Writer-in-Residence Jo Woolf discovers RSGS’s special connection with the captain of HMS Enterprise, who joined the hunt for a lost Arctic expedition.

Captain Richard Collinson (portrait by Stephen Pearce, 1855)

In December 1849, Richard Collinson received a letter that would change the course of his life.

“Dear Collinson [it read],

It has been finally determined that the Enterprise and Investigator should renew their search for the Erebus and Terror… There will be a commander to each ship, and a captain to command the expedition, and I am desired by their Lordships to offer that berth to you…”

The letter was from Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer of the British Navy. As the director of the Arctic Council, Beaufort had been tasked with coordinating efforts to locate survivors or news of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845, which had disappeared with 129 men in the Arctic. There was still hope that some of them might be found alive: in a subsequent letter, expressing pleasure at Collinson’s acceptance of the post, Beaufort added an impulsive postscript: “Give a cordial embrace for me to my beloved old friend Franklin.”

Richard Collinson, aged 12 (portrait from collection of Pat Brown)

As a seeker of the ill-fated Franklin, the 38-year-old Collinson was an obvious choice, for several reasons. Since the age of 12, when he joined the Royal Navy, he had served on many lengthy and arduous voyages. He had won praise as a surveying officer, producing charts of the seas around China in the early 1840s, and had risen through the ranks to become Captain in 1842. He was unmarried, and therefore had no wife and children to feel anxious during an absence that would likely last several years; and in 1849 he was conveniently on leave at his home in Gateshead, which was then in County Durham. Just over a month after receiving the first letter, he was on his way to the Arctic, via Cape Horn.

Collinson, as promised by Beaufort, was in overall command of two ships: HMS Enterprise, of which he himself was Captain, and HMS Investigator, commanded by Robert McClure. His instructions were to begin the search from the west, just in case Franklin’s ships were on the point of emerging on the other side of a newly-discovered North-west Passage. He had been told that his ships should stay together, but this turned out to be easier said than done. The Investigator trailed behind on the outward voyage; the Enterprise waited for her in the Strait of Magellan, but they were separated again in the Pacific. By the time they reached the Bering Strait, the Investigator was well in the lead, and McClure sailed straight into the Beaufort Sea without waiting for the Enterprise to catch up. The two ships would not meet again.

HMS Enterprise (from the collection of Pat Brown)

Meanwhile, having chosen to take a lengthy and circuitous route around the Aleutian Islands, Collinson knew that time was now against him. The Arctic summer was nearly over, and with it the brief window for exploration in seas that would soon freeze over. On 30th September, with his ship anchored off Point Hope on Alaska’s sparsely populated north-west coast, he wrote: ”…seeing no signs of any of our friends there, we felt quite assured that the season for navigating the sea to the northward was gone for this year, and there was no chance of any ship or boat emerging from the ice.”

Collinson decided to retreat to Hong Kong for the winter, and begin afresh in 1851. However, as the Enterprise moved up and down the coast, he heard rumours that must have raised his hopes of success. These came from Thomas Moore, Captain of the Plover, another Franklin relief ship that was moored in Kotzebue Sound. Moore and his men had spoken to different groups of native Inuit people over the course of several months, and their reports were intriguing. Collinson recorded them in his Journal:

“November 11th, 1849: The natives of Buckland River in Kotzebue Sound report that some northern people who had been trading with them had seen two vessels answering to the description of the Erebus and Terror; that they had been boarded by natives inhabiting the coast to the eastward of Point Barrow about the latter end of the summer of 1848, that they were working to windward against a westerly wind…”

“Michaelowski Redoubt, March, 1850: Reports that two officers and eight men had been on a river named Ek-ko, within thirty-five days’ travel of Michaelowski Redoubt; that they were in a very distressed state, having bartered guns and ammunition for provisions.”

“Point Barrow, July 27th 1850: The natives of Point Barrow report that a number of people dressed like ourselves had arrived at a river called Kopak, that they were now dead and buried by the natives there.”

“Port Clarence, September 18th, 1850: Some natives visited the Plover yesterday and brought information that a vessel had arrived at Noo-wok, some distance to the east of Point Barrow, that she was destroyed by the ice, and the people starved, a number of whom are represented to have been lying on the shore; from what I am able to understand, it would appear that this vessel, which they report to have three masts, must have been wrecked on the breaking up of the ice in the spring of 1849.”

