Friday 13 October 2017

Edward Parry and the birth of the Arctic Thespian

Edward Parry
private collection

In 1818, 40 years after the last attempt, the Admiralty renewed the quest for the Northwest Passage, but both expeditions sent out that year failed. On the most promising route via Davis Strait through the West of Baffin Bay, veteran Captain and expedition leader John Ross saw his way through Lancaster Sound blocked by mountains which he named after the Admiralty's first secretary John Wilson Croker. Unfortunately he was the only one who saw them. Lieutenant William Edward Parry, his second in command, slogging behind in a bad sailing ship, did not even get the chance to have a look at the alleged mountains on his own. Back in England he was keen to return to Baffin Bay to see if there was an outlet to the West or not. The Admiralty agreed with him and so another expedition was sent out the next year, in 1819, under Parry. John Ross would never command a Royal Navy ship again.

A devout Christian with a curious scientific mind, a brilliant cartographer and navigator with a keen interest in flora and fauna, the 29 year old Parry was the ideal choice to lead the expedition. He chose as his second in command Lieutenant Mathew Liddon who had proved his courage and ingenuity during the war.  

The expedition consisted of two ships. HMS Hecla, a converted bomb vessel, strongly build to fire mortars, was commanded by Parry, the smaller 12 gun brig Griper by Liddon. Both ships had been extra strengthened for the Arctic and were fitted out under the watchful eye of Parry himself. Officers and men were hand-picked by Parry as this voyage was the first deliberate attempt of an expedition to winter in the ice. To his delight many of the men who knew him from the previous voyage volunteered again. Among them was midshipman James Clark Ross, John Ross's nephew.

While stationed on the East American coast in 1816, Parry had seen the difference between well paid and well fed American sailors and the pressed, penniless seamen of the Royal Navy. In a letter to his parents from that time he lamented that the best men had deserted as soon as they could and probably signed up with the Americans right away. He knew that good treatment and payment of his men was an important factor for success.

Parry planned his expedition meticulously, leaving as little as possible to chance. A system of stoves, flues, pipes and screened off beams was developed to keep the temperature below decks as high and the moisture as low as possible while the ships were beset in the ice. It was not perfect but would be improved from voyage to voyage. The men were also fitted out with warm clothing and a wolf skin blanket each.  

The ships were provisioned for two years and for the first time preserved meat and vegetables were taken in large amounts on an expedition. The usual salt meat (a favourite with the seamen) was not amiss either and great importance was placed on scurvy preventing food from sour kraut to pickles and lemon juice up to cress and mustard seed that Parry cultivated in his cabin when necessary. Bread on board Hecla and Griper was weevil-free as it was baked fresh every day with the heat of the ovens helping to keep the ships as warm as possible.   

Hecla and Griper left London in the beginning of May 1819. In early August they proved the non-existence of Ross's Croker's Mountains by sailing right through them, explored both sides of Lancaster Sound and what would later be the Parry Channel, the upper part of Prince Regent Inlet, collected the Admiralty's 5000 Pound reward when crossing the 110th meridian and finally settling for the winter in a natural harbour off Melville Island at the end of September. This would be Parry's most successful voyage and one that would cast the mould for all following arctic expeditions. 

After securing the ship for the winter, most masts were struck down and the upper deck tented in by placing a "housing cloth" over the lower spars. The deck was covered in snow and sanded to provide an insulating pavement. Snow walls outside also provided insulation.  

Hecla and Griper housed in for the winter

To stay fit in the inactive time during the dead of winter apart from hunting trips, daily outside games and all kinds of physical training (like climbing a pole nicknamed "Arctic Treadmill") was mandatory for men and officers. If the cold was too severe for outdoor activities, they circled the upper deck to the tune of a barrel organ or sung along.

To keep the minds of every person on board occupied, to prevent boredom and misbehaviour, Parry came up with several means of entertainment and distractions. A school for the sailors was opened under the auspices of purser William Harvey Hooper with the goal that every man would be able to read the bible when returning home. Even long after they had come back from the voyages Hooper would receive letters of gratitude from former sailor-pupils. Parry saw the schools as an instrument of educating not only the mind but also the soul. He wanted to make better humans and Christians out of his men. Every Sunday divine service was held, including a sermon read by Parry, and in his later years he promoted Christian conduct in the Royal Navy.  

Music also played an important role during Parry's expeditions. Being a capable violinist himself he regularly gave chamber concerts with other officers and men who played instrument. The same purpose filled the barrel organ that Parry took on every voyage. It played hymns, the national anthem and popular songs and was used during divine service and as entertainment as well. The barrel organ survived to this day. It has been restored and is now on display in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge. 

