Henry “Chippy” McNish

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

Henry McNish was to marry three times:
1. Jessie Smith. 11th October.1895.  A servant aged 20. Married at Kilmalcolm. Renfrew. (Died 17th February 1898,of Pernicious Anemia at  I71 High St. Irvine).    
2. Ellen Thomson Timothy. 2nd December.1898. A hosiery worker aged 21 Married at Irvine. Ayrshire. (Died 31ST December 1904 of Tuberculosis at 22 Loudrum St. Dundonald).
3. Lizzie Littlejohn. 29th March 1907. A mill worker aged 28. Married at Kilmarnock. Ayrshire. (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.
By the time he was aged 30, McNish had become a time served Shipwright skilled at working wood, he also had an excellent 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 crewmembers, 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 and McCarthy would assist in these tasks. 

“The ship’s carpenter, a mariner of the old school, who had many years’ experience of sailing before the mast, made a startling suggestion. He was, he said, prepared to supervise the building of a schooner from the wreckage of the Endurance. If the ship was built, they might have a sporting chance, but Shackleton rejected the idea, as impracticable.”
Henry “Chippy” McNish, was one of the senior members of the expedition being in his 40th year when the expedition set out. Although often referred to in writings and the diaries of the men as “The Old Carpenter” he was by no means the eldest on the expedition. Shackleton , Wild, Worsley, Cheetham and McLeod were all older.  Chippy was born in 1874 at 8 Lyons Lane, Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, Scotland. However, one or two  newspaper obituaries incorrectly state that he was 64 years old when he died, and was born in Irvine. Ayrshire in 1866

Chippy  raised the gunnels of the “James Caird” at Ocean Camp and later, on Elephant Island, modified  the Caird further using the mast from the “Stancomb-Wills” to support framework made from wooden food boxes and sledge runners, over which he stretched canvas to form a deck.
Using a mixture of flour, seal blood and Marston’s oil paints, he caulked the seams of the Caird. The ingenious McNish had made the boat seaworthy enough for Shackleton to attempt the epic boat journey back to South Georgia.

With used 2-inch brass screws from the Caird’s deck he even managed to cobble spiked footwear to assist Shackleton, Crean and Worsley on their desperate trek across the uncharted mountains of South Georgia. He was officially left in command by Shackleton of the two infirmed men, Vincent and McCarthy who remained behind at Peggotty Camp.

McNish eventually arrived back in Liverpool. England on 2nd August.1916 along with Tim McCarthy and John Vincent. They had sailed from South Georgia  on a Norwegian whaler the “Orwell”.

The press were keen to hear their story, as at that time there were still 22 men waiting to be rescued from Elephant Island.

On 3rd August 1916 the London press interviewed the three men:

“Mr.McNish, who as carpenter, held a post of great responsibility on the Endurance, is a Scotsman in the prime of life. He accompanied Dr Bruce in the Scotia expedition, and so his experience in the Weddell Sea is now unequalled. He is quite optimistic as to the chances of the men on Elephant Island. Confidence in Frank Wild as an organiser and leader of men is only second in degree among them to their supreme faith in Sir Ernest Shackleton.”

(There is no record of McNish ever having been a crewmember on Bruce’s “Scotia”. It is more probable that McNish was involved in the extensive repairs that were needed on her when she was purchased from Norwegian owners in 1901. Bruce may have employed McNish during this work, which was carried out at Troon in 1902.)

McNish is further quoted as saying:

“Every man in the party owes his life to the boss    

“Perhaps the worse fact we have to reckon with among the men left on Elephant Island”, is that they may think that the small boat on which we reached South Georgia has foundered with all hands, and that consequently the world is still ignorant of their fate. It was I suppose one chance in a hundred that the boat would ever get through, and time and time it was only by a miracle that that we escaped drowning”.

McNish then went on to talk about making the James Caird seaworthy for the crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia

“As soon as we got there I was set to work to fit out our largest boat for her adventurous voyage. It was a difficult job, but with the help of Marston and McCarthy, who made a great hand at sewing frozen canvas, the most difficult proposition in the way of sewing that there is, we managed to make good.
A week after we started out, while hove to in a gale, we lost our sea anchor, the rope being cut by the ice. This seemed to be almost the last straw, but Sir Ernest Shackleton rose, as usual, to the occasion, and I never saw him in better form than he was that day. “We’re going to get there all right,” he said, when things seemed perfectly hopeless, and sure enough we did.”

“We first sighted the island during a break in a snow storm. We knew nothing about the tide of the island and had to hold off until daylight. The next day the wind was blowing a hurricane and we had the greatest difficulty keeping the boat afloat. It was
touch and go, and if Sir Ernest had not set a reefed sail I believe none of us would be alive now”
“When we got to South Georgia – the wrong side of the island – we were just about at the end of our water. We were all frostbitten too, but the main thing we troubled about was something to fill our stomachs. Where the British flag flies you are forbidden to kill the Albatross. But there are no laws where hungry men are concerned. We knocked over three of those birds, and with their feathers off and trussed they must have weighed 14lbs apiece. Each of us accounted for half a bird.”
“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.”
He then describes the approach to South Georgia and the landing at King Haakon Bay:

The hardships suffered during the journey from the flow to Elephant Island, and then on to South Georgia, had caused McNish to lose almost two stone in weight, but he had returned to his normal weight by the time he reached England.

