“Ships of wood and men of iron” – Bringing our sitters back to life

In a recent post about creatively reimagining the Knights-Whittome collection through fictional writing we observed how difficult it can be to really empathise with an individual when just faced with a list of bare facts.   It is not often that we are privy to a real life observation about one of our sitters than gives us a proper insight into their character and spirit.  Today’s post is an observation that was emailed in by one of our project volunteers in response to an article he had seen in the Guardian online a little while back.  It relates to one of the subjects of our plates, Lionel Greenstreet, who has already featured on this blog. Greenstreet was first officer on Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.  Although we already know quite a lot about this man, this account adds a very human perspective to the bare facts we already know about him.  It is easy to look at local collections like ours and not see the wider significance that they have for researchers across the country, indeed the globe, but in fact, many of our sitters were eminent and successful individuals who would be of interest to a far wider community than just local history enthusiasts. In a time where photography was far less ubiquitous than it is today, having such a wide photographic sample of a suburban population during such a seminal period in history is indeed of wider interest than just to the local community.

…I digress…here are Kevin’s observations….

‘In a recent Guardian article readers were asked to “..choose a book to celebrate the human spirit…”

Among some many readers suggestions and comments, a number of books about Ernest Shackleton, one of my heroes, are cited. At the moment I’m reading “Shackleton – By Endurance We Conquer” by Michael Smith.

Our Lieutenant Lionel Greenstreet gets a few small mentions – he wasn’t a major player in the story. After their ship Endurance is trapped and eventually crushed and sunk by Antarctic ice,  the 28 men in the crew take 3 lifeboats (each named for an expedition sponsor) and place them on the ice. They are thousands of miles from anywhere. Everyone thinks that they are dead. They have no means of contacting the world.  Their ice home is slowly drifting north towards the Southern Ocean, they know that it will be months and months before they reach the sea; they have very limited food and survive by eating seals and penguins; everything is very strictly rationed; they are totally exposed and the air temperature is constantly colder then minus 20 degrees C with huge wind speed and a massive chill factor. They have limited fuel with which to heat food and drinks; they survive day to day…the following quote brings the mood among the men to life:

“The loud snoring of Orde Lees aggravated his tent-mates and Clark had developed an annoying habit of persistent sniffing. Squabbling was the norm, especially when the dismal weather forced the men to spend time packed together in the tents. During an argument with Clark one day, Greenstreet knocked over his (own) mug of hot milk. Hot drinks were precious and Greenstreet, a mature level-headed seafarer, was close to tears as he stared at the mess on the floor. Without hesitation, Clark leant across and emptied a little of his hot milk in to Greenstreet’s mug. Almost immediately Worsley, Macklin, Kerr, Rickinson, Orde Lees and Blacborrow each tipped a little of their own milk in to Greenstreet’s mug. Words were not necessary.”

Lionel Greenstreet 34949

Liuetenant Lionel Greenstreet, 27 Jan 1917

Greenstreet, like each and every one of the men, is a frail human being faced with an almost impossible task. They all had to work together to have any chance of survival and it was Shackleton’s leadership and ability to bring out the best in each man that got them home. They all survived and, when he eventually got home, like a lot of the men Greenstreet went back to Royal Navy and in to the War, which he also survived – some of the other men were tragically killed in action. As somebody once apparently said….”Ships of wood and men of iron.”

Greenstreet was a real life hero. We are so lucky to have this son of Sutton in the collection.’

Indeed we are. And day on day, we discover more about our sitters that affirms their lives were anything but ordinary.  After four short years, and as we draw to the end of the funding for this work, this collection continues to reveal itself and inspire us every day.

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