Royal Mail’s first new issue of 2016, released on January 7, commemorates what Sir Edmund Hillary described as ‘The greatest survival story of all time’.

Entitled Shackleton & The Endurance Expedition, the eight-stamp set recalls the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1914-17, which is regarded as the last expedition of the heroic age of polar exploration.

As an attempt to make the first land crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole, it was a dismal failure. Instead it produced one of the greatest rescue stories in history, living up to its billing as the ‘Endurance Expedition’ (after the name of one of its ships) and making Shackleton one of the most celebrated mariners and commanders of all time.

The stamps tell the chronological story through the ground-breaking photography of the Australian adventurer Frank Hurley, the expedition’s official photographer. Designed by Robert Maude and Sarah Davies, they were printed in litho by International Security Printers, in sheets comprising se-tenant pairs.

Although the issue marks no particular anniversary, it comes 100 years after the darkest days of the expedition, when the crew were marooned on pack ice after the loss of Endurance.

1st class ENTERING THE ANTARCTIC ICE

December 1914: Shackleton and his crew of 28 men on the three-masted ship Endurance reach the Weddell Sea, while the expedition’s other ship journeys to the Ross Sea on the other side of Antarctica.

1st class ENDURANCE FROZEN IN PACK ICE

January 1915: the ship is 80 miles from its intended landfall at Vahsel Bay when she becomes trapped in sea ice that is thicker than expected in the Antarctic summer.

£1.00 STRIVING TO FREE ENDURANCE

February 1915: efforts to free the ship from the ice using ice picks, chisels and saws fail, and she begins to drift northwards through the Antarctic winter. The crew are resigned to being marooned for the whole winter, with no sunlight and in freezing temperatures.

£1.00 TRAPPED IN A PRESSURE CRACK

October 1915: Endurance is crushed between ice floes, listing and eventually beginning to break up. As much as possible is salvaged, including three lifeboats, before the ship is abandoned and sinks.

£1.33 PATIENCE CAMP

December 1915-April 1916: after several failed attempts to march towards known food depots or whaling outposts hundreds of miles away, the crew establish ‘Patience Camp’, augmenting their limited provisions with seal and dog meat. The photograph shows Shackleton on the right.

£1.33 SAFE ARRIVAL AT ELEPHANT ISLAND

April 1916: as the ice starts to break up, the crew set sail in the lifeboats to make the perilous journey to the nearest dry land, the uninhabited Elephant Island, off the northernmost tip of the Antarctic landmass.

£1.52 SETTING OUT FOR SOUTH GEORGIA

April 1916: with no hope of rescue from the island, Shackleton leads a party of six to go and summon help. One of the lifeboats, James Caird, is modified with an improvised mast and sail for an 800-mile crossing of the treacherous Southern Ocean to South Georgia, which takes 16 days.

£1.52 RESCUE OF ENDURANCE CREW

August 1916: after a 36-hour trek across the mountains of South Georgia to the whaling station at Stromness, Shackleton organises rescue expeditions for the remainder of his crew. After two failed attempts, the 22 men are picked up from Elephant Island by the Chilean steam tug Yelcho.

OTHER PRODUCTS

Written by author Michael Smith, the presentation pack describes the challenges endured by the expedition party and includes more of Hurley’s dramatic photographs.

Stamp cards and first day covers are available as usual.

 

PRICES

Set of 8 stamps   £8.96

Presentation pack   £9.50

Stamp cards   £3.60

First day cover   £11.23

 

VERDICT

COMMEMORATIVE WORTH   3/5

This is a wonderful story, although it’s a slightly strange time to be telling it

QUALITY OF DESIGN   3/5

The historic photographs are of surprising quality given the circumstances in which they were taken

WOW FACTOR 1/5

The images come alive only when you appreciate the fortitude and endurance behind them