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Blackborow, Perce

Blackborow, Perce

Alias: Blackie

Title: Mr

Dates: 1894-1949

Nationality: British

Awards: Polar Medal (bronze)

Perce Blackborow was born in Pillgwently, Newport, south Wales, the son of a ship steward. At the age of 19, he sailed to Uruguay in the ship Golden Gate, but it foundered off Montevideo. Blackborow and his shipmate Will Bakewell found their way to Buenos Aires, where they applied for positions on Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Bakewell was accepted as an able seaman, but Blackborow was rejected on account of his age and lack of experience. With help from Bakewell, and assisted by Wally How and Thomas McLeod, Blackborow was hidden in Bakewell's locker, and was given food and water during the first two days. On the third day after the departure from Buenos Aires, at a time when the ship was too far out to turn back, Blackborow was moved to the locker of Ernie Holness, who discovered the stowaway when he saw two feet sticking out underneath some oilskins.

After subjecting Blackborow to a tirade in front of the crew, Shackleton is reported to have said to him: 'Do you know that on these expeditions we often get very hungry, and if there is a stowaway available he is the first to be eaten?' Blackborow reputedly replied, 'They’d get a lot more meat off you, sir.' Shackleton hid a grin and said 'Introduce him to the cook first' (Huntford, 'Shackleton', 1985: 384). Blackborow, who was nicknamed 'Blackie,' was eventually signed on as a steward and proved to be clever, conscientious, and popular.

During the boat journey to Elephant Island, Blackborow's toes became severely frostbitten, and although Shackleton awarded him the honour of being the first man to set foot on the island, his toes made it impossible for him to walk, so he was helped up the beach instead by How and Bakewell. During the four and a half months on Elephant Island, Blackborow spent most of his time in his sleeping bag inside the hut. On 15 June 1916, surgeons Alexander Macklin and Jim McIlroy amputated several toes on his left foot in an operation that was conducted inside the hut.

After the party at Elephant Island was rescued, Blackborow was taken to hospital in Punta Arenas, where he remained for three months. He did not arrive back in England until February 1917, the last member of Endurance to return. Blackborow was awarded the Polar Medal in bronze for his participation in the expedition.

Back in Wales, Blackborow was disqualified from service in the Royal Navy on medical grounds, so served instead with the merchant navy during the First World War. Following the war he worked as a dock boatman in the Alexandra Docks in Newport. He married a local girl named Kate Kearns and they had six children.

A modest man, Blackborow rarely spoke of his experiences under Shackleton. He died of chronic bronchitis and heart disease at the age of 53 and was buried in his beloved Newport.

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