Report by Sandra Millsopp
When Bangor Historical Society arranged their programme for the 2010-2011 season they did not realise how very appropriate the December topic would be. Members braved the cold and icy evening on 9th December to hear a fascinating, illustrated talk by Noel Mitchel on Irish Polar explorers.
He began by emphasising the very considerable contribution which explorers from the island had made to knowledge of both the Arctic and Antarctic. We were shown a seventeenth century Dutch map of the world on which there was a large southern continent. People believed that there must be a large land area to the south to balance the Arctic in the north.
Captain Cook was the first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle, but he could not get very far south because of the pack ice and the small size of his ship. He reported back to the Admiralty that he thought there was land to the south, but it was of no value or use. This became the accepted wisdom in the Admiralty and they did not push for further exploration of the region. There was a dramatic change in attitudes during the 1830s as France and the USA began to show an interest in the Antarctic. In addition whaling expeditions brought back information about the area and its rich fishing grounds.
The Admiralty then sent their first expedition led by James Clark Ross. There are two great seas at the edge of the Antarctic landmass and one of them is named the Ross Sea after him. The first Ulster explorer to the region was Captain John McBride from Ballymoney. We were shown his picture as depicted on a Falklands Island stamp. His father Robert was a Presbyterian minister. He reached the Falklands Islands and set up the first British shore establishment there in 1766. In December he sighted the French who were already established on another of the islands. The French subsequently sold their interests in the area to the Spanish. McBride was not really a true Antarctic explorer as he never crossed the Antarctic Circle.
The next explorer to be discussed was Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier of Banbridge. He was born in 1796, the son of a successful local solicitor. His father had business contacts with local landlords like the Marquis of Downshire and the Earl of Moira and this explains his sonís names. Crozier was one of 13 children and he entered the navy in 1810 just before his 14th birthday. Like most Antarctic explorers he had experience of the Arctic. After the war against Napoleon had finished, the navy had too many officers and the Admiralty encouraged them to explore the Arctic. Crozier made three voyages to the region between 1821 and 1827. Mr. Mitchel stressed that these voyages often lasted several years as it was necessary to overwinter in the region and then continue the journey as the water thawed out. Crozier sailed with Parry, one of the great explorers. In 1836 he sailed to Baffin Island with Ross and they became great friends.
Between 1839 and 1843 he sailed to the Antarctic as second in command of Rossís expedition. Their two ships were called the Erebus and the Terror. They first sailed to Hobart in Tasmania where they met the colonial governor, Sir John Franklin. Franklin was a genial man and a sailor with a very ambitious wife. He detested being in Tasmania. We were shown a picture of Crozierís house in Banbridge and his statue in the square. Four polar bears adorn the base of the statue. Crozier is one of the forgotten men of polar exploration yet he was an excellent seaman and a dedicated man. He was not flamboyant and had an unassuming manner. He missed out on promotions and was one of the few polar explorers not to get a knighthood.
His first voyage to the Antarctic was to the Weddell Sea. The expedition was away from Hobart for five months. Later they sailed again from Hobart, but this time their voyage took them to the Ross Sea where they penetrated as far as the edge of the ice shelf. On the way back they called at the Falkland Islands. Then they went to the Weddell Sea and came home via South Africa.
Sir John Franklin came home from Tasmania and the Admiralty appointed him to command an expedition to discover the North West passage. This route ran from the Atlantic across the north of Canada to the Pacific, but a way through the ice had always eluded explorers. Franklin was 63 and had done great exploration work in his early life, but he had not been to sea for over 20 years. He lacked the recent experience of Crozier who might have been a better commander. Crozier did accept the position of second in command. It was one of the best equipped expeditions to the area and they had supplies for three years, including tinned food. There has been some speculation that this might have been contaminated.
