The Challenger Expedition; 1872-1876

12 Sep

George Nares (by now Vice Admiral ), was chosen as commander of the Challenger Expedition because of his long experience of navigation and his scientific approach to surveying and exploration. His ship’s complement was two hundred – his officers were all naval surveyors, in addition, there was a team of civilian scientists, led by Charles Wyville[i] Thomson, the Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist..

Nares was not with Challenger for her entire tour –  he ceased his command in November 1874, when thevesselreached Hong Kong, having received orders to leave his ship in order to take command of a similar, but more arduous expedition – The British Arctic Expedition – an expedition that attempted to reach the North Pole.  Nares’ successor as Captain on Challenger was Frank Tourle Thomson.

His successful leadership was due to his wide experience in navigation and his calm and sure approach  – potential fallouts between scientists and naval officers were avoided.  Charles Wyville Thomson as chief scientist, had control of the scientific programme, but Nares was in overall command, setting what was possible with regard to scientific operations, whilst  always having due regard for the  safety and security of the ship and its personnel.  This was a model that was not always followed– when Sir Clements Markham organized the Discovery Expedition in the late 1900s; there was a vitriolic conflict between the scientists of the Royal Society and representatives of the Royal Geographic Society as to who should be in command. The Royal Society wanted to be in total control, a proposal vehemently  opposed  by the Royal Geographic Society which would never allow naval personnel to be directed by scientists.

Many people have never heard of the Challenger Expedition but modern oceanography undoubtedly began here. Until this expedition, knowledge of the world was limited to its coastlines and shallow depths.  Oceans were thought to be deep in parts, but almost nothing was known of the submarine landscapes or submarine life. Challenger was the first ship ever that was organized specifically to gather information on ocean temperatures, sea water chemistry, currents, marine life, and the geology of the seabed.  Apart from Charles Wyville Thompson, the famous naturalist John Murray, the father of modern oceanography, was on board. Discoveries were made that revolutionized oceanography.(When Challenger was safely back in England  John Murray, wrote that the expedition was “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and 16th Centuries”), 

                       The crew of Challenger

 Challenger was probably the first official expedition to carry a

                      photographer as well as an artist

With Nares in command, Challenger set sail on  Saturday 7 December 1872. The voyage involved numerous port stops – too many to list, but in summary Nares first headed for Lisbon and the Canary Islands then crossed the Atlantic arriving at the Virgin Islands in February 1873. He made a tour of islands  (Bermuda, The Azores), before arriving in South America Bahia (now Salvador), in September 1873

                         MAP OF VOYAGE – Nares left in 1874

In December 1873 he set a S/E track, visiting Tristan da Cunha before reaching the Cape of Good Hope. He visited the Kerguelen Islands and from there sailed directly south crossing the 60° S, parallel (i.e. approaching the Antarctic) and by 1874, Challenger was actually in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle (66°S),- see map –  here the scenery changed dramatically – it was was immensely new and exciting. Documents from this time show the interest and enthusiasm shown by the crew as they marveled at pack ice, ice bergs, whales and strange varieties of birds.

Nares did not explore Antarctica.  He turned N/E  and after a  very rough crossing of the Southern Ocean reached Australia, calling at Melbourne and Sydney in March 1874. This was followed in June by a visit to New Zealand.  He sailed between the North and South Islands and then, in the Pacific Ocean, he sailed north to Fiji and Tonga along longitude 180° where surveying continued in July and August. From September till November Challenger sailed due west, passing above the tip of Queensland and calling at New Guinea and the Philippines before reaching Hong Kong in November 1874.

The voyage resulted eventually in the haul of nearly 5,000 specimens, many from the time of Nares captaincy.   The yield demonstrated, for the first time, the richness of marine life on the sea bed:  “Stations” were made (a difficult navigation procedure, controlled by the captain, during which the ship had to be to be stationary for hours, so as to obtain specimens at known intervals from the sea- bed  to the sea surface).  Findings from the thousands of specimens these stations’ yielded provided  completely new information about the oceans when they were analyzed in the ship’s on-board laboratory, for example: depth of the ocean, marine chemistry, creatures of the deep – sea snails from the Azores; squid from waters around Japan, shark teeth, crabs, sea pigs, snakes, eels). Air tight bottles, and little boxes were used  to keep specimens of butterflies and insects, mosses and plants, Meteorological records were regularly made, the surface current was measured.

By the end of the tour (and two years after Nares had left Challenger ), fifty volumes (nearly three thousand pages), were needed to record the scientific findings. the photographs (including images of native people) and the paintings. These were records that Nares had facilitated and contributed to, so ably.

The measure of Nares successful leadership was recognized. His wide experience of difficult and varied conditions made him the preferred commander to lead the British Arctic Expedition an expedition that aimed to reach the Arctic Pole and he was recalled to fulfill this important role.

To be continued by telling the story of this venture.

[1] Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, (1830 –1882)  Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist. Knighted for his work on the Challenge


Sir George Nares

23 Aug

There has been a pause in my account of Sir George’s life because I have embarked on a biography of Sir Clements Markham. I am submitting 3 draft chapters to a publisher and hope they will be accepted

Normal service will be resumed soon!

George Strong NARES 1831-1915

13 Jul George Strong Nares

The courage and fortitude of eighteenth and nineteenth century naval Officers and Boys I read about never fails to impress. How did they keep going when the odds were stacked against them?  The answer of course is twofold.- the excitement, the interest, the adventure of the life was persuasive,  but also there were few alternatives: the army, the church, or possibly medicine. Since families were commonly large, employment was a must.

