By Haydn Brown.
The era of the ‘Pax Britannic’ was the period of relative peace between the Great Powers, during which the British Empire became the global hegemonic power and adopted the role of a “global policeman”. However, the period was anything but peaceful for many Royal Navy Officers, and few saw as much active service as Samuel Gurney Cresswell of Kings Lynn, Norfolk. It was he who contrived to fight in the Baltic campaign of the ‘Crimean War’ – the first-time whole battle fleets maneuvered and fought under steam power. He then achieved fame as an Arctic explorer (being credited with being the first to traverse the much sought-after North West Passage, as the result of a truly epic sledging trip form the trapped HMS Investigator in 1853).
As his career advanced, Cresswell rose to sea-going command, and played his part in the imperial coercion of China, which included amphibious operations and the suppression of piracy in the South China Sea. Throughout his action-packed service, he always found time to keep journals and to correspond with his family. He was an acute observer of the closed world of the Victorian navy, as well as the exotic climes he was privileged to visit. His lively first-hand accounts form the raw material for subsequent books. Like other contemporary sailors, he could also express his observations in competent drawings and watercolours, but with a skill of a higher order. Indeed, he was to be summoned to the Palace to present his Arctic sketches to Queen Victoria, and they were eventually issued as lithographs. However, most were never published at the time.
In the Beginning:
Overlooking King’s Staithe Square and the Great Ouse River at King’s Lynn is Bank House, a glorious Georgian townhouse built by a wealthy wine merchant who shipped imported wine downriver to the Cambridge colleges and the Bishops of Ely. It was here in the 1780s that Joseph Gurney, later a founder of the present-day Barclays Bank, set up his first bank. Bank House was also where Captain Samuel Gurney Cresswell, the Arctic Explorer, was born on 25 Sept 1827 (1827-1867). The house was built on the former site of the 16the Century Port Tollbooth.
Samuel Gurney Cresswell was born on 25 September 1827, the third son of Francis Cresswell Esq. (Banker, born 1789) and Rachel Elizabeth Fry (born 1803, London, Middlesex), daughter of Elizabeth Fry, née Gurney, the distinguished philanthropist and prison reformer. Samuel Cresswell had two older brothers (Frank Joseph and Addison John), three who were younger (William Edward, Gerard Oswin, and Oswald) and one sister, (Harriet France Elizabeth). The Cresswell’s’ circle in Norfolk included the Gurneys as well as Sir Edward Parry.
Cresswell’s Life and Career Thereafter:
From his childhood, Samuel Gurney Cresswell expressed a keen desire to go to sea rather than pursue a formal education at Harrow as his older brothers had done. His parents, having sought the advice of Sir William Edward Parry, an intimate family friend “in whose judgement…… [they] had perfect confidence,” decided that Samuel, aged 14, would enter the Royal Navy. This he did, first to serve as a midshipman on board ‘HMS Agincourt’ under Sir Thomas John Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the East India and China station. During this period, which was between 1845 and 1847 Cresswell distinguished himself in several actions against pirates in Borneo and Brunei; a further promotion followed in September 1847.
While Cresswell was serving in the far-east, Sir John Franklin was leading an expedition in search of the North-West Passage, a navigable route between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Franklin had sailed from Greenhithe on 19 May 1845 with 129 officers and men aboard the ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ – both fitted out with state-of-the-art equipment. Franklin’s ships passed from the Atlantic through the Davis Strait into Baffin Bay and were last seen on 26 July at the entrance to Lancaster sound, moored to an iceberg.
Back at Portsmouth, England and serving on ‘HMS Excellent’, Cresswell was next promoted to 6th Mate on April 1848; one month later, in May 1848 he was transferred to ‘HMS Investigator’ to take part in Sir James Clark Ross’s Arctic expedition in search of the ill-fated Sir John Franklin’s expedition ships which remained missing. During the search, on 10 Sept. 1849 to be exact, Cresswell was promoted to 2nd lieutenant; then, within three weeks of his return to England in November 1849, he voluntarily re-joined ‘HMS Investigator’ as a member of Robert John Le Mesurier McClure’s Arctic expedition, both in the continuing search for the Northwest Passage and also as part of the second Franklin search expedition. The search would be attempted from the Pacific coast of America and travelling eastwards via the Bering Strait. Little did McClure know when he set out that nearly four years would elapse of fruitless searching.
McClure’s expedition actually set sail in January 1850 and encountered the first ice west of Barrow Point in the August of that same year. Having entered the North-West Passage from the Bering Strait it attempted to sail further eastwards but the ship became trapped in pack ice in the autumn of 1851. Come the 26 October and a travelling party from McClure’s ship was held fast off Banks Land but manage to establish that the Prince of Wales Strait did connect to Viscount Melville Sound. Melville Island itself, first discovered 34 years earlier by Parry who had approached from the opposite direction, was clearly seen by the members of McClure’s party from their elevated position; it lay across the entrance to Prince of Wales Strait. It was this that gave indisputable proof of the existence of the Northwest Passage:
“The highway to England from ocean to ocean lay before us”!
