7th May 2019
In May 1819, HMS Hecla set sail from Deptford on the Thames at the start of a record-breaking Arctic voyage, seeking a way through the North-west Passage. It was the first of four voyages the ship would make into northerly regions over the next few years under the command of William Parry (1790-1855).
HMS Hecla was one of the most famous discovery vessels of its age and was built and launched along with a sister ship, HMS Infernal, on the River Humber, by John Barkworth and George Hawkes at their shipyard at Hessle Cliff, which was in the vicinity of where the Humber Bridge now stands. The two ships were amongst the last vessels made by the partnership (Barkworth & Hawkes) which was dissolved in 1816 after the death of John Barkworth who had also built and resided at Tranby House, now part of Hessle High School and Sixth Form College.
After launch the Hecla and Infernal were fitted out in Hull, probably in Humber Dock, now the Hull Marina. Hecla was named after the Icelandic volcano and gave its name to the Hecla class bomb vessels, heavily built to carry mortars for bombardment. The two ships saw action the following year in the bombardment of Algiers when Admiral Pellew (by then ennobled as Baron Exmouth) sought to repress the activities of the Barbary pirates and they receive a brief mention in R.M.Ballantyne’s book, The Pirate City.
Hecla’s heavy construction also made the ship ideally suited for working amongst thick polar ice and in May 1819, the ship, under the command of William Parry and, accompanied by a smaller gun brig called HMS Griper, set sail for the Arctic in search of the North-west Passage. For centuries, explorers, including seafarers from Hull, had sought a route through this fabled seaway to the Pacific via the ice-bound waters north of Canada. Parry, had sailed with Captain Ross to the same region the previous year in the Hull vessel Isabella and was convinced that he could find a westward passage by way of the treacherous Lancaster Sound. The ships carried sufficient stores and provisions to last for three years if necessary.
The ships entered the Lancaster Sound around the end of May 1819 and forced their way westwards through the ice, voyaging through a seaway that no ship had previously traversed, discovering and naming many islands, bays and inlets. They tried the Prince Regent Inlet but their way was blocked by ice and so returned to the Lancaster Sound and continued sailing westwards, passing through the Barrow Straits and into the Melville Sound. By September 1819 the Hecla and Griper passed Meridian 110 and set a record for the furthest west that any ship had traversed down the seaway in one season. The short Arctic summer was by then at an end and, as the weather deteriorated, the ships struggled back eastwards as far as Melville Island where, in the lee of Winter Harbour, they found shelter. Over the following months the ships and crews had to endure the dark and deep-frozen monotony of the grim Arctic winter but a regime of sensible eating, exercise and various diversions allowed them to come through. Whilst lying at Winter Harbour the expedition inscribed the name of the ships and the date on a remarkable block of sandstone by the beach and many years later a plaque was added. This rock later acted as a sort of post office for future nineteenth-century expeditions and is still there to this day.
Although spring and daylight eventually returned, the ships remained trapped in the ice until June 1820 when their crews were finally able to free them and sail into open water. That year the westward route remained blocked by ice and all attempts by the ships to force their way through were thwarted; eventually the Hecla and Griper turned for home. Though they had not reached the Pacific Ocean, they had explored a substantial part of the North-west Passage and set a record for the furthest west that any ship had traversed by this route in one season; this proved a remarkable achievement for no vessel was to surpass it for 150 years. The Hecla and Griper’s record was finally broken by the 940-foot purpose-built tanker icebreaker Manhattan in 1969
Parry was to take HMS Hecla back to the Arctic on two further voyages in search of the North-west Passage. Hecla was his favourite ship and a famous vessel in its own right. Over 5,000 people visited the vessel when it was opened to the public at Deptford in 1824. Parry also used HMS Hecla as base ship for his attempt on the North Pole in 1827 from the Svalbard Archipelago from where he set off on the ice for the North Pole. Although he did not succeed in his goal, he did reach 82º45' N, some five hundred miles from the North Pole; further north than anyone before and this record stood for almost fifty years.
A number of Navy vessels have since carried the name of Hecla. Although this famous locally built ship has long since gone, and there is no memorial to the vessel in either Hull or Hessle, a glance at a map of northern Canada shows that the Hecla and Griper Bay and Hecla and Fury Straits are still marked as far flung reminders of its epic voyages as is, of course, the sandstone rock at Winter Harbour on Melville Island where the Parry expedition was the first to overwinter in the Arctic. The Hecla’s Arctic voyages and its sojourn at Winter Harbour later played a part in settling potential border disputes between Canada, the USA and Norway about the sovereignty of the Arctic Archipelago. In 1908 an expedition led by the Canadian explorer Louis Bernier, erected a plaque on the sandstone rock outlining Canada’s claim to these northern regions.
R.Robinson, Far Horizons: from Hull to the Ends of the Earth third edition (Kingston Press, 2014)
Honorary Research Fellow
Blaydes Maritime Centre
The University of Hull