George Nares  was one of these men. His future was preordained. As sixth child of a naval officer, the sea beckoned. His father, William Henry Nares, who was promoted Commander in 1814, had taken part in the capture of French ships and defended Italy, Sicily and Cadiz against the French.. The sea and sea stories would have been in George’s background.

Photo Portrait of George Strong Nares
George Strong Nares

George Nares was born on the 24th April 1831 in Llansenseld, near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, South Wales.  He was the third son and the sixth child.  He was educated in the Royal Naval School in Camberwell, London, (now closed), this was a charitable institution for the ‘Sons of Officers of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines’. He then joined the Royal Navy in 1845 at the age of fourteen – fourteen was the mandatory age for Cadets to join. His naval training began on HMS Canopus,  an old battleship, captured by the English in Horatio Nelson’s time and, by this time a hulk (afloat but not seaworthy). Here he would have received some academic education,  as did all  the naval cadets. Teaching took place for several hours each morning.

HMS Canopus

Training and experience followed. He was posted in 1848, to the Australia/New Zealand Station on HMS Havannah. At this time he passed his midshipman examination. This was followed, in 1852, by a successful  attempt at the examinations to become a Lieutenant – he came second in his group.

The vicissitudes of a naval career are many. I am going to concentrate on three important expeditions which involved Nares. These are:

  1. The search for Sir John Franklin
  2. The Challenger Expedition
  3. The British Arctic Expedition of 1875–76



Sir John Franklin

While Nares returned to England on Havannah in 1851, it was suggested  that he should apply for a place on  Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition which was to sail to the Arctic in search of definite evidence of the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845.  Sir John had disappeared in the Arctic, along with his ships Erebus and Terror and his entire crew, in his attempt to find a way through the North West Passage. The North West Passage is the waterway north of Canada between the Atlantic and the Pacific – there was no Panama Canal at that time, this route was considerably shorter than the usual route between the two oceans and therefore commercially attractive.

Sir Edward’s expedition followed closely after that of Captain Horatio Austen’s in 1850-52. Austen had set out on the same mission, but had searched in vain for evidence relating to the Franklin expedition’s fate. In 1852, Sir Edward, in command of five ships. was briefed  again with the goal of finding Franklin (or at least some evidence of his fate). On this expedition the search was to be broadened towards the Eastern Canadian Arctic.  The five ships set out with great hopes of success.

George Nares was accepted as Second Mate on HMS Resolute  on this almost impossible task. This 1852 expedition under Sir Edward’s overall command, was to instill in Nares a profound sense of the mystique  of the Arctic, plus a knowledge of  the scientific approach to Arctic exploration, as well as an understanding of the dangers and challenges of the region.

Model of HMS Resolute

When the expedition finally penetrated the Arctic and reached Beechey Island, Sir Edward sent his ships in different directions.  The channels and islands of the Arctic are a maze to the uninitiated, but in summary, after leaving Beechey Island, Resolute, captained by Henry Kellett, and with Nares on board, accompanied by the tender (supply ship), HMS Intrepid, went west in the search of Franklin. (see map)

Resolute and Intrepid sailed to Dealy Island, (see second map), which is near the shore of Melville Island. Before winter set in, and whilst activities remained possible the crews of both ships searched continuously for clues of the Franklin expedition’s fate. They found none

HMS Resolute & Steamship, 1853, in sea ice off Dealy Island
 Recorded by George Frederick McDougal, Sailing Master on HMS Resolute

A winter camp (1852-53) and a temporary ‘dock’ on land ice near Dealy Island   was organized. Activities and education were also organized. Nares took part in evening school to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as needed by crew members.  Organised activities were very important for morale -the winter- dark, cold, monotonous, could be a time of discontent.about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URLabout:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URL

During the spring and summer time of 1853 the crews of Resolute and Intrepid continued sledging far and wide, searching unsuccessfully for clues relating to Franklin.

The early months of 1853, brought no expected seasonal change – no spring and summer thaw.  This meant that the ships remained trapped in the heavy ice (see map above). In April 1853, Sir Edward ordered that the tender Intrepid should be abandoned in the ice. The Intrepid crew transferred to Resolute.

By August, the cold front still completely encased Resolute in ice and she was carried slowly eastwards with the ice flow, at about 1.7 miles per day.  As winter (1853-54) drew in, the temperature dropped further, at one point to fifty-nine degrees below zero –  it averaged minus thirty degrees between November 1853 and March 1854.  The crews endured long periods of confinement and inactivity – they were in the dark, there was no exploration, charting, searching or hunting. Also they were on reduced rations. There was no fresh food, all the ships compliment ate tinned food, this brought the ever present danger of scurvy, the dread of all long expeditions.

But even these experiences did not deter Nares from his fascination in the Arctic and for its possibilities of advancement in knowledge.