My photo is embarrassingly poor as I had to take it through the glass pane, but it gives an impression of the organ's elaborate beauty and size.  

Parry's barrel organ in the 
Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge,
complete with triangle, bells and tambourine

It is easy to imagine the officers and men during a slow evening mending or writing or smoking a pipe while the music of the organ suffused the whole ship. The men in the Griper probably had to make the music on their own or had another smaller organ. We don't just have to imagine how Parry's organ sounded, though. The SPRI recorded some of the tunes and the CD is still widely available. It has a bit of "Twilight Zone" to sit at the computer writing about Parry's organ and simultaneously listen to it almost 200 years later.  
CD cover

As another means of providing occupation for the mind of the officers and amusement for all a newspaper was launched as soon as Hecla and Griper had settled down in Winter Harbour. The editor was Edward Sabine, an Irishman from Dublin, who would later become Great Britain's leading authority in terrestrial magnetism. The "North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle" came out every week with Edward Parry himself as ardent contributor. All "gentlemen" were encouraged to participate and entries for the paper were to be placed in the editor's box located on Hecla's capstan. To ensure anonymity, every contributor was advised to sign with a fantasy name and disguise his handwriting. As Parry wrote in his announcement of the newspaper: "Original contributions on any subject will be acceptable. The Sportsman and the Essayist, the Philosopher and the Wit, the Poet and the Plain Matter-of-fact Man, will each find their respective places."

The Gazette contained a variety of entries like witty letters to the editor, poems, riddles, births and deaths of four legged and feathered ships company, lost-and-founds and other funny and entertaining contributions like the "Arctic Miseries" which lists a string of accidents and nuisances that can occur when wintering in the ice. Such as stepping into the hole in the ice the cook uses to water the salt meat, rushing from the table because there is a wolf outside to find out it's just a dog while in the meantime the cat carries away your dinner, being surprised by a bear when coming home after an evening in the other ship and getting tea for breakfast that was accidentally made from salt water. There is also a list of little shipmate induced nuisances one is subjected to in a confined space with thin walls like the Whistlers, Hummers, Drummers, Bangers, Nose Blowers and Door Slammers.

Apart from Parry the officers who seemed to have had the most zest for wielding the quill were Griper's clerk Cyrus Wakeham and Hecla's purser Hooper. The pen names ranged from Abigail Handicraft and Timothy Quill-Splitter (Parry), Henry Harmless and Quintilian Querulous (Wakeham), Little-Brain Lack-Wit and Smell Rat Smoke'em (Hooper) to the plain J. by James Clark Ross, who did his best to convey the beauty behind a natural phenomenon with the poem "Lines suggested by the brilliant Aurora, Jan. 15, 1820". 

One recurring column in the "North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle" was the theatre review. Again as entertainment for the men and also to occupy the officers, the few suitable theatre plays from the ship's libraries and also self-composed and written songs, plays and operas were performed with the officers playing both men and women. The Arctic Theatre opened for the first time on November 5th with Garrick's 1747 play "Miss in her Teens". Parry and Hoppner played Fribble and Jasper, the ill-suited suiters touting for Miss Biddy Bellair (F. W. Beechey, who also painted the set). Biddy is secretly in love with Bob Loveit (W. N. Griffiths) but has also Bob's widowed father (J. Nias) courting her. The play was enhanced by an epilogue, songs and an address all by the gifted Cyrus Wakeham. The other two female roles were played by surgeon Charles Beverly and William Hooper.

The next play to follow was Samuel Foote's "The Liar" without Parry in an acting part, but the female roles were again portrayed by Beverley, Hooper and for the first time James Ross. The other actors were Nias, Sabine, Beechey and Wakeham. It is interesting that of the seven plays that formed the repertory of the Royal Arctic theatre in its first season the actors in most female characters were Hooper (six roles) and Ross (five). For the crew it must have been a huge source of amusement (as it was Parry's intention) to see their officers in female or at least humorous roles and it speaks for the good atmosphere on board of both ships that all these activities did not weaken the respect the men had for their superiors.

The ships were released from the ice in August 1820 and started to proceed further to the West but the icy maelstrom of the Beaufort Gyre would not even yield to Edward Parry. They were back in England at the end of October, having lost only one man.  

