Sir Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Henry Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 in County Kildare, Ireland. Educated in London, at the age of sixteen he joined the merchant navy and qualified as a master mariner in 1898. In 1901 he joined Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition as Third Lieutenant, taking the first aerial photograph in Antarctica and, along with Scott and Edward Wilson, attempting to reach the South Pole. Whilst unsuccessful, the party set a new furthest south record. Shackleton contracted scurvy whilst on this sledging trip and was invalided home in January 1903, going on to assist with the fitting out of Discovery for her relief expedition of Scott’s party, as well as the ARA Uruguay for her relief expedition of the Swedish Antarctic Expedition.

The British Antarctic ‘Nimrod’ Expedition

With Discovery home Shackleton worked for some time as a journalist and married Emily Mary Dorman in 1904, with whom he would have three children. That same year he was also elected as secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 1906 he resigned from this position to run as the Member of Parliament for Dundee, but was not elected. In 1908 Shackleton led his first expedition to the Antarctic aboard the Nimrod, attempting to reach the South Pole but ultimately turning back at 88°23’S, setting another furthest south record. Three members of this expedition, Alistair McKay, Douglas Mawson and Edgeworth David, were however successful in reaching the South Magnetic Pole in 1909, and on his return to Britain Shackleton was knighted.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

With the South Pole reached by Amundsen in 1911, Shackleton returned with his new goal of being the first to cross the Antarctic Continent via the Pole. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition left the UK in 1914, but did not reach the Antarctic coast before their ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice. Nine months later Endurance was crushed, forcing the men to camp on the ice for five months before launching lifeboats to reach Elephant Island. From there, a small party sailed the perilous journey to South Georgia, reaching the Stromness whaling station on foot. The men on Elephant Island were then rescued, before the Ross Sea party were rescued. This expedition became Shackleton’s most famous exploit. 

Buenos Aires

On his return to war-torn Europe, Shackleton volunteered for the front lines but was too old. In October 1917 he was sent to Buenos Aires on an unsuccessful diplomatic mission. Suffering a possible heart attack on his way, Shackleton then worked for the Allied Expeditionary Force in the Russian Civil War.

The Shackleton-Rowett ‘Quest’ Expedition

In 1921 Shackleton set off on his third expedition to Antarctica. The Shackleton-Rowett ‘Quest’ Expedition, which suffered from a lack of clear objectives from the start, was ultimately overshadowed by his death in South Georgia in 1922 from a suspected heart attack. At the request of his wife, Shackleton was buried on South Georgia, and a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Whilst Frank Wild took over leadership of the expedition, little of note was achieved before the expedition returned to Plymouth a year later. Shackleton’s death is often considered to mark the end of the Heroic Age in Antarctica.


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