One important positive outcome of the expedition concerned the 1853 rescue of men from the abandoned ship HMS Investigator  (shown in Map 2) Investigator   which had, set off three years earlier,  was one of the ships who took part in the search for Franklin expedition. She was captained by Robert McClure who, in addition to this search, had made the first journey along the Canadian Arctic from the Pacific to the Atlantic using a combination of sea travel and sledging (thus traversing the North West Passage). Investigator was locked in ice for four

winters, her crew started walking for help and were found by one of Resolute’s crew, Lieutenant Bedford Pim, who guided the men from Investigator  over the 80 miles to safety on Resolute

By April 1854, when Resolute had been encased in ice for over a year, Sir Edward  ordered that she should be abandoned. Her Captain, Henry Kellett was adamantly against this, but naval orders could not be challenged – to disobey would have resulted in court marshal and Kellett had no choice but to obey his commander’s instructions.  So the ships were abandoned to the ice [1]and the crews, including  Nares,  faced a hard march across ice to reach the expedition ships at Beechey Island. They were transported home on transport ships in 1854

Resolute had a remarkable story: The British Government announced in The London Gazette that Resolute was Her Majesty’s property, but no salvage was attempted. In 1855, she was found adrift by the American whaler George Henry, in an ice flow off Baffin Island, over 10,0000 miles from where she had been abandoned. She was taken to New London Connecticut, restored with US government assistance and presented to Queen Victoria.

The importance of recording Nares early Arctic experience is that he gained experience in Arctic geography,  its wildlife, and climate. During the expedition  many geographical locations were explored and named (for example: Northumberland Sound, Prince Edward’s Cape, Prince Albert’s Island, Cape Disraeli) and experiments were undertaken on the freezing of liquids,  the depth of the ice, and the effects of the extreme cold on instruments, as well as details and patterns of Arctic ice floes. His experience had  made him a knowledgeable expert on Arctic matters and this made him an ideal choice for further hazardous expeditions.  He had been fascinated by the Arctic and wanted to return but – to his frustration, no further Arctic expedition undertaken for the next twenty years. 


  1. Command of surveying ship on Australian station
  2. In 1854 Nares specialized as a gunnery officer. He joined the new battleship Conqueror in 1854, which included service in the Mediterranean during the Crimean War.
  3. Nares commanded HMS Newport in the Mediterranean—this posting includes the wonderful story that, at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when British ships were lying second in the approach to the canal, Nares manoeuvred Newport through the flotilla to a position in front of the French yacht L’Agile. Newport was therefore the first vessel to sail through the canal. Nares received an official reprimand bur there must have been secret enjoyment amongst those superiors giving the rebuke.
  4. In 1859 Nares wrote a best selling book The Naval Cadets Guide republished as Seamanship.
  5. He was promoted to commander in 1862 and took command of the training ship Boscawen in September 1863 when he was aged 32.

His was to be a successful career


Sir Clements Markham: Royal Geographical Society talk – link updated

13 May

Sir Clements Markham: Royal Geographical Society talk

10 May

Today my presentation was shown as part of the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Be Inspired’ series, you can see on their website and YouTube here It was followed by a Q&A.

I think it went well.


25 Apr

I am very pleased to say that my talk on Sir Clements Markham is to be presented at the Geographical Society on

May 10th 2.30 pm BMT,

as part of the ‘Be Inspired’ Programme. It will be a video presentation

My co-author on ‘Bruce’, John Dudeney, will make a short introduction and there will be a short Q&A session afterwards.

I hope you will find this interesting

Two Young Polar Explorers

16 Apr

Of the Polar explorers I have described previously many returned, sometimes repeatedly, to the places that had excited, exhausted and frustrated them to an extent that made return to civilization seem dull.

But today I am going to write about two young men,Thomas Bagshawe and Maxime Lester who went to Antarctica almost on an impulse and who never contemplated a return to Antarctic exploration.

Robert Burton, the well known Polar Expert wrote about these young men in Nimrod in 2018[1]  and he has given me permission to refer to his paper.

The British Imperial Antarctic Expedition (BIAE) of 1920-1922, is mostly forgotten nowadays, but was planned originally as a fantastically ambitious venture.  John Lachlan Cope, a surgeon and biologist, had been a member of the Ross Sea section of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition. He had been disappointed in the amount of microbiological work achieved on the Ross Sea party and wanted to return to Antarctica. He planned the expedition for the ‘glory of the British Empire’.   

Cope planned to sail in Scott’s old ship, the Terra Nova, on a 54 man, five year expedition, that would circumnavigate Antarctica, establish a base in the Ross Sea, make the first flight over the South Pole, explore for mineral deposits, obtain information about whales and encourage the creation of a British whale trade industry, investigate meteorological and magnetic conditions and continue exploration along the western edge of the Weddell Sea.

He failed to get funding! It is hard to avoid the impression that his  grandiose plans lacked detail and careful planning, The Royal Geographic Society announced in that it was not able to approve the plans or the leadership of the expedition, or to give it in any way its countenance or support. Unsurprisingly ‘The Grand Plan’ shriveled to ‘An expedition to Graham Land’ (the Antarctic Peninsula) –  many of the initial ambitions were achieved later during the Antarctic explorations of the American, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd.

Four men, rather than 54, set out in 1922 – 1) the leader, John Lachlan Cope, 2) an Australian, George Hubert Wilkins, a meteorologist who also had experience of aerial photography and who would later pioneer aeroplane flights in Antarctica. 3) nineteen year old Thomas Bagshawe, a 2nd-year Cambridge geology student, who gave up his studies to join the expedition and 4) Maxime Charles Lester aged twenty-nine, who had served in the British and Canadian navies in World War 1. He was the navigator and surveyor.  

Lack of transport to Antarctica was solved by an offer from Lars Christensen – a Norwegian ship owner and whaling magnet who was greatly interested in the Antarctic – to take the party, which included eight sheepdogs, to Snow Hill Island in the Antarctic.   Snow Hill, which was discovered by James Ross in the1840s, lies off the northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (see map). It had been used as a base by Otto Nordenskjöld, the Swedish explorer in the early1900s and it was thought that the old hut could be used as a base.

