If ever there was a seaman worthy of the title “Antarctic Seaman” then it must surely apply to Alf Cheetham.
Cheetham served under Scott on the “Morning” ( relief of the “Discovery”) , and the “Terra Nova”. And under Shackleton on “Nimrod “, where he was third officer and boatswain, and of course the “Endurance” as 3rd Officer in charge of the fo’c’s’le ( forecastle) crew.
Alf, a man of small lean stature, was well known for his cheerfulness. In all he spent around six years on Antarctic expeditions and was aged 47 when the Endurance set sail from England. Had he lived long enough, no doubt he would have been invited to serve on the “Quest”.
Shackleton writes of Cheetham ……”Cheetham the veteran of the Antarctic had been more often south to the Antarctic than any other man “.
Alf was born in Liverpool. Lancashire. He was the son of John F.Cheetham (born Blackburn. Lancs.) and Annie Elizabeth Cheetham. (born Brampton. Cumberland).
His family moved from Lancashire to Hull.Yorkshire around 1877, and as a young teenager he ran away to sea and made many voyages on sailing ships and with the fishing fleets of the North Sea.
He married one Eliza Sawyer. They lived at 40 Bean Street. Hull. Yorkshire.
Alf and Eliza eventually had no fewer than thirteen children!
Alf whilst serving on Scott’s “Terra Nova” expedition had volunteered to join the search party to help find Scott and his four missing companions, but was turned down because he was a married man with children. It is also believed that Shackleton excluded him for consideration as a member of the Caird crossing to South Georgia on the same grounds.
He returned home to Hull after the expedition only to learn that one of his sons, William Alfred Cheetham age 16 , had lost his life at sea , presumed drowned whilst serving on the S.S. Adriatic.on 31st October 1916. He enlisted in the Mercantile Marine, and like McCarthy, had his life cut short in the Great War.
He was 2nd Officer on the S.S. Prunelle (London) when on Thursday 22nd August 1918, towards the end of the war, at the age of 51 , his ship was torpedoed in the North Sea by a German U-Boat . Alf went down with the ship.
Worsley , fondly recalled Cheetham as “ A Pirate down to his fingertips”, and wrote in his 1931 book “Endurance” a piece on how valuable matches became on the open boat journey to Elephant Island ……
“ I told the men to get their pipes ready as soon as Greenstreet lit the candle. Before that we had not been able to smoke as we did not want to waste a match. Matches, of course , had always been valuable, and when we lost the Endurance they had to become communal property.
On this particular night Cheetham 3rd mate let his pipe go out in the height of the gale, and persuaded me to give him a match to himself. The others were so indignant at this that later, when misfortune had again overtaken his pipe and he tried to cadge another, I refused. Seeing how crest-fallen he was, however, I had not the heart to keep one from him, and said, “Look here, I’ll sell you one.” “Right sir, “ said Cheetham , “what price?”. “A bottle of Champagne”, I replied, laughing in spite of myself.
“Done sir”, he retorted“as soon as I get back to Hull and open my little pub the champagne’s yours.”
Unfortunately the debt was never to be repaid.
Cheetham’s Polar Medals were sold at Glendening’s of London , on 22nd October.1925 for the princely sum of £30! His family are anxious to trace their current whereabouts.