Bakewell’s birthday!

November 26, 2019


William Lincoln Bakewell, sailor and explorer, was born in Joliet, Illinois, USA, on 26 November, 1888. Bakewell was signed on to Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ at Buenos Aires as Able Seaman. It was Bakewell, amongst others, who assisted Perce Blackborow to stow away at Buenos Aires.

When applying for a position on ‘Endurance’, Bakewell said that he was Canadian as he thought it would help to play the British Empire card.

McGregor Dunnett, Shackleton’s Boat: The Story of the James Caird (Wilton, 2015), p. 216, n. 12.

Though Shackleton was well aware that Bakewell was an American, he was more interested in a person’s attitude and abilities. Less seems to have believed Bakewell’s Canadian claims as we see in his assessment:

‘Bakewell is a Canadian and one of the nicest and best educated of the hands. His ambition is to own a small motor ship of his own. He is studying navigation.’ (12 October, 1915, diary entry)

J. Thomson (ed.), Elephant Island & Beyond: The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde Lees (Norwich, 2003), p. 118.

Bakewell and Walter How were very busy during the last days before ‘Endurance’ was abandoned. They were exhausted after long hours at the pumps trying to save their ship. Despite their strong desire for sleep, the noise of the ship’s woods under the pressure form the surrounding ice kept them awake.

McGregor Dunnett, Shackleton’s Boat, p. 60.

Between the time of the men abandoning the ship and her final disappearance below the ice, there were various journeys back to the wreckage to salvage food, equipment, stores, personal items, etc. In his book, South!, Shackleton recalled that Bakewell worked hard to locate and retrieve some useful things:

‘Although the galley was under water, Bakewell managed to secure three or four saucepans, which later proved invaluable acquisitions.’

E. H. Shackleton, South! The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition 1914-1917 (New York, 1920), p. 89.

Bakewell was in the Stancomb Wills, the smallest of the three lifeboats, during the weeklong journey to Elephant Island. Conditions were miserable and those who were in the worst shape upon arrival had been in that little vessel. As Hubert Hudson began to suffer greatly, Tom Crean took over at the tiller and even Bakewell occasionally took a turn at steering.

A. Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (New York, 1999), p. 174.

The first meal on Elephant Island. Bakewell is third from the right (SPRI)

As the James Caird was being prepared for its upcoming, epic voyage, Bakewell and Lionel Greenstreet helped with the creation of a cover from the boat using canvas. The canvas that they had was frozen stiff so Bakewell and Greenstreet had to hold to close to the blubber fire to get it to thaw, burning their fingers in the process. As they coughed and endured painful eyes from the blubber smoke, Greenstreet told his seaman jokes and Bakewell made the responses. The job of then sewing the canvas was the other extreme as their fingers and hands were close to frostbitten as they worked.

McGregor Dunnett, Shackleton’s Boat, p.76.

Later, during their time on Elephant Island, Lees wrote of his frustrations with being ‘piled close upon one another’. However, Bakewell must have been nice to him:

‘There is one brilliant exception, Bakewell, a Canadian of some refinement, who is always respectful as well as being self-respectful.’ (25 May, 1916 diary entry)

Thomson, Elephant Island & Beyond, p. 226.

As their time on the ice continued, tobacco became a prized possession for the men of the expedition. As the supply came to an end, they experimented and concocted various substitutes. Whilst on Elephant Island, Bakewell put much thought and work into smoking. This story, told by Frank Wild, shows this very well.

‘In the middle of winter, I was walking round the camp by moonlight and found Bakewell, one of the sailors, digging a tunnel in the huge snow drift which had formed at the base of the high cliffs near out hut. I asked what he was doing and he replied, ‘When we landed here, sir, I threw a coat down at the foot of these rocks and it had a plug of tobacco in the pocket.’ He had to tunnel 30 feet before he got to the rock face and then 12 feet to one side where he was lucky enough to find the coat. No one offered to help him and Bakewell shovelled many tones of snow in the four days he was working. The tunnel was so long, the snow had to be shifted three times.

‘After the prize was secured, it was found to be so wet that it took three days to dry by the stove whilst meals were being cooked. Bakewell then cut a portion into very fine shreds and made a cigarette, giving me the fist puff on it. I was standing outside and that one whiff made me so giddy I had to sit down or I would have fallen. Although I expostulated with Bakewell and pointed out that no one had helped him with his digging, he insisted on sharing all round.’

Angie Butler, The Quest for Frank Wild (Radway, 2019), p. 197.

Furthermore, Bakewell took the residue from a selection of smoking pipes and boiled it up with sennegrass to create a kind of tobacco infusion. As Lees wrote:

‘Ingenious Bakewell secured several old pipes, broke them up and boiled them in water, subsequently boiling some sennegrass in the weird infusion. This he carefully dried and chopped and now declares that he couldn’t distinguish the result from tobacco.’

Thomson, Elephant Island & Beyond, p. 260.

Bakewell was impressed by the leadership of ‘Endurance’, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Wild. In his own words:

‘The fine warm fur bags all went to the men under them. I think that action was enough to show what wonderful men were in charge. They always took the brunt of things and when there was any danger they were first to go ahead. The safety of his men was Sir Ernest’s first thought, his own last.’

William Bakewell died in Dukes, Michigan, USA, on 21 May, 1969. There is a Michigan Historical Site sign about Bakewell in front of Skandia, Upper Peninsula, Michigan Lutheran Church & Cemetery where he is buried.


For more on Bakewell, see the following:

Explorer’s Gazette Vol. 19, No. 2 (2019), pp. 24-28.

Bakewell, E. A. (ed.). The American on the Endurance: Ice, Seas, and Terra Firma Adventures of William L. Bakewell. Munising, 2004.

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