Voyage of Discovery – part 2

The Ex-Empress Eugenie (Bonaparte) was so concerned about the men keeping their heads warm that she had made for the sailors of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875 “special woollen wigs” to wear.  Nellie, the ship’s Labrador Retriever, would have preferred the same concern for her welfare.  It was only when Captain Nares, the leader of the Expedition, enquired further that he realised that the “Esquimaux” [sic] chief wanted her as a gift.  Nellie’s black coat had grown thick and luxurious in the freezing temperatures –a jacket made from it would be the most perfect present for his wife.  He assured the captain that the meat wouldn’t go to waste either.  The image below, shows Nellie rescued and safely returned to England the following year. 

Her Majesty’s Ships, HMS Alert and Discovery had left England to rapturous applause.  The Expedition to reach the North Pole had captured the imagination, not just of Queen Victoria and the British people but was causing a sensation world-wide.  The newspapers had explored every detail of the ships from their build to the foodstuffs they would be carrying, their planned route, the sailors, and the most exciting prospect of all: finding a sub-tropical paradise hidden beyond the ice packs.  (To read the story about the ships departure and the build-up leading to it can be read by clicking this link here). The journey would, of course, discover little else other than ice.  Sailing away from port in May 1875 to the sound of cheering and gun salutes the men were in high spirits.  These must have given way to deep trepidation when the two ships parted company from one another to sit out the Arctic winter separately amongst the ice floes.

Sitting out the Arctic winter

The ships had followed the coastline of Greenland northwards before crossing the sea in fine weather to Cape Isabella.  Here the weather changed and they picked their way through floating ice in thick fog.  Reaching Lady Franklin Bay, in the northernmost tip of Arctic Canada on 27th August, the Discovery set anchor for the winter, the Alert continuing its journey for another five days before being unable to progress further.  When the sun finally disappeared below the horizon on October 12th they would be in total darkness for 142 days.  For the sailors, hearing only the sounds of wind and creaking ice, the sense of isolation must have felt all-encompassing.  To make matters worse, the sledging crew that had been dispatched to reach the Discovery to give word of the Alert’s position had returned defeated by the weather.  They had been out on the ice for twenty days, the last two of which they had travelled in total darkness.  Riven with scurvy and affected by frostbite, several of the men needed amputations.  To make matters worse, they reported they had seen no land whatsoever.

Camping overnight on the ice

It would be interesting to know the feelings of sailor John Langston Saggers during this time and whether he was selected to be one of the sledging party.  Saggers – who is my ancestral first cousin – was aged 18 when he joined the Royal Navy and his conduct had been exemplary.  Five years later he would be aboard the Discovery sailing for the Arctic, perhaps chosen for both his military record and because he had served on Victoria’s royal yacht, HMY Osborne, the ship he would return to in later years.  One can only imagine the tales he must have told in his later years of his Arctic adventure.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Great care had been taken prior to departure over the welfare of the men.  Apart from warm clothing and adequate food provisions, the sailors were given facilities and equipment to keep them amused during the long winter months.  The ships both had theatres for the men to stage plays and they also had equipment to enable them to venture outdoors.  The men of the Discovery built a theatre on the ice with a 60ft x 27ft stage which they named after Alexandra, the Princess of Wales. They opened it on her birthday, 1st December with a farce, ‘My Turn Next.’  They also created a skating rink by pouring melted water over the ice which refroze to form a smooth surface.  The image below shows the skating rink with HMS Discovery locked in the ice in the background.

The sun reappeared on February 29th and plans were immediately put in place for further sledging expeditions.  With over one hundred degrees of frost recorded, one officer was badly affected by the cold.  He was returned to the Alert, his comrades taking turns to lie alongside him in an attempt to maintain his body temperature.  Although he survived the journey, he died soon after his two badly frostbitten feet had been amputated.  A week later, a small party of men led by Lieutenant Rawson reached the Discovery to tell them all was well.  The newspapers on hearing of it, reported with special pride that as the men’s frostbitten noses, cheeks and fingers were being treated Rawson jovially said, “at least the cheers from Southsea beach [on their departure from England] have now been fairly earned.”

