Polar historian and author Angie Butler on her quest to discover the greatest Antarctic explorer you've never heard of
What first drew you to Frank Wild?
Initially I was just drawn to anyone who liked adventure, people who liked pitting themselves against danger. So naturally I was drawn to the heroes of polar history – Shackleton and Scott and all those great characters. Seven or eight years ago I was reading about Shackleton and came across Frank Wild. As someone who was born in South Africa, I was fascinated that he had gone out to South Africa and spent the last 16 years of his life out there. I wanted to know what took him there and what happened once he got to South Africa.
What did you discover?
I picked up quite quickly that the view in the UK was that Frank Wild had gone out to South Africa in 1923 and everything had gone wrong for him. He’d spent 16 years drifting around the country, he was penniless and he was an alcoholic and friendless. It seemed such a sad ending for this extraordinary man who had gone down to Antarctica on five separate occasions.
During my research, I discovered that yes, he had a difficult time in South Africa, but it was the 30s and the middle of the Great Depression. And he did drink. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would knock back a bottle of whisky a day, but he did have benders, and he loved parties. But he was hugely popular in South Africa.
It's true he moved from job to job. He initially went out to South Africa as a farmer. He was trying to grow cotton in Zululand. But there were droughts and there were floods and many farmers, Frank Wild included, had to just walk away from their farms. After that he hopped from one job to another. He was always looking for work and he worked quite a lot in the mining industry.
Overall, though he was very highly respected in South Africa, very popular. People admired him for his toughness. People just loved him when they met him. Journalists always want to beef up stories. It’s a much better story that Frank Wild died an alcoholic. But that is not a fair characterisation of this great man.
Tell us a bit more about Frank Wild. We all know about Shackleton and Scott, but he seems to be largely overlooked.
When he was going down to Antarctica on these expeditions, Frank Wild was very highly sought after. He'd come back to the UK and tour around giving lectures. He wined and dined with the great and the good. But as the years went by, and a lot of these great men died, they disappeared into obscurity. Until 10 or 15 years ago people didn’t really know that much about Shackleton. In the mists of time, Frank Wild just disappeared off the history pages.
People who are into polar history know about Frank Wild, but the general public don’t know anything about him. I think that reflects very much his character. He was very much a lieutenant, not a leader. He did lead some expeditions and he led them very well. But he was always considered Shackleton’s right hand man. It was said that Shackleton wouldn’t make a decision without Frank Wild. But people haven’t heard of him. Hopefully my book will change all that.
What would you say his greatest achievement was?
There are moments on each of the five expeditions he went on, but I think the greatest thing he managed to do was on the Endurance expedition, which was the one where the ship was crushed in the ice and they had to take to three small boats to get to Elephant Island.
Shackleton went to look for help, crossing the Weddell Sea in the tiny 22 feet boat. He left Frank Wild on Elephant Island to look after the 21 men and they were there for nearly four months in terrible circumstances. Some of them were losing their minds. Some had extreme cases of frostbite. They had very little to eat. But Shackleton knew that the only man who could keep these people alive until he got back was Frank Wild.
What was interesting about Frank Wild was that he was kind and he was passionate but he was very, very strict. He suspected one of the crew stranded on Elephant Island of squirreling away food and told him he would shoot him if he continued to do it. Someone else on Elephant Island wrote that Frank Wild could carry out that threat.
What kind of man was Frank Wild?
He was very tough. Yet one of the things he found most difficult throughout all his expeditions was killing the seals and penguins for food. Or having to shoot the dogs, the huskies. He took his favourite pony, Socks, on the Nimrod expedition, which was the first one he went on with Shackleton. And Socks actually fell down a crevice, never to be seen again and he was very hurt by that. So he was this great mixture. But he was tough. There was no doubt about that.
Do you think Frank Wild is less well-known because he didn't have a tragic polar death?
Wild had much more experience in Antarctica than anyone else. He went on five expeditions. Scott only went on two. Shackleton went on three. When you think what Frank Wild went through, how close to death he came so many times, it's extraordinary to think he died peacefully in his bed in South Africa. I suspect it's also why he didn’t get the glory the others did.
