Alfred Buchanan Cheetham (1867-1918)
Alf Cheetham was born in Liverpool but moved with his family to Hull and earned his living at sea.
Alf was boatswain of the SS Montebello, a passenger steamer of the Wilson Line, before he joined the crew of the relief ship SY Morning which was sent to Antarctica to re-supply Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic 'Discovery' Expedition (1901-1904). The first officer on the SS Montebello, William Colbeck, who had been a member of the British Antarctic 'Southern Cross' Expedition (1898-1900), was appointed Captain of the SY Morning.
SS Montebello. Hull Museums Collections (1994.473.69)
An article in the Hull Daily Mail, dated 12 May 1910, details the moment when Alf’s Antarctic career began:
“It was one evening in the first officer’s cabin aboard the Montebello that Alf Cheetham decided to try his luck on an Antarctic expedition. Cheetham went aft as was his custom to receive his orders from Colbeck. It so happened that on that evening Mr. Colbeck had decided to accept the command of the Morning that was to go out to relieve Captain Scott who had sailed south a year previous in the Discovery.”
As the Montebello was forging its way through the dark waters of the North Sea Alf described what happened.
“Had got my orders, and Mr. Colbeck turned to have a short chat as was his custom. He was a fine man to work under.
‘Well Cheetham,’ he said, ‘I’m leaving you again.’
I said I was sorry to hear that. We talked a bit and then I said,
‘I’d like to go with you.’ He turned quickly to me and said, ‘Would you really?’
I said ‘Yes.’
Then you had better come to London with me’ he replied.”
Ernest Shackleton and Alf Cheetham met aboard the SY Morning when Shackleton had to return to England after suffering from scurvy. Alf must have enjoyed his experience in the ice because he signed up to become third officer and boatswain on Shackleton’s British Antarctic 'Nimrod' Expedition (1907-1909). Shackleton did not achieve his goal of reaching the South Pole but both Shackleton and Cheetham were to have more adventures in the Antarctic together.
Alf’s next Antarctic venture was as boatswain on Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal British Antarctic 'Terra Nova' Expedition (1910-1913).
By the time Cheetham joined Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic 'Endurance' Expedition (1914-1917) as third officer he was 47 and the most experienced in Antarctica of any of the crew.
After surviving the sinking of the Endurance and life of near starvation on Elephant Island for five months he was torpedoed by a German U Boat in the North Sea and drowned at the age of 51 while serving as Second Officer on SS Prunelle.
He has many justly proud relatives who live in Hull and his name can be found on memorial plaques in Hull Railway Station and on the Tower Hill War Memorial in London.
He is also remembered in the geography of Antarctica by Cape Cheetham and the Cheetham Ice Tongue.
Research and text by Viv Stamford.