He returned to his home in Scotland , which at that time he gave as being  Cathcart. Glasgow, and soon rejoined the Mercantile Marine and spent several years working on various ships. During his lifetime he served a total of 23 years in the Navy. Chippy is mentioned in some detail in Gerald Bowman’s 1958 book “From Scott to Fuch”. Bowman had been  an R.A.F. pilot who in 1918 having reached the rank of Squadron Leader, turned his career around after WW1 ended and went to sea. The author spent a number of years sailing on tramp steamers and recalling  the time he spent at sea with McNish, wrote…….

The latter of the two notable incidents that Bowman referred to concerns the time he and McNish were serving in New Zealand on the New Zealand Shipping Company’s steamer “Whakatane”. On 18th May 1921, the ship collided with the ”Admiral Codrington”  off Gisborne. North Island, during fierce southerly squalls. The “Whakatane”  started to take on water in her No.4 hold, and it was McNish who acted quickly in the attempt to  save the ship by getting the crew to haul the cargo of tallow barrels out of the No.4 hold up onto the deck and distribute the weight in an attempt  to keep the gash in the hold as much as possible above the waterline. That and with much toil at the hand pumps by Chippy and the rest of the crew, did the trick.

After Shackleton’s death in 1922, reunions of the expedition members were held each year in London.  McNish attended on a number of occasions thanks to the generosity of James Wordie, who at his own expense invited McNish along as his guest.

In 1925 he was offered a job on Wellington Docks by the New Zealand Shipping Company and by now he was aged almost 50 and decided to emigrate and worked his passage to Wellington on one of their ships the “Ruapehu”. which sailed from Liverpool on 2nd May 1925.

Chippy’s hands had suffered serious frostbite during the expedition, and 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.
To add to his poor health he suffered a serious accident at work. He never was to recover his health and was forced to take early retirement. 

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 hard times and became destitute. He had relied on monies collected by his work colleagues and slept rough in the waterside wharf sheds until eventually a  place was found for him in the Ohiro Benevolent Home where over a two year stay his illness gradually worsened. and he eventually died in 1930 in Wellington Hospital.

McNish seems never to have forgiven Shackleton for having his cat  “Mrs Chippy” (who in fact was a tom cat) shot. This event took place at 2.55pm on Saturday 30th October 1915.
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. Orde-Lees diary entry of 30th December 1915 reads:
“It has shown up one or two in their true colours, notably the objectionable, cantankerous carpenter who was so grossly insubordinate to Cpt.Worsley on the march that Sir Ernest found it necessary to call a muster and read over ship’s articles.”

Indeed on that occasion it was almost McNish’s  turn to be shot. Shackleton wrote:  “I shall never forgive the carpenter in this time of strain and stress”.

This incident was probably not the only reason why Shackleton denied him the Polar Medal. McNish, 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. Too many times McNish had made derogatory remarks about Shackleton and other officers of the Endurance.
All the exceptional work and duty that McNish had carried out during the expedition seems to have been cancelled out in Shackleton’s mind by this major flaw in the man’s character. 

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.

On Friday 26th September 1930 at 10a.m. his coffin was conveyed to Karori Cemetery. Wellington. Coincidentally the British warship H.M.S.Dunedin was in port at the time and contributed to the cortege.

His remains were borne on a gun carriage provided by The Royal New Zealand Artillery, draped in the Union flag and led by a firing party of 12 men from H.M.S. Dunedin with arms reversed. Lieutenant H. Lovegrove was the officer in charge. The horse drawn gun carriage was escorted by 4 pall-bearers either side (Petty Officers from the Dunedin).At the graveside a bugler sounded the “Salute” and the “Last Post”.

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 they respected one another’s skills.
Chippy McNish  lies buried at Karori Cemetery in plot 30C.O.C.2. The irony is that some 40 plots further along from McNish, is one Thomas Hans Orde-Lees who was laid to rest there 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 rocky 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.
On 26th June 2004 the New Zealand Antarctic Society honoured McNish when a bronze model of his beloved cat “Mrs.Chippy” was added to his restored grave. No doubt the carpenter will rest there now with an even bigger grin on his face!

© J Mann all rights reserved

The Ruapehu

Braden Norris from the N.Z. Antarctic Society is interviewed by Radio New Zealand at the official un-veiling of the Mrs.Chippy Statue.at McNish’s restored grave. Karori Cemetery. Wellington.N.Z. 26 th June.2004.

The commemorative plaque that was unveiled at Port Glasgow Library on 18 th October 2006. The ceremony was conducted by Councillor Maxie Hill ( Chippy’s Great Nephew) along with   Grace Low and David McNish ( Chippy’s niece   and nephew).

My thanks to Mr Mann for all photographs and details on this page.

McNish's funeral cortege passes along Chuznee Street. Wellington,en route to Karori Cemetery
(Photo Curtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library)

This page last modified on Monday, April 02, 2012

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