The first Lewisman in the Antarctic
Thomas F. McLeod was 37 and unemployed in New Zealand when Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ship Terra Nova sailed into Lyttleton Harbour.
Tom was born, he said, in Stornoway on 3rd April 1873. But his birth record is to be found in Glasgow, not in Lewis.
Like many young island girls, Barbara McLeod from Point Street had gone south to find employment in domestic service in the city. The 1871 census records her working in Garscube House in Maryhill. In 1873 she gave birth to a son at 11 Oxford Street, Tradeston. No father’s name is recorded in the birth register, but 87 years later, on Tom’s death certificate in Ontario, his parents are recorded as David and Barbara. The identity of his father is a mystery.
Little Tommy McLeod was taken home to Stornoway to be brought up by his widowed grandmother in rooms above Murdo Macrae, cooper, at the corner of Point Street and Quay Lane. Having no siblings of his own, he regarded his Uncle Angus, just eleven years his senior, as his big brother. Angus got a job as a stable boy and later worked for many years as coachman to Doctor Murdoch Mackenzie.
The harbour was Tommy’s playground and at the age of 13 he went to sea. He celebrated his 14th birthday across the world in Australia. By 1910 he was an experienced seaman. He had travelled the world, seen service in the Boer War, and had now decided to settle for a while in the Southern Hemisphere. Tom, and John Graham from Ness, boarded the Terra Nova in Lyttleton Harbour, looking for work. There was only one position available and Tom got it. This was to be the first of three Antarctic adventures for the Stornoway seaman.
Captain Scott’s mission was to be the first to reach to the South Pole, but when the Terra Nova arrived in Antarctica he found the Norwegian Amundsen with his ship Fram already there – the race had begun.
While Scott and his party prepared for their momentous journey, Tom Mcleod returned with the Terra Nova to New Zealand to undertake oceanographic surveys of the coast. The yacht went back to the ice each summer with supplies. On 18th January 1913 they were met with the news that Scott and four companions had achieved the Pole, but only after Amundsen. Worse, the five had perished in blizzards on the return journey.
In July 1913 Tom, along with his fellow seamen, was presented with the silver Polar medal by King George V in recognition of his service.
On return to South Georgia the men, at Tom’s suggestion, erected a cairn at Hope Point in memory of Shackleton.
Tom got a job in the British Museum of Natural History in London. The following year, when Sir Ernest Shackleton announced his plans for a trans-Antarctic expedition the following year, Tom signed up. As the crew prepared for departure, Britain declared war on Germany. Shackleton offered his ship and men for war service, but the Admiralty instructed the expedition to proceed south. The Endurance sailed from Plymouth on 8th August 1914.
Like Scott, Shackleton too was beset by extreme weather. Ice conditions in the Weddell Sea were the worst in memory, but Shackleton determined to proceed. Less than two months after leaving South Georgia, the Endurance became frozen fast in the ice. Ten months later the ship was crushed by the pressure and sank. Thus began an epic feat of survival. After drifting northward over 700 miles on ice floes, the men were forced to take to their three small boats as the ice broke up. After a tortuous seven days at sea they reached the remote and barren Elephant Island swept by gales all year round. To quote Frank Worsley, “the men pronounced Elephant Island with the ‘t’ silent and an ‘h’ prefixed”. Here 22 men survived in two upturned boats for four months, living off seals and penguins, while Shackleton and five crew made a miraculous journey in an open boat 800 miles to South Georgia to summon relief. It was 30th August 1916 before the men were finally rescued by the Chilean steamer, Yelcho. They returned to a hero’s welcome in South America. Tom McLeod received a second (bronze) polar medal for his achievements. On his return to England Tom served aboard minesweepers for remainder of the Great War.
Undeterred by the Endurance experience Tom joined Shackleton again in 1921 for a third trip south aboard the Quest. The expedition was to sail along previously unvisited stretches of the Antarctic continent. The Quest arrived in South Georgia in January 1922 where Shackleton died of a heart attack on 5th January.
The expedition continued under the command of Captain Frank Wild, visiting the South Shetland Islands, Gough Island, Tristan da Cunha, and other sub-Antarctic islands, collecting scientific data and also proving the non-existence of New South Greenland.
Scout Marr wrote, as the Quest approached the pack ice, “so far as the veterans were concerned, this was to all intents and purposes a homecoming. Especially noticeable was this delight in old McLeod, an iceman to his fingertips.” On return to South Georgia the men, at Tom’s suggestion, erected a cairn at Hope Point in memory of Shackleton.
“There is a lot of little things I know would be handy when you got south.”
Thomas McLeod was a great favourite amongst his shipmates. Affectionately known as Old Mac, he was described by Shackleton as “a typical old deep-sea salt and growler” and was considered the best sailor of the entire Endurance crew. Frank Wild, writing about the Quest expedition, said, “This fine old seaman is a product of the old-time sailing ships, a real sailor of a type only too rare today.”
Tom’s distinctive signature, “Thomas F. McLeod” is another mystery. At some point before his Antarctic career he assumed the middle name Frank, why or after whom is not known.
After the Quest expedition Tom emigrated to Canada at the invitation of George Vibert Douglas, the expedition’s geologist. He settled in the Kingston area where he fished for a couple of years off Bell Island in the Cataraqui River, before finding employment as a school caretaker at the one-roomed Sunny Plains School and as a watchman at the disused silica mine. In 1928 he made one further bid to return to his beloved Antarctica. He applied to Admiral Richard Byrd to join his first expedition south. “There is a lot of little things I know”, he wrote, “would be handy when you got south.” His application came too late - the places had been filled – but he was assured that had his application come to hand in time, a man of his experience would have been most welcome.
In 1947 he moved into the Rideaucrest retirement home, where he regaled his fellow residents with tales of his adventures. Most weekends he went to stay with a local family and enjoyed watching their television, particularly the boxing on a Friday night. He kept an active mind and maintained an interest in world affairs. He once told a Canadian reporter, “You know sailing is the finest life there is. If I had mine to live over again that’s what I’d do”
Tom McLeod passed away on 16th December 1960 and is buried in Cataraqui Cemetery. His gravestone commemorates his achievements in the heroic age of polar exploration.