Aberdeen House (now St Davids) alongside St Barts on Westwood Hill
Ernest Shackleton: Westwood Hill resident, Dulwich College pupil & Lawrie Park Gardens lover
The man who never made the South Pole but who, first under Scott and then leading his own expeditions paved the way for others – and achieving legendary status for the rescue of his crew after their ship Endurance was crushed & sunk in an Antarctic winter.
Aberdeen House on Westwood Hill, was the boyhood home of Ernest Shackleton. His father Henry Shackleton was an unsuccessful Anglo-Irish farmer from County Kildare. Henry retrained as a family doctor and moved to Croydon in 1884. Six months later he, and his young family, moved and settled in Sydenham at Aberdeen House. They were not poor, but money was always a hard restraint on the lives of both Henry & Ernest.
Aberdeen House has since been renamed St Davids but, as can be seen from a recent photograph, still stands alongside St Bartholomew’s Church. Aberdeen House had featured, twenty two years before the Shackleton’s arrival, in Camille Pissaro’s famous painting of Sydenham Avenue (now Lawrie Park Avenue) which now hangs in the National Gallery.
Ernest was first taught in one of Sydenham’s many ‘Dames Schools’ – Fir Lodge run by “the redoubtable Miss Higgins (with ear trumpet) and her Chief of Staff Miss Parry”. Ernest was then sent to Dulwich College which was an energetic mile walk up a steep Westwood Hill and down an even steeper College Road. The advantage for Henry was that Ernest could be educated at famous public school as a day pupil for a modest £15 per annum. Dulwich, founded in 1618, was more renowned for producing imperial administrators, businessmen and writers rather than academic excellence.
Ernest Shackleton was not a great scholar at Dulwich. However his charismatic personality was beginning to develop and he was inspired by the adventurers of the time. Ernest wanted to go to sea. Money was a problem in entering a naval cadet school – a prerequisite to obtaining a commission in the Royal Navy – so Ernest opted for the merchant navy. This was just at the point of when sail was giving way to steam and gave Ernest a unique opportunity to master both before he was twenty.
It also inspired Ernest to begin studying for his mate’s tickets with an eagerness that quickly put him well ahead of his contempories. He also read widely and could quote and enjoy poetry. Shackleton became an officer on the presigious Union Castle line which commanded the strategic UK to South Africa service at the important time of the Boer War. It was at this time he made some inavaluable contacts that were to shape his career as one of the great Antarctic Explorers.
One of the spurs to a career at sea and exploration was his long and dedicated courtship of Emily Dorman. Emily lived at ‘The Firs’ a short distance from the Shackleton home. Could the modern day ‘The Firs’ block of private flats in Lawrie Park Gardens be the site of the Dorman family home? It is less than 500 yards along Hall Drive from Aberdeen House. Most of Lawrie Park Gardens is ‘second build’ housing replacing the rather more grand mansions built in the 1860/70’s – the heyday of the Crystal Palace.
Ernest had not enough money or position worthy to entitle himself to the hand a moderately well off family such as the Dormans. But Ernest relentlesly pursued his obsession with becoming an explorer to gain both. He carefully timed his request to Emily’s father to arrive the same day as the newspapers showed him being presented to King Edward VII on his departure under Scott on board Discovery for the first National Antarctic Expedition.