Endurance in the ice

By Endurance We Conquer

18th March 2011

"Men Wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."

Whether Sir Ernest Shackleton ever placed the above advertisement in precisely those words is questionable… it may be apocryphal, but it’s certainly an accurate description of the Antarctic experience. His family motto, By Endurance We Conquer, sums it up too. It is a story of heroism and perseverance, still brought to life today in the words of one of the men who was there.

Jill Glenn meets Geoff Selley, custodian of a set of original lantern slides from Shackleton’s 1914-17 expedition and the notes written by Leonard Hussey to accompany the pictures…

On 8 August, 1914, Endurance left Plymouth for the Antarctic. Sir Ernest Shackleton had already taken a team there in 1907, and although they had failed to reach the Pole, they had achieved the ‘Farthest South’ record (which stood until Amundsen reached the Pole in 1911), the first ascent of Mount Erebus, an expedition to the approximate location of the Magnetic South Pole and the discovery of the Beardmore Glacier passage. Now there were new challenges to be faced. It had taken Shackleton over two years to raise the money for this trip, ambitiously entitled the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and he had whittled his way through five thousand applicants.

One was Leonard Duncan Albert Hussey, 23, an anthropologist and archaeologist who had been working in the Sudan, and who came scurrying back to England to chase the opportunity of a trip to the southern hemisphere. He later recalled his interview with Shackleton: “He called for me, looked me up and down, walked up and down when he was talking to me , didn’t seem to take any notice. Finally he said, “Yes, I like you, I’ll take you.” It was a good decision on Shackleton’s part. Hussey, appointed as the meteorologist, proved warm, witty, amusing and popular. He was also a banjo player of some skill (Shackleton called the instrument ‘vital mental medicine’ and insisted it was saved even when baggage loads were being limited). Moreover, it is through Hussey’s words, and an accompanying lantern slide show, that contemporary audiences can still experience the Antarctic as it was nearly a hundred years ago.

It’s an extraordinary story. Not just the expedition itself – which, of course, failed to cross the continent, abandoned Endurance, sheltered on an ice floe and made the first crossing of South Georgia (but only by accident, in Shackleton’s desperate bid to secure help and rescue for the team members he had had to leave behind on Elephant Island) – but the fact that it can still come so dramatically to life.

There are about 120 slides in total, and there were perhaps 12 sets produced, mostly to support fund-raising appeals for future trips immediately after the First World War. The whereabouts of most are unknown, although there is a set at Dulwich College, where Shackleton was educated.

The images were taken by the expedition photographer, Frank Hurley, whose artistic and technical skills are much praised. He wasn’t above manipulating the end result though – a ship etched on to a plain horizon, for example, so that the same slide could be used to illustrate a different occasion. The pictures and the subject matter seem familiar now, but ninety years ago when the slides were first shown icebergs, penguins and elephant seals were things almost of myth. Audiences were spellbound.

Lasting around an hour or so, Geoff Selley’s talk is delivered as if he were Hussey himself. Linguistically, it’s very much of its era: slightly formal, and well-constructed, but undercut with wry jokes that reveal a strong sense of humour and irony. Here we are, he says, with no income tax forms, no letters from the wife… nothing to bother us at all. Its tone is tongue-in-cheek, but Hussey the man springs from the page, as alive for contemporary audiences as he was when he himself was speaking. Small boys particularly like a group shot that is accompanied by the comment ‘We had not washed, bathed, shaved or changed our clothes for twelve months…’. Many, says Geoff Selley, decide that they want to become explorers when they hear that.

Geoff feels “absolutely privileged” to have been able to deliver this talk, and to share the expedition’s history with so many people. He has ‘stood in’, as it were, for Hussey on lecture tours across England, in New York, at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and at numerous locations in New Zealand, where Antarctic exploration has, by virtue of geography, a particular emotional resonance. He has used the talk to raise money for a wide range of charities – from the London Sailing Project to the Shackleton Library at the Scott Polar Institute; even, ironically given the undercurrent of competition between Scott and Shackleton, towards the restoration of Scott’s Antarctic huts (Shackleton’s huts had already been preserved).

He has not, however, despite his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, actually been to Antarctica. That seems odd – his talk is, after all, the ultimate ‘show and tell’ – but they are another man’s words, another man’s memories. Perhaps distance allows the dignity of the original to remain.

