Nimrod preparations, June, 1907

June 25, 2018

June, 1907, was a busy month for Ernest Shackleton. He was effectively trying to pull together funding, resources, supplies, equipment and a ship for an expedition to the Antarctic. Many factors were working against him. The dispute with Scott over his intended use of McMurdo Sound as a base for his expedition created a great challenge. Shackleton had to choose another new landing spot and base for his expedition, which increased the risk of the venture and created uncertainty.

Ernest Shackleton & Jameson Boyd Adams eating sandwiches on the deck of ‘Nimrod’. (Scott Polar Research Institute)

Shackleton also found himself essentially alone in the organising, and particularly the funding, of his idea. Scott’s Discovery expedition had the approval and backing of the monarchy, the government, the Royal Geographical Society (hereafter RGS), the Royal Society and the Admiralty. Shackleton found that he was getting lacklustre responses with no solid support from any of the above. The letters of June, 1907, published in Regine W. Daly’s book, The Shackleton Letters, show some of these concerns as well as the hurried manner of Shackleton in the early summer of 1907.

In preparation for the expedition’s scientific research, Shackleton tried to secure the loan of equipment and instruments from the Admiralty. He had approached Rear Admiral (later Admiral) Sir Arthur Mostyn Field, Hydrographer at the Admiralty but was told that a letter from the RGS stating its official recognition of the expedition would be required. Shackleton had announced his plans to reach the South Pole in a new expedition in mid-February but had not been officially approved by the RGS. Shackleton’s energies were focused by the possibility of Polish, Norwegian or Belgian rival expeditions being launched and the loss, for himself and Britain, of achieving the Pole. He set himself up to fund, organise and staff an Antarctic expedition in six months.

Sir Arthur Mostyn Field (National Portrait Gallery)

Shackleton wrote to Sir John Scott Keltie, Secretary of the RGS, on 5 June, 1907, requesting the society to provide the Admiralty with the required letter. He concluded his letter with an emphasis on haste:

‘As time is getting short, and I wish to send the ship away oat the end of July, you will understand the urgency of my request.’

Keltie replied the following day. He suggested that as the matter of his intended expedition had ‘never been officially before them [the Council of the RGS], Shackleton should ‘supply the Council with some particulars of your expedition’. In particular, Keltie suggested that Shackleton put in writing details about the following elements of the expedition, thus showing the concerns of Keltie and the RGS:

‘You might assure them that you have got all the money that you require, that you have got your ship and your provisions and other equipments in an advanced state of preparation, so much so, that you can expect that the ship will leave England by the end of July; that you have engaged an adequate scientific staff for investigations and observations in the different departments of science, and that your object is to make King Edward VII Land your base, and that while you would endeavour to reach the South Pole, that you will organize other expeditions for exploring the unknown region lying between King Edward VII Land and Graham Land, that you propose to take soundings and other oceanic observations on the route out, and that the ship after landing you would carry out observations along the Antarctic coasts.’

The state of Shackleton’s finances and preparations were of concern to Keltie. In his usual style, Shackleton’s Antarctic plans were broad in scope and lacking in finer details. Keltie found ‘many mysterious questions and hints’ which needed to be answered. With the references to King Edward VII Land, Keltie was trying to get Shackleton to assure the RGS in writing that he had no intentions of returning to McMurdo Sound as a base, which was seen by Scott as rightfully his. Scott had explained his feelings to Shackleton in February: ‘If you go to McMurdo Sound you go to winter quarters which are clearly mine’.

Scott, 8 October, 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute)

The balance between adventuring and scientific exploration was a common feature. Keltie wanted assurance from Shackleton that he had enough focus on the geographical elements of his venture and was not just pole-hunting for personal fame. Shackleton had found it more difficult to recruit his Discovery colleagues for his new venture than he had expected and it may have seemed dubious that he was only applying for loans of scientific equipment in June and expecting to depart the following month.

Shackleton duly responded to Keltie’s suggestions asking the RGS Council to consider his expedition. He wrote that, at the time of his announcing the expedition in February, he had ‘sufficient funds for the purpose and a well-thought-out plan’. However, due to the need to change base location, his funds would not go as far as previously planned. Shackleton then laid his requests down:

‘I therefore feel that any assistance the Society could give me would be most useful; in this connection I specially ask that the Society would notify the Admiralty that this is a serious and well thought out Expedition, and that I am desirous of being granted a loan of various scientific instruments—also I would be grateful if the Geographical Society would lend me certain instruments, which I would enumerate on hearing their decision.’

Shackleton also hoped that the RGS would consider granting him £1,000 to extend his enterprise. He laid out the general plans of the expedition very briefly and assured the society that he intended to appoint a geologist, magnetician, marine biologist and zoologist to assist in the scientific elements of the expedition. ‘Such, briefly, are the outlines of the Expedition,’ Shackleton finished his letter, ‘which I trust will have the Society’s sympathy and co-operation.’

