William Edward Parry's expeditions, 1819–25

Dates Explorer Ships Outcomes
1819–25 William Edward Parry Hecla,
• Navigated Lancaster Sound and reached as far as Melville Island – penetrated further west than any previous expedition
• Demonstrated that one could effectively winter far north in the Arctic.

Parry's first voyage, 1819-20

William Edward Parry was a key figure in the discovery of the North-West Passage. His first voyage, aboard the Hecla (with second in command Matthew Liddon aboard the Griper), made good progress to Baffin Bay and entered Lancaster Sound with high hopes. Parry was amply rewarded for his optimism and sailed right through the mountains John Ross had suggested enclosed the inlet. Prince Regent Inlet was investigated (and named) but found to be blocked by ice.

Moving on, the Hecla and Griper sailed on through Barrow Strait and onto Melville Island. In doing so the expedition earned a £5000 prize offered by parliament for any voyage that crossed a longitude of 110° West. However, it would be some time before their reward would be collected. The sea froze and Parry’s crew wintered on the south coast of Melville Island in the appropriately named ‘Winter Harbour’, where they would stay for what must have seemed an almost interminable 10 months.

Winter diversions

Parry's skill as a commander is evidenced by his continual attempts to ward off boredom and divert the minds of his crew from 'the gloomy prospect which would sometimes obtrude itself on the stoutest heart'. The crew put on plays (in which Parry himself took part) and even wrote their own newspaper, the North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle. During this time Parry also led an expedition on foot across the island, naming the bay he found on the north side after the expedition’s two ships (Hecla and Griper Bay).

When the ice finally relented Parry attempted to push further westward towards Banks Island but progress was painfully slow and rather than risk another winter on the ice the Hecla and Griper headed for England.

This was one of the most important expeditions to the Arctic. Not only did it establish that a westward route existed through Lancaster Sound, it also began to map the numerous islands through which the North-West Passage would have to be navigated. Beyond this Parry had demonstrated that with sufficient provisions, a ship and crew could winter successfully above the Arctic Circle.

Parry's second voyage, 1821-23

William Edward Parry's second expedition, 1821-23Parry's second expedition, 1821-23 - click to enlarge Unsurprisingly, Parry was asked to return to the Arctic. Remembering the pack ice that had halted his progress within sight of Banks Island he suggested searching for a more southerly route through the north-west corner of Hudson Bay and set sail from Deptford in the Hecla and the Fury in April 1821.

Parry sailed through the Hudson Straight and into Foxe Basin. Here he investigated Repulse Bay finding its name as apt as it had been when it had been discovered by Middleton 79 years earlier. Parry pushed north along the coast of the Melville peninsula, investigating bays and inlets to see if any might yield a passage west but to no avail. In October the ice closed in and the expedition was frozen in at ‘Winter Island’ for nine months.

The Royal Arctic Theatre

Again, keen to avoid boredom and despair amongst the crew Parry instigated a theatrical programme. The Royal Arctic Theatre was formed and presented a show each fortnight. In addition a school was established to teach reading and writing and an observatory was created on the shore for scientific work. During this time Parry learned from Inuits who were also wintering in the area that a strait north of their position reputedly led to open water to the west.

When the ice allowed the ships free Parry made his way to what is now known as the Fury and Hecla Strait. Sadly for Parry the strait was choked with ice, although expeditions on foot did reveal a body of water to the west. After a second winter in the Arctic and no further luck in navigating the strait, which was still blocked by a solid ice barrier, Parry was forced to return to England due to lack of provisions.

Parry's third voyage, 1824-25

Parry returned in search of the North-West Passage once more, in 1824, again with the Hecla and Fury, this time returning his attentions to finding a passage through Prince Regent Inlet. This was Parry’s least successful voyage. Ice in Baffin Bay severely hampered his progress to Lancaster Sound and the expedition was forced to winter in Prince Regent Inlet before it could adequately explore whether it might, when free of ice, form part of the North-West Passage.

When the ice partially relented nine months later Parry searched for openings on the west side of Prince Regent Inlet but disaster struck when the Fury was forced aground by ice. Unable to repair the vessel it was abandoned (at what is now known as Fury Beach on Somerset Island) and sank. The Hecla, with two crews now on board, was obliged to return to England due to a strain on resources, even though Parry thought he could see clear water to the south.

The voyage was not a complete failure. Although the search for the North-West Passage was hardly advanced the expedition collected much data on the position of the magnetic pole and arctic wildlife. Also, when John and James Clarke Ross reached Fury Beach a few years later the Fury’s abandoned stores would prove invaluable.

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All North-West Passage expeditions