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Sir Clements Markham, Saint or Sinner?

27 May

I think that writing the biography of Sir Clements is going to take months – so I will probably not be adding much to my blog, which has concentrated on some of the lesser known Polar Heroes  -though I will probably get round eventually to John Ray and Edward Atkinson.

I remain surprised that Clements Markham has not caught the attention of other authors over the one hundred and six years since he died. Of course his cousin Admiral Albert Markham wrote a ‘life’  dedicated to Sir Clements’ widow Minna. This was written soon after Clements’ death, but the work was not, in any sense, an objective biography. Albert had had close ties with Clements’ family. When he was studying to get into the navy, he lived with Clements widowed mother Catherine. Catherine had already lost two of her sons,  and, with her remaining son, Clements travelling widely, she welcomed Albert as another ‘son’ and a ‘brother’ for her three daughters.

Clements as a young man

Clements was eleven years older than Albert and he created a  profound impact. Albert was overwhelmed by Clements’ success in smuggling quinine out of Peru and transporting the medication to India. He also shared Clements’ passion for knowledge – reading, travel and exploration. He would never write a critical paragraph about a man who was his cousin, Catherine’s son and Minna’s husband.

In fact Clements seems to have had a very loving relationship with his friends and family. The same however cannot be said about anyone who disagreed or criticized him. Such a person became a permanent enemy. Thus seems to have been a life-long characteristic, but his reputation was unequivocally damaged by his behaviour after, at the age of 63, he became President of The Royal Geographical Society  (R.G.S.) and announced his ambitions for Antarctic exploration.

His facility for acerbic observation was apparent quite early on -as a young boy for example, he described one of his father’s friends and  neighbour, as having  a ‘long neck, an eager little face and a voice like a cockatoo’. Aged fifteen, when a midshipman sailing on the ‘Collingwood’ Pacific Tour, he described the Governor of Tahiti (governed by the French). as ‘short, stumpy, ugly, fiendish and crafty looking’. The Captain of a French ship was also short, ugly, fiendish,  but also ‘a little man’ – with red hair and whiskers.

When, as a successful member and officer of the R.G.S he was made its President in 1893, Sir Clements made his announcement that his primary ambition was to support the resurgence of Polar exploration -this had lapsed following the tragic death of Sir John Franklin, who had been lost in the Arctic along with his two ships and entire crew in the 1840s during an attempt to find a sailing route from the Antarctic to the Pacific – the North West Passage.- Clements had, as a midshipman, been on one of the many ships attempting to discover the fate of the doomed expedition.

In the early part of the 1900s it was not  actually certain that the Antarctic existed as a continent and Sir Clements focused his attention on the South.   A number of land areas had been seen, but not landed on –  they could have been islands. One area, Cape Adare had been landed on and its coordinates recorded. but no significant penetration southwards had been made.  Sir Clements ambitions were  to penetrate into and discover as much as possible about this mysterious area and to collect geographic, meteorological  oceanographic information. He also wished to enthuse naval personnel with this great venture,  he felt the navy would benefit from the challenge.

His two great problems were –firstly, funds to support the expedition, and secondly, agreement over the actual aims of the expedition. To get enough sufficient funds, he had to combine with the Royal Society (R.S.), (against his better judgment), in an appeal to the government for the £45.000 still needed to launch the expedition.  He himself (on behalf of the R.G.S), had already raised  about £40,000 in three years after the appeal was launched (£25,00 had been given by an individual R.G.S. member). The R.S supplied no monies.

Balfour, the First Lord of the Treasury eventually allocated the funds applied for, but an unbridgeable chasm between the Learned Societies, as to the aims, purposes and priorities of the expedition, became apparent all too soon.

The predominant schism related to the relative leadership roles of naval personal (R.G.S. supported) and the R.S. civilian scientists.  The R.G.S. views and Markham’s vision for the expedition, was that the venture was naval, both on land (geographic discoveries and scientific work) and on sea. The R.S. plan, in complete contrast, aimed to appoint a scientific director who would have absolute control of all research on land suggesting, this implied, that the naval scientist would be answerable to a civilian scientist director. The R.S. plans also implied that the navy would provide transport to and from Antarctica and, having offloaded the scientists, would leave for warmer climes.

The Navy of course would never agree to this plan; the suggestion that naval men should report to a civilian scientist was unthinkable.  It is hardly surprising that increasingly vituperative tensions and disputes over the aims and ambitions of the expedition developed. Clements became increasingly distrustful that certain members of the R.S. were scheming against him. He wrote that one man (presumably himself), if he was capable at all, was always more capable than a number of equally capable men working together – and there undoubtedly was an unpleasant confusion of ambitions in the Antarctic deliberations.  

Bust of Sir Clements in the Royal Geographical Society

It required a diplomat as well as an administrator to steer the negotiations. Sir Clements was not a diplomat –  he was a fighter; opposition roused his pugnacious spirit and he undoubtedly became outspokenly critical, intolerant of opposition and  increasingly unpopular. It was said that he felt he had the absolute right to a priority in the Antarctic. He appears to have made as many enemies as friends.  

