Holyhead’s Arctic Ocean Explorers

During the 19th Century there were many attempts to discover a navigable trade route to Asia via the Arctic Ocean of Northern Canada. This became known as the search for the Northwest Passage.

In 1845 an expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin departed the UK aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to traverse the last unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The expedition met with disaster after both ships and their crews, a total of 129 officers and men, became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island. After being icebound for more than a year, Erebus and Terror were abandoned in April 1848, by which point Franklin and nearly two dozen men had died. The survivors, now led by Franklin’s deputy Francis Crozier and Erebus‘ captain James Fitzjames, set out for the Canadian mainland. They disappeared into the arctic wasteland.

Artist depiction of the explorers’ struggle to survive.

Much later in 1981 the frozen bodies of three crew members were found. Laboratory tests determined high concentrations of lead in the bodies, probably from the lead sealed tins of food that the expedition carried. Strangely evidence was also found on the bones of others that suggested that the last of the surviving crew resorted to cannibalism of deceased members in an effort to survive.

The frozen body of Royal Navy Stoker John Shaw Torrinton.
Died of Tuberculosis on 1 January 1846.

The fate of Sir John Franklin’s voyage of discovery to search for a Northwest Passage through Canada’s frozen north, became one of history’s greatest mysteries. Over 30 expeditions were made in attempts to unravel the enigma. The mystery perpetuated for well over 160 years before the wrecks of Franklin’s vessels, the Erebus and Terror, were finally found.  The two sites are currently under investigation and a number of artifacts have been discovered, including the bell from HMS Erebushttps://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/hms-erebus-and-terror

Two Holyhead sailors were among the 67 crew of the ErebusGeorge Williams and William Mark.

George Williams was from the Holyhead/Rhoscolyn area of Anglesey. He was familier with Arctic waters and had previously sailed with Edward Parry on board the Hecla in 1824. He had been invalided out of the navy in about 1841 due to ill health but managed to re-enlist as a Seaman on the Erebus four years later, aged 35.  Williams married Margaret Wade Jennings on Christmas day 1843 at St. Augustine’s Church, Bermondsey. His father’s name was given as Thomas Williams, a farmer, presumably from Holyhead.

William Mark was the son of Humphrey and Catherine Mark of Summer Hill, Holyhead, born about 1824. He was also a Seaman aboard the ErebusAs Mark was a bachelor, the residue of his effects passed to his sister, Elizabeth Porter of 3, Lower Well Street, Holyhead.  A metal certificate case belonging to Mark was one of a number of artifacts recovered during later expeditions attempting to solve the mystery.

Their bodies were never found.

These were not the only sailors with links to Holyhead to have sailed as part of the valiant search for the Northwest Passage.

Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes was born at Westminster in 1794, the son of James Wilkes, a gunsmith residing at James Street, Westminster. It is not surprising that being brought up in such an environment that the young Wilkes followed a sea career as an armourer. In 1819 Wilkes joined the Hudson Bay Company vessel Prince of Wales and set out from Gravesend on the 23rd of May 1819 bound for Canada. He was to be part of an overland expedition to explore and chart the area around the Coppermine River. One of the leaders of the expedition was Lt. John Franklin. Wilkes, due to ill health, did not complete the voyage but returned to Britain in the spring of the following year, carrying dispatches from the expedition. Disastrously of the 20 men who formed the expedition, 11 perished.

Within months Wilkes signed on his second Arctic expedition under the command of Captains William Edward Parry RN and George Francis Lyon RN. The two vessels, Hecla and Fury set sail in early 1821 with Wilkes accepted as the Armourer’s Mate (Petty Officer rank) aboard the Hecla, then under the command of Captain Lyon. The expedition returned to Britain in November 1823.

Ship’s Crews cutting a route through the ice

In June 1824 and just 16 days after marrying his first wife, Mary Jane Doggett, at London, Wilkes set sail on his final Arctic voyage aboard HMS Griper accompanied by the survey vessel Snap. Their mission was to support  Hecla and Fury which had set sail a month earlier.  Well into the voyage, at the end of August, and after being severely damaged in bad weather, the vessel was almost lost.  She managed to limp into Hudson Bay before returning to Britain in December. Her commander, George Francis Lyon, abandoned his naval career the following year.

It was at the same time that Wilkes also abandoned his sea going career to take up a position at the new Packet Yard at Holyhead. He married the widow Elizabeth Watkins, nee Morris (his third wife) at Holyhead in 1835, living for most of the rest of his life at 14 Millbank Gardens, Holyhead. He descibed himself at various times as an Engineer, Boilermaker, Brazier and Coppersmith and became a very colourful character around the town. He was father to seven children – four sons and three daughters. He died in 1872 and was buried in St Seiriol’s Church Cemetery. It is believed that he was one of the original founders of the Hibernia, later St. Cybi, Masonic Lodge at Holyhead, as evidenced by the ensignia on his gravestone.

Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes’ grave at St. Seiriol’s Church Cemetery

Although only supposition it is difficult to resist the thought that Wilkes may have had some influence in Williams and Mark signing up for Franklin’s ill-fated expedition of 1845. 

Samgar-Nebo Samuel Wilkes’ Arctic Medal.
All three mariners would have qualified for this award.

Contributed by Peter Scott Roberts

This is part of a collection of posts telling the sometimes overlooked stories of some of Holyhead’s brave heroes.

© Holyhead Maritime Museum.

With thanks to John Tyson Williams, a direct decendant of Samgarnebo Samual Wilkes, for the photograph of the Arctic Medal in his possession. Also for a copy of part of Samual Wilkes’ Journal.

With thanks to Aled L Jones for the fruits of his research.


2 thoughts on “Holyhead’s Arctic Ocean Explorers

  1. Edwyn Hughes February 19, 2021 / 6:11 pm

    Another fascinating and interesting story. Once again thank you Peter for researching and sharing the story of these Holyhead Mariners.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wyn Edwards February 20, 2021 / 6:40 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this article as I’ve read about Franklin’s Ill fated voyage to discover the northwest passage with Erebus and Terror and certainly didn’t know about the 2 Holyhead seamen being aboard. Very interesting and sad to know that fact.
    Many thanks and keep up the good work.


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