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HMS Discovery & the 1875 Arctic Expedition

This narrative is in Memory of


John Langston Saggers
Able Seaman on HMS Discovery,  ancestor of my step- children,

and in memory of his son


John Martin Saggers

Stoker, who died on board HMS Black Prince at the Battle of Jutland, 1916
Honoured on Portsmouth Naval Memorial, Southsea Common

The story of the 1875 Nares Expedition starts in 1873 when plans were first made to follow in the footsteps of William Baffin, the American explorer Charles Hall and the whalers who were beginning to sail into northernmost waters.

Smith Sound, lying above 75 degrees north between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, had been named by Baffin in 1616, but the area had remained unexplored for 236 years.
Charles Francis Hall spent five years in the Arctic living with the Eskimos and learning their way of life before setting sail in 1871 in Polaris, a converted tug, steaming through the waterways from Smith Sound to the Arctic Sea, extending the known coastline of Ellesmere Island.


Captain George S. Nares was one of the ablest navigators in the British fleet, and he was brought back from HMS Challenger in Hong Kong to be given command of HMS Alert and HMS Discovery.

With him were Commander Albert Markham, Lts Beaumont, Parr, Aldrich, Rawson, Egerton, and Conybeare. Nares also had the advice of previous explorers in equipment, provisions and routine.


The men had a foretaste of nature's hostility during their crossing of the North Atlantic to Greenland, encountering terrific gales. Having taken on additional stores Nares secured the services of the Dane Petersen, and also the Eskimo Hans Hendrik, who had sailed with Hall.

In contrast to Hall's clear weather, the northward passage saw heavy ice.
Leaving caches of supplies at strategic points they were, in fact, never used by him but were to prove very valuable to a later expedition. He also had to correct faulty charting as they made their way up the coast. Discovery found winter quarters at Lady Franklin Bay on 25 August 1875, high on the coast of Ellesmere Island, while Alert went 50 miles further on through the Robeson Channel, to Floeberg Beach, facing the polar sea.
The aims of the spring, 1876, sledge trips were to trace as much as possible of the coasts of Ellesmere and Greenland so as to know how far north land existed, and to test the possibilities of attaining the Pole over the ice of the polar seas.


"In other successful expeditions we have had to deal with the work of strong and healthy men. Now we had to contemplate the heroic, indeed almost miraculous efforts of men who attained great results in spite of the ravages of a terrible and deadly disease. The seeds of scurvy had taken root during the winter, and no-one knew it. The travelling parties had started before the calamity became known, and of the 121 men in the two ships there were 56 cases of scurvy, 42 on Alert, but only 14 in the Discovery, in which ship we had a larger supply of fresh meat was obtained from musk-oxen."

The main sledging parties begun on April 3rd with two groups from Alert, one under Markham and Parr and the other under Aldrich. The first aimed for a new record for "farthest north" and the other to trace the coast of Ellesmere. This first one took two boats which meant that each needed all the men to move one load across the rough ice, so that they travelled four miles to gain one.
Though they covered 521 miles they were in fact only 73 miles from the ship. They had left the ship strong and hearty, but after 60 days on the ice they barely escaped alive. One boat was abandoned, yet progress was painfully slow.
Frozen sleeping bags, sleepless nights, snow blindness, then scurvy all took their toll.

On May 11th, at 83 deg, 20' 26" N, Markham turns them back for the ship, abandoning the second boat. Sick and exhausted they reached the ship happily knowing that the Union flag had been planted nearest the North Pole. As Nares saw these men he feared for Aldrich's party, and a rescue party was sent out just in time. Of the robust group that left Alert in April, only Aldrich and one other remained strong enough to haul the sledges. But for the determination not to leave the sick behind, and the timely arrival of the rescue party they would not have survived. However,  they had traced the northern coast of Ellesmere Island for 220 miles, rounding Cape Columbia, the northern tip, as far as Cape Alfred Ernest. Thankful to have them back on ship, Nares was anxious to know what had happened to those aboard Discovery.