But it actually took him some time to fully comprehend the dramatically different aims for the expedition between the two societies, but as discussions continued, he became increasingly aware that some members of the R.S. were uniting to scheme against his plans. He described several representatives of  the R.S. with uninhibited venom in his book ‘Antarctic Obsession’.  Professor Tizard, the Assistant Hydrographer and a member of the Royal Society Joint Executive Committee, was ‘a man of some ability, but narrow minded – a man who set himself up as an authority on Antarctica because he had been on the ‘Challenger’ expedition and seen the edge of the ice’. Professor Poulton of Oxford was described as an expert on butterflies, a dull and stupid man with a genius for blundering and a total ignorance on any subject addressed by the Antarctic Committee.  Lord Lister  the President was always courteous, never taking a decided line and caring nothing.  Professor Foster FRS, the Secretary of the R.S. was plausible and agreeable but an inveterate intriguer  who cared nothing for the expedition but only what he could get out of it for the R.S.

Many of these opinions would hardly have been discreet .  They may have even been publically expressed with predictable consequences. Planning became fractious and divisive. Markham was said to behave like a dictator – that he had an unrivalled capacity for misrepresentation, slander & vindictiveness..

Markham eventually managed to alter and weaken the R.S. plans  It should be said that R.G.S. members resented the idea that the man appointed as the Scientific Director, Professor John Walter Gregory was promoting himself as leader of the whole expedition through his allies in the R.S.     R.G.S. members were resistant to his predominantly scientific plan, one that subverted the original ambitions of geographic and magnetic observation (albeit with science making an important contribution), in an expedition led by this shadowy figure, who they had hardly heard of. Furthermore members were aware that the R.G.S. had conceived and considerably funded the expedition. The R.S, had not made a financial contribution.

When Markham finally succeeded in outwitting the R.S. – and causing much resentment and bitterness Professor Gregory resigned, The eventual instructions were in a form very similar to his original proposals of 1897.

The Discovery expedition lasted from 1901-1903. The newspaper ‘The Times’ praised the many achievements of the expedition. The expedition had an enthusiastic reception in England, but no government minister was present to welcome the returning heroes.  Significant  financial problem had again arisen. These related to freeing the ship ‘Discovery’ from  its suffocating icy embrace in Antarctica. Concern that this would prove impossible led to the need for two relief ships to be available to rescue the men, the equipment, the  scientific results, paintings, photographs. Neither the RGS or the RS had the funds for a rescue mission.

 The Government was furious- this was ‘a betrayal of trust’. It had always assumed that the societies would be in perfect control of their finances. But it had no choice. It had to take over the rescue operation Their naval men were trapped in the south. Sir Clements was forced to cede ownership of the relief vessel “Morning? to the government. He also fell out with his own council over the matter and resigned as president shortly after.

He died in 1916 in dramatic circumstances. He was reading in bed by candle light  – though his room actually had electricity. The candle slipped, the bed clothes caught fire. He was engulfed in flames and died.

Although Lady Markham received many expressions of condolence (and Admiral Markham’s eulogy), he had sadly  became so unpopular that negative reservations about his achievements were expressed remarkably early. Frank Debenham the first Director of the Scott Polar Institute called him ‘a dangerous old man’. The Scottish geographer Professor Rudmose Brown called him an ‘Old Fool and Humbug’. The accuracy of his many publications was questioned.

But these comments miss an important point. Sir Clements was a man  of vision. He could claim any number number of achievements:      

Firstly, his courageous expedition to Peru to smuggle quinine out of the country and transport the medication to India, saved thousands and thousands of lives.

The ‘Discovery’ expedition would never have happened without his single -minded determination, grit, and courage. He raised a good proportion of the cash virtually single handedly, the R.S. gave no cash. 

He developed the R.G.S. –the library, research, map facilities. The membership of the society increased significantly.

He wrote some fifty books – on historical figures and events, as well as on the Polar regions, plus  many papers and reports.

He was loving and loyal to his friends and family who appreciated him.

 His overriding aim was to serve his country and geography.


Herkomer– again!

17 Apr

I am delighted to say that this little book (76 pages) has, at last, appeared. I am pleased with it, though some of the illustrations could perhaps have been a little larger.

As I have mentioned I wrote it simply to draw attention to this versatile, incredibly talented man who, although a nationalised Englishman and living in England for over fifty years, became ostracised during the lead-up to the first World War primarily because of his lingering loyalty to Germany, the country of his birth. He created resentment amongst his fellow Royal Academicians and rejection by the public. He died just before the war.

He achieved some positive reassessment during the second part of the 1900s. and he is admired and valued by a select few. But generally he is forgotten, and this is a loss.

I hope this little work will rekindle interest.

On a different subject the organisers of the Antarctic SouthPole-sium are hoping to hold their fifth conference in San Francisco 22-24 June this year. the details are on

It is always a good meeting


Piece on Hubert von Herkomer

30 Mar

I am delighted to say this piece on Herkomer has just about finished its prolonged journey through the publishers– mostly covid problems

I am told it has reached the Austin Macauley website

Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1849-1914 ISBN 9781398401884

I became interested in Herkomer through my research on Dr Edward Wilson.

