Shackleton explorer in unmarked grave

The wreck of the ship Endurance was discovered this week one hundred and seven years after it sank in 1915. This was Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship from his failed attempt to be the first to cross the South Pole from coast to coast. The ship was found in over three thousand metres of water in outstanding condition thanks to the water being too cold for wood-eating organisms. The incredibly clear photos of the wreck have been dominating world news for days.

But there was another ship in Shackleton’s expedition that’s been forgotten. The ship was called the Aurora and she became trapped in the centre of a huge ice field and was adrift for ten months, continually lashed by blizzards and lost her masts. All this was experienced by a man from Ipswich, Queensland, who is a forgotten a member of Shackleton’s expedition. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

His name is Charles Adrian Donnelly. He was a twenty-one year old railway engineer, and had never been to sea when he was a last-minute addition as second engineer in 1914.

Donnelly’s ship the Aurora sailed from Hobart in Tasmania. Its role was to resupply Shackleton on the Australian side of the Antarctic as he completed his trek from the South American side.

After sailing two thousand miles, the Aurora arrived in McMurdo Sound where the crew landed supplies with the help of a tractor and about sixty sled dogs. Disaster soon struck when the tractor fell through the ice and most of the dogs died.

It got worse for Donnelly when the Aurora went adrift and he was one of those on board. It was an ordeal that lasted three hundred and twelve days. For all that time, Donnelly and seventeen others were out of sight of land, blizzard after blizzard swept across the ice, tore mercilessly at the ship, and sent her masts crashing over the side. They ran out of food after about sixty days, and so Donnelly had to survive by eating seals and penguins. He rather liked it and said later, “Seal tastes like meat with a fish sauce.”


The expedition ended in failure but was Shackleton’s greatest exploit. That’s because he saved the lives all of the crew of the Endurance by remarkably sailing a lifeboat across eight hundred miles of rough open ocean to South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. Donnelly’s ship the Aurora made it back to New Zealand and then Australia with the loss of three lives. Those three men are often forgotten in the story of Shackleton.

The Aurora was last seen in 1917 when she departed Newcastle in New South Wales. She disappeared with the loss of all hands after she was either being hit by a storm, or sunk by a mine laid off the coast by a German merchant raider in the First World War.

King George V awarded Donnelly a silver Polar Medal with clasp inscribed “Antarctic 1914-1916”.

He got married in Shanghai China and became the licensee of the Metropole Hotel in Ipswich.

Metropole Hotel

Donnelly had other pubs including the former Railway Hotel at Cambooya near Toowoomba. There was also the Pialba Hotel in Hervey Bay where ironically the first thing he did was install a refrigeration plant.

Charles Donnelly passed away in 1959 aged sixty-six. Sadly he’s buried in an unmarked grave at Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery. This isn’t the auspicious end for which you’d hope for a member of Shackleton’s most famous expedition.

He is just metres away from the former Australian prime minister Frank Forde, so he’s still among notable company at least.


Photo credits:
Stern of the wreck of Endurance – Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust / National Geographic
Ernest Shackleton before 1909 – G.C. Beresford, National Library of Norway
Aurora anchored to floe-ice – Frank Hurley, State Library of New South Wales
Metropole Hotel, Ipswich, 2014 – my own

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