From Snow Hill, Cope planned a sledge journey southwards along the Weddell coast. It was hoped that a connection could be made  between their starting point and that part of the Weddell coast line that had been discovered by Wilhelm Filchner in 1912 when he reached the Weddell Sea’s southernmost limit. This would significantly enlarge knowledge of the Western Weddell Sea coastline (see map).

This was an expedition where events rarely went to plan. Heavy sea ice ruled out access to Snow Hill Island – so it was decided that the party would be landed on the opposite side of the peninsula (abutting the South Atlantic Ocean) where a safe landing could be guaranteed. The party would then cross the mountainous spine of the peninsula to get to the shoreline of the Weddell Sea and explore the coast southwards as planned.

The party was landed at Paradise Bay (see Map). The four men with their supplies, dogs and coal given by the whalers, arrived via different whaling ships on the shore of Paradise Harbour on the peninsula west coast, on the 12th January 1921.

Paradise Bay (recent image)

The Antarctic Peninsula showing Snow Hill Island and Water Boat Point Island.

They landed on a small rocky island  with an extension they named ‘Water-boat Point’(64°49’S, 62°52’E), because of an abandoned water-boat there[2]. The island was almost entirely colonized by Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. From here Cope planned (as described above), to cross the mountains, reach the eastern side of the peninsula and explore south – this  route would have the advantage of being a shorter journey south than that previously planned from Snow Hill Island

The boat: height 3 feet 9 inches (1.4m)!!  length 27 feet (8.3 m), maximum width 10 feet,  (3.2 m), was their base. The four men slept in the stern of the boat and to start with, they lived in the hull. But more space (and standing room) was needed and they built an extension out of packing cases called ‘The Hut’. It was over the middle part of the boat and projected off one side. Their accommodation eventually included a sitting area, a kitchen and the outer hut on the side of the boat. Coal was stored beside the outer hut, wood near the kitchen.  A worry that the boat was on a slope and might tip into the sea was dealt with by blocking up the end with rubble.

The accommodation


There was a shortage in domestic items, for example Bagshawe wrote that they only had one fork (from a picnic set) and that he had to make a second from a piece of packing-case wood.  

The ‘slatey’ coal, left by the whalers made for persistent problems.

The whale boat leaked water and Bagshawe wrote that as the water seeped into their sleeping bags, its temperature gradually increased to body temperature with the result that they lay in luke-warm baths.

Cope and Wilkins stayed for six weeks to help build the hut. But when it was realized that it was impossible, even with the dogs, to find a practical route across the 6,000feet mountains, they left, leaving Bagshawe and Lester to pursue the planned scientific programme in addition to the challenges of a winter in Antarctica.

Cope said that he would return the following year, pick them up, and try again for Snow Hill Island (In the event he completely failed to do this). Wilkins, returning with him, gave up on the expedition all together

                           Lester, Bagshawe and Cope

Bagshawe and Lester were to be the only two-man party ever to overwinter in Antarctica.

Why did they stay? They probably decided that, having arrived in Antarctica and planned to stay for the winter, this was what they were going to do, come what may. Bagshawe’s father wrote ‘… my son particularly did not want to come back to England in disgrace with his tail between his legs’.[3]

In remaining they also ignored the Norwegian whalers advice; but Bagshawe wrote that that Captain Anderson was like a father to them. He (the captain), promised, that if Cope did not return the following year, he would come himself.  This he did.

But how did they manage for the three hundred  and sixty-six days that they were on that desolate island?


Breakfast was at 8 am, Lunch (tea and biscuits) was at 1pm, supper at 6.30, bed at 8pm.   

Each Saturday there was a general clear up: sweeping up: hairs from bunks, floors and rugs etc throughout the boat; washing up in the kitchen; clearing the outer hut and chipping ice off the floor. They replenished the coal, dried the firewood, dug out the dog meat, seal meat and more coal from the snow, cleared the dog boxes, emptied the ash-box and the slop pail.


Malnutrition was not a problem on the whale boat –there was penguin and seal meat, but the monotony of the diet must have been very trying. Breakfast was always the same: hot pemmican (dried powdered meat mixed with an equal amount of melted fat), was followed by jam and biscuits, with tea to drink. There was a break mid afternoon with tea/sardines/ baked beans or biscuits with jam or marmalade. 
Pemmican was also eaten at supper, supplemented with seal and penguin meat. To achieve variety, flavourings were added –they had four tins of curry powder, two of ground celery seed and seven bottles of Worcester Sauce. These were cherished. The baked beans, sardines, jam and marmalade were rationed most carefully: Bagshawe wrote that every baked bean was eaten individually, every morsel was savoured!

One popular innovation was fried liver dotted with delicious cubes of fried blubber. Seal’s brain was like soft roe and ‘Spotted dick’ – suet pudding (using seal oil for suet) and with added raisins, was so solid that it kept them satisfied for days. They avoided alcohol which seemed to leave them feeling cold. They craved for fresh fruit. The absence of variety for a year was extremely monotonous.

When the penguins laid their eggs, the two resisted sampling any until it was absolutely certain there would be enough for the scientific observations

Their one luxury was a large box of crème de menthe (mint  sweets flavoured with alcohol). They allowed themselves one per night, with two on special occasions.


Eminent Antarctic specialists such as Professors Frank Debenham and ‘Tony’ Fogg. have praised the amount of data that these two men, with no specific scientific training or knowledge of Antarctic work and with very few specialized pieces of equipment, managed to collect.