When Parry almost instantly proposed the next voyage to the Admiralty of course nobody had an objection. He left no doubt that he himself did not think he would succeed in finding the passage as the wanted to try an access towards the Northeast of Hudson Bay and knew the chances were slim. His argument was that they had to look to rule that way out and the Admiralty followed his reasoning. This time Parry insisted in taking two identical ships which could provide spare parts for each other and had more equal sailing abilities. The trusted Hecla was joined by the equally dauntingly named Fury as she, too, had once been a "bomb".
14 officers stayed on from the last voyage. Notable new additions were Edward Bird and Francis Crozier. Together with James Clark Ross they were to form a close circle of friends only to be broken by Crozier's disappearance and subsequent death. Why Francis Crozier applied for exploration service we can only guess. At that time he served on HMS Dotterel, protecting the English and Irish shore. But there was only so much to patrol against as England had successfully kicked all her enemies out of the game. There still was a vast surplus of officers and those who were on active duty in calm seas had only a slim prospect of promotion. The Dotterel was about to be paid off a few weeks later, so he needed another engagement. He had been on board the Briton chasing American frigates when Pitcairn was rediscovered and with it John Adams, the last mutineer of the Bounty. On the same voyage he collected indigenous weapons in the Marquesas. Perhaps he was interested in exploration, perhaps he hoped to climb up the narrow ladder of promotion faster, perhaps it was thirst for adventure or Parry's reputation… Whatever the reason, 1821 saw Francis Crozier join Parry's second expedition and serve as midshipman in the Fury, his first step to become one of the most experienced polar explorers in the age of sail.

Unfortunately for us on this and the subsequent voyages the newspaper was scraped. Probably with Sabine and Wakeham not participating in the expedition, Parry feared he would end up doing most of the work himself. It would have been interesting to see if and what Francis Crozier had contributed and to probably learn a lot more about shipboard life during Parry's second and following voyages.

Parry took the barrel organ with him on the Fury and an anonymous benefactress had gifted the ships with a phantasmagoria (laterna magica) which under the artistic genius of George Francis Lyon, who commanded the Hecla, became a big hit. (Parry's former second in command Matthew Liddon had to stay home due to poor health and would not be able to command another ship for the rest of his life.) Parry also took up the regular musical soirees again.

The Arctic Theatre was revived with a vengeance. Lyon wrote in his own ironic and eloquent style in his narrative:
"A liberal subscription having been made amongst the officers prior to leaving England, by which a stock of theatrical clothes, &c. was purchased, it was now proposed by Captain Parry that … we should make arrangements for performing plays once a fortnight throughout the winter ... As there could be no desire or hope of excelling, every officer's name was readily entered on the list of dramatis personae. Those ladies who had cherished the growth of their beards and whiskers, as a defence against the inclemency of the climate, now generously agreed to do away with such unfeminine ornaments, and every thing bode fair for a most stylish theatre."

We know that Crozier acted at least in two substantial roles. On November 9, 1821, the theatre opened on board the Fury with Richard Brindsley Sheridan's "The Rivals". The comedy from 1775 is a tour de force of love and mistaken identity. Crozier played duel-happy "Sir Lucius O'Trigger" who falls for the love letters of the ripe and big-words-challenged Mrs. Malaprop (midshipman C. Richards), mistaking the "Delia" of the letters for young Lydia Languish (midshipman J. Sherer). Lydia's letter however are directed to Captain Absolute (Lyon) who made her think he is the poor ensign Beverley, as she's rather the romantic type who believes in love that thrives in poverty. There is a second couple of lovers with a big jealousy issue which is not made better by Sir Lucius's "help". In the end Sir Lucius realises that he had been played and rejects Mrs. Malaprop whereas the other couples finally get each other, the duel(s) avoided. Sir Lucius is described in the play as "tall Irish baronet" and although Francis Crozier might not have been particularly tall, the role must have been great fun for him to play.  

Playbill"The Rivals" 

Crozier's second role was that of country inn waiter Sam in Joe Miller's "Raising the Wind" from 1803. The play revolves around charming freeloader Jeremy Diddler (Lyon) and also involves mistaken identity and misrouted love letters. Sam, ironic and smart, might be from the country but he sees right through Diddler's act. Not without a certain admiration, though.

Unfortunately nothing is known about other roles Francis Crozier acted in, but with his good natured personality and sense of comradeship it is hard to imagine him not participating further.

One who is notably absent from the bills of the first three plays, however, is James Ross and so far I haven't seen others. He was probably quite occupied with scientific work now with Sabine staying behind in England.   

