HMS Assistance & Pioneer

Web Whit: Catching up with Assistance & Pioneer 1853

Some of the following is background information which I have had to cull from my manuscript, and will form part of what I call “Web Whits”. To reduce my manuscript so it comes in under the normal word count for a non-fiction manuscript, I have taken vast amounts of background information out of it. This background information will be password protected on the website and available in private pages which will only be accessible to persons who have bought the new book. I am including this Web Whit here as an example of what will be available to folks who buy the new book. (Anyone who would like to sign up ahead of time for a copy can either tell me on the facebook page, or register here and tell me on this website after asking to be a registered user and becoming a contributor!)

Now to the WebWhit:
At the beginning of the 1853 sledging season on 10 April at the Wellington Channel camp, all the sledges and divisions from the flagship and the Pioneer lined up alongside Assistance. Belcher read their orders, and he told them he expected them all to cover at least 10 miles a day. The crews then retired to their respective ships for dinner. At 15:30 they reassembled on Assistance’s quarterdeck for Belcher’s  final address. He ordered them to their dray ropes, those who could use the wind set and trimmed their sails, then all parties left, except for those taking the few remaining sledges in a couple days. Once all the parties were gone only Assistant Surgeon Ricards, Engineers Howard and Webb, Richard Hale, and a steward to cook for them stayed behind.

Richards had HM Sledge Sir Edward. Taking its clue from Belcher’s own verbosity, this sledge was the only one to claim more than one motto: ‘Sustine, Abstine’ (Bear and Forebear); ‘Laus Deo’  (Praise God); AND ‘Loyal au Maort’ (Loyal unto Death), one of Belcher’s family mottos. Richards’ men were: Captain of the Sledge, Edward Humphries, Sailmaker’s Mate; George Jefferies, Sergeant of the RM; Richard Bayley, Bo’s’un’s Mate; George Edwards, Carpenter’s Mate; and three Able-Bodied Seamen: John Simmons, Henry Billett, and Louis Read. 

Five other teams were under Richards’ command.  Sherard Osborn had the John Barrow (Be of Good Courage) with Joseph Organ, Ice Quartermaster and Captain of the Sledge; Thomas Hall, Gunner’s Mate; Samuel Walker, Carpenter’s Mate; three Able-Bodied Seamen: George Wicketts, Thomas Copeland, and William McArthur; and Simon Dix, Royal Marine.Several of Osborn’s men were experienced Arctics. Joseph Organ had been in the Arctic every year since 1848, and both Copeland and McArthur were here in 1850 and 1851.

Lieutenant Walter May had Reliance (Go Forth in Faith) with Benjamin Young, Ice Quartermaster; George Edey; Robert McCormack, Royal Marine; and three Able-Bodied Seamen George Green, George Harris, and James Sinnett. Master Allard, had  Enterprise (Success to the brave) with Captain of the Sledge James Robinson; Thomas Barber, Sailmaker; Cornelius Tielder, AB; Henry Tranter, AB; Richard Box, Royal Marine; William Huggett, AB; John Clark, Steward; George Custance, Stoker; John Green, Private Royal Marine; William Wood, Ship’s Cook. Lastly, Assistant Surgeon John B. Ricards had the Sir Francis Baring and Mate Pym, HM Sledge Perseverance.

Belcher’s orders for Richards were to go due west, gather supplies from the main depot at Cape Lady Franklin, then, with Osborn under his command, proceed to the most north-westerly point of Cornwallis Island and leave information for Kellett at Mount Rendezvous, their pre-arranged location for exchanging despatches and reports. Richards was then to search for Collinson, McClure and Franklin along the entire coast of the island, avoiding wasting time where the ice was old. Using his discretion thereafter whether to split the party, if he did he should take the most northern and western routes, and Osborn the most southwestern.  Not quite to plan Richards actually crossed the Byam Martin Strait and searched the Sabine Peninsula, the most northeasterly point of Melville Island, while Osborn searched Cornwallis Island’s western coast.

Osborn recorded examples in his journals of the weight his men hauled. Total dead weight per sledge was around 557 pounds, the sledge weighing 120, a buffalo robe 37, cooking stove 40, and an additional 56 pounds worth of eight sleeping bags, and the remainder being tents, tools, clothes and medicine. For a long journey, forty days worth of food and fuel added another 843 pounds.

At Cape Colquhoun, Latitude 76.44 N, Longitude 108.46 W, Richards and Osborn separated. By 17 May Richards was no longer in command of a division; he only had his sledge and the men to pull her. Osborn and Richards would continue exploring and searching for as long as their supplies lasted. Then, if they found no sign of the missing explorers, Osborn would turn toward Assistance, anticipating arriving at Cape Lady Franklin by 21 July. 

Returning now to my manuscript:
At almost the most northerly point of the Sabine Peninsula Richards, upon reaching the promontory later named after him, made the following remarkable journal entry:

We were full of hope (although as yet no traces of the missing expedition had been discovered). We had examined 300 miles of new coast, and were good for 200 more. The people in good health and spirits; though it must be confessed somewhat lower in bodily strength than when they left the ship; and we had every reason to hope, that with the resources at our command, we should get to the westward of Melville Island, and find, at any rate, some indications of those we came to seek, should they have ever entered the Polar Sea. At [6:30 p.m.] we parted with the customary cheers; and the sledges were soon out of sight of each other…to our great surprise we crossed a sledge track, which appeared [to be] very recent. I immediately halted the sledge, and followed them back to the eastward. After an hour’s quick walking, we saw an encampment, and, on coming up to it, found it to be a party from the Resolute, under Lieutenant Hamilton. The surprise of himself and his party may be imagined, at being awoke from their dreams by the hail of a stranger.

Overcoming his surprise, Hamilton took great joy in informing Richards of the successful rescue of the Investigators, and that he had no further need to search to the north and west, because the Resolutes and Intrepids had already covered it. Richards could choose between heading back to the Assistance with Hamilton’s despatches and the news of the rescue, or rejoining Osborn and continuing to explore Cornwallis Island’s western coast.

There was nothing in Richard’s orders to direct him to go south or to reach Kellett in person onboard HMS Resolute. He could construe Belcher’s instructions about the sealed letter in a way that could compel him to deliver it in person, but the orders didn’t really read this way. He wasn’t meant to seek out a superior officer, only hand the letter over if he came across officers under either Kellett or Collinson. Perhaps he was curious about the Investigators? Perhaps he wanted to congratulate Kellett and his men on their success? Without any record of his reasons one can only speculate.

However, though Belcher had given him a great deal of latitude, he had ordered Richards to head to the north and west. Sledging to Resolute was almost due south, and added 200 miles to his trip. From his current location it was the same distance to reach Resolute, as it would’ve been to get ⅔ of the way back to the Assistance. So he must have had very strong motivation to subject himself and his men to this additional arduous travel. In the end, Richards’ desire to meet with Kellett outweighed any other considerations.