Recently you made a brass plaque to commemorate Frank Wild that has been put up in South Georgia.
Yes. There is a plaque in the UK commemorating Frank Wild. It’s in a village called Evershot in Bedfordshire. That was put up by his brother in the 70s. But I felt very strongly that there should be something to remember Frank Wild on South Georgia.
So I raised the money, and created a plaque with my husband, a very well respected sculptor. We modeled it on a very iconic picture of Frank Wild with his pipe, and inscribed the dates of his five expeditions. A bronze foundry in the UK cast it.
I also run a small tour company called Ice Tracks Expeditions, that takes people up to the Arctic and down to Antarctica. So on one of our voyages we took the plaque down to South Georgia and along with the passengers, had a very nice service in the church at Grytviken and set the plaque on the wall there.
It's a beautiful little wooden church which was set up for the whalers and built by the Norwegians. It’s where Shackleton had his funeral. Frank Wild would have gone into that little church and prayed. He wasn’t a hugely religious man, but he would have spent time in that church. There are other plaques in there and a lot of commemorative memorabilia for these polar explorers.
After that you went in search of Frank Wild’s remains
The story was that he was buried Brixton cemetery in Johannesburg. There was hardly anyone at the funeral and a lone sea cadet played The Last Post. It sounded like this awful desultory affair.
But very early on in my research I discovered that he didn’t have a ceremony at Brixton cemetery. He was cremated and his funeral took place at Braamfontein cemetery, which is very near by. His wife had had him cremated, not buried, so his ashes could go to South Georgia. But that was as far as I could get with my research.
I kept going though, for several years. And a number of times I felt that I was getting very close to discovering what had happened to his ashes. But the thing was, the Second World War broke out about a week after he had died and the trail went cold.
Then I found an old paper cutting that had been written in 1966 that said Frank Wild's ashes were kept in an old chapel. It didn't say which chapel, but I just knew that it was the chapel in Braamfontein cemetery. Both my parents are buried in the cemetery right next to it.
So on New Years Eve I flew back to Johannesburg, purely on a hunch. The chapel was a crematorium chapel, so there wasn't much to it. This wonderful chap who works there, an African gentleman called Chunky, took me into this vault under the chapel that nobody knew about. It hasn’t been used for something like 40 years. And from floor to ceiling there were niches with boxes and urns full of ashes.
As I stood there I had this strong feeling that the ashes were still there. I started looking but I couldn’t reach the boxes and urns at the top. There were hundreds. After a while poor Chunky had to get back to his post and I had to fly back to the UK without checking them all.
When I got back I phoned a friend in Johannesburg and asked if he could go and look through the rest of them for me. And he found them. They were there the whole time.
They were in a wooden box, quite banged and scraped, so it looks like it has travelled around a bit. It hasn’t just been sitting on the shelf. It’s a greeny-gold colour that has been stippled and a little bronze plaque with his name and date of birth and death. So it’s definitely him.
So what’s the plan? Take them down to South Georgia?
I went back to South Africa in May, and with the permission of Frank Wild's descendants, who are mainly in Australia, I brought the ashes back to the UK. I have since got permission from the governor of the Falklands, Nigel Hayward, to take the ashes back to South Georgia. They are going to be buried next to Shackleton in this little graveyard, up on the hill in Grytviken, surrounded by a small white picket fence.
So on 20 November, I will be leading an 18-day voyage with Ice Tracks to take Frank Wild's remains back to South Georgia. We will be stopping at the Falklands to pick up his memorial stone and the Reverend Heinz, who is going to conduct the service. We’ll arrive in South Georgia four days later and on the 27th we’ll have a ceremony. We’re taking Alexander Shackleton and six of Frank Wild’s descendants. We’re also taking the man who has Frank Wild’s polar medal. So we’ve got a great throng of people going with us.
Angie Butler's book The Quest for Frank Wild traces the life of this extraordinary man and includes his original memoirs. It is available on Amazon now. There are also a limited number of places on her historic expedition returning Frank Wild's ashes to South Georgia. For more details visit the Ice Tracks website.
For more in-depth views from the world's leading travellers, visit our interviews pages. For the latest on exploring the polar regions yourself, check out the resources below.
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