Marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Wild, the Yorkshireman who was known as Shackleton’s right-hand man

One of the most notable signatures in the RSGS Visitors’ book is that of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a former Secretary and Council Member of the Society, who returned many times to give lectures about his Antarctic expeditions. In October 1922, a less well-known name appears, but one that is inextricably connected with Shackleton: Frank Wild.


Frank Wild’s signature in RSGS Visitors’ Book


Born in Skelton-in-Cleveland on 18th April 1873, Frank Wild was the eldest of a family of eight sons and three daughters.  His father, Benjamin, was a school teacher, and his mother, Mary Cook, was a seamstress;   she claimed to be a great-granddaughter of the 18th-century explorer, Captain James Cook.  Aged 16, Frank joined the merchant navy and sailed all around the world on cargo and passenger ships.  It was a tough life, but it was the perfect preparation for the challenges to come.  In 1900 he was admitted into the Royal Navy as an able seaman, and the following year he applied to join the British National Antarctic Expedition under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott.   


Frank Wild


By 1922, when he visited RSGS, Wild was a veteran of five Antarctic expeditions.  After serving on Scott’s expedition of 1901-04, he had sailed on the Nimrod with Shackleton in 1907-09.  He was one of four men - Wild, Eric Marshall, Jameson Adams and Shackleton himself - who had reached a new ‘furthest south’, an achievement which earned him the RSGS Silver Medal.  In 1911 he joined the Australasian Antarctic Expedition under Douglas Mawson, and he was scarcely back in the UK before he was helping out in Shackleton’s London office and preparing for his post as second in command to the ‘Boss’ on board the Endurance.


L to R:  Wild, Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, on board Nimrod 

The Endurance expedition brought Wild face-to-face with the kind of trials that no one could possibly have foreseen.  After the loss of the ship, he was placed in charge of the 22 men left behind for four months on Elephant Island, while Shackleton and five comrades made a desperate voyage to summon help in South Georgia, 800 miles away across a ferocious sea.  Somehow, Wild managed to maintain the morale and health of his men until they were rescued.  ‘He is my second self,’ wrote Shackleton to a friend, after their safe return.  ‘I love him, as does every decent man on the expedition.  He has been a tower of strength to me…’   

Shackleton saved his men from the Antarctic, but he couldn’t save them from the jaws of an all-consuming war.  Returning home to Britain, they found a country vastly different from the homeland they had left behind.  In 1916 the Great War was still raging in Europe, and Wild, like many others, lost no time in offering himself for military service.  As a Lieutenant-Commander in the Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve, he took a crash-course in Russian and was then posted to Archangel on the White Sea, where he supervised convoys of military supplies arriving in Russia from Britain and France.   

At the end of the war, perhaps fancying a prolonged stay in warmer climes, Wild got together with two former ship-mates - James McIlroy, a surgeon on the Endurance, and Francis Bickerton from the Australasian expedition - and bought a thousand acres of land in Nyasaland (present-day Malawi).  They built a house, cleared the ground and started to plant cotton.  Despite suffering bouts of malaria, Wild revelled in his new surroundings and looked forward to making his fortune. 


Sir Ernest Shackleton, portrait by R G Eves


They hadn’t been there a year when a messenger arrived with a telegram.  Shackleton was planning another expedition, and he wanted to assemble all his men for one last time.  While McIlroy wavered, Wild knew his mind instantly:  the Boss needed him, and he would go.  And there was something more than that, the irresistible call of the polar regions that Shackleton himself knew and responded to instinctively.  ‘Once you’ve been to the white unknown,’ wrote Wild, ‘you can never escape the call of the little voices.’  He set off for Cape Town, travelling much of the way on foot through swamps and forests, and bought a passage to Britain. 

In March 1921, Shackleton’s newly-purchased ship arrived in Southampton from Norway for re-fitting.  Measuring 111 feet in length - 33 feet shorter than Endurance - her name was Foca I.  Shackleton re-named her the Quest.  She had been built for the Arctic, and originally this had been Shackleton’s destination, but when his plans fell through he turned his attention back to the far south.  However, Quest wasn’t the ideal ship for a risky venture in the Antarctic:  internal space was extremely cramped, and although her bow was made of solid oak sheathed with steel, her engines were known to be unreliable.  


RYS Quest


The expedition was being financed almost entirely by John Quiller Rowett, a wealthy businessman, on the promise of eventual repayment by Shackleton out of the proceeds of resulting lectures and books.  Rowett was an old school friend of Shackleton’s from Dulwich College, and he had co-founded the Rowett Research Institute, an animal nutrition laboratory that is now part of the University of Aberdeen.

Shackleton had been able to persuade a further seven of his men from the Endurance to go with him again.  When the Quest sailed down the Thames on 17th September 1921, she carried Frank Worsley, Alexander Macklin, Leonard Hussey, Charles Green, Alexander Kerr and Thomas McLeod;  James McIlroy had finally opted to leave his Nyasaland plantation and join them.   Two boy scouts were added to the crew:  James Marr from Aberdeenshire, and Norman Mooney from Orkney.


Quest passing under Tower Bridge

Before their departure, Shackleton had been invited to an audience with King George V, and he had also learned that his ship had been elected to the Royal Yacht Squadron.  She was now officially the RYS Quest, and the coveted White Ensign fluttered from her stern.  According to Frank Wild, Shackleton considered this to be ‘the greatest honour of his life.’  Wild went on:  ‘Perhaps a more ugly, businesslike little “yacht” never flew the burgee [yacht club ensign], and her appearance must have contrasted strangely with the beautiful and shapely lines of her more aristocratic sisters.’  