The expedition made its made along the eastern part of the passage from Lancaster Sound. The ice conditions were particularly bad and they could not get through. They then turned south, but got stuck in the ice north of King William Island. There they waited through the winter. The officers lived well on the supplies they brought with them, but they had no idea how to live off the land. The ships could not get free of the ice and by the third year they were becoming desperate. It was decided to abandon the ships and walk across the ice, but it was 1,000 miles to the Hudson Bay station. There were few Inuit in the area to help them. Sir John died on board ship and the command fell to Crozier. Meanwhile concern was growing in London and the Admiralty eventually sent out a search group, but they went to the wrong place. Lady Franklin had refused to accept that her husband had perished and she offered a reward of £20,000. Many expeditions set out to try to learn his fate. One of those who offered to go in search of Franklin was the 73 year old. Sir John Ross who lived in Stranraer. He did not think Franklin had been the right person to lead the search for the passage. He was the uncle of Sir James Ross and lived in what is now the North West Castle Hotel in Stranraer.
The most famous search party was led by Admiral McClintock. His group lived off the land and searched for traces of the Franklin expedition. They found no survivors from the 126 men, only remains of some of the crew and the boats which they had dragged across the ice. McClintock talked to the local Inuit to try to discover what had happened. The Inuit had met some of the crew and given them what food they could spare. McClintock found some cairns with messages from the sailors, including one telling of the death of Franklin. Crozier is still remembered in Banbridge by the statue and by memorials in the Church of Ireland. He is also commemorated by the name Cape Crozier in both the Arctic and Antarctic. McClintock had been born in Dundalk, where his father was a customs officer. He entered the navy at the age of about 14. Some of his descendants now live in Redhall outside Whitehead.
The North West passage was eventually conquered. Admiral John McClure from southern Ireland got a reward of £10,000 for being the first person through, although he had made the last part of the journey by land. Fifty years later the first journey completely by sea was made.
Another explorer with local connections was Admiral Beaufort from Navan, He was the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. He had been with Parry in the Arctic. He became an expert in hydrography and worked out the wind scale which still bears his name.
The most famous explorer from Ireland is Ernest Shackleton. He came from a County Kildare Quaker family. His father served in the police in Ceylon and later became a farmer. Shackleton was about 14 when his father died. He went to Trinity College in Dublin and qualified in medicine. His family did not have enough money for the Royal Navy and so he joined the Merchant Marine. In 1902 he was chosen by Scott to accompany his expedition to try to reach the South Pole. Later Shackleton financed his own expedition to search for the South Pole. He went to the Ross Sea in the Nimrod. He built a hut so that his crew could overwinter there. Mr. Mitchel had visited the area and taken pictures of huts built there by several expeditions. The huts were restored in the late 1950s by volunteers from New Zealand. We were shown pictures of the contents as they had been left by the explorers. These included sledges, biscuit tins and magazines.
Shackeltonís expedition failed to reach the pole.
Shackleton then had the idea of a transantarctic expedition. His ship the Endurance set off from South Georgia and was then frozen in by the Weddell Sea. Shackleton and a small group of men walked across the ice, dragging a boat with them. They then sailed in an open boat to South Georgia and brought help to the rest of the expedition. One group had been asked to lay food dumps starting from the Ross Sea, but they also lost their ship and were marooned for 2 years before they were rescued. The First World War brought a temporary end to exploration due to the shortage of ships. After the war Shackleton could not get enough backing for another large expedition to the South Pole. He set out on a small expedition, but died at South Georgia of a heart attack at the age of 48.
Finally Mr. Mitchel mentioned a few other polar explorers. On was Tom Crean who had worked with Shackleton. He later returned to Kerry, but the political situation at the time meant he was not fully accepted until recently. There is now a Tom Crean Society and Tralee museum has an exhibition telling the story of his life. Ted Bingham was a surgeon commander from Dungannon where his father was headmaster of the Royal School. He pioneered the air route in the Arctic. On his last expedition to the Falklands he took Blair Mayne from Newtownards.
Daphne Hamill proposed a vote of thanks to the speaker on behalf of the society for his fascinating talk.