Sunday, July 7, 2013

Mrs Chippy: Cat On A Cold Tin Roof

The last hoorah...
Many of a certain generation were taught about Sir Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17, an attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent... their ship Endurance was crushed in pack ice in the Weddell Sea; how they were marooned 560km from the nearest land with just three lifeboats to carry them to safety; how their
Harry McNish
valiant efforts became recognised as an epic feat of endurance. However they may not know about one four-legged team member.
Mrs Chippy was a tiger-striped tabby cat, taken aboard Endurance by Harry McNish, the carpenter nicknamed "Chippy" (as in chips of wood). A month after the ship set sail for Antarctica it was found that Mrs Chippy was actually a male, but
Mrs Chippy on crewmember
Perce Blackborow's shoulder
by then the name had stuck.
Mrs Chippy was described as "full of character" by members of the expedition and impressed the crew by his ability to walk along the ship's inch-wide rails in even the roughest seas. He took great delight in leaping across the kennel roofs of the sled dogs, tantalisingly out of reach. He would scamper up the rigging like a seasoned sailor. On the voyage out, Mrs Chippy once fell overboard into the freezing South Atlantic waters - the ship was remarkably turned around and the cat rescued!
But after Endurance was destroyed in the ice, Shackleton decided Mrs Chippy and five of the sled-dogs would not survive their dire situation, and so the animals were shot.
Several of the men felt the loss of the animals rather badly. "Chippy" McNish, particularly attached to the cat, never forgave Shackleton for this decision. He clashed with Shackleton during the expedition and, despite eventually building the boats that would take the party 1,300km to safety, and displaying considerable fortitude and bravery, Shackleton denied him the Polar Medal awarded to most of the rest of the crew, on the grounds of his earlier insubordination!
McNish eventually settled in New Zealand in 1925, where he worked on the Wellington waterfront until he was injured. A monthly collection from the watersiders kept him going - to the seamen of the docks, the carpenter was a hero, and the watchman turned a blind eye whenever the old man crawled into a wharf shed at night to sleep under a tarpaulin.
When McNish died destitute, in the Ohiro Benevolent Home in Wellington in 1930, a naval funeral was arranged. His pall bearers were drawn from a Royal Navy ship and the NZ Army supplied a gun carriage to carry his coffin. A high honour!
In 1959 the NZ Antarctic Society, shocked to find that McNish lay in an unmarked grave, raised funds for a headstone (unfortunately his name was spelt wrongly as "McNeish"). In 2004, the Society spruced up McNish's Karori Cemetery grave, in recognition of his efforts on the expedition. It also commissioned a life-sized bronze statue of Mrs Chippy (by sculptor Chris Elliott of Hawkes Bay) to be placed on his grave, an event that even caught the attention of the BBC and NY Times!
Harry McNish's grandson Tom McNish, of Norwich, UK, said the Mrs Chippy Project was probably just what the ship's carpenter would have wanted: "I think the cat was more important to him than the Polar Medal."


Mrs Alice Dillon, Southampton said...

I am of that 'certain generation' you refer to and, yes, I do recall being taught about Shackleton's dramatic escape from certain death. There were still many heroics then, for the 'glory of the Empire' - not so much today. I did like this story about the cat. Very touching, and a nice ending. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Shackelton should have hung his head in shame. Looks like the carpenter was the hero of the whole expedition, he saved ALL their lives. To be treated like he was is PATHETIC and PETTY. Sounds like Shackelton was not worthy of the title 'leader'!