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Longitude Essays

Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives > Longitude Essays

William Edward Parry, HMS Hecla and HMS Fury

William Edward Parry (1790 -1855) is one of the most famous and esteemed naval officers and Arctic explorers present in the papers of the Board of Longitude and associated manuscripts. Having made a study of mathematics and astronomy during the three years he spent aboard the frigate Alexandria, defending the Spitsbergen whaling fleet between 1810-1813, Parry managed to promote himself to The Admiralty as a man fit for service on voyages of discovery.

One of the key manuscripts relating to Parry in the Board of Longitude papers is the 1818 Act [RGO 14/1:79r] of Parliament that offers a reward for degrees west approaching near to the Northwest Passage or North Pole. This Act of Parliament resulted in the Arctic coast of north America becoming a centre for imperial scientific work and interest; as it became established as a privileged field sight, men of science returned year after year to the same locations to perform experiments and observations.

In order to voyage to such places, ships had to be specially reinforced to cope with ice. HMS Hecla was a Royal Navy Fury-class bomb vessel launched in 1815, named for the Hekla volcano in Iceland, and was converted to an Arctic exploration ship in 1819 in preparation for her first voyage under the command of Parry. Companioned by HMS Griper , the two ships reached a longitude 112°51' West before backtracking to winter off Melville Island. No ship was able to travel so far west again in a single season until 1910, when Joseph-Elzéar Bernier reached Cape Dundas on Melville Island. Parry along with several other members of his crew were interviewed by Thomas Young and other Commissioners of the Board of Longitude upon their return to verify their claim for £5000, the smallest sum for attaining a furthest western latitude offered in the 1818 Longitude Act. The interviews of Lieutenants William Edward Parry, Matthew Liddon and Henry Parkins Hoppner along with astronomer Edward Sabine are contained within the minutes of an extraordinary meeting of the Board from November 1820.

The next year Parry made a second attempt on the Northwest Passage, this time in command of HMS Fury , whilst the Hecla was commanded by George Francis Lyon. The furthest point reached by these two ships, the perpetually frozen strait between Foxe Basin and the Gulf of Boothia, was re-named after the two ships, Fury and Hecla Strait. Leaving in May 1821 and not returning until November 1823, the voyage returned with volumes of observations, surveys, records and investigations; many of which were written up for publication whilst some of the original manuscripts are now within the Board of Longitude archive and associated papers. For example Parry’s meteorological logbooks [FIS/11/1] from 1819 to 1823 are part of the Fisher Collection. Additionally there are several volumes filled with George Fisher’s observations, investigations, theoretical speculations and mathematical work. These volumes cover Fisher’s thinking on the Aurora Borealis [FIS/20], his measurements of the velocity of sound [FIS/6/A], celestial observations [FIS/6/B] as well as navigational observations and reductions [FIS/7]. A more eclectic volume [FIS/8] contains readings and work on the contraction rates of different metal in extremely low temperatures, the effect of the cold and the Aurora Borealis on different chemicals and the specific gravity of sea water from different depths. Finally there is also a volume [FIS/9] produced by Fisher which contains a vast quantity of astronomical observations, some simply for the purpose of navigation and others to determine the rates of refraction for objects close to the horizon in cold temperatures.

Parry commanded another voyage with the Hecla and Fury, again in pursuit of the Northwest Passage in 1824; unable to get as far west in this voyage of 1824 as they had several years earlier, the Fury was badly damaged and abandoned at Prince Regent Inlet and the crews returned home on the Hecla arriving in October 1825. Finally in 1827 Parry used the Hecla in an attempt on the North Pole. Sailing from Spitsbergen he reached 82°45'N. After this, Parry returned to London and resumed duties as Hydrographer of the Navy, a position he had received in 1823. The Hecla was engaged with surveying the West African Coast between 1828 and 1831 after which she was sold off by the Navy.

Sophie Waring
History and Philosophy of Science
University of Cambridge