Sir Ernest Shackleton the Antractic Explorer spent part of his boyhood at 12 Westwood Hill, was one of Sydenham’s best-known residents & heroes. Ernest was part of Scott’s first attempt on the South Pole and his own expedition got within a hundred miles of the pole and laid the groundwork for Amundsen’s successful and Scotts later fatal attempt on the Pole. Ernest’s epic boat journey through Antarctic waters to save his beleaguered men made him a legend.
Heroes are fine, but often villains are more interesting and one of Sydenham’s most colourful villains was none other than Sir Ernest’s younger brother, Francis Richard Shackleton, known as Frank.
The story begins with a report in the Times of 8 July 1907 that the “Crown Jewels and other Insignia of the Order of St Patrick”, popularly known as “The Irish Crown Jewels” had disappeared from a safe in Dublin Castle, Ireland.
This regalia had been created in 1830 from diamonds and rubies once belonging to Queen Charlotte and was used on State visits to Ireland. Queen Victoria used the regalia on four occasions and Edward VII once, in 1903.
On 6 July 1907, during the preparations for Edward VII’s next visit to Ireland, it was discovered that the regalia had disappeared. It was clear that this was an inside job as there was no evidence of a break-in, and the safe and strong-room had been opened with keys.
The safe was in the office of Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms and guardian of the Crown Jewels. In the official report of the theft he was found negligent and forced to resign. One “grave charge” against him was that he “associated with a man of undesirable character” and “introduced this man into his office”. In defence this man was said to be a friend of influential peers and “came from a well-known and highly respected family”. He is not officially named.
Vicars vigorously protested his innocence. His three assistants also resigned. One of these, with the job title “Dublin Herald”, was a young man of “charismatic personality” called Frank Shackleton.
Frank was, and still is, widely regarded as the most likely suspect. He was probably the “man of undesirable character”. He “lived by his wits and his charm, ingratiating himself into the highest social circles”. He was also a homosexual. I suspect that is what “undesirable character” means. There have been suggestions that the heralds and others were involved in “nightly orgies” at Dublin Castle.
There is a very strong suspicion that Sir Arthur Vicars was “set-up” to protect someone else, and that the King himself was involved. In Vicars’ will he states that he was made a scapegoat when they “shielded the real culprit and thief Francis R. Shackleton”.
Frank was never charged with the theft. However some six years later he was found guilty of “fraudulent conversion” when he and another cheated a woman out of nearly £6,000. He was sentenced to 15 months hard labour.
He changed his name to “Frank Mellor”, and under that name he lived in Cator Road in 1919-1920. He then lived for a time in Penge. In about 1934 Frank Mellor moved to Chichester where he ran an antiques shop. He died there in 1941.
Two questions remain. Why would Edward VII want to protect Frank Shackleton? In early 1907 Ernest Shackleton was making arrangements to lead his first expedition to the Antarctic, an expedition being followed closely by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. They visited Ernest when his ship was at Cowes on 4 August 1907. In September 1907, shortly before leaving for the Antarctic, Shackleton gave a lecture to the King and Queen at Balmoral where he said the King was “very jolly” and “enjoys a joke very much”. Was the unfortunate Vicars sacrificed to save the family name of a national hero?
And what of the Irish Crown Jewels? They may have been sold to a Dutch pawnbroker, or to private collectors, or buried outside Dublin or even (according to an official document) offered for sale to the Irish Free State in 1927. To this day their whereabouts is unknown.
Sources: Contemporary articles from the Times
Personalities Folder in Lewisham Local Studies Centre.
© Steve Grindlay
Historian to the Sydenham Society
First published as a part of Steve’s Jottings
Money appears to have been an endemic problem within the Shackleton Family. His father gave up farming and became a GP and to move from Ireland to England through lack of it. He had to abandon his first practice in Croydon and was unable to make a success of his Sydenham practice. He had to be helped out by Ernest on several occasions. Ernest was always short of money and had many misjudged business disasters. However because of Ernest’s reputaion and charisma – he was always able to obtain money to live and finance his expeditions. Few got their money back but most perhaps did not expect to!
While Ernest was not good with money, he never had enough and his financial affairs were always in a mess – it is generally accepted that he operated honestly and not to his own advantage. In contrast Frank usually had money – it was just unclear where it had come from. Most people assumed the worst and appear to be right!