Cats of History: Mrs. Chippy

In this edition of cats of history, we'll look at the famous cat who accompanied the ill-fated Shackelton expedition: Mrs. Chippy!

Mrs. Chippy was the cat of Harry McNish (sometimes spelled McNeish), who was a Scottish carpenter who had served as a shipwright in the Merchant Navy before joining the Shackleton expedition. Harry McNish brought Mrs. Chippy with him on the expedetion. "Chippy" is a nick name for a carpenter, so Mrs. Chippy got his name because of his devotion to Harry, the Chippy. By the time they realized Mrs. Chippy was a boy cat, the name had already stuck, so they continued to call him Mrs. Chippy. details that Mrs. Chippy was at home as a ship's cat. He reportedly could climb the ship's rigging just like the seamen, and the surefooted feline could walk across inch wide rails even in stormy seas. also mentions that the meteorologist, Leonard Hussey noted that the cat liked to tease the dogs on board by walking across the tops of the kennels. They also talk about a time when Mrs. Chippy was a little less graceful. They say storekeeper Thomas Orde-Less wrote in his journal about a time when Mrs. Chippy jumped through a cabin porthole into the water! Luckily, Lt. Hudson heard him crying and was able to turn the boat around, where the biologist, Robert Clark, was able to fish him out using a sample net. 

Their ship, the Endurance, famously became stuck in the ice on January 18, 1915, where it remained until October 27,1915 when there was a shift in the ice and it became crushed and had to be abandoned. The Scott Polar Research Institute says that during this time, while stuck in the ice, Harry McNish was invaluable and was able to build instrument cases for the scientists, build a windbreak for the helmsman and redesigned the crew sleeping quarters. 

When the ship was crushed though, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship and in his diary of October 29, 1915 writes that he had to have the 3 youngest sled pups and also Mrs. Chippy shot. He felt that those animals were the weakest and not able to survive the perilous march to land that they were about to set out on. says crew reportedly treated Mrs. Chippy to lots of hugs and sardines (maybe with sedatives) in his last few hours. This was the end of Mrs. Chippy's life, but not the end of his story.

Harry McNish never forgave Shackleton for killing his cat, and had other disagreements as well. The Scott Polar Research Institute says that McNish had wanted to use timbers from the Endurance to build a sloop to bring the men home and angry over being denied that and over the death of his cat, refused to continue. The problem subsided, but Shackelton wrote that he would never forgive McNish for it, and in later years refused to recommend McNish for Polar Medal that the rest of the crew got. 

 McNish went on to work for the New Zealand Shipping Company and finally settled in New Zealand in 1925. He was destitute and when he died in 1930 was interred in an unmarked grave, until the the New Zealand historic society erected a headstone for him in 1959. Then, in 2004, they also added a life-sized bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy to his grave to celebrate the bond between the carpenter and the cat famous for being devoted to him. reports Harry McNish's grandson, Tom says Harry would have been "over the moon about the statue. The cat was more important to him than the Polar Medal". 

There is even a book written from Mrs. Chippy's perspective (or is that purrspective) that tells you more about life aboard the Endurance as well as some of his other duties like keeping control of mice and teasing the sled dogs. It's available through Amazon now so you can read more about Shackleton's expedition from the cat's point of view!

Cover Photo by Andy Wang on Unsplash  

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