Inevitably, there were a number of deaths amongst the sledging parties

In April the sledging parties started in earnest with small groups of men travelling in every direction.  On board the ships only the chaplains, medical officers and the sick remained alongside half a dozen essential crew members.  Exploring further north than any previous expedition, yet separated from one another, the groups remained unaware of the suffering and deaths of one another.  Although unsuccessful in reaching the North Pole they brought home with them detail of the birds and animals that they found along their way.  Of greater importance for future expeditions, they confirmed for the first time that there was “no open sea” or “an ocean teeming with life” or any “Elysian Fields”, only “an icy desert where all life ends.”  Finally, at the end of July 1876, the Alert broke free of the ice to rejoin the Discovery and together they began their battle through the slowly thawing sea on the start of their long journey home.

The sledging parties prepare to leave

The return of HMS Alert and HMS Discovery to England on Thursday 9th November 1876 was greeted with as much excitement as their departure.  Sailing into Portsmouth they were greeted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, the Lord Mayor, cheering crowds and massed bands.  The crew were allowed on shore that evening; the papers reporting proudly that “their behaviour has been excellent.”  The following day, back aboard ship, the men received three weeks’ leave and a month’s advance of pay. Over the following weeks the public continued to arrive in the town to visit the ships and an exhibition of the trip. 

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HMS Alert icebound as well as homeward bound

For the sailors of the Expedition there was still more celebration to come.  In early December the Lord Mayor of London entertained the officers and crews to a banquet at the Mansion House.  The newspapers noted that “all kinds of wines, and pheasants and plover were served, just as if Her Majesty’s Ministers were present.”  The wives and children watched the proceedings from the galleries of the ‘sumptuous” surroundings of the Egyptian Room.  At the end of the evening, the men were presented with gifts of pipes and tobacco.  Queen Victoria also relayed her gratitude to the men, thanking them for their dedication to service, their heroism and commiserating for the loss of life.  She also commanded that “… a medal be granted to all persons of every rank and class who were serving on the Alert and Discovery during the Arctic Expedition of 1875-76…”  For the ordinary seaman and his family, it must have been a sight so beyond their usual experience and one that would never be forgotten.   Records show that Cousin John Langston Saggers received his medal, albeit with an error engraved into the spelling.  Whether it is now in a private collection or still held by a member of his family or has been lost is unknown.

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Mid-day, Thursday, 9th November 1876: HMS Alert & HMS Discovery enter Portsmouth Harbour

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Of special interest to my American readers

Captain Nares of the Alert stopped at Polaris Bay, Canada to hoist the American ensign and fire a gun salute.  He also erected a brass tablet the expedition had brought with them which read, “Sacred to the memory of Captain F C Hall of the U.S. ship Polaris, who sacrificed his life in the advancement of science on Nov, 8th 1871.  This tablet has been erected by the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, who, following in his footsteps, have profited by his experience.”

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Over the years there would be many more attempts to reach the North Pole.  It would not be until 12th  May 1926 that Roald Amundsen scientifically proved that he had succeeded.

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Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Norwich Mercury, The South London Chronicle, Shetland Times, Fife Herald, The Illustrated London News, Luton Times & Advertiser, The Graphic

British Polar Exploration and Research: A Historical and Medallic Record with Biographies 1818-1999

Wikipedia

Voyage of Discovery – part 1

May 29th 1875, the official birthday of Queen Victoria, was a day of huge national importance. Excitement had increased over many months and now, the anticipation of spectacular success even more assured with the realisation that departure was coinciding with Oak Apple Day, the traditional day of celebrating the Restoration of King Charles II [see footnote i] to the throne.  It seemed that the world had descended on Portsmouth, Britain’s premier Naval town to witness the sailing of Her Majesty’s Ships, the HMS Alert and HMS Discovery for the Arctic, and indeed it had.

The ships making their way through a narrow channel in the ice – the Discovery leading. [Source: BNA]

The interest of the Monarchy in the ships preparation for travel had culminated with a visit from the Ex-Empress Eugenie [Bonaparte] and her son, the Prince Regent on the 22nd.  There they had greeted the men who would be sailing the following Saturday.  Once the Royal party had left, the sailors marched through the town led by bandsmen to Portland Hall, Southsea, where the Mayor entertained them to dinner. The hall, which had hosted the Officers two days earlier had been decorated with models of the ships complete with icebergs and banners.  After dinner, Captain Nares of the Alert, and leader of the expedition, made an appearance to “thunderous applause”, followed by many of the men’s wives who were entertained at a separate table.

