Engineer Commander Lewis Rickinson: Newbury’s connection to the Endurance

Ship Endurance

In early March 2022 the research vessel Agulhas made the astonishing discovery of the wreck of the Endurance in the Weddell Sea off Antarctica at a depth of 3,008m.  

The Endurance had carried the members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 in their attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. They had to abandon the expedition ship which was trapped in the ice and then holed.  The leader of the expedition, Sir Ernest Shackleton led his team to safety, an escape that saw the Anglo-Irish explorer take a small lifeboat across ferocious seas to get help.  It is a truly remarkable story of survival.  Some years ago, the BBC made a documentary about the expedition and its survival against the odds.  This year, 2022, marks the centenary of the death of Shackleton, who in 2002 was voted eleventh in a BBC poll of The 100 Greatest Britons.

Shackleton was famous then, and is still famous, but there were 26 other members of the expedition.  A senior member of the team was the first engineer, Lewis Rickinson.  

Lewis Rickinson had an aversion to the cold, so it seems rather odd that he should volunteer for a trip to Antarctica. However, he was a good engineer with a good understanding of the still relatively new and little used internal combustion engine. He was also known for a good sense of humour.  During a head shaving event on the Endurance, he agreed to have his own head shaved on the condition that he could shave Shackleton’s head, first.  He suffered particularly on the voyage to Elephant Island with salt-water boils and it is thought to have had a mild heart attack on landing on Elephant Island. In Shackleton’s words:

The blubber-stove was quickly alight and the cook began to prepare a hot drink. We were labouring at the boats when I noticed Rickinson turn white and stagger in the surf.  I pulled him out of reach of the water and sent him up to the stove, which had been placed in the shelter of some rocks.  McIlroy went to him and found that his heart had been temporarily unequal to the strain placed upon it.  He was in a bad way and needed prompt medical attention.  There are some men who will do more than their share of work and who will attempt more than they are physically able to accomplish.  Rickinson was one of these eager souls.  He was suffering, like many other members of the Expedition, from bad salt-water boils.  Our wrists, arms, and legs were attacked.  Apparently this infliction was due to constant soaking with sea-water, the chafing of wet clothes, and exposure.”

Rickinson went on to serve as an Engineer Commander during the second world at the shore-based H.M.S. Pembroke in the Medway.  He was taken ill with lung cancer and died, aged 62, in the Naval Nursing Home in Newbury in April 1945 and was buried in the Shaw cemetery in Newbury.  

The following extract is from the “Newbury Weekly News”.

“The funeral service of the late Commander L. R. Rickinson took place in the Newbury Municipal Cemetery on Thursday last. The service was taken by the Rev. N. B. Kent, the rector of Highclere.  The Rector, in his address, stated that when invited to take the service he felt it not only a privilege, but rather a duty, as he happened to be the only Naval Chaplain in the Antarctic 30 years before when Sir. Ernest Shackleton’s Expedition came into South Georgia but he missed the Expedition by one and a half days.  Although he was retired from the Service, he felt it a duty to render the last services to a fellow officer, who had served his country with such quiet, but nevertheless, unusual distinction. The coffin was covered with the Union Jack and upon it was the late Commander’s hat, sword and medals, one of which was the Polar medal awarded for the 1914-1916 Antarctic expedition.”

Shaw cemetery welcomes visitors and a walk in its tranquil alleys will take you to the final resting place of Commander Rickinson some 100 metres to the south-west of the chapel in the middle of the cemetery.

 

There is a large amount of material on the Internet about the expedition and its members including Rickinson.  Below is a list of references.

bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-60662541

youtube.com/watch?v=OmIwipIhRq8

wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Rickinson

spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/shackleton/biographies/Rickinson,_Lewis_Raphael/

web.archive.org/web/20160926082612/http://www.enduranceobituaries.co.uk/rickinson.htm

findagrave.com/memorial/60116717/lewis-raphael-rickinson

 

Many thanks to Newbury historian Allan Macro for the idea for this article and the photo of Rickinson’s grave.

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