From then on the theatre was "rigged" every fortnight on the Fury and not even frozen extremities could stop the hardy actors from pleasing their audience as G. F. Lyon testifies in January 1822:
"The coldness of the weather proved no bar to the performance of a play at the appointed time. If it amused the seamen, our purposes were answered, but it was a cruel task for the performers. In our green-room which was as much warmed as any other part of the theatre, the thermometer stood at 16°, and on a table which was placed over a stove, and about six inches above it, the coffee froze in the cups. For my sins I was obliged to be dressed in the height of the fashion, as Dick Dowlass, in the "Heir at Law," and went through the last scene of the play with two of my fingers frost-bitten!" 
The Arctic Theatre

A few weeks after that performance, the Fury and Hecla received their first visitors from the Inuit group in the vicinity of Winter Island, providing welcome distraction and resulting in a peaceful coexistence beneficial to both sides. Parry and Lyon studied their new neighbours at Winter Island and Igloolik, where they wintered in 1822/23, with great interest and presented a fascinating insight into Inuit life in their respective narratives. Apart from anthropologic and more or less scientific studies and experiments, living in close proximity to each other entailed mutual visits and hunting trips, festivities and music, learning from each other and providing medical assistance when many of the Inuit fell sick and Francis Crozier was employed to transport some to the ships for help. Friendships were struck and according to Charles Francis Hall Crozier might have exchanged names with an Inuit boy and so became "Aglooka".

When in 1823 the ice in Fury and Hecla Strait would still not yield and despite all precautions scurvy started to raise its ugly head in both ships, Parry decided to return home to England.

He was not ready to give up on the Northwest Passage, though. The spring of 1824 saw him sail through Davis Strait again and with him many of his merry band of Arctic thespians. 15 officers stayed on from the last expedition including Crozier, Ross and Bird, the three arctic musketeers. This time the Hecla was selected as leading ship with the Fury being commanded by Henry Parkyns Hoppner, who had come a long way from being Parry's first lieutenant in the Alexander during the John Ross expedition in 1818.  (G. F. Lyon had gotten his own expedition at the same time, unsuccessfully trying with the old and still poorly performing Griper to reach Repulse Bay through a strait in the west of Hudson's Bay.)

James Clark Ross had advanced to lieutenant and shared that post with Horatio Austin in the Fury. Edward Bird was one of the Fury's midshipmen and Francis Crozier, still midshipman, served under Parry in the Hecla. Promotion also meant a pay rise which was nothing the Navy was too generous about in peace times

The ships left Deptford on May 8, 1824, but this time the journey did not sail under a favourable star. They encountered one of the most severe winters with the temperature about 20 degrees lower than in the five years before in the same latitude. One of the bad omens of the voyage came early on when the expedition got beset already in the "Middle Ice" in Davis Strait for weeks before the exhausted officers and men were able to extricate the ships. They reached the entrance to Prince Regent Inlet by mid-September only to be almost pushed out of Lancaster Sound again by the young ice and adverse winds. They tediously fought their way back into Prince Regent Inlet and in the beginning of October had to settle for winter quarters in Port Bowen that Parry had discovered five years earlier.

By then wintering in the ice had become a routine to Parry and his men. The organ, phantasmagoria, musical instruments, school, observations, games, trips and exercise played an important role in the winter routine again. Before he sailed, Parry had been given some trunks with theatrical outfits by the ladies of Bath, his home town, but he had the feeling that after three winters in the ice "our former amusements being almost worn threadbare" something new was required to keep officers and men occupied and distracted from dark, mischievous or mutinous thoughts. The ingenious solution was proposed by Captain Hoppner and the officers of the Fury: a masquerade with officers and men being able to participate on equal terms, where everything could be worn from a simple domino (which was the minimum costume to be admitted) to an elaborate fancy dress and everybody could decide freely how much he wanted to participate.

Right after the announcement both ships were abuzz with a happy frenzy of creative activity that had the desired effect of lightening up everybody's mood, give the whole company something to occupy their minds with and let roam free their inner child.

Hierarchy was cast aside when a mix of officers and men performed little scenes together to show off their costume making, acting and comedy skills. The Blue Bell, a well-known Deptford watering hole that was undoubtedly frequented by many of the men before departure, was resurrected in the ships' holds including the portly owner James Jones, impersonated by Fury's Marine Sergeant John Morrison. Currency in the pub consisted of tokens bearing Captain Hoppner's seal of which three were distributed to each of the men before the ball. They were already used beforehand to pay for masquerade-related items such as borrowed petticoats, wigs, artificial flowers or other much needed attire or the use of a shipmate's craftsmanship. Here the Heclas had an unfair advantage, being in possession of the heaps of discarded dresses from the ladies in Bath. 

By employing "celebrated artists in this country" skilfully painted bills, transparencies and scenery added to the festive atmosphere. 