The dinner for the Officers given by the Mayor of Portsmouth the week before departure [Source: BNA]

Amongst the diners that day was John Langston Saggers, who for the past few months had been serving on Queen Victoria’s Royal Yacht, the HMY Osborne.  He had joined the Navy five years earlier and his record had been exemplary from the start.  Perhaps of greater importance, he was well within the criteria to be aboard the Arctic Expedition ships: at 5’ 4” (163cm) tall he was five inches below the maximum height and he had the fair complexion common to almost all those on board, a feature noted by newspapers eager to report on every facet of the trip.  Single and aged just 22 years old, he was about to embark on an adventure unlike any other – the quest to reach the North Pole before other competing nations.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Attempts to reach the Pole in the past had always ended in failure with ships and crew either being lost at sea or unable to find a passage through the ice.  A belief held by many was that, if a way through could be found, the Pole may be the centre of a land with a benign climate where plants and animals flourished and potential minerals could be mined.  After all, they argued, had this not happened before with the discovery of the Americas?  This seems such an extraordinary thought in our now enlightened times that the full text can be read in footnote ii.

Map showing the route taken by the two ships through the northern waters [Source: BNA]

By Friday 28th, the men were on duty and only essential non-crew allowed aboard.  Of particular concern were the “Welch and Boucher’s Portable Lifebouys” – life rafts that had a central sealed food reservoir, the rations being sucked up through flexible feeding tubes.  They were also fitted with lanterns so that, at night, any man overboard could (as they assumed) swim to safety. These and hundreds of other items were carefully checked and tested.  Ex-Empress Eugenie had been especially concerned about the men having adequate warm clothing and had made, for each man, “comfortable, woollen-knitted wigs” for which the Expedition was “indebted.”

Newspapers reported every detail: “Implements and apparatus for the Arctic Expedition” [Source: BNA]

On the 29th, the departure ceremonies started early in the day.  The Royal Standard was raised and the men and officers all wore sprays of oak leaves in their button-holes as an expression of their loyalty.  Every ship in the dockyard was dressed from stern to stern with their signal flags, all fluttering in the gentle north-westerly breeze.  The Alert and the Discovery, ready to depart, differed from the other ships by only hoisting the St George ensign.  Piped aboard, the Lord Admirals of the Fleet carried out their final inspection before shaking hands with each of the Officers.  As they left, Mr George Ward Hunt, First Lord of the Admiralty, turned to acknowledge the crew before saying quite simply, “Good-bye, men” to which they responded with loud and excited cheering.

Plans had been made to keep the crew amused during the long hours of Arctic winter darkness Here they are shown putting on a play aboard the Alert [Source: BNA]

On Southsea Common a long line of field guns and troops from the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and other regiments stood facing seawards.   The massed bands became silent at 11.30 and soon after, the first deafening volley of gun salutes echoed across the water to be answered by volleys from the ships and three other places along the coast.  The ceremony concluded with a march past of the massed troops reported with patriotic zeal, “…the perfection of precision for which British troops are so remarkable.”

[Source: BNA]

On the beach and pier, thousands of well-wishers gathered to see the boats depart.  They had travelled from all over Britain with special trains being laid on for the occasion.  Wives and “sweethearts” of the crew were allowed into the dockyard and crowded onto the piers.  Amongst them, and consoling them, were the wives of Scottish trawlermen who fished close to the Arctic ice; their reassurances belying the dangers and losses that they sometimes endured.  On board, Captain Nares read out a telegram from the Queen: “I earnestly wish you and your gallant companions every success, and I trust that you may safely accomplish the important duty you have so bravely undertaken.”  The Queen also sent aboard two large parcels, one for each ship, with the order that they were only to be opened at sea.  I have yet to discover what they may have held.

The time had come to depart, the Alert being the first to leave, followed by the Discovery. Escorting them were flotillas of ships and smaller craft as well as excursion steamers carrying passengers, all bedecked with flags.  From the thousands of spectators onshore and from those on the small boats came cheer after cheer and shouts of “God speed” to be answered with cheering from the crew of both ships.  The newspapers noted that “…four hundred miles – as far as from London to Edinburgh only – is all that stands between him [Captain Nares] and Arctic immortality.  Every Englishman will devoutly pray that he may secure it, and return safe and sound.”

