Hussey’s Banjo: brain food
The Endurance had been trapped in pack ice for 10 months when Sir Ernest Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship on 27 October 1915. He allowed each member of the Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition to bring 2lbs of personal gear with them as they set up camp on the floe—all except meteorologist, Leonard Hussey.While Shackleton’s orders were to leave behind everything that was not vital to survival, he knew the effect that music would have on their morale, and instructed Hussey to also save his 12lb Windsor zither-banjo.
The party of 27 men set up camp on the ice that had crushed their ship, and gradually drifted north over the next six months. During that time, music from the banjo accompanied many singalongs. The expeditioners kept journals during their ordeal, and many refer to the impact Hussey and his banjo had on their mental state.
Thomas Hans Orde-Lees wrote: “Hussey the indefatigable with his banjo really does, as Sir Ernest said, supply brain food … During the afternoon three adelie penguins approached the ship across the floe while Hussey was discoursing sweet music on the banjo. The solemn-looking little birds appeared to appreciate It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, but they fled in horror when Hussey treated them to a little of the music that comes from Scotland”.
In April 1916, with the ice melting, they launched the lifeboats and headed for Elephant Island where Hussey, the banjo and 21 other men remained. Meanwhile Shackleton, along with five men, took to the seas again in a modified lifeboat, the James Caird, in the hope of reaching South Georgia 800 miles away, and civilisation.
Left alone, camped beneath two upturned lifeboats that they called the Snuggery, the men ate whatever they could capture and, each Saturday night, held a concert. Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer, noted in his journal: “The voices, accompanied by Hussey’s indispensable banjo, sounded strangely out of place amidst the profound silence of the hummocks, yet it is gratifying to hear that ring of hearty laughter that betokens contentment and harmony, the attributes of excellent leadership, and good eating”.
McNeish’s comments reflect the good humour of the expedition’s: “Hussey is at present tormenting [us] with his six known tunes on his banjo”.
Shackleton reached South Georgia and returned, four months after leaving his men on Elephant Island, to rescue them—and the banjo.
In 1959, Hussey donated the banjo, bearing the signatures of all of the expedition team, to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. It forms a key exhibit in the story of the Shackleton Expedition. However, with the instrument valued at over £150,000, two people who claimed it was part of their inheritance took the museum to court. Fortunately, the dispute ended in favour of the museum and it remains in the public domain.
The instrument is officially described by the museum as: “Wood, skin and metal zither banjo, inlaid with mother of pearl which belonged to Dr L.D.A. Hussey, the meteorologist on ‘Endurance’… The banjo has been signed by all the expedition members and comes complete with a leather carrying case. Artist/maker Windsor, A.O. [Arthur Octavius] Place made Birmingham, Warwickshire, England”.
Until December 1940, when the factory was destroyed in an enemy air raid, the Windsor factory produced thousands of high-quality banjos. In 2013, as the centenary of Shackleton’s expedition approached, the Great British Banjo Company raised money to produce a limited edition of the Shackleton Centenary Edition banjo and continues to handcraft a range of banjos.
Around 20 years ago my partner, Doug Eaton (luthier), came across an identical instrument to the Hussey zither-banjo in a second-hand shop in Brisbane. He took it home, restored it, and sold it to a very satisfied customer.
Doug’s comments on the Hussey banjo are: “The instrument pictured probably came off the assembly line around 1900-1910. Consequently, the slotted headstock was equipped with guitar machine heads and only five pegs were required to string up the instrument. The fifth string, which today would have its own tuning peg, incorporated a clever solution where the string was threaded through a brass tube buried under the fretboard and fastened to one of the six pegs at the headstock. The string ran over a tiny button at the 5th fret as with modern styles.
The cast metal rim takes a calfskin head and is suspended on brackets inside a laminated wooden pot. Overall, it is a handsome, playable, and good-sounding instrument”.