Wilson lived in Bushey Hertfordshire and I went there to learn more about him. I went to Bushey Museum only to find they were not much interested in my subject but VERY interested in their hero Herkomer, who had lived in Bushey for forty years. Here he had started an art school and a theatre, whilst meanwhile becoming one of the best known artist of the Victorian/Edwardian period- he painted Queen Victoria an her death bed—- apparently Edward VII did not like death masks.

I was fascinated to understand why I had never heard of him and decided to research his life. I found that from a humble beginning he rose to fame and riches and then fell completely from public interest. This little piece is the result of my researches.


11 Mar

I have not written a blog for some months, but I have not been idle. I have made some presentations both on Zoom and in person, but my main focus, during lockdown, has been writing.

I have completed an account of the life of Sir Hubert von Herkomer, the Bavarian born Victorian/ Edwardian artist who became a British national. Herkomer was a multi talented man who achieved such artistic heights in Great Britain, that he was commissioned by Edward VII, to paint Queen Victoria on her death bed – but who, through his persistent loyalty to his country of origin (as well as to Great Britain his adopted country), fell into personal and artistic disfavour and is now virtually forgotten.

I am also preparing, with co-author John Dudeney, a book on the life of Sir Clements Markham, who, as a young man, not only smuggled quinine (in the bark of the cinchona tree), out of Peru and transported it to India where it grew successfully, thus saving the lives of thousands and thousands of people, but also, as President of the Royal Geographical Society masterminded the ‘Discovery’ expedition. ‘Discovery’ was the first expedition ever, to penetrate significantly into the Antarctic. This is a big venture. We are lucky enough to have the wholehearted support of the Markham family and so access to private papers.

But the big news is the location of ‘Endurance’. I was doubtful if this would ever be achieved because of the problems of getting through the ice in the Weddell Sea. However the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust have supported the team that has successfully cleared through the ice (less dense this year) and discovered ‘Endurance’ at 10,000 feet. They were helped by the remarkable detailed records of ‘Endurance’s’ skipper Frank Worsley. We will be hearing much more.

Sir George Nares

14 Nov

I understand some of circulated blogs on Sir George had one image of ‘Manhauling’ repeated twice

I knew I had made this mistake but thought that I had corrected it

The image that should have been inserted was ‘Further Manhauling’-which I think is a very nice image

If you look at the blog on my website you will find it


11 Nov

George Nares was withdrawn from the  ‘Challenger Expedition’  to take charge of an important Arctic expedition, theBritish Arctic Expedition, because of his previous experience in the Arctic -he had been on one of the searches for Sir John Franklin from 1852- 54, in addition he had much surveying experience.

The British Arctic Expedition aimed to reach the North Pole.

There were two ships, the Alert, captained by Sir George and the Discovery. captained by Henry Stephenson.  Albert Markham (Clements Markham’s cousin) 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 North Pole, over which the expedition would sail. In essence Nares was to get as close as possible to the North Pole and to explore whatever coasts the travelling parties could reach.

After the ships’ 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 awful but Nares was the first to take his ships all the way north to the Lincoln Sea. (see map)

The assumption that this would then open to an ice-free region that surrounded the pole was ABSOLUTELY wrong – Nares found that a wasteland of ice obstructed any further progress  – unfortunately  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 (see map), 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 over-winter.




From the north of Ellesmere Island teams were sent out to explore the region and collect as much scientific data as possible. Markham led one of these sorties.  But the men were totally unprepared for the dreadful conditions they encountered – they were issued with sealskin suits and wool Guernsey jackets these provided totally inadequate protection, the suits got soaked and then iced up- it is easy to imagine the horrors of these conditions. 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 at 83°20’ N. This was the expedition’s furthest northern 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 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 1876, 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 Markham party 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 less and on other days they were completely incapacitated by storms. Their clothes froze solid, their sleeping bags became encrusted in ice from their breathing and their sweat and increased in weight.  They were exhausted, but what would 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 and transported across the Atlantic in big vats, had considerably less antiscorbutic qualities than lemon although this was unknown at the time. In addition doubts had been raised  generally about its efficiency, on one expedition lime juice (almost certainly ineffective secondary to its transport) had been doled out daily and the man still developed scurvy.  In any event little lime juice was taken on this sortie.

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 the disease. 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. The virtual absence of lime juice in this sortie was to be bitterly criticized in the subsequent enquiry. 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 1876(see image below). This region was  over 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 further observations).


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 the 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 more than 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, public opinion, armchair experts were critical. It was said that the expedition had failed in its goal of reaching the Pole, (true, but for very good reasons) and 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.

Nares was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1876, He was awarded the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1877 and the Gold medal from the Société de Géographie in 1879. He was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1876.

He continued in command of Alert, initially surveying the Strait of Magellan. From 1879 to 1896 was employed in the Harbour Department of the Board of Trade. He retired from the Royal Navy in 1886. He was promoted on the retired list twice, firstly in 1887 to rear-admiral, and secondly in 1892 to vice-admiral.

He died in 1915 in  England, in Kingston Upon Thames  


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