Keltie wrote to Shackleton 18 June, to inform him that the Council had considered his requests at their meeting the day before. He Council were ‘naturally gratified that another serious attempt is to be made to continue the exploration of the Antarctic regions’, however they were ‘not in a position to afford you [Shackleton] any financial help’. The RGS were willing to consider the loan of the instruments for the expedition and to communicate with the Admiralty on his behalf as they ‘thoroughly sympathize[d] with you [Shackleton] in your efforts to promote Geographical knowledge’

Sir John Scott Keltie (National Portrait Gallery)

The main reason that the RGS would not financially support Shackleton’s endeavours was that their priorities lay elsewhere. As Michael Smith has written: ‘What Keltie pointedly did not tell Shackleton was that the RGS was already primed to support Scott when he returned to the south.’ The RGS knew of Scott’s intentions to lead another expedition even before Shackleton came to them with his ideas. Believing that the path to the South Pole was clear for himself and that no other explorers would or could attempt the Pole, Scott was in no rush to publicise his ideas. Shackleton was totally unaware of his old commander’s future, polar plans and the RGS’s support. Keltie kept Scott’s confidences and said nothing of it to Shackleton. Both Keltie and Scott, as well as Sir Clements Markham, had reservations about Shackleton’s intentions, abilities and soundness at this time.

The Council were still uncertain about Shackleton’s finances and his ability to totally prepare for his time in the ice and, probably more importantly, take care of the expedition should anything go wrong. Keltie was straightforward on this point:

‘They [RGS Council] would like to receive a definite assurance from you [Shackleton] that you have sufficient funds to carry out the expedition efficiently, for at least one complete season’s work, including the supply of all necessary provisions and equipment and the engagement of a sufficient staff to carry on the Geographical and other work to which you refer in your letter. Perhaps you would not object to state precisely what funds you have at your disposal?’

It is possible that Shackleton was surprised to hear that the RGS did not take him at his word and that they wanted precise figures before they would endorse his expedition, particularly as they were unwilling to assist him on that issue. His response of 25 June was measured and respectful. After apologising to Keltie for being busy ‘down at the Ship’, Shackleton again reassured the RGS that he had ‘sufficient money to carry out one season’s work in the Antarctic’ and that it would cost him between £24,000 and £27,000. He asked that this figure be kept quiet ‘as it is quite a private affair’ and that he was not going to ‘approach the public in any way’ for subscriptions of funding.

The scientific instruments that Shackleton required from the Admiralty (pending RGS support) was added to the end of this correspondence:

‘3 Dip Circles

3” Portable Astronomical Telescope

4 Marine Chronometers

1 set Differential Instruments

1 6” Station Pointer

1 Marine Standard Barometer

1 pr. Night Glasses, Binoculars

1 pr. High Power Binoculars

1 Navy Pattern Ship’s Telescope

1 Ship’s Standard Compass

As many Deep Sea Registering Thermometers as can be spared.

There are certain other instruments which I can enumerate afterwards, but these are the chief ones.’

Keltie wrote to the Admiralty 26 June and presented the decision of the RGS President, Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie, decisions on the Shackleton matter.

Sir George Dashwood Taubman Goldie (National Portrait Gallery)

‘The President has reason to conclude from Mr Shackleton’s letter that he has adequate funds for one complete season’s work and that his preparations are well advanced; the President also wishes to state that Mr Shackleton’s record on Capt. Scott’s expedition was excellent, and thinks that his application for the loan of instruments might be favourably considered.’

It was 17 July before the answer came from the Admiralty on behalf of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. The instruments and charts available would be loaned to Lieut. E. H. Shackleton once he provided written evidence that he would cover the cost of possible loss, damage and depreciation of the instruments for the duration of the expedition. The following is the list of instruments and charts that the Admiralty could provide:

‘3 Dip Circles

5 Marine Chronometers

1 Station Pointer 6”

1 Set of Charts; England to Cape and Cape to New Zealand

1 Set of Antarctic Charts

1 Set of Charts from New Zealand through Indian Ocean to Aden

1 Set Charts: New Zealand to Europe, via Cape Horn

12 Deep Sea Thermometers

2 Marine Standard Barometers

1 Ship’s Standard Compass

2 Azimuth Mirrors (Lord Kelvin’s type)

1 Deep Sea Sounding Machine

3 Heeling Error Instruments

The Binoculars and the set of Differential Instruments cannot be supplied, as no suitable instruments are available.

Inquiry is being made of the Astronomer Royal whether a 3” Portable Astronomical Telescope can be supplied from Greenwich Observatory for the use of the Expedition.’

Although the Admiralty would support Shackleton with the loan of the above, they were certain to explain that they would not ‘accept any responsibility for the Expedition, or for any relief expedition which may subsequently be organised.’ This proved a rejection for Shackleton from another of the major institutions from which he hoped to gain support.



Daly, R. W. The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition. Norwich, 2009.

Fiennes, Ranulph. Captain Scott. London, 2004.

Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.

Regina W. Daly’s book, ‘The Shackleton Letters’

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