Safe return doubtful: Was Shackleton’s advert apocryphal?

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” Sir Ernest Shackleton (allegedly)

At the beginning of his book Round Ireland with a Fridge, the comedian Tony Hawks describes waking up with a hangover, no recollection of the night before, and a signed note saying he would hitch-hike round the Emerald Isle for a hundred pounds carrying a … well I think the title of the book gives it away. I remember once betting a friend in similar circumstances that he couldn’t be the first person to ride a pedalo across the English Channel, a bet that was annulled when a spot of Googling revealed that not only had it been done already but that some idiot had even rowed across in a bathtub.

Had it ever existed Shackleton's advert might have looked like this (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research)
Had it ever existed Shackleton’s advert might have looked like this (Photo: Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research)

I’m not sure how many great feats of exploration originated with alcohol, but I reckon it’s quite a few. For a long time I believed the Irishman and polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton had recruited for his Endurance expedition on that basis. There’s an oft-quoted story that he placed the above small ad in The Times, and received 5000 applications in response, which he whittled down to the required crew of 27 by sifting them into three piles labelled ‘Mad’, ‘Hopeless’ and ‘Possible’. What followed was one of the greatest stories of heroic failure ever told. Shackleton intended to complete the first ever crossing of Antarctica, but before he even reached there his ship was crushed by ice and the crew escaped in lifeboats to an uninhabited island. They survived for four months in an upturned boat, living on a diet of boiled boot leather and frostbitten fingertips (probably) while Shackleton sailed to South Georgia to get help.

Everyone survived, and Shackleton’s advert had certainly fulfilled its promise. The expedition had been as good at meeting its objectives as Bill Clinton giving up cigars, but all the crew have been remembered ever since. But it didn’t seem possible to me that any sane person would reply to an advert promising death by frostbite in pitch blackness unless there was a bit of beer talk involved, and in fact it probably never happened. For the last ten years a community of polar historians known as The Antarctic Circle has been offering a reward of $100 (enough to send some people on a jolly with kitchen appliances) to anyone who can find the original advert.

So far amateur historians have searched The Times archive from 1785 to 1985 (a little over-zealous given Shackleton died in 1922), the entire archive of the South Polar Times, a magazine called The Blizzard, several issues of the Geographical Journal, and the archives of a number of other national and local London newspapers, without success. The earliest known source is a book published in 1944 called Quit You Like Men by Carl Hopkins Elmore, which in turn led to it appearing at No.1 in the 1949 book The 100 Greatest Advertisements by Julian Watkins, which in turn is quoted in Roland Huntford’s 1985 biography of Shackleton and numerous other books about polar exploration.

“Quit You Like Men” is a quotation from the book of Corinthians, and it sounds like polar historians would be wise to take it literally. The book was written by a presbyterian minister to inspire young people to the faith. He quotes Shackleton using the US spelling ‘honor’, which of course is ridiculous: not only would Shackleton have spelt it ‘honour’, but he would have spelt ‘Jesus’ ‘Bejaysus’.

All of which blarney brings us to the point of this post. Well, there isn’t one, unless it’s this: don’t believe everything you read in books, and above all, never sign anything down the pub.

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6 thoughts on “Safe return doubtful: Was Shackleton’s advert apocryphal?

  • October 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Hey Mark, I always look forward to your blog! The quest for truth often leads to debunking legends. Now perhaps you can explain the English fascination for heroic failures? 😉

  • October 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    If I could explain that, Dean, I’d have found the Higgs Boson years ago. 😉

  • November 5, 2012 at 4:23 am

    That means we shouldn’t trust what you write either.

  • November 5, 2012 at 7:11 am

    No, it doesn’t – I said “don’t believe everything”, not “don’t believe anything”.

  • Pingback:Shackleton Probably Never Took Out an Ad Seeking Men for a Hazardous Journey | Smart News

  • January 23, 2024 at 11:01 am

    I had to Google ‘apocryphal’ – why use such complex vocabulary?
    Know knowing what it means I don’t see the connection.
    It was a genuine advert so it does not fit the description of being unathentic or lacking truth.
    The recruitment process – maybe was a little underhand. But not the advert.
    Let’s face it – doubtful return was pretty much 100% truth.
    I’ve clearly wasted valuable time here so I’m off to do something more useful instead 😉

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