DAVID SAINT COLUMN: Intrepid explorer had a chequered history

‘What the ice gets, the ice keeps,” those famous words were uttered by Sir Ernest Shackleton over the loss of his ship, The Endurance, writes David Saint.

By Graham Tebbutt (Edited by)
Thursday, 3rd March 2022, 9:30 am
Shackleton's ship, The Endurance, sets sail on its historic voyage
Shackleton's ship, The Endurance, sets sail on its historic voyage

I was reminded of this recently after I read of the Endurance 22 expedition as their ship, the SA Agulhas II, found itself similarly trapped in the ice.

Thomas Hans Orde-Lees, a man from Northampton, was part of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917.

Coincidentally, I have been reading his diaries*, of 10 boring day-to-day events, but also agonisingly descriptive of the tragedy as it unfolded.

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“Our little ship was stove in, hopelessly crushed and helpless amongst the engulfing ice.”

As well as being celebrated as a great adventurer, Thomas might be remembered for his colourful life.

He was born in 1877, the son of Thomas Orde-Hastings-Lees, the chief constable of the Northampton Borough Police Force.

But, a bit of scandal!

Thomas junior was the result of an affair between his father and Ada Pattenden, a vicar’s daughter from Lincolnshire.

Ada was packed off for her ‘confinement’ to Aachen where Thomas was born. He was brought up by his father and his wife of six years, Grace, from Guilsborough.

They lived behind a façade of Victorian respectability in their official residence in St Giles Street with a butler, cook, nurse and housemaid to look after them.

No-one suspected the chief constable’s indiscretion; after all his grandfather was 12th Earl of Huntingdon!

Lees served as chief constable here for just six years. He then stood as Conservative candidate for Northampton in 1886, but failed to win the seat.

He died in 1924 and was buried alongside his wife in Guilsborough.

Thomas junior was educated at Marlborough, the Royal Naval College at Gosport, and Sandhurst and was commissioned in the Royal Marines.

In 1910 he applied to join Captain Scott on his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, but was unsuccessful. However, in 1914, Shackleton selected him for the four-year ‘Endurance Expedition’.

Sadly, Thomas was unpopular. Lazy, miserable and rude, even Shackleton admitted he couldn’t understand him.

He was, in many ways, a liability. For instance, he took his bike on the expedition... not too much use in the South Pole!

But he was a good stores keeper and a brilliant mechanic. For his part in the expedition he was awarded the Silver Polar Medal, an OBE and the Air Force Cross.

Later he became a pioneer in parachuting, even doing a publicity stunt by jumping off Tower Bridge into the Thames.

As a member of the British Naval Air Mission, he and his wife, Rene, went to Japan where he taught parachuting to the Japanese Air Force.

Rene died there and Thomas married a Japanese girl and settled in Tokyo. He became a broadcaster on radio and for three years he was also the Tokyo correspondent for The Times.

In 1941, when Japan came into World War Two, he and his family were evacuated to New Zealand where he died and is buried.

l Elephant Island and Beyond, The Life and Diaries of Thomas Orde-Lees, edited by John Thompson. Erskine Press 2003.