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Last Updated: Monday, 21 June, 2004, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Antarctic hero 'reunited' with cat
By Kim Griggs
in Wellington

Mrs Chippy took great delight leaping across the kennel roofs of the sledging dogs

The carpenter on Shackleton's ill-fated Endurance ship, Harry "Chippy" McNeish, and his beloved tabby cat, Mrs Chippy, are about to be "reunited".

Next Sunday, a life-sized bronze statue of Mrs Chippy, who was actually a male, will be placed on McNeish's grave at Karori Cemetery in Wellington, New Zealand.

"This is our little tribute to McNeish," says Mariska Wouters, chair of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Antarctic Society.

"We can't go back and give him a Polar Medal but this is one way of recognising what he contributed to the expedition."

In her book The Endurance, Caroline Alexander describes how Mrs Chippy, who became the ship's mascot, took great delight in leaping across the kennel roofs of the sledging dogs, tantalisingly out of reach.

But Mrs Chippy and the dogs were all shot after the crushing of the Endurance in the Weddell Sea ice left the men of Shackleton's 1914-1916 Trans-Antarctic Expedition marooned 560km (350 miles) from the nearest land, and with just three lifeboats to carry them to safety.

Elephant island

The men first sailed to the inhospitable Elephant Island in the lifeboats, but with little chance of rescue there, a team led by Shackleton set out to reach the inhabited island of South Georgia.

It was McNeish's carpentry skills that ensured their boat, the James Caird, withstood the battering of some of the roughest seas in the world during its 1,300km (800 miles) journey to South Georgia.

This is our little tribute to McNeish
Mariska Wouters, New Zealand Antarctic Society
Despite his contributions, McNeish was denied the Polar Medal: McNeish had incurred Shackleton's wrath when he briefly rebelled while the men were moving camps on the sea ice. McNeish, for his part, never forgave Shackleton for having Mrs Chippy shot.

Baden Norris, Canterbury Museum's emeritus curator of Antarctic history, recalls as a young boy being taken to see a very old and ill McNeish.

Even then, McNeish mourned Mrs Chippy. "The only thing I ever remember him saying when we got to this place - and I can't even remember if it was the hospital or the old man's home - was Shackleton had shot his cat," says Norris.

Naval funeral

McNeish had come to New Zealand in 1925 where he had worked on the Wellington waterfront until he was injured.

It was a monthly collection from the watersiders that kept him going, writes Caroline Alexander.

"To the seamen of the Wellington docks - the carpenter of the James Caird was a hero, and the watchman turned a blind eye whenever the old man crawled into a wharf shed at night to sleep under a tarpaulin."

Mrs Chippy on Perce Blackborow's shoulder, image courtesy of Scott Polar Research Institute
Mrs Chippy enjoys a ride on Endurance crewmember Perce Blackborow's shoulder (Image: SPRI)
When McNeish died in 1930, a naval funeral was arranged; his pall bearers were drawn from a Royal Navy ship and the New Zealand Army supplied a gun carriage to carry his coffin.

His grave remained unmarked until the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a headstone in 1959.

Now, the Society has spruced up the grave and raised NZ$6,000 for the statue of Mrs Chippy. Sculptor Chris Elliott has aimed to make Mrs Chippy look alert, but with a relaxed body "as if he was lying on McNeish's bunk".

It is, says Baden Norris, a fitting memorial for both the much loved cat and his owner. "In my view he's the one man, even above [Captain Frank] Worsley, that saved the expedition. He made it possible for it to be saved [through] his expertise in building the boat.

"Anything that brings his name to the fore, in my view, is a good thing. It balances history a bit," says Norris.

For Harry McNeish's grandson Tom McNeish, who lives in Norwich, the antipodean effort is probably just what the ship's carpenter would have wanted. "I think the cat was more important to him than the Polar Medal."

Scientists in Shackleton's steps
23 Mar 04  |  North West Wales
Fighting for their hero
05 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature

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