William Henry Stephenson (1877-1927) & Ernest Holness (1892-1924)
Stephenson and Holness were the firemen on board the Endurance. They had the physically demanding job of stoking the boiler that powered the ship’s engine.
When the Endurance had to be abandoned, Stephenson, Holness and the rest of the crew were technically out of work. Shackleton promised to keep paying wages until safety was reached.
Both Holness and Stephenson were left on Elephant Island to await rescue. The diaries of other crew members recorded them becoming close friends during this time.
'The party maroooned on Elephant Island'. Stephen and Holness ares stood close together in the middle of the back row. Photograph by Frank Hurley (S0000832)
William Henry Stephenson (1877-1927)
William Henry Stephenson was born in York on 9 April 1877. He married Edith A. Binks in July 1906 in Hull. On the 1911 Census the Stephenson family are living at 11 De La Pole Terrace, Bean Street, Hull; the same address Stephenson later used when he signed up for the expedition. Stephenson had 3 daughters: Doris (b.1910), Nellie (b.1912), and Gladys, who was born in February 1915, a few months after he had departed on the expedition. Tragically Gladys died of pneumonia age 12 months.
He joined Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition as first fireman, responsible for the physically demanding task of feeding coal to the fire, but several crew members state he was also a ‘third engineer’. When the Endurance was abandoned, Stephenson and Charles Green were pumping out water. Green described the dramatic events:
'That afternoon, it was my turn to do the pumping. I was pumping with Bill Stevenson amidships and we looked up and there was a string of flags flying. I said, "Whose birthday is it?" We thought we were celebrating some Royalty's birthday or something like that – but we had no idea whose birthday it was. But we soon found out – because a big chunk of ice, like a torpedo, went right through the side of the ship. Big it was – went straight through! Well, Bill and I jumped up on to the boat deck and there was the "Boss" and the rest of the crew. "Abandon Ship" was shouted – and that's what all the flags were for! We were the last two men to leave the ship – it was that sudden. We had hardly got any clothes on! You only wanted thin stuff when you were pumping like that. We lost most of our gear.'
Stephenson was one of those left on Elephant island and he appears to have formed a close friendship with fellow Hull sailor, Ernest Holness.
Stephenson was among the large party that sailed home from South America on board Highland Laddie. On his return he joined the Royal Naval Reserves in 1917, serving for two years, after which he worked on trawlers out of Hull for several years. In 1927 Stephenson was admitted to Hull infirmary for an operation for gallstones. Sadly, the operation was unsuccessful, and following complications, Stephenson died on the 20 April 1927.
Ernest Holness (1892-1924)
Ernest Holness was born on 7 December 1892. He grew up without a father - his birth certificate is blank where a father’s name should be. He was bought up by his grandparents and it was his grandfather, Robert, who served as a substitute for a while. However, this relationship was to be short-lived as Robert Holness was washed overboard a trawler when his grandson Ernest was just 6 years old.
Holness is famous for a couple of notable moments in the expedition, the first of which was the discovery of the stowaway, Perce Blackbarrow, who was hiding in the rope locker. Secondly, he was the man who fell through the ice when the floe cracked right underneath his tent.
On his return from Elephant Island he married a local girl, Lillian Rose Bettles. The Holness’s had four children; Lillian, Renee, Ernest and Stanley. Sadly the third child, Ernest John, was born premature and died at just two days old.
From June to December 1918 he was part of the minesweeping fleet of the Royal Naval Reserve and after this went on to work on the fishing fleets out of Hull. Only 8 years after his rescue from Elephant Island, whilst working as bosun on the trawler Lord Londisdale, Holness was blown overboard in gales off the Faroe Islands.
He was drowned before a boat could be dispatched to rescue him. The father of four was only 34 years old when he was buried at sea. The scant newspaper records of the incident make no mention of his involvement in the Endurance Expedition.
Research and text by Hayley Vincent Cropp.