Most people celebrate their 21st birthday with family and friends in some comfortable place, a pub, a restaurant or on holiday. Sir Philip Brocklehurst of Swythamley Park near Leek was somewhat different, he chose to celebrate his 21st on March 5th 1908 in a party that was attempting to climb Mount Erebus at 12,448 feet the world’s most southerly active volcano. On that day, he was sheltering in a sleeping bag with two others. Photographs taken show the 4000-foot column of smoke and steam billowing around the volcano. He was one of a party of 6 pulling a sledge that weighed 600 pounds. How the young man found himself in this situation and what happened to the 1907-9 expedition is an adventure worthy of being described as a ripping yarn.
Brocklehurst’s fate, he was born on the 5th March 1887, was linked with one of the country’s greatest polar explorer’s Ernest Shackleton, 13 years older than the baronet. Along with Robert Falcon Scott, the Norwegian’s Amundsen and Nansen and the American Peary, he is one of the greats in the Golden Age of Polar Exploration. When they first met, the Irishman had achieved fame as being part of an expedition who got nearest to the South Pole. Known to the people who worked with him as "the Boss" Shackleton displayed throughout his life excellent leadership abilities; which were tested in the extreme conditions of polar exploration. He also combined the characteristics of man of action and meditative man, as he was a voracious reader: He loved poetry. At his welcoming dinner in June 1909 Shackleton quoted lines from Keats, wholly in keeping with the occasion to illustrate the courage and the doggedness that the men under his command had exhibited.
His early life at sea equipped him to be accepted on the Discovery expedition to the South Pole in 1902 led by Robert Falcon Scott. There was a personality clash between the two men, and while the Discovery expedition was successful in that they got further south than anyone before, they were still 533 miles short of their objective. After returning to Britain, Shackleton began to raise funds in an attempt to reach the South Pole. He had maintained good connections with the Royal Geographic Society which enabled him to be successful when a competition to reach the South Pole was opened by the society in early 1907. Shackleton, however, had been making contacts to raise money. However, lack of funding was to remain a constant problem right up to the start of the expedition.
Ernest Shackleton met Brocklehurst in the London flat of an American acquaintance Miss Haveymeyer in 1906. Shackleton was rather vague about the details of the expedition to the South Pole however the young baronet was enthusiastic and volunteered his services at once. At that time Brocklehurst had just left Cambridge he was in the language of the time regarded as a "hearty" interested in sport. He was a good boxer and at Cambridge acquired a Half Blue. After leaving University, he failed to take his degree; he continued to box ultimately sparring with Champions Jimmy Wilde and Bombardier Billy Wells. Both Brocklehurst and Shackleton would express their great interest in the sport and at the end of the voyage the younger man noted the excitement he felt on discovering the outcome of the heavyweight boxing championship fight between Jack Johnson- the black American challenger and Canadian Tommy Burns. (In later life Brocklehurst was a patron of a boxing club in Macclesfield).
Shackleton was doubly impressed by Brocklehurst's wealth and his physical prowess. Sir Philip by Shackleton on the grounds that he was "one for the ladies", "Bohemian" and "extravagant with taxis". The meeting was a great success and Shackleton and Brocklehurst remained life long friends. I have the impression that the older man was a father figure to Sir Philip: He was also influenced by Shackleton's leadership style. The expedition leader was a good communicator. He had the ability to treat the men as if they were all individually important. His spirit of optimism and transparent honesty made him a natural and personable "Boss".
Brocklehurst offered to help pay for the expedition although as he was only 19 and had no control over the family finances. His mother held the purse strings. Shackleton met with Lady Brocklehurst and so charmed her that money was found to assist in funding the expedition. He was keen that the young man assisted the expedition in a practical way as well as offering the undoubted drive and stamina.
"take up a course of practical surveying; learn to take your latitudes and longitudes with a theodolite. Learn to take your bearings with a compass. Learn to take a survey with a planer table. Take up a course in field geology. Learn to recognise the particular formations of rocks... Learn the particular sedimentary, volcanic and igneous rocks."More importantly, when the fitting out of the Nimrod- a Dundee built whaler- was proving to be a financial burden on Shackleton was able to call on Brocklehurst’s financial support to guarantee £2,000. Later on Brocklehurst’s contacts with the Scottish author Campbell Mackellar would prove equally beneficial to the outcome of the expedition. His cousin also had useful social connections. John Fielden Shackleton was equerry to Queen Alexandria and was able to gain royal patronage for the voyage. King Edward VII visited the Nimrod before they embarked.
