Extraordinary explorer retired to Brixham

Torbay Weekly

Torbay's blue plaques with Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Commander Lionel Greenstreet

People interested in history will recall the amazing Ernest Shackleton story of adventure in the Antarctica when his ship Endurance was lost in unforgiving ice crushing it in the Weddell Sea on November 20, 1915.

However, I wonder how many know one man surviving the disaster was the son of a master mariner who having obtained his master's certificate was the first officer of Endurance, who retired to Brixham.

Commander Lionel Greenstreet came to Brixham and built 'Alymer' on Holwell Road, being his home until the 1960s when he moved to Sussex.

It was today's owner, Dr Robert Glenning, who championed the cause for a blue plaque to honour the commander.

He had researched the history of his bungalow and being a former Royal Navy surgeon who served in the Falklands, he discovered the coincidence careers.

The timing was opportune as Brixham Town Council were then producing a Heritage Trail in which blue plaques might feature.

The plaque was a no-brainer and with sponsorship and the exterior wall of Dr Robert's Clear Dental Surgery on Holwell Road both agreed only timings and date needed to be fixed.

A pamphlet was written by Mike Thompson, honorary vice president of Torquay Museum, and with help from Brixham Museum, an agreed date was confirmed as Saturday, February 21, 2009.

Brixham Town Council chairman Chris Bedford and Robert Glenning would formally unveil the plaque and on the actual day around 50 local residents turned out for the occasion.

After the event, the official presentations included some history and archived photographs found by Dr Robert, before two more surprises came for me.

Robert had somehow found out I ran 'mystery object' evenings for the society and had a collection going back 30 years. He now presented me a heavy brass clamp - a dental brace - seen only by laboratory technicians being a true 'mystery object', today one of my stars.

Having also discovered the commander had moved to Goring-on-Sea on leaving Brixham, this was, of course, where Pat and I had a second home near her family in Sussex and that coincidence would be followed up, we would search out the commander's final resting place.

He had died is West Sussex in 1979 at age 89.

This extraordinary man had accompanied Ernest Shackleton and 22 others in lifeboats from the ice flow, rowing 200 miles to reach Elephant Island and safety.

With five men, Commander Shackleton risked a further 800-mile perilous journey across some of the worst seas on earth to arrive at Georgia to get help for those left behind.

Around 8,000 people in Punta Arenas on the South American mainland welcomed them in September, 1916, and it was months before a ship returned to rescue the men left behind who had never lost faith that their commander would return and none were lost.

In 1960, this extraordinary man was interviewed by a reporter who gleaned from him: "I shall never forget the end (of the ship) her timbers exploded like a machine gun barrage, her decks crushed and her spars split like matchwood."

Later, he said food became very short and it was exceedingly difficult to feed the dogs, until finally they  no choice but to shoot them and then they were even reduced to eating dog meat.

After returning from this adventure in the Antarctic First Officer Greenstreet was awarded the Silver Polar Medal - Commander Shackleton was given a knighthood.

Commander Greenstreet later gained a commission in the army, joining the Royal Engineers and eventually returned to the Royal Navy Reserve, becoming captain of a rescue tug in the Second World War.

When demobbed in 1947, Commander Greenstreet now took early retirement which was when he finally moved to Brixham.

This quite remarkable man was well worthy of his local blue plaque.

The Torbay Civic Society pamphlet on Commander Lionel Greenstreet may be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.