As thing were at the time, the excessive heavy ice conditions during the summers of 1851 and 1852 prevented McClure’s expedition from making any further progress eastward, and it was forced to winter throughout 1851–1853 at the Bay of Mercy. It was at this point, when McClure’s ship was finally abandoned, and although the events of that period were fully documented, the location of the HMS Investigator wreck was not known for over 150 years; it would be in July 2010 when it was found, at a depth of 8 metres, just off Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea.
Back in 1853, the expedition was faced with the prospect of starvation but was located on 6 April that year by a sledge party sent by Captain Henry Kellett, commander of ‘HMS Resolute’, which was also on the Franklin search expedition under Captain Sir Edward Belcher. Cresswell, along with 24 invalids, followed McClure on the 170-mile trek to Kellett’s winter camp at Dealy Island, located off Melville Island. Arriving in good health, Cresswell volunteered to continue overland for about 300 miles to Beechey Island in the hope of meeting a ship.
By an incredible stroke of luck, he encountered the ‘HMS Phoenix’ under the command of Captain Inglefield, who had arrived on 2 August 1853. It was on this ship that Lieut. Cresswell set sail for home, via Scotland, on the 23 August. Understandably, he triumphantly had in his possession McClure’s dispatches to the Admiralty which established him, Cresswell and his party, as the living proof of not only the discovery of the long-sought for Northwest Passage by Sir Franklin, but also his own success of being the first to traverse this passage. In 1854 Captain McClure was awarded a knighthood for his leadership throughout.
On 26 October 1853, a public dinner was held in his honour at the Kings Lynn Assembly Rooms, organised by his native townsmen; tickets were 1 guinea each. It was after a lavish banquet when the Town Clerk read out a ‘Congratulatory Address’ and the Mayor, Lionel Self, presented Lieut. Cresswell with a copy on an illuminated scroll of vellum to which the Corporate seal was attached by a golden cord. Lieut. As tradition dictated, Cresswell returned the compliment by thanking his audience and regaling them with some of the hardships which he had suffered whilst leading his sledging party across the ice:
‘We used to travel all night, about 10 hours, and then encamp, light our spirits of wine, put our small kettle on it to thaw the snow water, and after we had our supper – just a piece of pemmican and a glass of water – we were very glad to get in, after smoking our pipes (“Bravo,” and laughter). The first thing we did after pitching the tent was to lay a sort of Macintosh cloth over the snow. On this would be a piece of buffalo robe stretched. Each man and officer had a blanket sewed up in the form of a bag, and this we used to jump into, much the same as you may see a boy in a sack (laughter). We lay down, head and feet, the next person having his feet to my head, and his head to my feet, just the same as herrings in a barrel (laughter). After this we covered ourselves with skins over the whole of us, and the closer we got the better, as there was more warmth (laughter).’
Coincidentally, it was noted that the public dinner actually took place on the third anniversary of the discovery of the North-West Passage. It was also fitting at this celebratory dinner that a tribute was paid by Rear-Admiral Parry to Cresswell; Parry being the person who had been influential in Cresswell’s career and felt a personal responsibility for his safety.
On the mystery of Sir Franklin’s disappearance, the Government of the day gave up the search for him and his ships in 1855 when it was discovered that a few survivors had attempted to reach the Hudson’s Bay Company’s settlement. However, Lady Franklin was not satisfied and organised another search, which proved to also be unsuccessful. The fate of the Franklin’s expedition (but not the location of the two ships) was finally revealed in the Spring of 1859. As it was, the Captains and crews had all but completed the navigation of the North-West passage and, for this reason, Sir Franklin was given the honour of its discovery.
As for the ship’s crew, they were last seen on King William Island but would never return to England. Their apparent disappearance at the time, prompted a massive search that continued unsuccessfully for nearly 170 years. In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada did, finally, discover the wreck of ‘HMS Erebus, and two years later, the wreck of ’HMS Terror’ was located. Historical research, local knowledge and the support of others made these discoveries possible. Now Parks Canada are working manage this fascinating National Historic Site. Public access to the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site is not yet allowed.
Subsequently, and until his promotion to Commander on 21 October 1854, Cresswell served on HMS Archer in the Baltic during the Russian War. It was while he was stationed in the China Seas in 1857-58 as commander of ‘HMS Surprise’, that he was promoted to Captain; that was on 17 September 1858. It was during this posting that Cresswell met with ill health from which he never fully recovered. It seems his years in the Arctic wastes had ruined his health and he retired in February 1867, dying, unmarried on 14 August 1867 at Bank House, his mother’s home in Kings Lynn, aged only 39 years.
Cresswell’s Artistic Talents:
Cresswell, while on the Ross and McClure expeditions, executed numerous water-colours which today provide a valuable pictorial record of the crews’ activities and Arctic terrain. Some of his sketches, suitably ironed flat from their rolled-up state and placed in an album, were presented personally to Queen Victoria with a request for permission to dedicate a volume of lithographic views after the drawings to her Majesty. The resulting folio volume, published in 1854 in London, was entitled A series of eight sketches in colour ……… of the voyage of ‘H.M.S. Investigator’. His drawings were also used to illustrate the discovery of the North-West Passage by H.M.S. Investigator, edited by Sherard Osborn and published in London in 1856.
Sources: Included amongst the sources used are the following:
Biography – CRESSWELL, SAMUEL GURNEY – Volume IX (1861-1870) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)
Glimpses – Samuel Gurney Cresswell (thornburypump.co.uk)
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