"A Peculiarly British Object”: Britain and the Arctic in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Exploration of the Arctic ocean and its surrounding lands has exercised a firm grip on the   minds of the British nation since the 16th century. The possible   discovery of new lands, of the North West Passage and the North Pole appealed to the imagination, patriotism and commercial desires of generations of politicians, naval officers, adventurers and traders and also fascinated the general public. The narratives of their achievements and disasters became a source of national pride as well as a stimulus to science, art and literature. 

This paper will look at the ways that the conception of the Arctic exploration developed and changed from the early 19th century to the 21st century in Britain    and the   response of different groups and sections of British  society to the  ongoing  narrative of the nation’s relationship with the far north . Disaster and success, courage and determination, awe and wonder have fascinated the British people, from the early naval expeditions, through the warfare of the last century to the present-day problems of climate change and conservation.  The Arctic has been kept alive in the consciousness of government and governed by the role of the popular press, literature by the modern mass media. 

Britain and the Arctic Martyn Frobisher
Martyn Frobisher
Britain and the Arctic John Davis
John Davis

Geographical curiosity and commercial success were both present in the voyages of Martin Frobisher, in the 1570s  and The voyages of John Davis  in the 1580s and 1590s gained the support of Queen Elizabeth and important courtiers such as Sir Francis Walsingham and began the mapping of the Arctic regions . The exploration of Baffin Island and the Davis strait was to open up an expansion of the whale trade, with estimates of up to 29,000 whaling voyages to the arctic regions between the 17th and 19th centuries .  The knowledge and experience gained by whalers was to benefit later exploration.

Britain and the Arctic Henry Hudson
Henry Hudson

At this stage the status of Britain as an important exploring country was emerging. Glyn Williams points to the evidence of British names for geographical discoveries. The search for North West passage seemed to become a British monopoly. The discoveries of Baffin in 1616 indicated the possibilities of the westward openings of Baffin Bay which were to lead eventually deep into the northern archipelago. The discovery of Hudson Bay by Henry Hudson  in 1610-1611 , the development of the fur trade and the consequent exploration of the lands around it led to the setting up of the Hudson’s bay company in  1670.

The land journeys of Samuel Hearne (1769, 1700 and 1771 )through Arctic and the attempt of James Cook  in 1778 to discover the North West Passage from the pacific added to the growing knowledge of the arctic . By the   late 18th century it had become to be realised that if the North West Passage existed it was probably to be found further north and would not be navigable by sailing ship. Gwynne Williams has described the 18th century  search for  the NW passage as ‘pursuing a phantom ‘ but the efforts of these explorers had in the mapping of the coastline of the north and west coastlines of America and some of the Arctic archipelago.   Much had been charted by British explorers.

Britain and the Arctic Samuel Hearne
Samuel Hearne
Britain and the Arctic James Cook
James Cook

The need for employing the redundant ships and men  at the end of the Napoleonic wars resulted in a renewed interest of Britain in  Arctic exploration and the search for a NW passage . This was advocated by John Barrow (1764-1848) ,the second secretary at the Admiralty. In his autobiographical memoir written in 1847 Barrow stated: “During this period of stability there was but little demand on the services of the Royal Navy . It had from the year 1817 afforded a fitting opportunity of employing a few small ships in voyages of discovery for the advancement of Geography, navigation and commerce.”  In an anonymous article in the Quarterly Review in October 1817 he had claimed that Russian ships  were seeking a northern sea route  from the north Pacific , not only posing a threat to British security in North America but also a threat to British naval pride.   At    the same time, Willian Scoresby, (1760–1829) a whaling captain from Whitby, suggested strongly   that the discovery of North West Passage was possible. In Account of the Arctic Regions  in 1820 he reported a very favourable year of ice conditions. In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, he described his findings:

Britain and the Arctic William Scoresby
William Scoresby

On my last voyage about 2000 square leagues of the surface of the Greenland sea   between the parallels of 740 and 800 North  , perfectly void of ice  which is usually covered with it. Now all this ice had disappeared within the last two years and there is little doubt but it has been drifted to the southward into warmer climates and there dissolved …

Unfortunately for Scoresby, Barrow and the Admiralty were not willing to entrust an expedition to him, preferring to keep the whole affair in the hands of the navy.

Jen Hill has suggested that Arctic exploration   replaced the war with France as  a way of expressing British identity: “ Barrow well understood that peace with France had negative implications for  England’s sense of itself as a nation and invoked nationalism as a rationale  in his championing of Arctic exploration.”

