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Picture Library catalogue: British Arctic Expedition 1875-76

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British Arctic Expedition 1875-76

When the two vessels and 129 officers and men of the Franklin Expedition disappeared without trace in 1847 whilst searching for the north-west passage, official Arctic exploration was virtually shelved by the British government for twenty-five years. In 1874, however, the political climate had changed and the government, under pressure from two Franklin search veterans, Clements Markham, Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, and rear admiral Sherard Osborn, agreed to finance the British Arctic Expedition. Organised by the Arctic Committee of the Admiralty and ostensibly a voyage of scientific discovery and general exploration, popular opinion deemed its major aim as the conquest of the North Pole.

Though recent American expeditions had had some success with small teams using travel and survival techniques learnt from the local inuit, the BAE followed the blueprint of previous British expeditions. It consisted of two large vessels, Alert and Discovery, each with a crew of 60 officers and men. Dogs were taken, but man-hauling was seen as the best method of arctic travel, whilst sledges, tents and clothing, which followed previous British designs, would prove unsuitable. Most importantly, provisions did not include sufficient anti-scorbutics to prevent scurvy.

On 29 May 1875 Captain Georges Nares, another veteran of Franklin search expeditions, led the two vessels out of Portsmouth harbour, watched by a cheering crowd of 200,000. Nares’ orders sent the two ships up the west coast of Greenland via Smith Sound and the Kennedy Channel where it was believed that an open polar sea would allow a clear route to the Pole. At the far north west of Greenland Discovery, captained by Henry Stephenson, set up winter quarters at Lady Franklin Bay off Hall Basin. Nares, in the Alert, pushed northwards around the tip of Grant Land (part of modern day Ellesmere Island) before finding a bay to shelter in on 31 August. It was the farthest north reached by any ship. The terrain which Nares encountered convinced him that the idea of a polar sea was a myth, and he severely doubted any chance of a successful polar journey, but he dutifully followed orders and spent the late summer laying depots in preparation for the Pole attempt. Lieutenant Pelham Aldridge achieved a furthest north but it became apparent that the expedition’s equipment was unsuitable. The sledges were too heavy for the men to pull, clothing was too restrictive and tents too small and of inadequate material.

The two ships spent the winter frozen in their separate bays, kept busy by the organisation of various entertainments. An ice rink was constructed, a theatre was built and lectures and musical evenings were held. Spring sledging started in March when a party was sent from the Alert to try to reach the Discovery. This was aborted when Niels Christian Petersen, a Danish dog driver, developed stomach cramps and frostbite and eventually died. A second party was successful, but the experience of the journeys convinced the party that dogs were not the best way to haul sledges. On 2 April the main sledging expeditions got underway. Commander Albert Markham and Lieutenant Alfred Parr led the Pole party. Fifteen men pulled two sledges with boats, accompanied by three support sledges. Pelham Aldridge and Lieutenant George Giffard went west to Grant Land with eight men and two sledges. A third expedition led by Lieutenant Lewis Beaumont and Dr Richard Coppinger were to go east at a later date to explore Northern Greenland. Markham and Aldridge’s parties travelled together for two weeks through atrocious conditions. They encountered deep snow and large hummocks through which they had to cut a path with shovels and pick axes. Soon after turning north, the first signs of scurvy began to appear in Markham’s team. Progress became slower and slower until, on 12 May with only two thirds of his team functioning, he had to turn back, 400 miles short of the Pole and the furthest north any human being had ever stood. By 7 June Markham’s party was still 40 miles short of the Alert with only two officers and two men fit enough to work. Lieutenant Parr, the fittest of the team, volunteered to fetch help. He reached the ship after walking for twenty four hours without a break. A rescue team was sent but arrived shortly after one marine had died. On return to the Alert, only three men had the use of their feet.

The two other sledging parties fared no better, both parties only surviving due to the arrival of rescue teams in late June and not before two sailors died in Beaumont’s party. Scurvy not only hit the sledging parties, both ship’s crews were also ravaged with the disease. Furthermore, the vessels were running dangerously low on fuel. As soon as the sledging parties were back on board, Nares set sail for home, the Alert only escaping after blasting a way through the ice with gunpowder. The two ships finally reached Portsmouth in November 1876.

On its return, the expedition was initially greeted with acclaim. Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory telegram and Nares was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal. It was not long, however, before public opinion, and the press, turned nasty. Not only had the expedition failed to reach the Pole, but men had been lost. Answers were demanded. An official inquiry was convened which blamed Nares for failing to carry out orders correctly to prevent the onset of scurvy. He was the only officer on the expedition not to receive an immediate promotion (he would later rise to the rank of vice-admiral). This official reaction endorsed public perception, summed up by one newspaper as ‘The Polar Failure’, but, in retrospect, this was not wholly true. The expedition had reached a farthest north, a considerable portion of the north Greenland coast had been mapped and some significant scientific data had been gathered. Despite this, the expedition would mark the end of the Admiralty’s interest in Arctic exploration.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.