We have a soft spot for Victorian & Edwardian Heroes, as we do for great tasting Beer and Northampton made Boots, especially when they are all combined into one company. The Shackleton Company is a lifestyle brand who make a range of products, all inspired by the legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton.
We recently interviewed Simon for our Made In Britain Video series while we were at Best of Britannia. Do give it a watch, Simon is an excellent speaker. We were instant fans of the brand, not just for their excellent products but because of the spirit and value the lifestyle brand contained. So we decided to catch up with Simon and find out even more about their story.
First of all why Ernest Shackleton? Whats your connection to the great man? How did he inspire you?
The Shackleton connection came about as I made the transition from being a retailer of imported banjos to beginning the adventure of manufacturing our own instruments in the UK. Most banjos, and in fact most mainstream musical instruments of any kind, are now made in the Far East, but they all tend to have faux American names. We wanted to find a name for our first instrument which had a clearly British sound and feel, but which was also authentically rooted in banjo history.
Arguably the most interesting story in British banjo history is the role that a banjo played in Ernest Shackleton’s extraordinary Endurance expedition in 1914-17.
Shackleton intended to cross the entire Antarctic continent from sea to sea, with the South Pole as a way point on the journey. This had never been attempted before. It was only two years earlier that first Amundsen (triumphantly) and then Scott (tragically), had reached the South Pole itself.
Shackleton’s plans didn’t quite work out however. His ship Endurance became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea for many months. Whilst living aboard their imprisoned vessel the ship’s company was entertained by the expedition’s meteorologist Leonard Hussey on a five-string banjo. He and others wrote songs about their adventure, and performed Edwardian popular songs and tunes. They held weekly concert parties, all centred around the banjo.
When the Endurance was ultimately crushed by the ice and began to sink, the entire company had to decamp to the ice floes. They were each allowed only two pounds in weight of personal possessions. However, Shackleton made an exception for the banjo, being well aware of the importance to morale of music and conviviality.
He is reported to have said to Hussey: “We must have that banjo. It is vital mental medicine.”
Shackleton brought al of his men home alive, after an amazing against-all-odds adventure which become legendary. That story inspired the name of our first product and led in turn to interest from customers and supporters all over the world – far beyond the banjo community – who asked us what other made-in-Britain Shackleton-related products we had.
The story also attracted the interest of a number of Polar explorers and enthusiasts, notably including the explorer’s granddaughter the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton. Alexandra and I have subsequently become good friends, and she is now a shareholder in the business and our official Brand Ambassador.
You started life as a banjo manufacturer, how difficult was it bringing banjo manufacturing back to the UK? And are you yourself a dab hand on the instrument?
We actually started life as a retailer of acoustic instruments in general, then focused on banjos. I’ve been a frontman singer and guitarist in bands for many years, but I’m a very poor banjo player and I resist playing it in public.
The transition from retailer/importer to maker was one of the greatest challenges of my life. We outsourced some elements of the instruments for the first year: the rims for example were made for us by a drum company, and the necks were rough-cut by a local engineering company.
But in summer 2014 we moved into a converted barn and established our own factory and now make all the wood components here by hand.
It’s been a huge challenge, but enormously satisfying.
From Banjo makers to brewers and bootmakers. How has the experience of entering new fields been? How do you translate the Shackleton spirit into new products?
There were two reasons initially for extending into craft beers, clothing, and so on. The first was to de-risk our business in its early months. By having a wider product base we were immediately less reliant on banjo customers alone. Secondly each new product helped to build the brand profile, which in turn generates custom.
But there’s a more profound reason now which is that we realised by talking to customers, supporters, journalists and a variety of experts, that Shackleton has all the ingredients of becoming a full lifestyle brand. That’s the path we are now on. Banjos will always be central to what we do, but now so is clothing. And we are introducing luggage and other products over the coming months.
The Shackleton spirit is captured by a simple test. We will only make something if there is an historical connection to the Shackleton story, or what one might call an aesthetic or even a spiritual connection. Does it ‘feel’ Shackleton, is a question we ask ourselves almost every day.
Making in Britain is important to your Brand. Why is that?
Making in Britain is core to the ethos of the business. Because I believe in British craftsmanship. I believe it’s right to support British jobs. and I believe in the brand power of an authentic Made In Britain label.
That’s not to say that we would never manufacture in other countries. We might well do. Some products and components simply aren’t available in the UK. But when we make abroad it will always be in ethical factories, and we will always have Britain as our manufacturing centre.
The thing is to be authentic. Don’t claim to be a British brand (as some High Street brand claim) if you don’t actually manufacture in Britain. If you manufacture overseas, then say so clearly and explain why.
What’s next? A Shackleton pen knife made in Sheffield?
We already have beautiful pewter hip flasks made in Sheffield. We have boots made in Northampton and belts made in Herefordshire. We will soon have camping gear, luggage, furniture and other wooden products. All made in the UK, of course.