 I discovered the intriguing story of the Arctic Expedition when researching the life of John Langston Saggers, my ancestral 1st cousin. The outcome of the Arctic Expedition, the fate of the Alert and Discovery, and that of John Langston Saggers will follow shortly in my next post. Edit: This is now published and can be found by clicking this link.

The Queen’s yacht, HMY Osborne; the ship where John Langston Saggers had served prior to the Arctic Expedition [Source: Wikipedia]

Footnote i.  Oak Apple Day, also known as Restoration Day or Royal Oak Day, commemorates the day in 1660 when King Charles II returned from Exile to be restored to the British throne.  He had fled to Europe following the execution of his father, Charles I during the English Civil War.  Why an oak to commemorate the day?  It was said that he alluded capture by hiding in an oak tree. The tradition of wearing oak leaves has mostly died out but there are several villages in England where local ceremonies still take place.

Footnote ii.  “…the flora of Greenland has three hundred flowering plants.  What may not that of the North Pole number?”  “ …within 400 miles of the Pole man, Esquimaux [sic], has been found.  [May not} a race be found uncontaminated by the vices of the known world, and yet with some of its ingenuity?  …May we not find some ‘Arcadian Retreats,’ some ‘Happy Valleys,’ or perhaps the ‘Lost Ten Tribes?…’

Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Morpeth Herald, The Derby Mercury, The Standard, The Nuneaton Advertiser, The Illustrated London News

Wikipedia

On Brooms, Kings & Witches

The pea-like seedpods of the Broom shrub readily identify it as part of the Legume (pea & bean) family of plants. Easily grown in British gardens in colours ranging from cream through yellow to burnt oranges and dark reds, it is now a shrub that is considered rather unfashionable. Despite that, it deserves to be reinstated into the flower border for they take up relatively little space and give a good show in late spring. Generally, a tall, narrow plant up to 3m in height, there are a couple of prostrate varieties (of which the most readily available is Cytisus ‘Lydia’) that are perfect for placing on the edge of a raised bed. When not in flower the whippy, green branches form a quiet backdrop to other plants.

Broom watermark

The Wild Broom, Cytisus scoparius

In the wild, broom can sometimes be seen growing prolifically on motorway embankments and is one of the first shrubs to colonise newly-built ones. The golden-yellow flowers are the same colour as gorse, the two often being mistaken for one another. However, unlike gorse with its prickly stems, broom is spineless and soft to touch. In the photograph below and dating from the early 1970s, broom has quickly colonised the top of a newly dug quarry despite not having been seen growing in the area before. The flowers smell strongly of vanilla; when the seed pods have turned black and are fully ripe, they split open with an audible pop.

RAE BLOOM WOODS 1976 watermark

Broom colonising a newly disused quarry

There are two main species of Broom.  If searching for them in garden centres they are often found under their botanical names of Cytisus or Genista.  Centuries ago the Latin name for the shrub was Planta genista and tradition states that this gave rise to the name of the Plantagenet dynasty through Geoffrey V of Anjou’s (born 1113) habit of wearing a sprig of broom flowers in his hat. It was Geoffrey’s son, Henry who in 1154 became Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings to rule England.

Henry II Plantagenet

King Henry II of England (Source: Wikipedia)

A source of some confusion is the witches’ broom, a gall, sometimes found growing on birch trees. They have nothing to do with either the shrub broom or with witches and are so called presumably because of their superficial resemblance to the besom brooms that witches are said to fly on. They are actually caused by a variety of different organisms – insect, virus, fungus, bacteria – in the case of birch, usually the cause is fungal. They do not seem to harm the tree.

Witches Brooms watermark

Witches’ Brooms

In folk medicine, the flowers of broom have been used as an ointment to treat gout. According to my old herbal it also prevents rabies and is a cure for dropsy, jaundice, worms, kidney and urine problems. It claims it can also kill headlice. In the southern English county of Sussex, it was believed that just by sweeping the floor with flowering broom branches was enough to kill the head of the house not just the lice. Perhaps, therefore, it maybe best just to admire the floral display from the safety of the motor car when driving!