Monday, 24 April 2017

The Handsomest Man in the Navy

Alas, t’would seem that it is time for yet another general election in the UK. This wee surprise from Prime Minister Theresa May has occasioned a little bit of scrambling on my part as I will still be overseas when it comes time to vote. I’m going to have to vote by proxy and I’m keeping my fingers very tightly crossed that a form posted from Montevideo on May 8th will make it back to the UK in time for me to nominate my proxy voter!

So, in this time of great trouble and uncertainty, (“Will we still have marmite if we leave the EU?” I hear you cry!) I thought I might lighten the mood by talking about a chap that we can all look up to. A man who has done great things in Arctic and Antarctic exploration.  A man who was publically noted to be good looking! A man who had a whole ship named after him! That’s right; it’s time to talk about Commander James Clark Ross.
The RSS James Clark Ross berthed at Rothera Station

James was born on April 15, 1800 and a mere eleven years later he embarked on his naval career. I find that slightly alarming; I’m not sure what I was doing aged eleven but it certainly wasn’t starting a career. Stickers may have been a thing? And please bear in mind that this was in an age where lifeboat regulations had yet to come into force. There was no such thing as a standardised distress flare (that wouldn’t come into being until after the Titanic) and GPS was nearly two-hundred years in the future. British sailors in general didn’t even learn to swim on the grounds that it would merely “prolong the agony” if they went overboard! This was not a career for the timorous.

James was lucky in having an uncle, Sir John Ross, who had already distinguished himself in the Napoleonic wars. It seems probable that the rapid promotions that James enjoyed may have had something to do with his uncle’s influence and confidence in him. In any case, this rapidly proved to be a confidence well founded. By 1818 he was to accompany Sir John Ross on an expedition to find the North-West Passage.

The North-West passage was a hypothesized route to the trading nations of Asia through the Arctic waters of Northern Canada. Reduced sea ice levels have made this route much more passable of recent- but at the time that James went North, there was no certainty that such a route even existed. Regrettably the Ross expedition was forced to turn back after encountering significant amounts of ice, and Sir John was criticised heavily by the newspapers and the admiralty for not having pushed on.

Despite this inauspicious start, the grounding that James received in matters of scientific research and polar exploration was invaluable. Whilst on his uncle’s expedition he took part in many of the scientific observations and on their return to Britain received a post on William Parry’s expedition to the Arctic. James spent the next few years on voyages with Parry to the Arctic, and by 1825 had overwintered there four times. Parry came to rely heavily on his energy and scientific acumen. During the 1824-25 expedition alone, James took magnetic and lunar observations, checked longitudes, measured the thickness of the sea ice and continued his work in taxidermy.

Parry was shortly after to command an attempt to find the magnetic north pole. The men of the expedition man-hauled sledges weighing up to 200 pounds over the sea ice. Their efforts were foiled by the poor conditions; the sledges foundered in snow softened by fog, rain and sun. In addition to this the sea ice was steadily drifting south, and the men of the expedition struggled to match the pace of the southerly drift. Parry himself became snow-blind and James was severely injured on being caught between a snow hummock and one of the sledges. The decision was made to turn back after a week in which the expedition had advanced no further than one mile due to the drift of the ice.

In June 1829, James Clark Ross had been made a captain by the admiralty but not having a ship he was at something of a loose end. His uncle, Sir John, offered him a post on his next Arctic expedition. James leapt at the opportunity; he wouldn’t return to Britain for the next four and a half years. Frozen seas would prevent their return and during this period James made the discovery that he could keep his overwintering sailors free of scurvy if he fed them on a typical Inuit diet- plenty of fat and offal. You see? Liver is good for you! During the second winter of this extended voyage, James undertook a 28 day expedition to find the magnetic North Pole. On June 1, 1831 he found it at 70° 5’ 17” North and 96° 46’ 45” West. (It has since shifted both North and West)

When the Rosses finally made their way back to Britain, James was recognised as one of the foremost polar explorers of the day. He was a natural choice to lead an expedition to Antarctica to study magnetism in the southern latitudes. His expedition utilised the bomb-ships, Erebus and Terror (Isn’t that a great name for a ship? The Terror!). Bomb ships had specially strengthened frame-works in order to withstand the recoil of mortars and cannons on board which made them perfect when re-purposed to become polar exploration ships. The crew of both ships had cause to be grateful for their ships’ ice strengthened structures; by 1842 the ships were in an “ocean of rolling fragments of ice, hard as floating rocks of granite, which were dashed against them with such violence that their masts quivered.”

Despite these alarms, both ships penetrated deep into the Antarctic pack ice and through into the Ross Sea. James and Crozier planted a British flag on Possession Island and watched a volcanic eruption; they would later name the volcano Mount Erebus after one of the ships. Ultimately as they headed further south they found a large land mass blocking their way, disappointing James as he realised that this land mass stood between him and the discovery of the magnetic South Pole. The ships turned west and came across a vast and forbidding ice barrier, reaching a full 150 feet above the level of the sea. They had reached what would become known as the Ross Ice Shelf, although at the time James very patriotically (prudently?) dubbed it the Victoria Barrier.

In 1843 the expedition returned home and James married Ann Coulman. He promised at the time of their marriage that he wouldn’t undertake any further polar exploration (although she did release him from this promise in 1848 when he was asked to command the mission to find and rescue John Franklin). James spent his time living quietly with his wife and their children, and in writing “A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions in the Years 1839-1843” Writing pithy titles was apparently not one of his many skills!  I think we can all agree however, that of all his many achievements, the greatest of them was this; that Lady Franklin, wife of notable explorer John Franklin, did say that he was the “handsomest man in the navy.” Well observed madam, well  observed.
Commander James Clark Ross painted by John Wildman. Copyright National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London


  1. Excellent read really interesting thank you

    1. Thank you Karen! Pleased that you enjoyed it! And isn't he way hotter than that Tom Hardy man?