Just as Geoff Selley feels honoured to be the custodian of this unique experience, I feel honoured too, to have been able to hold in my hands some of the artefacts that sit alongside the lantern slide collection: expedition ‘hooch pots’, from which the men ate and drank, with Oct 27 1915 (the date on which they abandoned Endurance) roughly scratched on the metal; altimeters that Hussey would have used regularly; the journal in which he wrote the lecture, by hand, when he was raising money for the follow-up trip, the Shackleton-Rowett Antarctic Expedition 1921-22, aboard the Quest. It’s just a simple notebook, with a marbled cover, and lined pages, purchased – according to the label inside – from W Straker Ltd, Printers, Stationers and Bookbinders, London, and full of Hussey’s elegant easy-to-read handwriting, his annotations and amendments. Sentences such as “I have no doubt that Providence guided us” seem immensely simple and moving.

How Hussey’s lantern slides came into the possession of Geoff Selley, a retired London police officer, who lived in Watford for many years and is now based in Berkhamsted, is a story full of its own twists and turns – and centres, surprisingly, on Chorleywood…

Geoff was working for the now disbanded Police Cadets Scheme, based at Hendon in North London. Tales of heroism were ideal for inspiring youngsters, and the team were always on the lookout for more. One of his colleagues, Chorleywood resident David Cansdale, had seen the Hussey talk given locally by one Ralph Gullett (of whom more later). Cansdale was impressed, and detailed Geoff to arrange for it to be delivered as one of the regular Wednesday evening lectures. It was, recalls Geoff Selley now, “fabulous”. He did the talk; Ralph Gullett operated the lantern, and the cadets were entranced. Six months later, there was a new intake of recruits, and the lantern slide lecture was scheduled for a repeat. This time round, however, Ralph was unwell, and unable to attend. “You can do it, though,” he said to Geoff.  So he did. A young cadet read Hussey’s words, and Geoff operated the lantern: “a lethal bit of kit,” he observes, “with no earth and a massive bulb…”. Slowly, over the next few years, the slides and the story became embedded in his life. He arranged for the police photography unit to copy the slides, so that the originals could be preserved; they did so “evidentially”, he laughs, thus producing neat edges and straight lines that took away the informal authenticity of the first edition. Today he mainly uses digitised copies, that retain the romance and roughness of Hurley’s work.

Another police commander, with an interest in history, used the Hussey lecture as a leadership model; a picture of Endurance was given as an award to those who completed the module successfully. Geoff Selley himself delivered the talk to senior leaders in training, often at an outdoor centre in Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, where attendees could appreciate some, if not all, of the privations Hussey and his companions had faced.

The slides still belonged, officially, to Ralph Gullett, but, now in his 80s, he was gradually ceding responsibility to Geoff Selley. In due course he passed them on formally, asking Geoff to continue to share the story, to honour the trust that Ralph had received from Leonard Hussey himself…

Ralph used to recall how, as a child, he had heard Shackleton and Hussey talk in London, around 1918 or 1919. Young as he was (he was born in 1913) it stimulated an interest in exploration, outdoor training and polar history that never left him.

Years later, working as a builder in Chorleywood, he called round to a local resident to quote for a job. “Why do you have a picture of Endurance on your wall?” he enquired idly. The answer – “Because I was on the ship” – astounded him. The man with whom he was discussing building work was Leonard Hussey.

After he’d returned from the 1921-22 expedition, burying Shackleton’s body in South Georgia en route, Hussey had taken up medicine, and worked in general practice in London up until 1940. After the Second World War, in which he served as a medical officer in the RAF, he continued as a GP, in Hertfordshire, until around 1957, the year that he became president of the Antarctic Club. He still owned the lantern slides; he still gave the talk, but he was ageing, and in ill health, and could foresee the time when he could no longer continue. Ralph Gullett’s arrival on his doorstep must have seemed another example of Providence.

Ralph was a local Boy Scout leader, and persuaded Dr Hussey that the slides and talk could be used both to inspire and to raise funds for the movement. The ex-explorer became increasingly involved in Scouting, creating a Shackleton-Hussey Trophy awarded to several local packs, and even becoming president of the Chorleywood Scouts. He encouraged Ralph Gullett to deliver the talk regularly… and eventually, just as Ralph himself would do some years later, Leonard Hussey had to admit defeat. It nearly broke his heart – his own words – to give the slides and notes away, but, as he wrote to Ralph Gullett, ‘the lads would be pleased to know that their story continued to be told’.

And the future? Geoff’s grandson, Tom, has expressed an interest in stepping into Hussey’s shoes. He’s only ten, though, so there’s a long way to go yet. It’s an astonishing heritage, a hundred years of unbroken history. We should raise our hats to Leonard Hussey, a man who witnessed history at first hand, and whose moving words and the images he selected, allow us to do the same.

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