Map of West Arctic America from Collinson’s Journal of HMS Enterprise

In the light of 170 years of hindsight, when we still know so little about the timeline of Franklin’s fate, these reports are like firebrands of possibility. According to modern-day theoretical calculations, in 1850 some survivors of Franklin’s expedition may still have been alive. Three years later, John Rae, an Orkney-born trader and experienced Arctic traveller, met Inuit hunters who remembered, in 1850, seeing 40 men dragging a sledge with a boat on it. This may have been the year when the abandoned Erebus was re-boarded, and sailed a short distance south.

Collinson felt that the clues were strong enough to warrant further enquiry. Before retreating for the winter, he put ashore three of his men - Lieutenant John Barnard, Assistant Surgeon Edward Adams, and Thomas Cousins - at Michaelowski (St Michael), with instructions to find out as much as they could over the coming months. Unfortunately, things did not go very well for these would-be Arctic detectives: they were caught up in hostilities between Russian officials and feuding Inuit communities, which ended in Barnard being killed. Collinson only discovered his fate several years later, on his return voyage, and grieved bitterly for his friend.

Resuming his efforts in the summer of 1851, Collinson finally began to make some progress through the little-known channels of the high Arctic… and so began a frustrating period in which his many near-misses with the Investigator and her sledge parties looked more like a complex game of hide-and-seek. Time and again, Collinson would think he was searching in uncharted territory, only to find sledge tracks or a message left in a cairn by McClure, confirming that he had already been there. As autumn brought the onset of pack ice, Collinson sought a safe winter harbour in Walker Bay off Victoria Island, oblivious to the fact that the Investigator, having already passed one winter in the Arctic, was now ice-bound in Mercy Bay off Banks Island, to the north.

Commander Robert McClure

Unable to move very far, even in the subsequent summer thaw, McClure and his men were destined for a two-year battle for survival, having taken risks which the more cautious Collinson would never have entertained. They faced a situation quite similar to that of the Erebus and Terror, some six years before; the crucial difference was that they were lucky enough to be rescued by other search ships that were scanning the area, so at least some of them survived. McClure, returning to Britain before Collinson, faced an automatic court-martial for abandoning his ship, but he was pardoned, and would later claim that he had discovered the last link in the North-west Passage, having crossed it on foot.

HMS Investigator by Samuel Gurney Cresswell, 2nd Lieutenant and ship’s artist

Collinson, meanwhile, proceeded at his own pace, making careful observations and charting the coastline as he went. In the summer of 1852 he continued to explore the seas around Victoria Island, which at that time was thought to be divided into three separate, smaller parts. By sailing into Prince Albert Sound and finding it a dead-end, Collinson proved that Victoria Island was in fact one single island. Several place-names on Victoria Island bear witness to Collinson’s presence, including Richard Collinson Inlet, Fort Collinson, and Collinson Peninsula.

Collinson place-names marked on map of Canada, published by National Geographic Magazine [ca. 1950]

After emerging from Prince Albert Sound, the Enterprise sailed south past the Wollaston Peninsula and then headed east through Dolphin and Union Strait, Coronation Gulf and the dangerously narrow Dease Strait, finally settling for the winter of 1852-53 in Cambridge Bay on the south coast of Victoria Island. As Ann Savours explains in The Search for the North West Passage, it was “…a considerable feat of navigation to take a vessel of over 400 tons, propelled only by wind or pulled by boats, through these uncharted and hazardous waters, where the compass is unreliable, and there are frequent fogs and storms during the navigable season.”

What is so fascinating to us now (although not to Collinson, because he was unaware of it), is that while he was exploring the east coast of Victoria Island, the evidence he was seeking lay just 30 miles to the south-east across Victoria Strait, off King William Island (thought at that time to be a peninsula, called King William Land). It is possible that one or both of Franklin’s ships might have been visible above water, and survivors’ camps would have been seen on shore. A handwritten message concealed in a heap of stones (the ‘Victory Point note’) would have told him what he was desperate to know.

At this crucial point, fate was against Collinson. Originally, he had planned to despatch two sledge parties - one along the east shore of Victoria Island, and another up the west shore of King William Island. However, on seeing the intensely rugged conditions of the pack ice, he decided to keep both sledges together for safety and restrict them to the east coast of Victoria Island. The irony of this decision is that John Rae had already scoured this part of the coast a couple of years previously, a fact which Collinson’s party only discovered when they found his message beneath a cairn. The absence of the Investigator was keenly felt: with two ships’ companies at his command, Collinson would have had sufficient manpower to explore King William Island as well, and history might have taken a completely different course.