The carpenter of the whaling ship had built a meteorological screen (a shelter for the meteorological instruments), which held  a thermometer, hygrometer (water vapour) and a barometer (air pressure). On top, there was a home made wind vane. The screen was on a small hill which they climbed every two or four hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.(the times varied), throughout the whole year to make their observations.

                                  The Weather Station

View of the mountains in the distance, In the foreground is the water boat hut. On the small hill to the right is the weather station.

In addition, they made  a ‘cloud log’, noting visibility and precipitation details and they recorded the movement of icebergs and floes in the bay,

Work increased when the Gentoo Penguins returned in late August  having spent the winter north of the sea ice. They were followed by the Chinstraps in November. To identify individual nests and penguins during the incubation period, boulders were painted and coloured pebbles used and the birds themselves identified by Indian ink markings applied via a long bamboo. The young birds were also marked and their progress followed, sketched, and carefully documented. Later penguin embryos, and blown eggs were preserved.

                               Gentoo penguin with chick

It was found that males penguins always returned to their established  bases.

The two also made a record all kinds of life on the island, They sketched birds, seals, whales. They dredged specimens from the bay and preserved them in formalin and alcohol.

They made a tide gauge. This was a barrel filled with boulders, in the center which a pole was secured. The pole was calibrated with bands painted at three -inch intervals and the barrel was placed offshore so that tidal movements could be accurately charted.  Readings were made at one- or two-hourly intervals throughout the day for 46 days – a heroic undertaking. It was noted noted that the tides were getting less by mid November.

Lester made a panoramic photographic survey of the area. All their finding were carefully written up in their logbook.

They had a large supply of records which helped to while away their short periods of rest.


They were picked up after a year and a day, by the Norwegian Whaling Captain. After their homecoming Bagshawe didn’t return  to Cambridge, but joined the family engineering firm. He wrote up his experiences in Two Men in the Antarctic. Later, he wrote a children’s’ book children’s book Pompey was a Penguin, The Bagshawe Glacier, was named after him

Lester returned to the Merchant Navy. He returned to Antarctica on the Discovery Expeditions, 1926 – 1927 which made surveys of the whaling grounds off South Georgia.


Firstly, their scientific observations supplemented and enlarged those of earlier expeditions to the peninsula. Secondly, the study of the Gentoo and Ghinstrap penguins complimented the observations that had been made on Adélie penguins and added to knowledge on Antarctic penguins in general. In addition the men’s records of tides, sea ice, glaciers, botany and geology were of considerable value. All the specimens collected provided new information.

Lester’s panoramic view and photographic record of the region included images of whales, animals as well as the men’s activities. The images were fully annotated – an important aim of the records was to improve information for whalers in the area. Lester had to wait until his return before seeing the images as the men had no way of printing them on the island. Although the quality was not brilliant the photographs made a most useful addition to knowledge of the area. 

As Professor Fogg wrote…….  these two young man collected more data per man than any other expedition, until the advent of computers and satellites.


[1] Burton, R. Nimrod 12: 13-24. 2018

[2] A Water Boat transports fresh water to ships

[3] Burton, R. Nimrod 12: 13-24. 2018


24 Feb

Albert Markham’s life was so packed with incident that it is impossible to cover all his activities in a blog.  For example, he visited Novaya Zemlya (the Russian Arctic), reported on the ice conditions in the Hudson Bay, and served for years on the Royal Geographical Council, so in this final piece I shall concentrate on an event that was, very nearly, his nemesis.

In August 1891, Markham was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral,  and in March 1892 he was appointed Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet. The fleet consisted of two sections that covered the Mediterranean – the First Division  was  led by Vice-Admiral  Sir George Tryon, KGB.  Markham led the Second Division. For part of the year the First Division, under Sir George, toured the eastern Mediterranean, whilst the Second (Markham), patrolled the west. For the remainder of the year the two divisions combined operations.

The Mediterranean was vital to British interests It was  the main sea route between Britain and India. The Fleet protected these sea lanes.

In June 1893, the whole fleet was operating together for the annual training exercises.  The fleet was off the coast of North Africa. Sir George’s plan was that two lines of battleships should proceed in  columns towards Tripoli- one led by himself in his flagship, HMS Victoria, the second led by Markham, in HMS Camperdown.  There were six ships in total in Sir George’s column; five in Rear Admiral Markham’s.


Sir George Tryon was renowned as a daring and proficient tactician. It was said also that he could be obstinate, overbearing, taciturn and unapproachable. He believed that the best way to keep his crews up to the mark was by continual, new challenges.  

It has to be remembered  that 1893 was before the invention of wireless. Orders and messages  were transmitted by signal flags, semaphore and signal lamp.  By 1893 Tryon has developed  a new system of signaling  called  the T.A. system in which  complex manoeuvres could be handled with only a few simple signals. It was a system that required his ships’ captains to use their initiative and in this exercise, Sir George planned to test the system

On this disastrous occasion it was not the T.A. system that failed. It was his orders.

On the 21st June, 1893, the night before the manoeuvre, Tryon, unusually, discussed his plans with some of his officers on the Victoria. The  two columns would be 1,200 yards (1097.3 meters), apart and his plan was that the battleships should turn inwards in succession by 180°, reversing their directions at a distance of 400 yards. After this manoeuvre, the fleet would travel a few miles, slow down, and simultaneously turn 90° to port (left), and drop their anchors for the night.