The motivation for the early 19th century explorers, naval men John Ross  (1777 -1856) William  Parry (1790 –1855) , John  Franklin( 1786 – 1847) and  John Richardson (1787 –1865)  was a mixture of  practical considerations; those of having a job, rather than being laid off from the navy on  half pay , a pride in utilising their  naval skills, and the hope of financial reward and fame if they achieved their objective . It was already apparent that   even if the passage was found, the likelihood of it being of great value to trade was slim, and theses early explorers tended in their reports and writings to concentrate on the geographical value of the exploration. The financial reward offered by the revised Longitude Act 1818 must have also had an influence on their decision to take part. when the Ross expedition set sail in  1818 , although  their instructions emphasised the importance of the  North West Passage,  there was the hope that “At the same time , it might like wise be the means of improving the geography and hydrography of the Arctic Regions.”  In order to accomplish this scientific enquiry the ships were well  equipped with  scientific and astronomical instruments and also carried  Captain Edward   Sabine (1788 –  1883), who was to take magnetic observations.

Britain and the Arctic John Ross
John Ross
Britain and the Arctic John Franklin
John Franklin

A voyage by John Ross in 1918 explored Lancaster Sound ,  and in 1819  William Parry  made more progress westward through the sound  reaching 110 degrees west reaching Melville Island. He was well rewarded for this , having a lucrative publishing contract and becoming a fellow of the royal society .At the same time , John Franklin  was leading  an overland expedition form the Hudson bay to the arctic, resulting the loss of 11 of the 20 men, mostly from starvation ,earned him the reputation of “the man who ate his boots “   

Britain and the LANDSEER . "Man Proposes God Disposes "
LANDSEER . "Man Proposes God Disposes "

The narratives of Parry’s and Franklin’s expeditions were eagerly received by the British public in the published journals and a wide audience through magazine like the Gentleman’s Magazine . Very popular were the reports of the way the  iced in crew sof the Hecla and Furu entertained themselves Francis Spufford commented “this image of tenacious jollity proved irresistible  the public.” The journals were well illustrated with engravings and subsequent paintings by Edwin Landseer  (1802 –1873 ) in his Man Proposes  God Disposes and Briton Riviere (1840 1920) in In Man’s Footsteps  emphasize the sublime in the Arctic Landscape . Diana Donald has used the presence of polar bears in both these works as evidence “of a growing Darwinian awareness that humans and other species are united in a struggle for existence in a hostile environment.”

Britain and the Arctic 11 Hms Erebus and Hms Terror
11 Hms Erebus and Hms Terror

Another reason for the popularity of Arctic expedition was the way they chimed with contemporary ideas of imperialism . polar exploration  was an important indicator of Britain’s global status . Barrow, in his anonymous article in the Quarterly Review in October 1917 had   thought the exploration of the Arctic and the North West passage: “A peculiarly British object.”

The exploration of the Arctic in the early 19th century was seen by the educated reading public through the lens of Edmund Burke’s(1729 –1797) theory of the sublime.  In 19th century Britain the obvious place to experience the sublime, even at second hand, was the Arctic.  An example of this can be seem in Mary Shelly’s (1897-1851) Frankenstein , with its themes of  curiosity of an unknown world and the overconfidence of man’s relationship with its immensity

The British newspapers and magazines reported the exploration of the Arctic in terms of the sublime or picturesque until the 1850s. Then as a result of the disappearance of John Franklins expedition  soon resulted in more popular and sensationalist coverage. Charles Dickens  (1812-1870) in Household Words kept up the increasingly frenzied  interest in  the search for Franklin 

On May 19th 1845, 59 year old Sir John Franklin set off  of an expedition which was seen as the final solution to the riddle of the  North  West Passage . As most of the Arctic coastline had now been mapped ,  it was felt by Barrow , who instigated the expedition, that  that a final well equipped voyage would be successful. He wrote No  objection  with regard  to any apprehension of loss of ships or men.” Andrew Lambert has recently drawn attention to , , concluded “Magnetic science dominated  the genesis and the direction of the Franklin expedition.” (arc 

The ships Erebus and Terror set off into what were some of the worst  ice years and climatic conditions  of the  previous  thousand years. but were well equipped and confident.  The expedition was last seen by two whaling ships in July 1845 and then disappeared. Concern for the missing expedition did not grow until the end of 1847. . In response to pressure from Lady Jane Franklin (1791 –1875) , parliament and British newspapers a three pronged  search was started in the spring of 1848.