The other huge drawback for Collinson was that his expedition’s only interpreter, a Mr Miertsching, was on board the Investigator, and might just as well have been on the Moon. As a result, Collinson and his officers were unable to communicate properly with the native people who visited them as they over-wintered in Cambridge Bay. If they had been able to understand their language, maybe Collinson might not have dismissed so easily a significant feature that these visitors included in their hand-drawn map:

“Mr Arbuthnot [George Arbuthnot, the ice-mate] succeeded in inducing some of them to draw a chart of the coast to the eastward, which was several times repeated, agreeing very well with each other, but were totally unlike the coast afterwards travelled over by me. He also appeared to think they indicated a ship being there; but in my opinion it was a repetition of his question.”

In July 1853, while still in Cambridge Bay, one of Collinson’s crew picked up a piece of driftwood which he describes as being “almost the only article we have met with which could have belonged to the missing ships…” It was about 51 inches long and consisted of two pieces of ‘fir wood’ (pine) nailed together. Attached to it was a copper hasp for securing a door latch, as well as screws and nails. It had successive coats of grey and then black paint on one side, and green and white paint on the other. Significantly, it bore the ‘Queen’s mark’ of an upward-pointing arrow, indicative of an item from a naval ship. Still unconvinced of his proximity to the truth, and realising that the Enterprise was low on coal supplies (which provided auxiliary power), Collinson ordered the removal of his official flagstaff from the shore and prepared to sail back the way he had come.

The Enterprise’s fourth and final winter (1853-54) was spent in Camden Bay, to the west of Herschel Island and the Mackenzie river delta. As with all the previous winters, a tarpaulin would have been spread over the decks to retain as much warmth as possible, and ‘snow walls’ would have been built around the ship for protection against storms. The men’s routine included daily outdoor exercise. Animals, including polar bears, foxes and wildfowl, provided opportunities for firearms practice and a welcome source of fresh meat for the table. From just one foray, a hunting party came back with 180 ptarmigan! To lighten the boredom, theatrical shows were put on, and games such as snooker, billiards, skittles, bowls and rounders were played on the ice.

During this particular winter, the crew even managed to publish a book called The Polar Almanac. The fact that the Enterprise had a printing press on board was not unusual: several ships in the Franklin search effort carried presses, which were used for mass-printing short messages onto brightly coloured paper that would stand out against the ice. In the hope that they would be picked up by survivors, the messages included the ship’s name and exact coordinates, as well as the location of any food depots. Hundreds of these notes were then tied to balloons which were released when the ship was close to land, eventually falling to earth with the help of a slow-burning fuse.

The Polar Almanac produced by the Enterprise, however, is extraordinary, because it is still the world’s most northerly printed book. Its title page announces that it was printed by Henry Hester, who was the 22-year-old coxswain, “at Latitude 70°08’ North, Longitude 145°29’ West”. It extends to 46 pages, and contains information about the crew members, the voyage, and significant events. Only five copies were produced, and all have survived into the 21st century - a lasting testament to Hester’s skill and determination as he struggled with freezing inks and a very limited set of typefaces.

Collinson, photographed in 1855 for the series of Arctic officers for Lady Franklin. (From the collection of Pat Brown)

The Enterprise returned to Britain in May 1855, having lost only six men out of a total of 71. Collinson had suffered from scurvy on the voyage, despite regular doses of lime juice, and thirty years after his return he was still afflicted by the after-effects in his teeth and gums. He noted in his Journal, however, that in general the ship’s company were remarkably healthy after five years in the Arctic.

Whether they were content is another matter. On long polar voyages, order and discipline were notoriously hard to maintain. A gentle and kind man at home, Collinson was a strict authoritarian at sea; even minor breaches of discipline were punished. Those of his men who regularly disagreed with him found themselves placed under ‘house arrest’ in their quarters. Like many naval officers of his era, Collinson turned to alcohol as a means of coping with stress. Two decades later George de Long, an American explorer of the Arctic, observed that going to sea brought out harsh qualities in a captain, but consoled himself with the belief that “…it is my office to command and theirs to obey.”

