If you have handled a letter recently you will be aware that the current commemorative stamps issued by the Post Office feature Ernest Shackleton and the 2016 Endurance expedition, one of the great tales of Antarctic survival. I featured Shackleton in a novel about Captain Titus Oates called Death on the Ice (it was big in New Zealand, where Captain Scott is still revered). During the research for that, I came across a snippet that has finally surfaced in my new book, The Sign of Fear. Ernest Shackleton had a brother, Frank. And he was a master thief. Allegedly.
Not that the more famous Shackleton was any saint. The family seemed to have a blind spot when it came to handling money, and Ernest often set sail with creditors on his heels. But Frank took this flirting with legality one step further – he stole the Irish Crown Jewels. Or so some believe.
The Irish Crown Jewels were not like the version held in the Tower of London. They were not there for any monarch – there was no actual crown – but were ceremonial regalia mainly used when investing Irish peers (also known as the Order of St Patrick, now defunct). They consisted of heavily bejewelled star, a diamond brooch and five gold collars, and all were property of the Crown, hence the name.
This collection as held in a strong room in the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle and in 1907 they disappeared, thanks to what looked like an inside job – there was no sign of forced entry and all the doors and the safe were unlocked. Suspicion fell on Frank Shackleton who, thanks to a friendship with the Duke of Argyll, the King’s brother-in-law, held an honourary position at the castle and lived within its walls. Why Frank? Possibly because, although famously charming and witty, he was also a practicing homosexual and was deemed, according to one newspaper, to keep company unlikely “to inspire confidence among the police or the public”. In fact, there was no solid evidence against Shackleton, just plenty of prejudice, and he was exonerated by the subsequent investigation.
But Shackleton did fall foul of the law. In 1910 he was declared bankrupt, owing £10,000 thanks to some dodgy business dealings, and in 1913 he was convicted of defrauding a young woman who had foolishly entrusted her inheritance to him. He was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 15 months hard labour.
In fact, according to Irish historian Tomas O’Riordan, Shackleton was already badly in debt, mostly to London moneylenders, in 1907 when the jewels were stolen. He was also implicated in the theft by Sir Arthur Vicars, the man in charge of the keys to the strongroom, who claimed Shackleton must have taken impressions when a guest at his house. However, O’Riordan suggests that Frank was immune to prosecution thanks to his royal connections – and possible knowledge of potential scandals, such as the rumoured orgies at the castle involving the Duke of Argyll and other notables – and states that “Shackleton still seems to be the most likely mastermind”.
On release from his hard labour, his brother Ernest secured Frank an office job in London and he changed his name to “Mellor”. He lived in Sydenham and subsequently Chichester and died in 1941. And the jewels? They have haven’t been seen since the night of June 11, 1907.
* The Sign of Fear, which features cameos from both Ernest and Frank Shackleton, is out now from Simon & Schuster (http://tinyurl.com/hes9taq).