It was absolutely contrary to naval tradition (and required courage)  to question the quick tempered Tryon, but Victoria’s Staff Commander did this, suggesting  that 1,200 yards was much too close, and that the columns should start at least 1,600 yards apart (though even this distance could leave an insufficient margin of safety – the normal turning circles of the ships involved apparently required a gap of 2,000 yards between the two columns –this would leave a space of only 400 yards on completion of the manoeuvre). Tryon had actually agreed with the objection. But his later signal reverted to his original plan. He confirmed his instructions when confirmation was sought.

As there was no pre-determined code in the signal book for this manoeuvre, Tryon sent separate orders to the two divisions. They were:

“Second division alter course in succession 16 points (a point is 11,25 degrees),to starboard  (right), preserving the order of the fleet.” “First division (led by Victoria), alter course in succession 16 points to port preserving the order of the fleet.”

But what of Markham?  He did not attended the briefing on HMS Victoria.  This was because he was recovering from a bout of Mediterranean fever. He had a high temperature. He thought it wisest to rest, so as to be best prepared for the manoeuvre. But it was clearly most unfortunate that he, as Second in Command did not contribute to the discussion – he would have raised concerns.

When the instructions were actually signaled, Markham immediately grasped the dangers. He delayed sending his acceptance to the order and actually prepared a semaphore signal – Am I  to understand that it is your wish for the columns to turn as indicated by signal now flying?

This signal was not sent. This was to haunt Markham for the remainder of his life. He had received another signal from the Tryon. What are you waiting for? He had an enormous admiration for the Vice–Admiral who was a personal friend. None of the other nine Captains had raised objections. At the subsequent court martial, in which he appeared as a witness, he stated that he thought that Tryon (who often devised plans which were difficult to understand at first, but which subsequently became clear), had a plan that would result in Victoria wheel around Camperdown, rather than turning inwards.

He would not refuse to comply with a direct order, He followed instructions.

It was too late when it became obvious to Sir George that a collision was inevitable. Victoria made a tight turn, while Markham executed a slower standard starboard turn with the unavoidable result. But so ingrained was naval discipline that the Captain  of Victoria, who asked Tryon three times for permission to order the engines astern (backwards), only acted when he had received that permission. It was only at the last moment that Tryon shouted across to Markham, “Go astern! Go astern!”

Camperdown rammed Victoria.  A ram is a fearsome underwater prolongation from the bow of a ship, designed to damage any opposition and Camperdown left a gaping hole below the waterline in Victoria’s hull.  When Camperdown did reverse, more water poured in as Victoria’s watertight doors had not been closed. The whole scenario only lasted  minutes.

Initially Tryon had no conception that the damage was ‘mortal’ – the damage was forward in the ship and the engine room was still functioning. He  ordered his ship to head for the shore and actually ordered rescue boats, sent by the surrounding ships, to turn back.


But five minutes after the collision, Victoria’s  bow had sunk 15 feet, and she was listing  Water came through the gun ports. The forecastle (forward part of a ship below the deck) became submerged. The hydraulic power failed meaning the ship could not be turned, there was no power to launch the lifeboats. Eight minutes after the collision,  the stern (rear), of the ship had risen out of the water.

In the forward section of the ship, men were still struggling to secure bulkheads (partitions) as water washed in around them. Some of the men were washed away, some were  trapped.

Orders were given to abandon ship, but  too late. Victoria  healed over  and capsized just 13 minutes after the collision. She slipped into the water, bow first, stern upended, her propellers still rotating.  A terrible event and terrible for the onlookers –  some men were sucked down with the sinking ship, some cut to pieces by the propellers. Three hundred and fifty eight of Victoria’s complement died.

Those who survived and those who watched  this terrible and awful scene would never recover from the experience.

Sir George Tryon, in time-honoured  fashion went down with his ship. He stood on the top of the chart-house as the ship sank. He is said by  two surviving officers to have admitted, before Victoria sank, that the disaster was his fault.

The stricken Camperdown, despite being damaged, somehow managed to keep going. None of her crew died. 

Markham’s telegraph from Malta wrote of  the irreparable loss of  Sir George, twenty two officers and three hundred and thirty six men. His shock, sorrow and grief were overwhelming.

A court martial was opened  in Malta in July1893. Reporters were allowed to witness some of the proceedings. Surviving senior officers confirmed that Tryon had given the fatal orders.  Markham appeared as a witness, as previously mentioned. He was in a difficult position – he did not want to imply criticism of his chief. He confirmed that he had had an idea  that the Admiral planned to have Victoria wheel around Camperdown.

The court exonerated Victoria’s survivors and found Tryon responsible for the disaster, but Markham was criticized. Although he had obeyed orders,  a conclusion was that he should have followed his first instinct and aborted the manoeuvre. He should have sent the telegram  that questioned Tryon’s orders. Clearly this was a retrospective conclusion – had he not obeyed orders, had there been no collision, he would undoubtedly have been court-martialed for insubordination.  Tryon gave his orders in person; ignoring them was virtually impossible in the naval hierarchy of the time.

But Markham was to suffer. The Admiralty  subsequently supported the Court’s findings and questioned Markham’s judgment. He was put on half pay for over seven years and for this time he was without a commission  – a deep humiliation for a man who thought ‘idleness the enemy of the soul’.

But there were some compensations. Aged fifty two, in 1893, he unexpectedly married. His bride was Theodora Gervaise, aged nineteen! the sister of one of his midshipmen. The marriage seems to have been happy.  He had a daughter who gave him great joy. He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1897. But he became depressed.