Any clues that Collinson had brought back about Franklin were pre-empted by John Rae, who had returned a year earlier with artefacts and reports of cannibalism that had sent shock waves through Victorian society. The search for Franklin would continue, involving some 40 different vessels over a period of several decades. Hundreds of men willingly dedicated years of their life to the quest; it was not until 1859 that Sir Leopold McClintock brought back the first written evidence from the expedition.

Meanwhile, Robert McClure and the survivors from Investigator had arrived home in 1854; he and his men shared the Admiralty’s £10,000 prize for completing a North-west Passage, albeit on foot as they trudged over the ice towards their eventual rescue. Their achievement had thrown up an awkward and unforeseen question of what actually constituted the accomplishment of the North-west Passage: was it merely the discovery of the route, seen from a distance; or the act of walking between two stretches of open sea; or the proper navigation from one side to another in a seagoing vessel?

Lady Franklin had welcomed the tribute to her lost husband, penned by his fellow mariner Sir John Richardson, that Franklin and his men “forged the last link with their lives.” How, then, could McClure receive the same credit? John Rae had a similar claim, having recognised - from the shore - a possible passage between the islands. Reluctantly, the Admiralty had to admit that there might even be more than one North-west Passage. Collinson’s contribution, of confirming navigable seaways and mapping parts of the coastline, was largely overlooked, although in 1858 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. The biographer Roland Huntford, in his book Scott and Amundsen, observes that “Collinson, not having had proper adventures, was deprived of his rightful due.”

It was left to Roald Amundsen, who completed the entire North-west Passage by ship in 1906, to pay proper tribute to Collinson. In his telegram to Fridtjof Nansen, announcing his safe arrival in the Bering Strait, Amundsen declared that he had sailed “in the tracks of Collinson.” He later described him as “one of the most capable and enterprising sailors the world has ever produced.”

Richard Collinson never married; personal correspondence reveals that he once considered marriage, but naval postings convinced him that his long absences would be unfair to a wife and family. He reached the rank of Admiral, and in retirement he lived quietly with his mother and sisters, to whom, it was said, he was “meekly submissive”, despite having once been an “autocrat of the quarter-deck.” In 1857 he helped the inexhaustible Lady Franklin to organise yet another search expedition (the Fox, commanded by Sir Leopold McClintock), and in 1875 he was granted a knighthood.

“He was a fine old master-mariner in the last days of sail, whose merits far exceeded their reward.” Leslie Neatby, The Search for Franklin

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At RSGS we have a special connection with Sir Richard Collinson. He is the great-great-uncle of Pat Brown, a member of the Collections Team. Pat explains that Collinson was the younger brother of her great-grandfather by ten years, and was one of a family of 16. She says: “When I started volunteering at the Fair Maid’s House, I discovered several articles by Richard Collinson in our full set of RGS journals. It was clearly my destiny to be in the Collections Team!”

Many thanks to Pat for sharing information and images about Collinson from her own collection.


When Collinson received Beaufort’s offer in 1850, HMS Enterprise and Investigator had already made one search visit to the Arctic in 1848 under the command of veteran explorer James Clark Ross, who sailed in from the east as far as Somerset Island. They found no trace of Franklin’s expedition.

For anyone who is interested in the story of botanist and explorer Isobel Wylie Hutchison…

(1) While plant-hunting in Alaska in 1933, Isobel heard the story of Lieutenant Barnard from native people, and she tried to locate his grave, but was driven back by mosquitoes! Her visit is described in North to the Rime-ringed Sun (1934).

(2) Camden Bay, where Enterprise overwintered in 1853-54, is very close to the sandspit island at Martin Point where Isobel stayed with Gus Masik before moving on to Herschel Island. Collinson mentions Flaxman Island, where Masik kept his boat, and Barter Island, which even then was known as a traditional bartering point.

 The story of Franklin’s expedition of 1845, and the subsequent rescue missions, is complex and absorbing. Some recommended reading:

Ice Ghosts by Paul Watson

The Search for Franklin by Leslie Neatby

The Search for the North-west Passage by Ann Savours

Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford

Erebus by Michael Palin

Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan

Visions of the North, a blog by Russell Potter

Cool Antarctica, timeline of Franklin’s expedition and relief missions

Parks Canada, information about the wrecks of Erebus and Terror

Journal of HMS Enterprise, 1850-55 by Sir Richard Collinson (reprints are available to buy online)

Biography of Collinson