank: Second Officer
Regiment/Service: Mercantile Marine
Unit Text: S.S. "Prunelle" (London)
Age: 51
Date of Death: 22/08/1918
Additional information: Son of the late John F. and Annie Elizabeth Cheetham; husband of Eliza Cheetham (nee Sawyer), of 40, Bean St., Hull. Born at Hull.
Casualty Type: Commonwealth War Dead
There are two landmarks named after Cheetham:
• Feature name: Cheetham Ice Tongue
• Feature type: Glacier
• Latitude: 7545S
• Longitude: 16255E
• Description: A small ice tongue on the E coast of Victoria Land between Lamplugh Island and Whitmer Peninsula. It projects eastward into Ross Sea. The tongue appears to be nourished in part by Davis Glacier and partly by ice draining from Lamplugh Island and Whitmer Peninsula. First charted by the BrAE, 1907-09, under Shackleton-Nimrod Expedition• Variant Name(s)- Cheetham Glacier Tongue, Cheetham Ice Barrier Tongue
• Feature name: Cape Cheetham
• Feature type: Cape
• Latitude: 7018S
• Longitude: 16242E
• Description: An ice-covered cape forming the NE extremity of Stuhlinger Ice Piedmont. First charted by members of the BrAE, 1910-13, who explored this coast in the location assigned on the maps of the ANARE (Thala Dan), 1962.
Quotes about Cheetham taken from Ernest Shackleton’s book South
‘In the afternoon we see 5 emperors in the western lead and capture one. Kerr and Cheetham fight a valiant action with 2 large birds. Kerr rushes at one, seizes it, and is promptly knocked down by the angered penguin, which jumps on his chest before retiring. Cheetham comes to Kerr’s assistance; and between them they seize another penguin, bind his bill and lead him, muttering muffled protests, to the ship like an inebriated old man between two policemen. He weighs 85lbs., or 5lbs less than the heaviest emperor captured previously. Kerr and Cheetham insist that he is nothing to the big fellow who escaped them.”

“McLeod and Cheetham were two good sailors and oars, the former a typical old deep-sea salt and growler, the latter a pirate to his finger-tips. In the height of the gale that night Cheetham was buying matches from me for bottles of champagne, one bottle per match (too cheap; I should have charged him two bottles). The champagne is to be paid when he opens his pub in Hull and I am able to call that way.” Unfortunately the debt was never repaid."

By Alexandra Griffiths of Moorland School, Darwen, whilst on work experience at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
All pictures by kind permission of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge