Frank Bickerton’s life (1889–1954) was one of almost impossible derring-do, belonging to the late-Victorian/Edwardian world of peak Empire and encompassing treasure hunting, warfare, Antarctic exploration, aeronautical innovation and moviemaking. While he might only ever have been a minor character on the stage of early 20th-century life, the most cursory glance at his achievements will testify to the words of his Times obituary: ‘The unembittered courage with which he continued to meet the difficulties of a world which gave little recognition in peace to men of his mould – leave to us who shared in one way or another his various life the memory of a rich, rewarding and abiding spirit.’
After initially training in aeronautical engineering at London’s City and Guilds Technical College, he moved to the provincial town of Bedford to work in an iron foundry, where he met Aeneas Mackintosh, already a veteran of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition of 1907–09. In 1911, the pair set sail for the Cocos Islands, in search of treasure – only to return three months later with nothing.
Despite the trip’s failure, it seems to have set the tone for the rest of Bickerton’s life. Upon his return he volunteered for Douglas Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition, on which he spent 11 months converting the wreckage of a monoplane into an ‘air tractor’ capable of transporting supplies.
This expertise would lead to his acceptance on Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition of 1914. Subsequently, the outbreak of war saw him return home to volunteer first as infantry, then commissioned officer, before ending up, after four serious injuries, as a pilot. By the end of the Second World War he became a respected wing commander.
In between the two conflicts he travelled to East Africa in search of a fortune growing tobacco, only to contract malaria. He spent time in Paris and then Newfoundland, where he lived with a colony of expats founded by Victor Campbell, himself a first officer on Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition of 1910. On frequent trips back to London during the 1920s he became part of the fashionable party scene. During the 1930s he even worked in the British film industry as an occasional screenwriter and film editor. A fearless buccaneer with a resemblance to Errol Flynn – it is easy to see why an exuberant aristocratic writer, such as Vita Sackville-West, would have been drawn to such a character.