The addition of the White Ensign did nothing to improve the condition of Quest’s equipment.  Engine repairs were needed by the time they reached Lisbon, delaying them for a week, and further adjustments were made in Madeira.  These were not enough to cause serious worry, and as they approached the south Atlantic, Wild was relishing his time at sea.  Noticing a magnificent five-masted barque becalmed in the Doldrums, they sailed close enough to exchange greetings with her crew.  Wild was amused to see that, although Shackleton’s commanding voice travelled unaided across the water, the men on the barque used a megaphone to reply. 


Wild at the crow’s nest on Quest


But by late November, when they put into Rio de Janeiro, a four-week delay was necessary while a new crank-shaft, propeller and top-mast were fitted.  The engineers there wanted to do more, but Shackleton couldn’t afford to miss the Antarctic summer.  The Quest put to sea again, but soon it was discovered that the forward water tank had been leaking, leaving very little fresh water on board.  Then the boiler was found to be cracked, and this threw the entire expedition into jeopardy.  It wasn’t helped by the fact that the ship pitched and rolled horribly in rough seas, causing seasickness even among well-seasoned mariners.

Shackleton refused to be downhearted.  On New Year’s Day, 1922, he confided in his journal:  ‘Anxiety has been probing deeply into me, for until the very end of the year things have gone awry.  Engines unreliable;  furnace cracked;  water short;  heavy gales;  all that physically can go wrong, but the spirit of all on board is sound and good.’ 

On 4th January they reached South Georgia.  Shackleton, who had been trying - not entirely successfully - to conceal symptoms of ill-health, was reinvigorated at the sight of so many well-remembered landmarks.  He went ashore to meet old friends at the whaling station, enjoyed a jovial dinner and then retired to bed, saying, ‘Tomorrow we’ll keep Christmas.’  But in the early hours of the next morning, he had a massive heart attack and died.

When the expedition’s doctors, Alexander Macklin and James McIlroy, broke the news to Frank Wild, his reaction was calm and controlled.  He told them to go back to bed, and next morning they would consider what to do next.  When daybreak came, Wild mustered all the men and assured them that he would now take command.  In his book, ‘Shackleton’s Last Voyage’, he wrote:  ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton died suddenly;  so suddenly that he said no word at all with regard to the future of the expedition. But I know that had he foreseen his death and been able to communicate to me his wishes, they would have been summed up in the two words, “Carry on!”’

Wild and the other crew members remained long enough to attend a touching memorial service in the church at Grytviken, and then they sailed south, leaving Leonard Hussey behind with orders to arrange for the return of Shackleton’s body to England.  But on hearing the news, Lady Shackleton requested that her husband be buried in South Georgia.  Hussey and about a hundred whalers therefore attended Shackleton’s funeral in the little churchyard.


Shackleton’s grave

Meanwhile, in the Weddell Sea, Wild was warily skirting the pack ice and trying to make the best of an expedition that seemed to have run out of energy.  ’Any fool,’ he wrote rather defiantly, ‘can push a ship into the ice and lose her - my job was to bring her back again.’  But everything was against him.  To save time on the southward journey, Shackleton had opted not to call at Cape Town as originally planned, but this meant that much-needed equipment and supplies had not been taken on board.  After just three months, the Quest arrived back in South Georgia, allowing the men to build a memorial cairn and pay their respects at Shackleton’s grave.

In 1922 and 1923, Wild was invited to give lectures to RSGS audiences about the voyage of the QuestThe Scotsman newspaper reported that two thousand guests filled the Music Hall in Aberdeen, eager to see Wild’s lantern slides of Antarctic scenes and hear his warm tribute to Shackleton.  In the Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, the RSGS President, Lord Salvesen, introduced him as ‘perhaps the most experienced of polar explorers now living.’  As he recounted the Quest’s voyage in the Weddell Sea, Wild explained his concern that they might get trapped in the pack ice for the winter.  He went on to describe a close encounter with an enormous iceberg: ‘When it was five or six miles away,’ he said, ‘we could hear the roaring of it.  We thought that it was coming straight towards us, and we should have had no chance at all.’


Frank Wild

Wild spent the rest of his life in South Africa, and died in 1939.  In 2011 his ashes, which had been re-discovered by his biographer, Angie Butler, at a cemetery in Braamfontein, were laid to rest next to Shackleton’s grave in Grytviken, South Georgia, with a simple inscription:  ‘Frank Wild 1873-1939 - Shackleton’s right-hand man’.  


For his many expeditions to the Antarctic, Wild received the Polar Medal with four clasps (the only other man to be so honoured was Ernest Joyce).  In 1909 the RSGS Silver Medal was also awarded to his comrades on the Nimrod, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, while Shackleton received the Livingstone Medal.

The Quest had a surprisingly long life.  She was used for the British Arctic Air Route Expedition in 1930, and served as a minesweeper in World War II.  On a seal-hunting expedition in 1962, she was holed by ice and sank off the coast of Labrador, with no loss of life.  Her crow’s nest, made from a barrel, is held in the Crypt Museum of the church of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, London.  Shackleton’s cabin was saved and restored, and is now in the Shackleton Museum, Ireland.

James Marr, one of the boy scouts on Quest, was awarded RSGS’s W S Bruce Medal in 1936 for his work as a marine biologist in the Southern Ocean.

Reference and quotes:


Frank Wild, ‘Shackleton’s Last Voyage - The Story of the Quest’ (1923)

Angie Butler, ‘The Quest for Frank Wild’ (2011)

Roland Huntford, ‘Shackleton’ (1985)

Sir Ernest Shackleton, ‘South’ (1919)

H R Mill, ‘The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton’ (1923)

The Scotsman newspaper, 25th November 1922 and 1st March 1923

RSGS archives