                                              Theodora and Albert

Theodora offered strong support. Witnessing her husband’s unhappiness and sadness, she wrote (with some trepidation and without her husband’s knowledge), to The Prince of Wales, the future George V. The Prince was Markham’s friend and Godfather to his daughter. Theadora pleaded for help. The appeal succeeded. In 1901 Markham  was appointed Commander in Chief, the Nore. The Nore is a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames Estuary at the seaward limit of the Port of London Authority  – it is a major hazard for shipping coming in and out of London. This was his first appointment for over seven years and he relished in it.

He was made Admiral in 1903 and later in the same year he was knighted. He retired in 1906. He had an active retirement: working for the Minesweepers’ Fund,he wrote, he entertained officers of the Canadian Expeditionary force.

He died of a chest infection in October 1918 .Letters of sympathy poured in. Many of his comrades wrote of the effect he had had on their lives. At he funeral colleagues eulogised him as a capable, hard working , conscientious officer, a courageous explorer and a loyal friend.

The Victoria was not mentioned.


Admiral Albert Markam Part 3

20 Jan


Some men seem destined to a life of action and exploration and Albert Markham definitely falls into this category – but in addition, he was always keen to contribute to advances in science and had a life-long interest in the natural world. These interests were combined in his next adventure. 

He did not return to Australia after the Enquiry (see Albert Markham part 2). His enthusiasms deviated towards the renewal of interest in the Arctic. Exploration in the Arctic had ceased after the loss of Sir John Franklin’s ill- fated northern (sailing) expedition of 1845. Sir John, his ships Erebus and Terror, their entire crews, who had set out to find a route through the Northwest Passage, had disappeared without trace. A number of expensive searches to find clues as to the cause of the disaster had been unsuccessful and because of this, government enthusiasm for northern adventure had diminished. But, by the 1870’s the Royal Geographical Society had begun to push for a renewed thrust north. Albert’s cousin, Clements Markham was one of the Society’s officials who called for government support for Arctic exploration. There was a concern that the prolonged peace that the country had experienced had ‘softened’ its naval officers in a detrimental way. The Society’s officials opined that exploration would provide a much needed stimulus.

The government needed to be convinced. Although today, the Arctic is a source of international interest and conflicting ambitions, official support for a reduction in global warming is likely to be balanced by the desire to take advantage of both reduced shipping times as the ice melts and the possibilities of oil and mineral extraction – this was not the case  in the 1870s.  Information about Arctic conditions was sparse. It was uncertain what, or indeed if any, benefits would result from further knowledge. A recce by an intelligent naval officer was required. Markham volunteered and was appointed in 1873. Remarkably he relinquished his previous naval status (Commander) and sailed as a Second Mate crew member on a whaling steamer going to Baffin Bay. His aim, apart from studying whaling, was: to report on how steamers could manage the icy conditions of the Davis Strait and the Baffin Sea (see map), to assess the best route for steam vessels and to consider the best location from which to make an attempt on the North Pole.

When he was on this whaling excursion Markham had the opportunity to question survivors of an ill-fated American ship, the USS Polaris, which had been caught in the ice on her return from her northern voyage and eventually crushed. These men advised Markham about the conditions in Smith Sound, the passage between Greenland and Ellesmere Island (see map), which links Baffin Bay with the Lincoln Sea. They considered that Smith Sound would be the best place from which to approach the North Pole – they told Markham that they had experienced a ‘mild’ temperature in the area  and there had been little snow. This was encouraging news for Markham. When he returned to England he published, A Whaling Cruise to Baffin’s Bay and the Gulf of Boothia, and an Account of the Rescue of the Crew of the Polaris. He gave lectures. He  concluded  that Ellesmere Island would be the best place for a base from which to attempt to reach the North Pole. However  clearly, no one, at that time, fully appreciated the dramatic change in conditions that can occur between seasons.

Map of Sir George Nares’ progress north

Support for the northern expedition was given by the Royal Geographical Society and by Prime Minister, Disraeli. Her Majesty’s Government accepted and financed the proposal which would ‘advance scientific knowledge and encourage the spirit of maritime enterprise’.

The British Arctic Expedition (1875-76), was led by Sir George Nares. There were two ships, the Alert, captained by Sir George and the Discovery. captained by Henry Stephenson. Markham was  second-in-command on Alert. Sir George’s brief was to advance along the west coast of Greenland via Smith Sound(see map). From here, it was believed, there would be open water as far as the pole over which the expedition would sail. In essence Nares was to get as far as possible to the North Pole and to explore whatever coasts the travelling parties could reach.

After a departure in May 1875, progress was slow. The Arctic Circle was crossed on the 4th July followed by slow progress up the west coast of Greenland towards Smith Sound. The entry to Smith Sound was obstructed by thick masses of ice. Nares, had to wait patiently for lanes to open before progressing, often at less than a mile per day. The conditions were far, far worse than expected from the descriptions Markham had been given by the Americans but Nares was the first to take his ships all the way north to the Lincoln Sea.  The assumption that this would then open to an ice-free region that surrounded the pole was completely false – Nares found that the reality was a wasteland of ice – the polar sea was a myth.The ships progressed north with caution, sometimes waiting for lanes to open up, sometimes boring through ice floes, until they reached Lady Franklin Bay at 81°4’N. Here there was a good supply of fresh meat (musk).Fresh meat was thought to be helpful in the fight against scurvy because of its vitamin C content (in fact it contains virtually none) and here Nares decided that Discovery  should set up winter quarters. Discovery would act as a secondary base should some disaster befall Alert.