Sir Philip joined the expedition late and was unhurried spending some time in Australia watching an Ashes Test match in Sydney during Christmas 1907. He saw George Gunn of Nottinghamshire make 119 in his first Test match although Australia went on to win the match by two wickets. Brocklehurst joined the party in Christchurch.
The voyage took several weeks to reach South Victoria Land. The expedition had to endure mountainous seas shortly after they left New Zealand on New Years Day 1908. They sighted their first iceberg on January 14th and the following day the ship encountered pack ice. Shackleton feared that they would become trapped altered course for the McMurdo Sound; they landed at the end of the month at Cape Royds. The weather was atrocious and stores were buried under several feet of snow and ice. The first task that the expedition decided on was the conquest of the unclimbed Mount Erebus in early March 1908.
Brocklehurst was to take part in the ascent despite having little experience of climbing. Blizzards blew and the snow was described by one of the expedition members as being very fine and gritty like whipping into the faces of the mountaineers. The temperature dropped in the final stage of the ascent to -34 degrees.
The final party to attempt the summit was made up of 3 of Brocklehurst’s comrades Edgeworth David, Mawson and Mackay with Brocklehurst and two others as support. The group were provisioned with ten days supply. Below the volcano a fierce blizzard blew up and the men sheltered in three man sleeping bags, much criticised by David as being very uncomfortable and affording little protection or comfort. Brocklehurst complained that often on waking he would find his mouth full of fibres.
"Everything is covered with these little hairs about an inch long out of our Reindeer sleeping bags. The other night I turned the bag outside out and shook it, but it is every bit as bad if not worse"
Sleep deprivation was something that all the participants on the expedition complained about especially as men were snoring and moving about trying to get comfortable. At some point Brocklehurst emerged from the sleeping bag to answer a call of nature. It was an action that nearly proved calamitous. The force of the wind was strong enough to blow him half way down a chasm. Another of the party was also swept down the mountain and after a struggle was able to reach the safety of the group. The blizzard lasted for a day after it had subsided Brocklehurst complained that his feet felt cold. His feet were examined and it was discovered that both big toes had been attacked by frostbite. He was in some discomfort and it was decided to leave him behind while the others successfully climbed the summit. A month later at base camp one of his frost bitten big toes was amputated.
After this initial accomplishment the expedition then split up into three groups to carry out specific tasks. The Northern Party task was to reach the magnetic South Pole; Shackleton led the Southern Party whose objective was the South Pole, while the Western Party including Sir Philip surveyed mountains around McMurdo Sound discovering the potential for economic exploitation of minerals. Earlier, Shackleton had suggested that Brocklehurst be a part of the larger Southern team, but the conditions of his toes forced a change of mind. The Western Party were carried 16 miles by the car that had been bought out- a first in Polar exploration.
The Arrol- Johnson performed very well. The oil was specifically developed to withstand temperatures down to –30F. Ordinary tyres with skid-chains were found to be adequate and operated excellently in the conditions. This was 100 years before Clarkson and May attempted a polar excursion in a Toyata Hilux along with film crew. sat nav and with emergency services to hand. On the way back from dropping off Brocklehurst and the others the car got stuck in ice crevices and was not used again. In the thawing ice it was thought too dangerous.
Brocklehurst began to have strange dreams, which reveal the sense of insecurity that he and the others must have felt.
He dreamed "that the ponies had died, and that Shackleton was unsuccessful, while Mackay sat at Butter Point when we arrived back explaining how he had quarrelled with the Professor and Mawson were on some thin ice. About as ill omened a dream as I ever heard"
At first the group achieved their tasks and the three men collected minerals and fossils as well as surveying a previous unknown part of Antarctica. They enjoyed breakfasting on Skua eggs, as the birds were a terrible nuisance, both to the men and dogs. Brocklehurst despite have an amputated toe climbed a small mountain -Harbour Heights- and was able to keep a note on the surrounding topography.
On January 25th 1909 their lives were placed in peril when the ice they were camping on broke off and floated along the coast. There was the risk of being carried off into the open sea, and the danger of killer whales. Brocklehurst and his comrades were in a dilemma, but the only course open to them was to remain on the floe and await a passing ship or the hope that they might drift back to land. The men had good fortune as the following day the ice had drifted very close to the shore and they were able to jump on to the shore.