 Jen Hill has  seen  this confidence in  success , even to the extent of not making any arrangements in advance for a possible rescue, as an example of  “Victorian  Hubris.” She also linked the  intense efforts to rescue the expedition  with its colonial perspective and  its role in the vision of national and imperial masculinity  “In Franklin’s failure to negotiate it , Arctic space was  revealed … to be central  to the way that  Britain imagined, justified and even critiqued their nation and empire.” 

.” In 1849 the Admiralty offered a reward of £20,000 to ships or men of any nationality who  helped find the Franklin expedition. Forty  rescue expeditions left  during the years 1848 – 1859. Much sledging , mapping and discovering  ensued,  some by admiralty ships, some privately by Jane Franklin and her supporters , and  two  American vessels.  

Robert McClure (1807 – 1783) set out in the Investigator and  Richard Collinson (1811-1883) in the Enterprise and entered the Canadian Archipelago from the West.  McClure was the first to achieve a North West Passage , although by sea and sledge, rather than by  sea alone, having eventually to abandon the Investigator. In 1850 15 ships had left to search for Franklin.

After seven years of unsuccessful searching, the Admiralty, focused now on the Crimean war, formally ended the search and removed the names of Franklin and his crews from the navy list in March 1854. Ironically, at the same time Dr John Rae (1813 – 22 July 1893), on an expedition for the Hudson’s Bay company ,  gained information from  Inuit he met o

.  Rae’s report also contained shocking evidence that Franklin and his men might have resorted to cannibalism:  This  caused controversy , and Ray was heavily criticised in the press. .  

The Franklin Expedition and the subsequent searches were not without value, as although no ship had yet sailed through the North West Passage the existence of such a passage, and the possibilities of other routes had been  established During the searches,  thousands of miles of dog sledging,  (43.000 according to McLintock )  had investigated  the intricate coastlines of the islands of the archipelago and by 1860 many of the main waterways had been mapped.

It was thought that Franklin’s and other expeditions had not   been flexible enough to adapt to Arctic conditions and use the examples  of  the  Inuit  to survive . Cavell concluded that Franklin’s men did attempt to hunt and to learn from the natives, but their party was simply too large to be supported by hunting in an area where game was so scarce.

In 1867 Alaska was purchased by the United States and  Canada became a confederation , both events  leading  to an increased interest in the exploration of their Northern territories.  

In the face of increased competition from Scandinavian countries and the Usa  Britain  decided in 1875 to return to Arctic exploration and  send an expedition  to the north pole , which failed largely because the lessons learned by the search for Franklin had not been learned. The failure of Nares and the success of Roald Amundsen (1872 – 1928) in navigating the North West Passage in 1903, followed by the claims of Frederick Cook (1865 – 1940) and Robert  Peary (1856 – 1920) to have reached the North  Pole in 1908 and 1909  may have been major factors  in the growing interest of Britain in Antarctic exploration.  . For 25 years no polar exploration was attempted until Scott’s Discovert voyage in 190l. During these years the experience of polar exploration continued in the memory and the   imagination, particularly in boy’s stories such as George Alfred Henty ( 1832 – 1902 ) and Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825 –  1894) .During the years up to the first world war the exploration of the Antarctic had the nost influence on the British imagination

The impetus and imitative for exploration of the Arctic regions was to come from a different source in the 1920s. Men of the universities  of Oxford and Cambridge  were to take the lead in pioneering a different type of exploration of the Arctic.

The expeditions that George  Binney (1900-1972)  led in  1921-1923 and 1924 to Spitsbergen, manned mainly by Oxbridge students  and seven servicemen  broke new ground in the motivation, organization and attitudes to polar exploring. The 1924 expedition used a seaplane to survey the northern Spitsbergen Between his three  expeditions, 1921-1924, Binney’s parties had mapped nearly the whole of North Eastland   coast and  a  traverse of the island was completed by a sledging party on the 1924 expedition.

 A total of 60 scientific papers were given on the results achieved and the expeditions were  widely praised for their  geographical mapping and charting. The interest of the establishment was aroused in 1933 by a proposed expedition to Greenland. The exploration of Greenland    increasingly became important to obtain the meteorological   and geographical research which would help determine the possibilities for transatlantic flight. Gino Watkins and a party of university men and service men planned to   examine the possibilities of building and utilising airfields in Greenland, which would facilitate transatlantic airmail and passenger routes. n 1931 there had been no measurements of the interior of the icecap, of temperature or of the depth and height of the ice cap. Members of the expedition set up an icecap station took weather observations on the ice cap. A party also travelled northwards up the coast  and investigated Kangerdlugsuak fjord  as a possible place for seaplanes to land.

