Shackleton : The James Caird Society



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Ernest Shackleton's connection with William Beardmore began in 1906, when Shackleton was briefly employed, on the prompting of Lady Beardmore, as secretary of the technical committee at Beardmore's engineering works at Parkhead, Glasgow, following his return home from accompanying Scott and Wilson in their first attempt on the Pole during Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901-4.

Shackleton’s friendship with Elspeth (Eliza) Beardmore, then in her thirties and three years older than the explorer, continued after he became Secretary to the [Royal] Scottish Geographical Society, and she encouraged him to make plans for the Nimrod expedition of 1907-9. 'I have had offers sometimes up to £60,000 for book and lectures if I reach the South Pole...', he told Elspeth in a letter of 3 May 1907, a few months before the expedition set off.

William Beardmore (1856-1936) was one of the largest employers in the Glasgow area, thanks to his extensive engineering, arms manufacture and shipbuilding works, and wielded considerable social and political influence on Clydeside.

Beardmore was the chief supporter of the Nimrod expedition, providing Shackleton with a £7,000 loan, worth almost half a million pounds in today’s money: not a vast figure all the same, but sufficient perhaps to make the expedition viable. Some thought that he did this partly to get Shackleton off his hands, there being rumours that Elspeth and Shackleton were having an affair. (Such rumours, rarely substantiated, were part of Shackleton's stock-in-trade.)

As a result, Beardmore’s name is immortalised in the huge Beardmore Glacier, one of the world’s largest, beginning at 83 degrees south, and the route Shackleton found up to the Polar plateau from the Ross Ice Shelf through the Queen Alexandra and Commonwealth ranges. The Beardmore Glacier was the key: it nearly enabled Shackleton to reach the Pole first, in 1909. Amundsen later forged his own route up via a neighbouring glacier, but Scott, who had been deeply offended by Shackleton's use of his hut breaking to a gentleman's agreement, took the Beardmore Glacier in his doomed and fatal attempt in 1911. This is also the route the Shackleton Centenary Expedition led by Co. Henry Worsley will take for its expedition to the Pole in 2008.

Beardmore had recently expanded his fast-growing industrial conglomerate, which bore his name, by acquiring the Arrol-Johnston car works, and it was one of their vehicles, overseen by engineer Bernard Day, which Shackleton’s team took the Ross Sea base from New Zealand in 1907, so as to experiment with it in a Polar climate. Perhaps not surprisingly, its performance was disappointing.

The car company’s originator, locomotive engineer George Johnston had turned his attention to internal combustion in 1894. The first car appeared in 1895. A couple of years later he formed a company with William Arrol, architect of the Forth Bridge, to build a petrol engined Arrol-Johnston car. In 1905 the name was changed to the Arrol-Johnston Car Company Ltd. and the company introduced a 3023cc, 12/15 hp model of more modern appearance, still using an opposed-piston engine. There was also a three-cylinder version of the dogcart; 16hp, with the centre cylinder being of greater bore than the outer two.

In 1906 came the 24/30hp vertical four of 4654cc; followed in 1907 by the 38/45hp of 8832 cc. Supported by the engineering giant William Beardmore’s, who took over the firm to stave off bankruptcy and wanted Scotland to have its own motor industry, the Paisley-based business proved a pioneer of the motorcar industry within the decade, developing the world's first "off-road" vehicle for the Egyptian government, and another designed to travel on ice and snow for Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the South Pole. The 12/15 hp twin (Shackleton’s car was the New Arrol-Johnston, an air-cooled open two-seater, four-cylinder, 11 kw (12-15 horsepower), with a utility tray-back, was produced until 1909. In 1913 the company moved production from Paisley to Heathhall, just outside Dumfries and commissioned an American firm to build a factory. Not only was the result the first factory in Britain to use concrete reinforced with metal in its construction, it was also reputed to be a copy of the Ford Factory at Highland Park, Michigan, where the Model ‘T’ Ford was produced.

