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NEWPORT LEGENDS

PERCE BLACKBOROW

Marion Street, Pill

The 1901 census record

Perce Blackborow was born in Newport, the son of a general labourer in 1894. The 1901 census shows the Blackborow family living at 16 Marion Street in Pillgwenlly in the heart of Newport's dockland area. Perce lived with his Somerset born father (J E), mother (Anne) and two younger brothers (Harold and James).

In 1914 he found himself far from home in Buenos Aires without a ship. He met and befriended an American sailor, William Bakewell who was in the same situation. When the Endurance sailed into port and three of the crew were sacked, the two men thought their problems were solved, they both applied for positions on board. The Endurance was scheduled to sail across the Antarctic via the South Pole in an expedition led by the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton. Crossing the Antarctic was one of the last frontiers of human exploration. Shackleton interviewed the two men, Bakewell was accepted but Blackborow was not due to his age (he was only 19 at the time) and lack of seamanship.

He was smuggled on board with the help of Bakewell and another sailor How. He was hidden in a locker where his two friends would take food for him on a regular basis. He was eventually discovered when the Endurance was three days out of South Georgia, Shackleton was unhappy at him being there, but realised he had no choice and offered him a position of steward with the proviso "If anyone has to be eaten, then you will be the first!".

Blackborow with Mrs Chippy, the Endurance's tabby cat

But the thrill of stowing away with the legendary explorer would soon turn to fear. Within months, the Endurance, trapped and crushed by ice, sank. And even Perce, the youngest member of the stranded crew, knew there was no hope of rescue. If the men were to survive in the most hostile place on earth, they would have to do it on their own.

On the boat journey from where the Endurance sank to Elephant Island, Blackborow made the mistake of wearing leather rather than the cold-weather felt boots that the other men wore and as a result developed frost-bite in his toes that then turned gangrenous. Shackleton realised that Blackborow was suffering on this journey and gave him the honour of being the first person to set foot upon Elephant Island (not just from the Endurance crew, but ever - no-one had landed there before). Shackleton recalls the landing as follows in his book 'South' - "This was the first landing ever made on Elephant Island, and a thought came to me that the honour should belong to the youngest member of the Expedition, so I told Blackborrow to jump over. He seemed to be in a state almost of coma, and in order to avoid delay I helped him, perhaps a little roughly, over the side of the boat. He promptly sat down in the surf and did not move. Then I suddenly realized what I had forgotten, that both his feet were frost-bitten badly. Some of us jumped over and pulled him into a dry place. It was a rather rough experience for Blackborrow, but, anyhow, he is now able to say that he was the first man to sit on Elephant Island. Possibly at the time he would have been willing to forgo any distinction of the kind. "

      The crew of 'Endurance' on Elephant Island

Perce Blackborow had become assistant to Green the expedition cook, in the galley, first aboard ship and on the ice, working the longest days of any on the expedition on  a regular basis, from early morning till evening, preparing meals for 28 hungry men. When on the ice, they cooked on a stove that was heated by burning seal or penguin blubber, a very smoky fuel which gave them permanently blackened faces and earned them the nicknames of "Potash and Perlmutter". Perhaps more so than any of the other expedition members, Blackborow was moulded by his experiences as he was so young at the time, the youngest on board by over two years.

Another entry from Shackleton's book describes the extreme conditions on Elephant Island - "The first consideration, which was even more important than that of food, was to provide shelter. The semi-starvation during the drift on the ice-floe, added to the exposure in the boats, and the inclemencies of the weather encountered after our landing on Elephant Island, had left its mark on a good many of them. Rickenson, who bore up gamely to the last, collapsed from heart-failure. Blackborrow and Hudson could not move. All were frost-bitten in varying degrees and their clothes, which had been worn continuously for six months, were much the worse for wear.

Shortly after they had found safety on the island Blackborow had all of the toes on his left foot amputated by the surgeons Macklin and McIllroy. On return from the Antarctic, Blackborow spent three months in a hospital in Punta Arenas, Chile, recovering from the frostbite damage sustained to his left foot.

 

The Polar Medal

Ernest Shackleton (b. Kilkea, County Kildare 1874 d. 1922). Regarded as one of the great explorers. Disaster struck this expedition when its ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed, before the shore parties could be landed. There followed a sequence of exploits, and an ultimate escape with no lives lost, that would eventually assure Shackleton's heroic status, although this was not immediately evident. Before the next expedition could begin this work Shackleton died of a heart attack while his ship, Quest, was moored in South Georgia.

"Once they were settled in their hut, the health of the party was quite good. Of course, they were all a bit weak, some were light-headed, all were frost-bitten, and others, later, had attacks of heart failure. Blackborrow, whose toes were so badly frost-bitten in the boats, had to have all five amputated while on the island. With insufficient instruments and no proper means of sterilizing them, the operation, carried out as it was in a dark, grimy hut, with only a blubber-stove to keep up the temperature and with an outside temperature well below freezing, speaks volumes for the skill and initiative of the surgeons. I am glad to be able to say that the operation was very successful, and after a little treatment ashore, very kindly given by the Chilian doctors at Punta Arenas, he has now completely recovered and walks with only a slight limp."

On return home, he is described as 'somewhat overwhelmed by' the welcome party awaiting him at Newport railway station and instead, crossed the tracks and went out of the other side of the station.

Blackborow was awarded the Polar Medal for his participation in Shackleton's expedition. The friendship with Walter How and William Bakewell who smuggled him aboard the Endurance lasted long after the men had returned. Even after Blackborow's death, Bakewell who had come over from Canada made a visit to Wales to meet his family.

He volunteered for war service in the Royal Navy, but was turned down due to the amputation of the toes of his left foot. He was accepted by the Merchant Navy where he served until 1919 after which he became a boatman in the local docks in Newport. He married a local girl Kate Kearns and they lived in Newport producing six children, unfortunately two of them died in childhood. Blackborow died in 1949 of chronic bronchitis.

His experiences on the Endurance have become the subject of a fictional account by Virginia McKernan written in 2007 entitled 'Shackleton's Stowaway'. This was preceded by an acclaimed 2002 Channel 4 film "Shackleton'" with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role.