Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition aimed to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent from one side to another. However, when the ship Endurance sunk in 1915, the crew had to fight to survive. Miraculously, all 28 of the expedition team survived the perilous cold, epic distances and scarce supplies that characterised their voyage over hundreds of miles in search of safety and rescue. The crew then became famous across the world.
However, there was another crew member aboard the Endurance: Mrs. Chippy, a beloved tabby cat known for its devotion to its master, ability to climb rigging and close shaves with death.
Here’s the story of Mrs. Chippy, the Endurance‘s feline crew member.
Mrs. Chippy was a Scottish cat
Mrs. Chippy, a tiger-striped tabby, was bought by Scottish shipwright and carpenter Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish (chippy being a colloquial British term for a carpenter) from his home in Cathcart, Scotland, where he lived in a cottage called Mole Catcher’s House. Mrs. Chippy earned its name by dutifully following Chippy McNish around, like an overly attentive wife.
The name stuck. When Chippy McNish was chosen to be part of the crew on Shackleton’s Endurance, Mrs. Chippy came along too. A ship’s cat, Mrs. Chippy was tasked with both catching mice and rats and being a source of company for the whole crew. After a month at sea, it was learned that the robust tabby cat was in fact ‘not a lady, but a gentleman’.
He was an able seaman
The expedition photographer Frank Hurley captured the only known picture of Mrs. Chippy. However, many of the crew wrote about him being ‘full of character’ in their diaries and logs and attested to his confidence and ease at sea.
Captain Frank Worsley detailed Mrs. Chippy’s habit of climbing the rigging “exactly after the manner of a seaman going aloft”, while meteorologist Leonard Hussey noted that he used to take a provocative stroll across the roofs of the dogs’ kennels. He also impressed the crew with his ability to walk along inch-wide rails in the roughest of seas.
However, Mrs. Chippy’s sea legs occasionally wobbled. In an entry dated 13 September 1914, Storekeeper Thomas Orde-Lees wrote that “an extraordinary thing happened during the night. The tabby cat jumped overboard through one of the cabin portholes and the officer on watch, Lt. Hudson, heard her screams and turned the ship smartly round & picked her up. She must have been in the water 10 minutes or more”.
He was picked up by the ship’s biologist Robert Clark, who used one of his sample nets. It seems that one of Mrs. Chippy’s nine lives was used up.
He was shot
After the Endurance became trapped in pack ice, the transcontinental plan was abandoned. Shackleton’s focus was now one of survival, and he began drawing up plans to march the crew westward to one of several possible destinations.
Shackleton ordered that the weakest animals who could not support the perilous journey would need to be shot. Along with five sled dogs (including three puppies, one of whom was the surgeon’s pet), Mrs. Chippy was ordered to be killed.
The ship’s crew reportedly doted over Mrs. Chippy in his final hours, giving him hugs and feeding him his favourite food, sardines, which was perhaps laced with a sleeping drug.
In a diary entry from 29 October 1915, Shackleton recorded:
“This afternoon Sallie’s three youngest pups, Sue’s Sirius, and Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter’s cat, have to be shot. We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions. Macklin [who owned a pet puppy], Crean [in charge of the dog-handling], and the carpenter seemed to feel the loss of their friends rather badly.”
McNish never forgave Shackleton
McNish proved to be an essential crew member when he was chosen, along with 5 others, to sail some 800 miles in a single lifeboat to South Georgia. He refitted the boat to make the journey possible, and arguably saved the lives of the whole crew as a result.
McNish never forgave Shackleton for killing his cat. Their relationship worsened, and Shackleton even threatened to shoot him for arguing that the crew no longer had to take the captain’s orders since their contract had lapsed upon the sinking of the Endurance in November 1915.
Shackleton and McNish’s relationship was so bad that Shackleton refused to recommend McNish for a Polar Medal that the rest of the crew later received. McNish’s family would (in vain) later try and lobby the British government that McNish be posthumously awarded the same medal in 1997.
Before he died in 1930, McNish repeatedly stated to his friends, family and visitors, “Shackleton killed my cat”.
A statue of him is on his master’s gravestone
McNish died in destitution in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1930. Though he was buried with full military honours in a Karori cemetery, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
In 1959, the New Zealand Antarctic Society were shocked to learn that McNish had received only a pauper’s burial, so raised funds for a headstone to stand on his grave.
In 2004, the same society decided to create a marker for Mrs. Chippy. The public donated funds to create a life-size bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy, and later the same year, around 100 people gathered round McNish’s grave and read words of tribute for both the carpenter and his cat.
There are no words on the grave about beloved Mrs. Chippy. However, it is telling that those visiting the grave often present his little statue with flowers.