South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton's farewell dinner at Torquay hotel

Torbay Weekly

The stories behind Torbay's blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Ernest Shackleton at Torbay Hotel, Torquay:

It was not until realising an anniversary date was coming up at the Torbay Hotel that we approached Vince Flower, then managing director of Shearings Holiday, who, in partnership with the South West Coastal Path Organisation, then arranged to sponsor a special plaque to honour Sir Ernest Shackleton's visit to Torbay Hotel in August 1907.

We knew Captain Shackleton had a brother living in Torquay during the Edwardian era, although it was not until historian Mike Holgate informed us that a special 'farewell dinner' to him had been held on August 6, 1907, that the visit became significant.

His ship Nimrod had sailed round from Cowes that day, after King Edward had presented a special medallion to Shackleton while Queen Alexandria had given him a flag saying 'May this Union Jack which I entrust to your keeping, lead you safely to the South Pole'.

Now he and his 22 naval officers dined at the hotel, the night before the ship sailed for Antarctica 110 years ago.

Once the sponsorship and wording for the plaque were agreed, the unveiling date was to mirror the anniversary dinner date of 1907 with its very special menu - reprinted in our pamphlet.

The unveiling was jointly performed by the chairman of Torbay Council, Anne Brooks, together with mayor Gordon Oliver on August 6, 2017, when a large number of people attended.

Undertaken at the front wall of the hotel on the busy Torbay Road, right at the traffic lights near The Pavilion, this made it one of our most hazardous fixings and unveilings ever done.

Following the unveiling, everyone moved to a ground floor room to view some extensive memorabilia courtesy of the hotel and mayor, who has a special interest in Shackleton.

With formal presentations given, refreshments were provided and Torbay Civic Society pamphlets handed out to all concerned.

This event turned out to be one of the highest number ever attended.

One hundred years before to the day Nimrod was at anchor in Torquay harbour being clearly visible to its captain - who was later knighted - from the dining room.

The next morning, his men set sail for New Zealand to set up preparations for their voyage to Antarctica and, hopefully, the South Pole.

Their captain, meanwhile, stayed with his family in Torquay for two months before in October travelling to London and finally re-joining his ship at Lyttleton in New Zealand.

Later we would learn, he and three of his crew were to be the first humans to ever reach the South Polar plateau although his flag was not the first to be planted at the South Pole - Roald Amundsen had beat him by days.

Shackleton was certified a master quite early and as Shacky, as he was known, he took command of his first ship at 24.

During what turned out to be an unsuccessful expedition, Shacky and the team reached as far as Mount Erebus, creating the record of being closer to the South Pole than anyone previous.

Later, with numerous scientific discoveries to his credit, he achieved a knighthood.

On his third trip to the Antarctic on the ship Endurance in 1914, he witnessed it sink after months of being trapped in the ice.

By April 1915 he, with five crew, finally left the safety of their floating home in the ice and rowed to find Elephant Island.

Having spent 16 days rowing across 1,300 kilometres of open sea, the six made South Georgia before trekking to its whaling station.

Months later, Shackleton returned to the ice-home and saved all his men.

Our blue plaque to Sir Ernest Shackleton finally commemorated the 150th anniversary of the opening of Torbay Hotel, making it in effect a unique double for the society.

The Torbay Civic Society pamphlet for Ernest Shackleton may be obtained by sending two second class stamps and a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, Office 1, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.