In the decade leading up to the first International Polar Year (1882-83), two British expeditions made major contributions to polar geography and science. The first was the 1872-76 Challenger Expedition, a worldwide oceanographic voyage that ushered in the modern science oceanography. The other was the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition. Only a handful of individuals participated in both historic ventures - George Winstone was one of them.
When the three-masted corvette Challenger put to sea from Portsmouth on Dec. 21, 1872, the 17-year-old Gloucester County youth formed part of her crew. Equipped with auxiliary steam power, the Challenger had been converted into a floating laboratory. Over the next four years, Winstone's grey eyes would see an astounding variety of plants, creatures and formations in the natural world. Among these were icebergs in both the Arctic and Antarctic, captured in rare early images by the camera's eye.
During the course of the expedition, many uncharted harbors and coastlines were surveyed, including the subantarctic island of Îles Kerguelen, in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean. In January 1874, an observation station was set up on Kerguelen for tracking the transit of Venus later that year. This was Challenger's main reason for visiting the island. On Feb. 16, 1874, ten days after leaving Îles Kerguelen, Challenger became the first steamship in history to cross the Antarctic Circle. But the enchanting beauty of the southern polar regions, with its glimmering floating ice palaces, was soon masked by a gale and snowstorm. The ship took shelter under the lee of a huge iceberg, and in the process, a circular current flung Challenger headlong into the ice, carrying away her jib boom. A narrow shave, but she survived.
After leaving Antarctic waters, the ship made its way to Melbourne, and eventually found herself in Hong Kong by year's end. It was at this Far Eastern British colony that the commander, Capt. George S. Nares, another officer and a few sailors, parted company with the expedition. All returned to England to prepare for the Arctic expedition, with Nares in command of a two-ship squadron, Alert and Discovery. A new commander of Challenger saw the expedition through its conclusion on 24 May 1876, when the ship arrived at Spithead. The ship and crew had logged 127,634 kilometres (68,890 nautical miles) and spent 719 days at sea. Along with daily magnetic observations from around the world, and establishing 362 observation stations, thousands of new species of marine life were added to science. Read a related article on the Challenger Expedition here.
Winstone had the distinction of being the youngest member of the new Arctic Expedition. In the midst of his time aboard his previous ship, he was promoted to Ordinary Seaman, and by March 1875, was rated an Able Seaman on the Alert. He came to have a leading part in the expedition's primary objective - an attempt to reach the North Pole. Other geographical aims were to trace the coasts of Ellesmere Land (later determined to be an island) and Greenland, to determine the distance land extended to the north. In the fall of 1875, the Discovery established winter quarters at the north end of Kennedy Channel, in a place now known as Discovery Harbor (near the north shore of Lady Franklin Bay). Alert went further up the Ellesmere coast to make her quarters on the northeastern corner, at Floeberg Beach.
In spring of the following year, sledge parties departed from both ships. One party from the Discovery surveyed a deep fjord to the south, now called Archer Fjord, after the officer commanding the party. The Greenland Sledge Party also set off from the ship. Meanwhile, the Ellesmere Sledge Party made its way along the northern coastline from the Alert, and the Northern Sledge Party proceeded on its journey over the frozen sea. The men of the last named not only dragged sledges, but also two sledge-mounted boats, in case leads of water were encountered on the march.
The journey north was agonizing, and one boat was abandoned on the way. In its 72 days away from the Alert, the party encountered massive pressure ridges and shifting ice. Progress was very slow, and the men were attacked by scurvy. By the time a furthest north record was achieved on May 12 (latitude 83º 20' 26" N), it was going to be a fight for survival back to the ship. One by one, crippled sledgers fell out of the drag ropes and some were so bad off they had to be put on sledges. The other boat was eventually abandoned. The sledge journal for Tuesday, June 6 reads in part: "Winstone will scarcely last the day, and is of very little use on the drag ropes; but he perseveres bravely."; and the next day: "Winstone is unable any longer to work on the drag ropes, and has to join our trail of "hobblers" in rear of the sledges." . . . "We are pulling 220 lbs. per man, and, as the snow is very deep, we find it hard work." The strongest man of the party volunteered to make a dash for help, nearly 40 miles to the Alert - it was their only chance of getting back alive.
On June 8, a Royal Marine Artilleryman died and was buried on the ice floe; his comrades had dragged him on a sledge for seven weeks, hoping to save his life. The next day, an advance rescue party arrived from the ship. Out of the Northern Sledge Party's original 15 men, only three were capable of dragging a sledge. In view of their condition, Nares sent out relief for the Ellesmere Sledge Party; as it turned out, it too was ravaged by scurvy, with only its officer fit to pull the ropes. Sledgers from the Discovery were facing similar agonies, and had to be rescued. By June 1876, four sledgers had lost their lives to disease and the elements, and scurvy was eating away at many of their shipmates. Though he was expected to stay in the Arctic until 1877, Captain Nares realized his people could not survive another winter, and he prepared to head for home.
Because the press oversold the entire venture to the public (particularly the unrealistic goal of reaching the North Pole), people lost sight of the expedition's geographical and scientific accomplishments: Three hundred miles of new coastline was discovered, as well as a large section of the Arctic region; attainment of the highest latitude ever reached by man; discovery of a fossil forest at 82º north latitude; and observations of mammals and birds and a complete collection of flora of the most northern known region, were some of its achievements.
Individual recognition from the British government was forthcoming in the form of a specially struck silver Arctic Medal. The obverse features the crowned and veiled bust of Queen Victoria, with the legend "VICTORIA / REGINA / 1876", while the reverse depicts the Alert in winter quarters, with heavy clouds above. The medal is suspended from a plain white ribbon. It was the first time that a British medal's design was taken directly from a photograph. There may have been a practical reason for this choice. The Alert and Discovery did not reach England until November 1876, and the earliest despatch of the Arctic Medal was apparently April 1877. With a time factor at work, bureaucratic wheels were set in motion upon the expedition's return, so that medals reached some recipients within six months. Every man on the expedition, or their next-of-kin, was entitled to the award. Engraved on the edge of each medal was the recipient's name, rank or rate, and ship. Winstone's medal is now held in a private collection.
And what of young Winstone? He was only 21 years of age when the Alert returned home, with his exemplary conduct noted during the expedition. He then went to the gunnery training vessel Excellent, on which he qualified as a diver in August 1878. But at one point on the Excellent his conduct dropped down to only "Fair". The very next month, he returned to the Alert, and was again under Nares' command. This time, the assignment was a two-year survey expedition to the Straits of Magellan and South Pacific. But Nares was recalled after only one season to take up the post of Marine Adviser to the Board of Trade, and Capt. John Maclear, Nares former second-in-command aboard Challenger, tookover the helm. In June 1880, while the ship was anchored at Coquimbo, Chile, Winstone deserted. Evidently, something changed and Winstone became disenchanted with the Navy, even though his conduct had risen to "Very Good" on his second cruise aboard the Alert. Perhaps a more romantic explanation might be that he was lured away by stories about the Australian gold rush and the diamond and gold mines in South Africa? His thoughts during this time are like unfilled pages of a journal.
copyright 2006 Glenn M. Stein, FRGS
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Friday, 18 August 2006 08:00
Able Seaman George Winstone: 19th Century Polar TravelerWritten by Glenn Stein
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