Tag Archives: North Pole


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George Nares was withdrawn from the  ‘Challenger Expedition’  to take charge of an important Arctic expedition, theBritish Arctic Expedition, because of his previous experience in the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  



13 Nov

On our cruise to Norway and Spitsbergen we visited the Polar Museum in Tromso – many details of Roald Amundsen’s expeditions; lantern slides, original letters, photographs, newspaper articles, which gave information about his attempts at the North Pole and the North West Passage in 1906, and his plans for a further attempt to go north in 1909. Also information about his successful expedition to the South Pole in 1911

 I was of course, particularly interested by Amundsen’s change of plans, his decision to sail south from Madeira in September 1910 instead on north: Why did he do this and why did he keep the plans secret? The explanation was funding. 
 In 1910 he wrote that although the plan to take ‘Fram’ south rather than north could be interpreted as a change of plan, this was not the case; it was actually an extension of the original plan, an extension needed so he could be sure of attracting sufficient funds and equipment for the long drift on the polar ice. He wrote that he had actually changed his plans in 1909, secondary to the announcement that the Americans, Peary and Cook had claimed to have got to the North Pole. This claim would have deterred donors from giving Amundsen the necessary funds for his northern plans. Something else was needed to attract public attention and interest in order to attract the large amount of money still needed.
In August 1910, he wrote to Nansen (who he had not informed before sailing), in the same vein. He started his letter; ‘It is not easy to send you these lines, but there is no way to avoid it, and therefore I will just have to tell it to you straight. When the news from the Cook, and later the Peary, expeditions came to my knowledge last autumn, I instantly understood that this was the death sentence for my own plans. I immediately concluded that after this I could not be expected to secure the financial support I required for the expedition’. He said that the Norwegian Parliament’s decisions to decline requests for support proved him right. He did not want to abandon his plans but he realised that the South Pole, the main remaining challenge in the Polar Regions, was the one to excite public interest. He had not told Nansen of his plans because he was afraid that Nansen would stop him. He had no animosity against Scott and wanted to meet him.
He wrote that he was sending the King the same message and that his brother would make a public announcement a few days after Nansen had received the message.
He did not go back to the ‘long drift on the polar ice’ and the scientific expedition he had planned to the north. But his achievement in reaching the South Pole first was magnificent. He attracted world fame, international attention and he lectured widely to fascinated audiences.