Alert continued  her northward progress around the tip of Grant Land (the northern part of  Ellesmere Island) and in early September 1875 Nares reached 82°24’N. Fifteen days later he  reached 82°27’N, and made his base in a bay safe enough to winter in.

Map of Islands around North Pole showing Lincoln Sea between Lincoln Sea and Ellesmere Island

                                      Alert in the Arctic ice

From this base teams were sent out to explore the region and collect as much scientific data as possible. Markham led one of these sorties. The men were totally unprepared for the dreadful conditions, their sealskin suits and wool guernseys did not give adequate protection, they got soaked and then iced up. Markham turned back  after only four days.   A second sortie was attempted. This time the team had to battle with big ice ridges – they had to unload all the items from the sledge, carry them over the ridges and then repack the sledges Markham decided to halt the advance in early October. He left the site as the expeditions newest northernmost depot. No more expeditions were attempted before the winter.



The achievements of the 1875 expedition were: the British flag had been taken further north than had previously been reached, and unknown regions had been explored and charted.

Both Nares and Markham were concerned for, and considerate of, the welfare of their men. The winter months passed surprisingly smoothly considering the conditions. Entertainment was provided: an ice rink, firework displays, boxing matches, and most importantly, evening classes. ‘The Royal Arctic Theatre’ featured the officers’ attempts to entertain the crew.

The sun appeared after 142 days and the early part of 1876 was spent continuing to collet data and specimens and in charting Ellesmere Island.

In April, Albert Markham and Lieutenant Alfred Parr led a Pole Party of fifteen men, pulling two sledges, boats and three support sledges. Leaving their base at 82°27’N the Markham party initially  travelled with another group led by a Lieutenant Aldridge, from whom they separated after two weeks. The men battled again through the most atrocious conditions – deep snow and more large hummocks (mounds), through which they had to cut a path with shovels and pick axes Some days they covered seven miles, some days very few and on other days they had to just had to wait for storms to pass. Their clothes froze solid, their sleeping bags became encrusted in ice from breath and sweat  and increased in weight.  They were exhausted, but what was to finally incapacitate them was the onset of scurvy, the dread of all long expeditions and voyages.

It is now known that scurvy is due to a deficiency of vitamin C. However the concept of vitamins had not been considered in the 1870s, although it was known from the seminal work of James Lind in the 1740s, that a mixture of oranges and lemons resulted in a rapid improvement in symptoms. Unfortunately, in  1870, the Navy was issuing lime juice to its personnel. The juice, sourced in the West Indies, had less antiscorbutic qualities than lemon.[1]

Markham seems to have taken time to realize that the problem was  scurvy – he knew that they had eaten meat, which was thought to be helpful against scurvy.[2]  He thought his men were simply suffering from swollen knees and ankles due to their exertions (he clearly did not think of examining their gums), but as progress became slower and slower and more men became incapacitated, the diagnosis became obvious. He was to be criticized in the subsequent enquiry for not taking a sufficiency of lime juice on his sortie. Eventually the sick men had to be hauled on sledges by their already weakened companions.

Further Manhauling

With what seems in retrospect to be unbelievable determination, Markham continued north until he reached 83° 20’N. in May (see  map of Progress North and map below). This region was 400 miles from the Pole, the furthest north that had been achieved.

By this time only a few men were still able to function adequately and he had to turn back. Even then his courage did not desert him and he arranged a flag raising ceremony (and some more observations)


Markham’s most northern camp

Painted by Richard Brydges Beachey

The return journey was yet another a battle to survive, the pack ice was melting, it was important to get to firm land before being cut off on ice floes (and having to man those boats). The team deteriorated to an extent that, forty miles from base, there were only two officers and two men fit enough to work, a potentially disastrous situation. Here  Lieutenant Alfred Parr, Markham’s second in command, showed his sterling qualities. He volunteered to make a solo sortie to get help. This risky, brave journey – he did not stop for twenty four hours – brought rescue teams to Markham’s desolate group. There was one death. It is said that when they reached Alert, of the over fifty men on board, only three men could actually walk.

Nares decided to return to England a year earlier than planned. His two ships reached Portsmouth in November 1876. He could claim that the expedition had explored an area that was previously unknown, they had reached a record northern latitude, had mapped a considerable portion of the north Greenland coast and collected  much significant scientific data.

The reception in England was mixed. Predictably questions and criticism soon surfaced. Although Queen Victoria applauded the expedition’s achievements and Nares was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal and Markham was given a gold watch by the society, the press and public opinion was critical. It was said that the expedition had failed in its goal of reaching the Pole, there had been much illness due to scurvy, and a death. An official inquiry blamed Nares for failing to carry out orders correctly   The expedition was (unbelievably), dubbed ‘The Polar Failure’.  Markham was blamed for not taking a sufficiency of lime juice for his crew on his north pole sortie – although, as mentioned above, it is doubtful even if the lime juice had been issued, this would have improved the outcome to any significant extent.

This expedition extinguished the Admiralty’s interest in Arctic exploration and Albert Markham was criticized, particularly over the  lime juice deficiency. But his record of determination, his sense of duty and his achievements were obvious.  This was officially recognized when he was promoted to Captain.


[1] The lime juice from the West Indies contained less vitamin C than lemon juice and was transported across the Atlantic in containers that further  damaged its potency. i.e. it was relatively inefficient

[2] Meat contains little vitamin C. Heating causes further damage

Short film on Sir Clements Markham

11 Dec

I am preparing a formal presentation on Sir Clements Markham. In the meantime, I have made this short version as an introduction to the subject.

I hope you will find this of interest.