The Nimrod expedition was the first to test a motor car in Antarctica: ‘He has provided himself with a real live motor car with which he hopes to reach his goal and hoist the Union Jack. Under favourable circumstances Lieutenant Shackleton computes that the machine can travel 150 miles in twenty four hours and .... He thinks there would be a fair chance of sprinting to the pole.’ (Interview with Shackleton in The Autocar, 19 Oct 1907).

However the petrol engine had not been tested in extreme cold and a suitable system for providing traction in snow had not been devised. Hence the car was taken South without being properly tested in conditions that it was likely to encounter. One thing was abundantly clear to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with conditions as Antarctica was that ordinary wheels didn't fare well in snow.

The Nimrod expedition’s motor engineer. Bernard Day, built a garage and workshop adjoining the stables, for the New Arrol-Johnston motor-car, and even though it was no good in snow, sinking in up to its axles, it proved useful, with a utility tray-back, and with skis fitted under its front wheels, for transporting loads from Nimrod across the sea ice and for trips as far as south as the Erebus Glacier Tongue – not without misadventure: on 1 December 1908, the Arrol-Johnston car fell into crevasse. This must have been of satisfaction to the Norwegians, who had prophesied (Norsk Idraettsblad, 1907) that ‘[Lt. Shackleton’s] automobile ill only prove usable on the fixed ice along the coast; and that he will not drive many miles with it into the hinterland before it lies in a crevasse or is stuck in a snowdrift.’

However in the Christchurch City Council museum in New Zealand resides another Arrol-Johnston appliance, a twin cylinder purpose built device. It has a large roller in place of the rear wheelsr, about 70cm wide for propulsion, and skis in lieu of front wheels. This contrivance accompanied a later Antarctic expedition, and probably evolved in the light of experience with the original vehicle. The American polar pioneer Sir Hubert Wilkins took a "baby" Austin 7 on his 1927 expedition. Also in 1962, a time when Volkswagen, Germany was promoting the use of its cars in Arctic conditions, VW Australia furnished a 1962 ruby red VW Beetle, with spares, tightly sealed doors and the licence plate "Antarctica 1", to the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (Anare) located at Mawson Base. Being air cooled, it never froze, and could be started without assistance at temperatures as low as -38c, and driven in temperatures down to -52c. However the Antarctic wind was often so strong that the doors were "turned inside out", slamming back against the front mug guards (fenders) so as to break the restraining rods and bend the door hinges (although these were easily straightened). The only major problem was cracking in the frame head (where the front torsion bars are attached to the floor pan) on the rough corrugated ice, which required re-welding

William Beardmore himself was born in 1856 in Greenwich, London, on the River Thames (an apt provenance for a shipbuilder). He was the eldest son and namesake of his father, William Beardmore snr. (1825-77) and Sophie Louisa Holfman or Halpman. His birth was not legitimised until his parents married, in 1861, the year Beardmore senior became a partner in the Parkhead forge works. Henceforth young William grew up in Scotland, and in the 1870s was educated at Glasgow High School and Ayr Academy.

William senior’s father, Joseph Beardmore, had been the first Superintendent of the Deptford Works of the General Steam Navigation Co., resident in later life at The Stowage, Deptford. Most of his brothers became engineers, and William senior was apprenticed to his father in about 1838, and later became his assistant. While at Deptford he devised a new furnace box that reduced the smoke produced by river steamers. His inventiveness brought William senior into contact with James Napier, marine engineer and son of Robert, and his brother-in-law William Rigby, manager of Robert Napier's Parkhead Forge, founded in 1827 in the east end of Glasgow. Rigby had purchased it from Napier in 1861; and in due course the two Williams co-operated on the development of marine engines and became partners in the forge.

