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McNish, Henry

McNish, Henry

Alias: Harry, Chippy

Dates: 1874-1930

Nationality: British

Awards: None

Harry McNish was born in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, the third of eleven children. Little is known of his early life other than that he held strong socialist views, was a member of the United Free Church of Scotland, and detested the use of foul language. He had already been widowed twice and had served as a shipwright in the Merchant Navy before being selected as the carpenter for Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

It appears that McNish and Shackleton were dubious of each other from near the start of the expedition, as Shackleton wrote while in South Georgia that he was 'the only man I'm not dead certain of.' Yet McNish proved invaluable during the time that Endurance was caught in the ice, as he built instrument cases for the scientists, constructed a chest of drawers for Shackleton's cabin, put together a windbreak for the helmsman, redesigned the crew sleeping quarters, and, after the ship was damaged by ice pressure, constructed a cofferdam in the stern to try and stop the leak from flooding the entire ship.

McNish brought his cat, Mrs Chippy, on the expedition, and she became highly popular, although it was eventually discovered that she was, in fact, a male. When Endurance was abandoned, Shackleton had Mrs Chippy and several dogs, including three puppies, shot in order to avoid giving them food that might help the men reach safety. McNish never forgave Shackleton for this.

Almost two months later, the party began hauling the boats James Caird and Dudley Docker across the ice from Ocean Camp towards Paulet Island. After several days, McNish – still distressed by the death of Mrs Chippy and angry that Shackleton had denied him permission to use the timbers from Endurance to build a sloop to take the men home – confronted Frank Worsley and refused to continue. He argued that dragging the boats across such rough ice might damage them beyond repair and, besides, that after leaving the ship, he wasn't legally obligated to follow any orders. Worsley couldn't manage to control McNish and sent for Shackleton. The incident was only concluded when Shackleton read out a copy of the ship's articles, including the special clause that stated: 'All members of the crew without exception to have interchangeable duties and to perform any duty on board in the boats or on the shore as directed by the master or owner' (Fisher and Fisher, 'Shackleton', 1957: 361). As Shackleton pointed out, they were now effectively 'on shore.' Although the problem subsided, Shackleton wrote in his diary that, 'Everyone working well except the carpenter: I shall never forgive him in this strain & stress.'

After reaching Elephant Island, McNish worked relentlessly to make James Caird more seaworthy for the voyage to South Georgia. Shackleton chose to take him with him, in part to make sure he could keep him under control. McNish, along with John Vincent and Tim McCarthy, was left at King Haakon Bay, and the three were picked up by the Norwegian steamer Samson after Shackleton, Worsley, and Tom Crean successfully crossed the island. The three sailors were then sent back to England directly from South Georgia, joining the cargo ship Orwell, which arrived in Liverpool on 3 August 1916. Due to the carpenter's 'rebellion' on the ice, Shackleton did not recommend McNish for the Polar Medal.

After the expedition, McNish worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company, making five voyages to New Zealand. He moved there permanently in 1925 and was employed at the Wellington docks until rheumatism and a serious accident forced him to retire. Destitute, he eventually was allowed to stay at the Ohiro Benevolent Home, until he died in a Wellington hospital in 1930.
McNish was buried with full naval honours at the Karori Cemetery. For many years he had an unmarked grave, but in 1959 the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a headstone. Then, in 2004, a life-size bronze statue of Mrs Chippy was added to the grave.

McNish Island, which lies at the east side of Cheapman Bay on the south side of South Georgia, was named in his honour. Originally using a common misspelling of his name – McNeish – the island was renamed in 1998 after submittal of McNish's birth certificate to the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee proved the correct spelling of his surname.


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