The following illustration shows a masquerade on board the Resolute in 1850 as an example for the costumes that most likely would also have been used during Parry's voyage

Image curtesy of Stuart Leggatt of 
Meridian Rare Books in Greenwich

The first masquerade was announced for November 1st, 1824, at six O'clock in the "Royal Arctic Assembly Rooms" on board the Fury (Hecla's would take place in the "Royal and Original Polar Rooms"). In the intervals between the amusements "two celebrated performers on the Violin" would play quadrilles, waltzes, country dances and reels.

The first pair to appear was Edward Parry as a veteran from Waterloo, including wooden leg, with his spouse "Sukey" (James Halse, purser in Fury) playing a violin and tambourine while robustly demanding to be gratified in pennies form the delighted audience.

The second pair was Captain Hoppner as a "fashionable lady of rank" with Francis Crozier as "her" black footman, outfitted in a livery of "a light blue coat with scarlet facings, scarlet breeches, white stockings and a gold laced hat". Fury's purser William Mogg writes in his unpublished narrative they were "aptly supported", which seems to indicate that Francis Crozier's thespian talents could well keep us with those of his shipmates.

Other characters were monks, street vendors, farmers, Highland chiefs, bricklayers, a recruiting captain, seamen of the Temeraire, street sweepers and an important doctor who kept calling a cab to take him home, throwing a fit when he heard that there was no such thing as a cab in the arctic.

The next masquerade took place in Hecla on January 3rd, 1825. One scene contained three undertakers chasing a ghost and burying him in a heap of sand on the deck, not knowing that the smallish ghost was Captain Hoppner. Notwithstanding being handled a bit rough, Hoppner reappeared shortly after escaping his sandy grave dressed as a country squire, telling the undertakers that he hoped he wouldn't need them anytime soon. Unfortunately Hoppner died eight years later from poor health.

Edward Bird, Charles Richards, Francis Crozier

Head of Masqerade Ball by C. Staub, February 2, 1825

© RoyalGeographical Society (with IBG)

The third masquerade on February 2nd1825 was held on Fury under the motto "We aim at Cheerfulness". Apparently it was opened by the three midshipmen Edward Joseph Bird, Charles Richards and Francis Crozier. Richards is playing the flute while Bird and Crozier are pirouetting away to his tune. The drawing is done by a C. Staub but other than that there seems to be a Staub Point near Melville Island I couldn't find out more about him, yet.

The masquerades would alternate with Parry's musical soirees and so every week had at least one highlight. The ships were freed from the ice in late July 1825. They proceeded down Prince Regent Inlet where disaster struck in August. The Fury was thrown ashore at what would become Fury Beach and eventually had to be abandoned by the end of the same month. Both crews squeezed into Hecla and returned to England in Mid-October 1825. 
Most of the Fury's provisions had been left on the pebbled beach in Prince Regent Inlet and almost ten years later would save John Ross and his nephew when they had to abandon their ship during a privately financed expedition.   

Parry, Ross, Bird, and Crozier would undertake one more expedition together. They took the Hecla to Spitzbergen to find the geographical North Pole, but Parry was defeated by the ice and returned to England without wintering again. His ideas and inventions prevailed, passed on to the officers of the "Parry School" and from them to following generations. The company of the Arctic Theatre and participants in the masquerades grew considerably after 1848 with the number of ships that wintered in the Arctic while searching for Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128. Among the missing, as captain of HMS Terror and Franklin's second in command, was Francis Crozier, one of the first Arctic thespians.



George Francis Lyon:
The private journal of Captain G.F. Lyon, of H.M.S. Hecla, during the recent voyage of discovery under Captain Parry
London, John Murray, 1824.

William Edward Parry:
Journal of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific London, John Murray, 1821.
Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific
London, John Murray, 1824.
Journal of a third voyage for the discovery of a northwest passage, from the Atlantic to the Pacific
London, John Murray, 1826.

Rev. Edward Parry, M.A.:
Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Sir W. Edward Parry
Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1859.

Ann Parry:
Parry of the Arctic
London, Chatto&Windus, 1963.

Edward Sabine et. al.:
The North Georgia Gazette, and Winter Chronicle
London, John Murray, 1819.

S. M. Silverman
The Authorship of the Newspaper on Parry’s First Arctic Expedition, 1819-20
Arctic, Vol. 38, No. 1, March 1985, P. 65 - 67.

Michael Smith
Captain Francis Crozier, Last Man Standing? 
Cork, The Collins Press, 2006.


William Mogg
The Papers of William Mogg
University of Southampton Special Collections
GB 738 MS 45