Following his own studies at The Royal Technical College, Glasgow, and the Royal School of Mines, South Kensington, William Beardmore junior returned to Scotland and became an apprentice at his father's Parkhead Forge in Glasgow, and continued evening classes in chemistry and maths at Anderson’s College. The firm was gradually being extended by his father and his uncle, Isaac Beardmore, who became a partner in 1871. Initially the company’s efforts focused on steel working and gun manufacture. After his father died, in October 1977, Beardmore succeeded him as partner in a successful engineering business, which by now also made boilers for a thriving railway and ship-building industry, and refounded the enterprise under his own name.

All the foundations were laid for William Beardmore junior’s considerable wealth and success during what proved, in the short term, to be a boom period. Over the years, new plate mills, open hearth steel plant, a steel foundry and a large forging press and tyre mill to supply the railway industry had been added. In 1899 the Govan shipyard on the Clyde of the insolvent Robert Napier & Sons was acquired and modernised. By 1900, the works and yards covered some 45 acres in and around Glasgow, and employed close to 40,000, making it the largest single undertaking ever in Scotland up to that time.

In 1902, by now Chairman and Managing Director, he married Eliza Small Tullis (b 1871), 15 years younger, whom he met through her father, Director of the St. Ann's Leatherworks, Bridgeton on whose board Beardmore was elected in 1898. About the time of the marriage, William purchased Flichty House in Invernesshire, with its 3,000 acre sporting estate. He extended and improved the estate and it became the couple's principle home.

However also in 1902 Beardmore ran out of credit and was compelled to form the business into a limited liability company, William Beardmore & Co. Ltd. In the same year, William acquired a controlling interest in the motor manufacturers Arrol Johnston. Gun-making plant was then installed at Parkhead, the Mossend Steel Works bought and many houses bought or built for shipbuilding workers at Dalmuir, which boasted the largest fitting-out basin in the world.

In the period 1906-19, Beardmore's built four battleships, seven cruisers, 21 destroyers, 13 submarines, 24 hospital ships and a seaplane carrier. Its contribution to Britain's war effort during the First World War included 73 warships, 50 tanks, 516 aircraft and more than 800 6-inch howitzers. The arms race with Germany, especially the rapid prewar growth of the German High Navy, provided extra opportunities: several Dreadnought orders were secured, including HMS Conqueror, Benbow and Rainbow (1911, 1913, 1917). Many cruisers, destroyers and other ships were also built, perhaps including the world's first aircraft carrier, HMS Argus (1917).

All this was not accomplished without some industrial unrest. David Lloyd George, in his war memoirs, mentions a visit he made when Prime Minister to the works to meet with striking trades union leaders in an effort to resolve the dispute. The climax to resistance in Glasgow to the Government's 'dilution process' came with a strike of engineering workers in Glasgow from 17 March to 4 April 1916. The purpose of the government's 'dilution' policy was to increase productivity and output of munitions by importing unskilled male and female workers to engineering and shipbuilding works. However, the skilled workers in the factories and shipyards were concerned that this would open the door for employers to exploit the Act by substituting cheap labour for time-served skilled workers. The strike itself originated at Beardmore's in Parkhead, but within days spread to cover a host of engineering munitions plants throughout the Glasgow region. Telegrams sent by William Weir, Director of Munitions in Scotland, to Lloyd George and the Ministry of Munitions in London reveal the alarm in Government circles at the Clyde Workers' Committee-led strike. There was close cooperation between Government agencies in London and Glasgow to ensure the defeat of the strike.

In recent years there has been some historical debate regarding the nature of the events which led to the strike at Beardmore's. Mystery surrounds why Sir William Beardmore decided to withdraw a long-held right within the works which guaranteed shop stewards access to new employees. As a major employer in Glasgow with long experience with dealing with industrial grievances, Beardmore was likely to have been fully aware of the probable consequences of his actions. Some argue that Beardmore took instruction from the Ministry of Munitions, which was then able to effect plans to crush the Clyde Workers' Committee by rounding up the leaders and deporting them from Glasgow. These actions effectively put an end to the resistance to dilution and the level of strike action on Clydeside fell dramatically thereafter.