Britain and the Arctic Greenland expedition

Flight over Greenland was to become very important to the allies in the Second World War. Both for transporting men and aeroplanes, and as a base to counter the U boat threat. This war time activity benefited from these 1930s explorations, as the eventual allied air bases on Greenland were near the bases chosen  by the various expeditions as their base camps .

Britain and the Arctic Andrew Croft and Sandy Glen
Andrew Croft and Sandy Glen

Alexander ‘Sandy’ Glen’s (1912-2004) second Oxford University  expedition to North East Land,in 1936  Spitsbergen had ambitious aims  which were in the main realised . Glen  realised that more work was to be done on conditions on the Arctic icecaps if efficient weather forecasting for transatlantic flight was develop. His party set up two underground ice stations in which various members of the expedition overwintered. His second in command Andrew Croft, a veteran of the 1933 Trans Greenland crossing, explained the scientific aims of the expedition.

Most important of all, however, was to be the continuous research on the ionosphere the region in the upper atmosphere which is responsible for the long-distance propagation of radio waves. This particular work in such a high altitude as 800 north was to prove of such importance to the development of radar –vital in the war that was coming- that all members of the expedition were awarded the polar medal in 1942. 

During the Second World War the strategic importance of the Svalbard Archipelago became apparent. Weather stations would provide information on conditions in the North Atlantic for Axis and Allied powers. In April 1942, Glen and Godfrey took part in Operation Frithham, which aimed to establish weather stations and investigate   reports that German manned weather stations were operating on the island. When the operation ships, Isbjorn and the Selis were sunk before landing, Glen’s Arctic skills were important in securing the safety and eventual rescue of the survivors.

The Second World War in many ways depended on accurate weather forecasting, not least the window of opportunity given by forecasters which enabled D day to go ahead. Much of the war in the European theatre depended on the actions of what Glen had   called “This curious, special little war in the Arctic.” and the expertise and knowledge gained by British explorers in the high Arctic in the interwar years .

The second half of the twentieth century saw the resumption of interest in Polar exploring by the British. In 1969   Walter ‘Wally’ Herbert (1934-2007) became the first man to be recognised as having definitely reached the North Pole, but in the second half of thr twentieth centuru , although scientists from SPRI and BAS have ongoing scientific programmes, the focus of public interest in the Arctic has shifted . Explorers such as  Sir Ranulph Fiennes (1944-) and Pen Hadow (1962-) have popularised Arctic adventure , with the focus on ever increasing overcoming of self-imposed difficulties , such as travelling solo , or without any external logistical support. 

Britain and the Arctic Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Sir Ranulph Fiennes

The British   public have become well informed by television documentaries about the Arctic and Arctic history and there is a welcome discussion of the role of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic in both the history and present day management of the area and of the issues arising for the  Inuit people over the long history of European  and   British  involvement with the Arctic environment. 

Another aspect of the Arctic with which British people are increasingly engaging with is the  reality of global warming and the disappearance of the pack ice in the polar sea. This has been led in the popular imagination by the threat to wildlife, especially the predicted disappearance of the polar bear.

The relationship of Britain with the Arctic has had some continuities and many changes in its 400 year history. Initial exploration was stimulated by the search for the unknown and desire to fill in the gaps on maps   but quickly became linked with commercial gain and the furtherance of scientific progress. The Arctic provided the backdrop for the development of British patriotism and heroic masculinity and stimulated works of art and literature, and has been significant to British interests for several centuries for its strategic geographical locations. British explorers, politicians, scientists and military commanders have all had cause to appreciate its influence, and the Arctic has always retained  a strong interest  in the  population at large,  from admiring  Victorian arctic panoramas to watching the Arctic scenes available in  documentaries made possible  by 21st century media technology.

It is to be hoped that Britain plays its part in the future of the Arctic regions and that conservation of the Arctic  continues to be “ A peculiarly  British project. ”


Archives :

The National Archives. AIR 8/1401.

The National Archives, AIR 20/1154.


The Times 

The Guardian 

The Telegraph


Quarterly Review.

Household Words 

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