The ice floe then drifted back into the open sea. Brocklehurst commented on a disappointed group who had been recent observers.
The killer whales were all around the foot of the glacier, great ugly brutes deprived of their unusual breakfast
He had cheated death for a second time.
The Northern Party under the command of Edgeworth David reached the magnetic pole despite suffer appallingly in blizzards and temperatures below -20F, and were like Brocklehurst’s party picked up by the Nimrod. Shackleton leading the Southern party passed the previous record for most southerly point set by Scott during the "Discovery" expedition of 6 years earlier and on the 9th January 1909 planted the Union flag 97 miles from the South Pole. Disappointed the group turned back for their rendezvous with the Nimrod
Nimrod returned to Britain in June 1909 and Shackleton, Brocklehurst and the rest of the crew were feted at a Royal Geographic Society dinner. Shackleton in responding to the toast said that the reception that the crew had received in New Zealand and Australia had been a very fulsome one and had prepared them for the welcome they received in London. He congratulated the crew on their devotion to duty. They had miraculous escape, but they were ready to return to Antarctica. Brocklehurst enjoyed being feted and made much of his missing toe. At another dinner at the Savage Club chaired by Scott, he was at the centre of attention. Scott asked what had happened to the toe." I hear he has bought the toe back in a bottle".
Brocklehurst informed the gathering that it was doing the rounds of London Medical Schools examined by clinicians interested in the effect of frostbite. "I wish I had it. I can’t regain possession of my toe. The Doctors want it".
The Leek Times of the 19th June 1909 devoted an editorial to the safe return of the Nimrod. Shackleton felt that to turn back only 100 miles from the Pole was the correct thing to do. "We could do no more", he said. The editorial praised the actions of the party, "they had touched the limit of human endurance". No mention was made of the local connection that Sir Philip had with the area.
Shackleton went to Antarctica in 1914 in the Endurance expedition. The voyage proved to be nearly disastrous, after the ship was crushed by ice the expedition was forced on an epic journey of survival. Despite suffering much hardship all the crew were rescued, after an ordeal that lasted 10 months. Shackleton died at the age of 47 in January 1922. He was buried on the South Atlantic island of South Georgia.
Sir Philip was to continue a life of public service up to his death on the 28th January 1975. He married in 1913; Shackleton was best man. During the First World War Sir Philip served in the Life Guards, he was wounded. In early 20s, he worked with the Egyptian Army and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. An interesting aspect of his life was his involvement in Military Intelligence in the mid 1930s keeping an eye on far right groups including his North Staffordshire neighbour and British Union of Fascists Leader Sir Oswald Mosley at Wootton. In the Second World War he commanded a mechanised brigade of the Arab Legion and was British Consul in Trans Jordan between 1943-4. He chaired Swythamley Parish Council for over 50 years. He was also very active in the Conservative Party.
He was devoted to his brother Henry Courtney Brocklehurst who was killed in action in Burma in 1942. Philip inscribed an epitaph to him on Hanging Stone Rock to his memory. Henry shared his brother’s outside life: He hunted game in East Africa and wrote an account of his time as a warden for the Sudanese Government. His book Game Animals of the Sudan written in 1931 is dedicated to Philip. Henry went on to set up the wild life sanctuary on the Roaches before the Second World War, which was continued by his brother after Henry’s death. In the late 40s a Tibetan Yak wandered the estate and a friend of mine came head to head with one when climbing in the area. The Wallabies were a result of this enterprise.
A story circulated about the fate of Brocklehurst’s big toe after he had recovered it from a London teaching hospital. It had a place of honour on the mantelpiece at Swythamley Park and disappeared after his death. The yarn went that a guest ate it thinking it was a snack at the wake for Sir Philip.
In October 2007 the Times carried a report that the descendents of members of the Nimrod expedition were to follow in the steps of their forebears and attempt to reach the South Pole amongst them Patrick Bergil, the great grandson of Ernest Shackleton. The expedition was to begin on the 28th October 2008 and was being used to launch a Shackleton Foundation, which will fund projects that embody the spirit of leadership and adventure personified in Ernest Shackleton and the men who followed him 100 years ago.