Anyone who visited the recent World War One exhibition at Central Library Sutton may be familiar with the story of Lionel Greenstreet, just one of the many military sitters photographed by David Knights-Whittome at his studio in Sutton. Just a few days before the exhibition boards were due for print, and browsing through the names of soldiers in the Knights-Whittome collection not yet researched, Susan Giddings, Archives Assistant, googled the name ‘Lionel Greenstreet’ and unwittingly uncovered an amazing story. It was researched and pieced together by the Archives team and here, Kath Shawcross, Borough Archivist describes this remarkable story behind the man.
First Officer, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917
2nd Lieutenant, Royal Navy, lived on Wickham Road, Sutton
Born in 1889, Lionel came from a family of merchant seamen and at the age of 15 became a sea cadet. Between 1905 and 1914 he worked his way up in the Merchant Navy becoming a 2nd Mate by 1914. It was that summer just as the war started and aged 25, he wrote to Frank Worsley, the captain of the Endurance (Shackleton’s ship), asking to be considered for a berth. Lionel was in luck – his request arrived just as the First Officer decided to join up. Greenstreet was told to report to the Endurance for an interview and after a brief interview by Worsley he was told that the position of First Officer was his and that he had twenty-four hours to prepare for departure to the Southern Ocean. Lionel later recalled that after considerable effort he had settled his affairs and reported aboard the ship, which then sailed thirty minutes after his arrival.
On 18 January 1915, a few miles short of its destination, the Endurance was beset by ice and became frozen into heavy pack. Greenstreet kept deck watches in an attempt to find a lead of open water through which the ship could extricate itself. Despite the work of Greenstreet and his seamen and fellow ship’s officers, Shackleton was forced to issue the order to abandon ship on 27 October 1915. The expedition’s 28 members and ship’s company were forced to camp as castaways on the icy surface of the Weddell Sea.
The rest of the story is well known through books and film. With warmer weather in April 1916 the men took to the dinghies they had rescued from the Endurance and made their way to Elephant Island. From there Shackleton with a crew of six made their way to South Georgia returning to Elephant Island to rescue Greenstreet and the remaining 21 crew in August 1916.
Worsley, who had chosen Greenstreet on very short notice to join the fateful expedition, repeatedly paid tribute to him in his memoirs. During the first open-boat journey, “Greenstreet was splendid, never losing hope and always ready to crack some appalling sailor-joke.” On Elephant Island Worsley’s last sight of Greenstreet prior to the Southern Ocean trip was his former First Officer, “cheerfully profane as ever”, helping to bag stones to be loaded onto the James Caird as ballast.
Back in England, Greenstreet married Millie Baddeley Muir at Christ Church, Sutton. He had earlier that year gained a commission as 2nd Lieutenant with the Inland Water Transport Royal Engineers. He Captained a Royal Navy tugboat and took charge of barges on the Tigris which was then in British-occupied Mesopotamia.
Lionel continued in shipping after the war as a technical officer and became the manager of the Marine Insurance branch of the shipping company Furniss Withy & Co. During WW2 he joined the Royal Naval Reserve as a temporary Lieutenant serving in rescue tugs in the Atlantic and North Sea. Lionel Greenstreet was awarded the Polar Medal and when he died on 13 January 1979, he was the last survivor of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition.