by Jan Piggott, assisted by Steve Grindlay.
Reproduced with permission from the Sydenham Society Newsletter
As you may know, Ernest Shackleton passed his schooldays in Sydenham, as commemorated by the Blue Plaque on the large house on Westwood Hill next to St Bartholomew’s Church, now called ‘St David’s’, but which was originally ‘Aberdeen House’ [to know more, type Shackleton into the Sydenham Town Forum—www.sydenham.org.uk].
He was the son of Dr Henry Shackleton, who settled here as a General Practitioner, but was also a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, in Classics, and originally a small landed proprietor, of Kilkea House, County Kildare in Ireland. He practised homeopathy. Ernest was the second child, and had eight sisters (who attended Sydenham High School) and a brother. In the back garden Dr. Shackleton had a famous rose garden, and the young Ernest built a switch-back railway from the drawing-room window right across the lawn; he also liked to play on the roof of the house. Later the house would be decorated with pennants by his sisters on his return from the Antarctic. He explored the radius of a day's journey on his bicycle all around Sydenham.
Shackleton kept up loyally a friendship with the manager of the bookstore at Sydenham railway station, Charles Lethbridge, and wrote to him during his first Antarctic expedition (with Scott on the Discovery) on 20 September 1902. He and his sisters in his early days belonged to the Band of Hope, a children’s Temperance Society group, who regularly sang songs about the evils of alcohol outside the Sydenham pubs. From ‘Aberdeen House’, starting at the age of thirteen in 1887, for three years he walked over the hill to and from Dulwich College. At the College he ‘did very little work’ according to a contemporary, ‘and if there was a scrap he was usually in it’. His form positions, usually low, very likely indicate impatient boredom; however, the single high results in Mathematics and English that he gained twice reveal his exceptional intelligence.
Dr. Shackleton reluctantly let him join the mercantile marine after his sixteenth birthday in 1890; later, he was to say that for all the good points of Dulwich his first year at sea was a better school: he had the leisure to read for hours on end, and memorised long passages of poetry; he was saved from the sea (pulled by his hair) and went through a hurricane. Returning to the Great Hall of the College as the man of the hour in July 1909 after the return of his Nimrod expedition, to give the prizes, he declared that he had never been so near to the prizes as he had been today. The Dulwich boys used to call him ‘Mick’, ‘Mike’ or ‘Micky’, as he retained traces of an Irish brogue.
A significant further detail of local interest about Shackleton’s youth was given by Hugh Robert Mill in in his Life of Shackleton (1923): ‘The story of these days would not be complete without a paragraph of secret history, the revelation of which is no longer an indiscretion. Mike was addicted to playing truant from school, and we may assume that he was versed in the art of plausible excuses both at school and at home. He was the leader of a sworn band, other members of which were Arthur Griffiths (‘Griff’ for short’), Ned Sleep and Chris Kay. With such names they could not help playing at the hunt for hidden treasure on desolate islands, the chosen haunt being a strip of private wood adjoining the railway.
Many a long day they spent there, cowering in a hollow under the root of a great tree, speaking in whispers, for might not the next lair hide the lurking shapes of Ben Gunn, Black Dog, old Pew, and even Long John Silver himself? – in that wood in those days time and space, fact and fiction were a continuum of romance. All things there were held in common by the four, and the properties in the drama that was being lived included a revolver with cartridges, an air-gun, a flute, a concertina, and the hull of a large model boat, the rigging and altering of which gave rise to lengthy discussions and very unsatisfactory results. Food was stored up also, for missing school meant doing without dinner, and there was a box of the cheapest cigarettes on the market, which Mike smoked with the best of them, and once when cash was available a bottle of cooking sherry was smuggled in for a grand carouse. This Mike would not touch, and the others long regretted their rashness. All the talk was of adventure, and many a rousing tale of the sea did Mike read aloud to his comrades, all of whom resolved to be sailors; and remarkable as it may appear, all four grew up to follow the sea’.
Mill’s source for all this seems to be from Shackleton himself, who was his friend, as the passage contains many details only found in his book, but confirmation that the strip of private wood was what is now the Dacres Wood Nature Reserve with the pond on Silverdale comes from a book of reminiscences written by ‘Griff’ himself, called Surrendered: Some Naval War Secrets, published in 1918, in which he states that ‘the safest haunt’ of their truancies, selected by Shackleton himself, was ‘a deep hollow in the SSilverdale [Dacres] Woods, where the thick undergrowth obscured all vestige of trespassers. Books on ships and sails found their way into the lair. Sails and flags were stretched taut to the spars of the model ship. Arguments and reference to nautical works occupied weeks and weeks before the little model passed muster. An old wooden box was installed in the hollow to act as a table, where the model was secured for close inspection – and it became the imaginary vessel of their travels’. The lads, Griff wrote, decided to run away to sea, and set off to London in quest of a ship, but the mate smiled at them and said they were too young. Later they were ‘not deserted by the growing call of the sea, and one by one exchanged school caps for the smart badge and buttons of sea service’. The ‘cheery lads’ all worked in full rigged ships. Shackleton left in the Houghton Tower, a ship of the White Star Line, for Valparaiso in 1890. The three others eventually became officers in ocean liners.
One fascinating element of this truancy is how closely their activities appear to have been a boyish rehearsal for the real drama when Shackleton was marooned on the ice during the Endurance expedition after the ship sank, with music (instead of the flute and concertina of Dacres Woods) from Hussey's banjo (now preserved in the National Maritime Museum); when it was suggested to discard the banjo on account of its weight, Shackleton insisted it must be kept, as ‘vital mental medicine’ for the group. The men on the ice took part in smoking and feasts from dwindling stores; they had with them an arsenal, and books; they discussed sails and other nautical matters, and talked about literature.
Steve Grindlay has cleverly established the ages and addresses of the other boys, so that we can imagine them covertly converging on the Silverdale Woods on school days: Arthur ‘Griff’ Griffith (not Griffiths), born in Sydenham on 12 July 1873, lived at Elmcroft, 15 Recreation Road, on the corner of Silverdale, from 1881 to 1890, on the other side of the road from the Reserve, but not many paces away; he was not a pupil at Dulwich College. Ned Sleap (not ‘Sleep’), born at Belvedere in Kent, on 1 July 1870, lived also in Silverdale, at Birch Tor, from 1881-2, and then at 'Homestead', Recreation Road, (either no. 1 or 2) from 1884 to 1891. They then moved to Longton Grove; he was at Dulwich College for four terms only, from September 1884. Chris (actually Christol) Kay, the son of a General Practitioner, was born 17 September 1871. He was at Dulwich College for only one year, in 1880-1. The Kays lived at 48, Crystal Palace Park Road, from 1880 until about 1885 and then moved to 'Darley House', Venner Road, where Dr. Kay had his surgery, until 1891. In the late 1890s the address of 'Darley House' was changed to 14 Sydenham Road; later the house was the Midland Bank, then HSBC, and is now an estate agent. Steve surmises that they probably all met when they attended the small preparatory school, Fir Lodge, which was on the corner of Jews Walk and Kirkdale, though the records have not survived. Shackleton, conspicuously the youngest, was said to be the leader.