William Beardmore was knighted in 1914, the year of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, although Beardmore had no sponsoring role on that occasion. However Shackleton continued to be in touch with Elspeth: 'I have had some hard knocks...' he wrote to her on 13 Jan 1914, 'but I let the past rest, and am now looking forward to carrying out the last big thing to be done in the South'

During and immediately after the war, Sir William continued to acquire other firms and enlarge and modernise existing businesses. Besides shipbuilding and engineering, ocean liners, cargo vessels, railway locomotives, motor vehicles (including buses), plus marine oil and steam engines and aircraft (100 Sopwith builtat Dalmuir for the Royal Naval Air Service) were all put into production at various plants.

The firm continued to produce fine ships, including liners and cargo vessels such as Empress of France, Lancastria, Cameronia, Conte Rosso, Conte Verde, Largs Bay, Esperance Bay and Duchess of Athol, and in April 1925 the largest vessel ever built at the yard, the 23,121-ton Conte Biancamano for Lloyd Sabaudo. In addition Beardmore's yards turned out the cruiser Shropshire and two (?further) submarines for the Royal Navy.

Sir William Beardmore was elevated to the peerage two years later, taking the title Lord Invernairn. In a further diversification, Beardmore’s was now responsible for building the impressive R27, R32 and R34 airships, and (most notably) the 643-ft R-34 airship, built at Inchinnan, which flew the first ever East-West air crossing of the Atlantic, taking 108 hours on (2-6 July 1919 (just two weeks after the West-East crossing by Alcock and Brown), and in which William Beardmore took special pride. On her return (75 hrs) the R-34 also became the first airborne craft to achieve the Atlantic ‘double’, crossing both ways.

Following the purchase of Sentinel Waggon Works in 1917 a range of cars was produced just after the war by Beardmore Motors Ltd, a subsidiary based in factories in Anniesland, Coatbridge and Paisley. Beardmore’s also briefly produced motorcycles in the 1920s. Car Production continued to 1929 and the manufacture of taxis to that design continued south of the border until the 1960s.

However Beardmore’s plants had been losing money is almost every department since the war. The firm began to borrow more and cut back on costs. As a result of several less successful ventures and a changing business climate after the war, this vast company was almost bankrupt by the late 1920s. In due course Vickers, with whose help - a virtual bail-out - Beardmore had resolved his serious financial crisis after the war, sold its 60% holding to him and itself pulled out. Condemned by the accountants and government auditors alike, Beardmore financed operations out of his own pocket until he was ousted from executive control by a Bank of England-guided committee of investigation and reconstruction.

In 1930 Beardmore resigned and the board and the shipyard was acquired by National Shipbuilder's Security Ltd. Over the next few years, he was forced to witness the run down and progressive dissolution of many of his once privately-owned businesses.

William Beardmore & Co. continued after Lord Invernairn's retirement and his death in 1936, albeit on a reduced scale, under Sir James Lithgow (1883-1952), of his former rivals William Lithgow’s, and again after Lithgow retired into the 1950s and 1960s, but was finally wound-up in 1975. The Parkhead Works was demolished to make way for a shopping centre.

Although described as autocratic in his staff relations, William was regarded as a fair and just employer, and he was for many years an actively involved chairman of The Industrial Welfare Society. He was also at one time president of the Iron and Steel Institute. He was a keen sportsman.

Beardmore rented Tullichewan House in Alexandria, Dumbartonshire, not far from Glasgow, but Flichity (or ‘Flichty’) House, Invernesshire remained his and his wife Elspeth’s (Eliza’s) principal home. They had no children. Beardmore died of a heart attack on 9 April 1936, and is buried at Flichty. His estate, much diminished by his expenditure of his own wealth in propping up the firm, was valued at £858,092, but only £83,270 (still a substantial sum at the time) after tax and other liabilities.



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