Story: Worsley, Frank Arthur

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Worsley, Frank Arthur

1872–1943

Mariner, polar explorer, naval officer, writer

This biography was written by P. Y. Dennerly and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Frank Arthur Worsley was born at Akaroa, New Zealand, on 22 February 1872, the son of Vincent Georgiana Priscilla Fulton and her husband, Henry Theophilus Worsley, a labourer. After attending Fendalton School he joined the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1887, serving on sailing ships between New Zealand and England for about a decade, and in the Royal Naval Reserve. On 8 June 1900 he qualified for his foreign trade master's certificate, and in 1901 he took up his first command on the Countess of Ranfurly, a government schooner. He continued to serve in a variety of ships and environments, including a period on the Sparrow (of which he was commanding officer in 1905–6), as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve in 1906, and on a steamer in the Canadian Arctic region.

In 1914, after nearly 27 years' experience, he applied for a position in Sir Ernest Shackleton's trans-Antarctic expedition and was made captain of the expedition ship Endurance. The ship had to be abandoned in pack ice on the Weddell Sea in October 1915 and Worsley's role in ensuring the survival of the party was crucial. For five months they struggled to survive on the ice, eventually reaching uninhabited Elephant Island. From there a small group under the command of Shackleton set out in an open 22-foot boat, the James Caird, to reach South Georgia and arrange the rescue of the remainder of the party. Worsley's navigation under the most difficult circumstances was the single overriding factor in the success of this 800-nautical-mile voyage and the subsequent rescue of the expedition, and it is significant that the James Caird had been built to his specifications.

From 1916 Worsley was on active war service in the Royal Navy. He commanded two Q-ships (anti-submarine decoy ships), and was appointed a DSO in November 1917. In 1918 and 1919 the Admiralty seconded him to the War Office as transport and equipment officer on the northern Russian front. He served again under Shackleton, who was organising the winter equipment, and was awarded a bar to his DSO in October 1919. He was mentioned in dispatches and appointed an OBE in 1920.

In 1921 Frank Worsley accepted the position of navigator and hydrographer of the Quest, Shackleton's Antarctic expedition ship. Although Shackleton died during this expedition, on 5 January 1922, the journey was completed in his honour. In 1926 Worsley was appointed co-leader of the British Arctic Expedition and commanded their square-rigged sailing ship as they explored the largely uncharted area between Spitsbergen island and Franz Joseph Land. He flew the New Zealand ensign and claimed to be the first New Zealander to set foot on Franz Joseph Land.

Although aged 67 at the outbreak of the Second World War, Worsley became actively involved. In 1940 he served with the Red Cross in France and Norway, and then commanded the Motor Ambulance Training Station at Balham, London. In 1941 he commanded the Dalriada, clearing wrecks from the English Channel. By 1942 he was at the naval training establishment at Hove. Afterwards, he was on the administrative staff of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

Frank Worsley wrote several accounts of his experiences: Under sail in the frozen north (1927); Endurance (1931); Shackleton's boat journey (1933); and First voyage in a square-rigged ship (1938). A handsome, rather short muscular man with sharp eyesight and a keen sense of humour, Worsley was popular with his men. He was married twice, first on 17 December 1907 at Tunbridge Wells, Kent, to Theodora Cayley Blackden (whom he divorced in 1923), and then to Margaret Jane Cumming at Kensington, London, on 30 July 1926. It is not known if there were any children from either marriage. He died on 1 February 1943 at Claygate, Surrey.