Treasures of the Booth Museum

north pole plantsIn the herbarium archives at the Booth Museum sits a rather nondescript, leather cloth bound box, containing 9 trays of pressed plants. Embossed on the cover are the words ‘North Pole Plants’. The label attached states an old accession register number, and ‘no particulars of donor or date’ on the label.

Whilst researching items for a forthcoming exhibition, we took this item out of the cupboards, and decided it would be a very nice addition to the displays, but were disheartened to read the label. On showing it to our writer in residence, Mick Jackson, he asked to see inside, and there was a label stating ‘With Mr Bell’s compliments…’ and a note which read as follows:

34 specimens of plants, grasses etc. gathered by Thom Bell Esq. Surgeon of the Fury at the time of the first expedition to the North Pole by the Fury and the Hecla.
34 specimens of plants, grasses etc. gathered by Thomas Bell Esq. Surgeon of the Fury at the time of the first expedition to the North Pole by the Fury and the Hecla.

With Mick’s interest in polar exploration and my own interest in naval history piqued, we set about finding out a bit more on the subject. What was revealed was an extremely interesting story which has elevated this object from a non-descript part of the herbarium to one of our most historically important objects.

The Fury was the ship commanded by Sir William Edward Parry as leader of his second expedition in search for the North West passage, and exploration of the Arctic. He had previously commanded the brig Alexander in Sir John Ross’ Arctic expedition of 1818, where he was frustrated by Ross’s decision to turn back after following the coastline of Baffin Bay, and not making any new discoveries. On their return to England, his protestations led to him being given command of HMS Hecla, a 375 tonne bomb vessel converted to arctic exploration and accompanied by the smaller 181 tonne gun-brig HMS Griper.

HMS Hecla passing an Iceberg in Baffin bay during Parry’s first voyage.
HMS Hecla passing an Iceberg in Baffin bay during Parry’s first voyage.

Both ships were outfitted with 3inch thick oak hull cladding and set off to chart a route through Lancaster Sound, in search of evidence of the Northwest Passage. They travelled far past Ross’ furthest point of navigation, and managed to reach 600 miles west of Lancaster Sound. This was the furthest anyone had navigated into the Arctic at that point, and entitled the crew to a £5000 prize. The thought of this prize money probably helped the crew get through the 10 months they spent trapped in winter pack ice before they could return to England.

HMS Fury and HMS Hecla in winter ice at Igloolik, 1822-23.
HMS Fury and HMS Hecla in winter ice at Igloolik, 1822-23.

For the second voyage the slower Griper was replaced with the Fury, a ship identical to the Hecla. Parry moved command to the Fury. This second Parry expedition was aimed at finding a passage through the North West end of Hudson Bay, and through the Frozen Strait which the navigator Christopher Middleton had found impassable in 1742. The expedition continued until they reached a narrow channel of water, which remained blocked with ice. This strait marked the furthest point of the voyage, and was named Fury and Hecla Strait, after the ships. It wouldn’t be passed by any vessel until an icebreaker forced its way through in the mid 20th century.

The area of exploration
The area of exploration

The note states that Bell joined this expedition, however the crew lists for the voyages don’t show Thomas Bell joining until the third expedition in 1824. On this occasion, Parry retook command of the Hecla, and Commander Henry Parkyns Hoppner took command of the Fury. As on the previous voyages the crew were under orders to collect as much natural history as possible, and carry out numerous scientific studies as a ship of research. The appendix for the account of the third voyage shows that many of the botanical specimens were credited to Lt. James Ross on the Fury, so our object is likely the personal collection of Dr Bell. Parry himself wrote about and was cited as the author of a number of plant species they discovered during the Arctic voyages. The plants in the Bell collection are therefore some of the earliest collected examples of these plants, collected soon after Parry’s type specimens.

Plants collected by Thomas Bell on voyage of Hecla and Fury, 1824-5
Plants collected by Thomas Bell on voyage of Hecla and Fury, 1824-5

Unfortunately, this was to be Fury’s final voyage as she was damaged by winter ice, and was abandoned at what is now known as Fury Beach, on Somerset Island. Hoppner was found to be at no fault at his court martial, and the abandoned supplies and lifeboats helped a number of future shipwrecked polar explorers, including Admiral John Ross, whose nephew lt. James Ross had been a crew member on both arctic voyages of the Fury.

This object provides a link to a number of other famous polar expeditions and personalities. James Clark Ross, the young lieutenant onboard Fury would go on to map the coast of Antarctica, and the Ross Ice Shelf is named in his honour. The collection also links to Sir John Franklin, leader of the ill fated Franklin Expedition. During Fury and Hecla’s first voyage, Franklin was leading an overland expedition to the Arctic, and planted a flagpole and letters for Parry at the mouth of the Mackenzie. Under one of Bell’s specimens is a note stating:

‘A mushroom upon which Sir John Franklin was obliged to depend in the polar regions in the first expedition of the Fury and Hecla’
‘A mushroom upon which Sir John Franklin was obliged to depend in the polar regions in the first expedition of the Fury and Hecla’

This at least indicates that the collection was put together in its existing display box several years after the voyage, as it was not until 1829 that John Franklin was knighted. This makes sense as the box is rather cumbersome to carry around the Arctic, even on board ship.

As for Thomas, there continues to be some mystery as to how his collection came to be at the museum. An ancestry website does have some information on his future. He went on to become a surgeon on board convict ships heading to Australia, and made six voyages during the 1830s before settling in New South Wales and becoming a doctor. Did he donate his collection before leaving for Australia, or did a relative donate it at a later date. Hopefully some correspondence or record in old registers will reveal more.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

One Response

  1. Claire Warrior

    Just for interest – I think these plants were probably amongst things lent to the 1901 Naval and Military Exhibition, held at Crystal Palace. The catalogue notes a loan from the Mayor and Corporation of Brighton that included ‘specimens of Arctic plants’, as well as pemmican biscuits, a bow and arrow, harpoon head, and a cup, saucer and plate from the 1875 British Arctic Expedition.

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