The Discovery had also sent out two sledging parties. One, under Archer and Conybeare, to explore the deep fjord to the south of Lady Franklin Bay - Archer Fjord, and where they found a fine vein of coal close to the ship.



Extracts from “Journals and Proceedings of the Arctic Expedition, 1875/76”

Her Majesty’s Stationery Office publication


HMS "Discovery", at Discovery Harbour, 7th April, 1876
  Memo from Capt Stephenson to Lt Archer









HMS "Discovery" at Discovery Harbour, 4th May, 1876

From Lt Archer to Capt Stephenson:


In accordance with your memo  of 7th April, I started on the following day at 12.30 pm, with a 12 man sledge victualled for 50 days, and accompanied by Lt Conybeare, with an 8 man sledge victualled for 42 days. The crews were composed of the following men:



















The other party, under Lt Beaumont, that had mapped northward along the Greenland coast achieved excellent results against ghastly odds. A pioneering party led by Rawson left in early April to find the best route across the Robeson Channel to Greenland. A few days later the main party, along with Dr Coppinger, set out for Alert where they met Rawson, who led them over to the Greenland coast. Here Dr Coppinger turned back after establishing a depot for Beaumont.

One of the men also showed signs of scurvy so Rawson went back to the ship with him. As Beaumont mapped northwards more and more of his men fell ill with scurvy, and progress became slow due to soft snow.

On the 19th May, the day they turned back, Beaumont wrote:

"No one will ever be able to understand what hard work we had during those days, but the following may give some idea of it: When we halted for lunch, two of the men crept on all fours for 200 yards, rather than walk through that terrible snow "

On their homeward journey they faced the intolerable pains of scurvy, with stiff legs, raw feet and open sores on their shoulders from the sledges. Only Beaumont and one other man were sound when they reached a large depot across the channel  from Alert. However they were unable to reach the ship, so they decided to head for Thank God Harbour 40 miles away - the site of Charles Hall's grave, which was on a line with Discovery. The two able men made three trips to pull the sick men at a rate of one mile a day. With help from a rescue party they rested till they were fit enough to make a week long crossing the ice of Robeson Channel to the haven of HMS Discovery.

Nares, with many scurvy-ridden men, decided to return to England. A gale at the end of August smashed the pack ice so he was able to extricate Alert. Joined by Discovery they made their way home by November. Though the men had struggled valiantly, they had failed to find a way through to the Pole. However they had made important scientific observations and accomplished much valuable work. They had struggled for some miles over the Polar sea and determined that Cape Columbia was the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island.. It was from that point  that Peary was to make his journey to the Pole, it being a little over 400 miles from Cape Columbia

12 man Sledge:

 Lt Archer
  Robert Hitchcock, AB;
  Thos Simmonds, Capt Foc'sle.;
  Willm. Waller, Private, Royal Marines Light Infantry;
  George Bunyan, PO Ist Cl.;
  John Murray, Private, RMLI;
  Daniel Girard, AB;
  John Cropp, Gunner, Royal Marine Artillery;
  John Saggers, AB;
  Samuel Bulley, Stoker;
  James. Thornback, AB
  William Sweet, Stoker

8 man Sledge:
  Sub Lt Conybeare;
  J. E. Smith, Sailmaker;
  Frank Chatel, Capt. Fcle;
  William Wellington, Sergt, RMA;
  David Stewart, Capt, F.T.;
  Henry Edwards, AB;
  William Ward, Armourer;
  Henry Winser, Carpenter Crew;

Below is a series of Lantern Slides, originally painted on glass

These scans were kindly sent by Diane Horton and copyright belongs to her.

List of Crew Members

© 1999 -2011 Richard Caville.  except where credited to original authors, researchers or owners of images.

 All genealogical and military indexes are freely available from sources cited,

Therefore you may not charge for this information to third parties.

Please notify me where these conditions are breached.


Click HERE for  COPYRIGHT INFORMATION: Top 10 Copyright Myths - UK Copyright Service


About Me    I   Genealogy   I   History   I   Aviation   I   Scrapbooking   I   Contact   I   Site Map  I   Links