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Shackleton plays truant in the “Silverdale Wood”

It is well known that Ernest Shackleton passed his schooldays in Sydenham, as commemorated by the Blue Plaque on the large house on Westwood Hill next to St Bartholomew’s Church, now called ‘St David’s’, but originally ‘Aberdeen House’.

He was the son of Dr Henry Shackleton, who settled in Sydenham
as a General Practitioner, who was also a Classics graduate of
Trinity College, Dublin and originally a small landed proprietor,
of Kilkea House, County Kildare in Ireland. He practised
homeopathy. Ernest was the second child, and had eight sisters
who attended Sydenham High School, and a brother. In the back
garden Dr. Shackleton had a famous rose garden, and the young
Ernest built a switch-back railway from the drawing-room window
right across the lawn; he also liked to play on the roof of the house.
He explored the radius of a day’s journey on his bicycle all around
Sydenham. On his return from the Antarctic, his sisters would later
decorate the house with pennants.

Shackleton loyally kept up a friendship with the manager of
the bookstore at Sydenham railway station, Charles Lethbridge,
and wrote to him during his first Antarctic expedition (with Scott
on the Discovery) on 20 September 1902. In his early days
Ernest and his sisters belonged to the Band of Hope, a children’s
Temperance Society group, who regularly sang songs about the
evils of alcohol outside the Sydenham pubs. From ‘Aberdeen
House’, starting at the age of thirteen in 1887, for three years he
walked over the hill to and from Dulwich College. At the College
he ‘did very little work’ according to a contemporary, ‘and if there
was a scrap he was usually in it’. His form positions, usually low,
very likely indicate impatient boredom; however, the single high
results in Mathematics and English that he gained twice, reveal his
exceptional intelligence.

Dr. Shackleton reluctantly let him join the mercantile marine
after his sixteenth birthday in 1890; later, he was to say that
for all the good points of Dulwich, his first year at sea was a
better school: he had the leisure to read for hours on end, and
memorised long passages of poetry; he was saved from the sea
(pulled out by his hair) and experienced a hurricane. Returning to
the Great Hall of the College to present the prizes as the man of
the hour in July 1909, after the return of his Nimrod expedition,
he declared that he had never been so near to the prizes as he had
been today.

The Dulwich boys used to call him ‘Mick’,‘Mike’ or ‘Micky’, as he
retained traces of an Irish brogue.Significant further details of
local interest about Shackleton’s youth was given by Hugh Robert
Mill in his Life of Shackleton (1923):

‘The story of these days would not be complete without a paragraph
of secret history, the revelation of which is no longer an
indiscretion. Mike was addicted to playing truant from school,
and we may assume that he was versed in the art of plausible
excuses both at school and at home. He was the leader of a sworn
band, other members of which were Arthur Griffiths (‘Griff’ for
short), Ned Sleep and Chris Kay. With such names they could not
help playing at the hunt for hidden treasure on desolate islands,
the chosen haunt being a strip of private wood adjoining the railway.
Many a long day they spent there, cowering in a hollow under the root
of a great tree, speaking in whispers, for might not the next lair hide
the lurking shapes of Ben Gunn, Black Dog, old Pew, and even Long
John Silver himself? – in that wood in those days time and space,
fact and fiction were a continuum of romance. All things there were
held in common by the four, and the properties in the drama that
was being lived included a revolver with cartridges, an air-gun, a
flute, a concertina, and the hull of a large model boat, the rigging
and altering of which gave rise to lengthy discussions and very
unsatisfactory results. Food was stored up also, for missing school
meant doing without dinner, and there was a box of the cheapest
cigarettes on the market, which Mike smoked with the best of
them, and once when cash was available a bottle of cooking sherry
was smuggled in for a grand carouse. This Mike would not touch,
and the others long regretted their rashness. All the talk was of
adventure, and many a rousing tale of the sea did Mike read aloud
to his comrades, all of whom resolved to be sailors; and remarkable
as it may appear, all four grew up to follow the sea’.

Mill’s source for all this seems to be from Shackleton himself,
who was his friend, as the passage contains many details only
found in his book, but confirmation that the strip of private wood
was what is now the Reserve with the pond on Silverdale comes
from a book of reminiscences written by ‘Griff’ himself, called
Surrendered: Some Naval War Secrets, published in 1918, in
which he states that ‘the safest haunt’ of their truancies, selected
by Shackleton himself, was ‘a deep hollow in the SilverdaleWoods,
where the thick undergrowth obscured all vestige of trespassers.
Books on ships and sails found their way into the lair. Sails and
flags were stretched taut to the spars of the model ship. Arguments
and reference to nautical works occupied weeks and weeks before the
little model passed muster. An old wooden box was installed in the
hollow to act as a table, where the model was secured for close
inspection – and it became the imaginary vessel of their travels’.

The lads, Griff wrote, decided to run away to sea, and set off to
London in quest of a ship, but the mate smiled at them and said
they were too young. Later they were ‘not deserted by the growing
call of the sea, and one by one exchanged school caps for the
smart badge and buttons of sea service’. The ‘cheery lads’ all
worked in full rigged ships. Shackleton left in the Houghton Tower,
a ship of the White Star Line, for Valparaiso in 1890.The three
others eventually became officers in ocean liners.

One fascinating element of this truancy is how closely their
activities appear to have been a boyish rehearsal for the real drama
when Shackleton was marooned on the ice during the Endurance expedition
after the ship sank, with music (instead of the flute and concertina
of Silverdale Woods) from Hussey’s banjo, now preserved in the
National Maritime Museum; when it was suggested to discard the banjo
on account of its weight, Shackleton insisted it must be kept, as ‘vital
mental medicine’ for the group. The men on the ice took part in smoking
and feasts from dwindling stores; they had with them an arsenal,
and books; they discussed sails and other nautical matters, and
talked about literature.

Jan Piggott, generously assisted by Steve Grindlay

Footnote: Steve Grindlay has cleverly established the ages and addresses
of the other boys, so that we can imagine them covertly converging on the
Silverdale Woods on school days: Arthur ‘Griff’ Griffith (not Griffiths), born
in Sydenham on 12 July 1873, lived at Elmcroft, 15 Recreation Road,
on the corner of Silverdale, from 1881 to 1890, on the other side of the
road from the Reserve, but not many paces away; he was not a pupil at
Dulwich College. Ned Sleap (not ‘Sleep’), born at Belvedere in Kent, on 1
July 1870, also lived in Silverdale, at Birch Tor, from 1881-2, and then at
‘Homestead’, Recreation Road, (either no. 1 or 2) from 1884 to 1891.
They then moved to Longton Grove; he was at Dulwich College for four
terms only, from September 1884. Chris (actually Christol) Kay, the son of
a General Practitioner, was born 17 September 1871. He was at Dulwich
College for only one year, in 1880-1. The Kays lived at 48, Crystal Palace
Park Road, from 1880 until about 1885 and then moved to ‘Darley
House’, Venner Road, where Dr. Kay had his surgery, until 1891. In the
late 1890s the address of ‘Darley House’ was changed to 14 Sydenham
Road; later the house was the Midland Bank, then the HSBC, and is now
Pedder Estate Agent. Steve surmises that they probably all met when
they attended the small preparatory school, Fir Lodge, which was on the
corner of Jews Walk and Kirkdale, though the records have not survived.
Shackleton, conspicuously the youngest, was said to be the leader.

aged 16 in the merchant navy