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
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
"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
The line of exploration to be undertaken by you to the westward, UP Lady Franklin
Sound, is to determine the continuity of Grant Land, which I wish to be considered
of the first importance, as well as deciding whether Lady Franklin Sound is a bay,
fjord or channel.
As soon as you are ready, you will start with a 12 man sledge, victualled for 50
days, accompanied by Sub-Lt Conybeare, with an 8 man sledge, victualled for 42 days.
Both sledges leave the ship on 8th April. Mr Conybeare fills up Lt Archers sledge
with 120 rations (10 days for 15 men) and deposits a depot of 84 rations (or 7 days
for 12 men) on the 15th April, returning to the ship on 22nd April. Lt Archer proceeds
alone, having 53 rations for 12 men, and will be due on board ship on 10th June.
You must on no account cross any strait or channel without the assistance of a boat,
from the known currents the smallest rent in the ice becomes impassable in less than
A days halt for the purpose of ascending a hill that overlooks the adjoining country
will always add much to the general information.
Changing your hours of travel from day to night must depend on yourself
Deposit at intermediate positions, as well as your most advanced position, printed
records of the expedition, siunder very precipitous cliffs, from falling debris
Keep ample notes and remarks upon the coast you travel along, with data for charting
the islands and coast you may discover. Name on your chart all capes, headlands,
bays, inlets etc
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
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.