William Edward Parry

Birth: 1790


Sir William Edward Parry (1790-1855), rear-admiral and arctic explorer, fourth son of Dr. Caleb Hillier Parry, was born at Bath on 19 Dec. 1790. He entered the navy in 1803, on board the Ville de Paris, the flagship of Admiral Cornwallis, before Brest. He afterwards served in the North Sea and Baltic, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 6 Jan. 1810. A few weeks later he was appointed to the Alexandria frigate, employed during the next three years in protecting the Spitzbergen whale fishery.

During this time Parry paid much attention to the study and practice of astronomical observations, and constructed several charts of places on the coast of Norway, and of Balta Sound in the Shetland Islands, for which he received the thanks of the admiralty. In the beginning of 1813 he went out to North America to join the Hogue, from which, in August 1814, he exchanged into the Maidstone frigate, and in her and other ships continued on the North American station till 1817, when he returned to England. In the winter of 1813 he wrote 'Nautical Astronomy by Night,' or 'Practical Directions for knowing and observing the principal fixed Stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere.' Copies were handed about in the squadron to 'facilitate the acquisition of a species of knowledge highly conducive to the welfare of the naval service,' but the work was not published till 1816.

In 1818 he commanded the Alexander, a hired brig, under the orders of Captain (afterwards Sir John) Ross, in his expedition to the Arctic Seas, and returned with Ross in November. Early in the next year he was appointed to the Hecla, in command of another expedition to discover the north-west passage, and sailed from Deptford in May, with the Griper brig in company. His instructions, which were necessarily conditional and vague, were to go up the west side of Baffin's Bay, through Lancaster Sound, and so, if possible, to Behring's Strait. He did not get as far as Behring's Strait, but he reached Melville Island, a point which even now, seventy-five years later, with the aid of steam, has not been passed.

+ Read More

It was not till 1852 that McClure, coming from the opposite direction, and reaching a point on the north of Banks Land, which Parry had already seen and named, was able to connect the two positions by passing on foot across the ice, and show positively that the north-west passage was not blocked by land. In the autumn of 1820 the two ships returned safely, and came into the Thames in the middle of November, under the charge of the first lieutenant of the Hecla. Parry had landed at Peterhead on 30 Oct., and posted to London; his dispatches, sent in advance by a whaler, reached the admiralty on 4 Nov., on which date he was promoted to the rank of commander. From 'the Bath and West of England Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce' he received a gold medal, and a silver vase of the value of five hundred guineas; he was presented also with the freedom of his native town and of many others; in the following February he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; and with the officers and men of the expedition, he received the parliamentary grant previously offered as a reward for those who should first pass the meridian of 110° W. within the arctic circle.

The results and the large measure of success which had been obtained were held to warrant, and indeed to demand, another expedition, which was resolved on without delay. On 30 Dec. Parry was appointed to the Fury, which in May 1821 sailed from the Nore in company with the Hecla, commanded by George Francis Lyon Passing through Hudson's Strait and Foxe's Channel, he examined Repulse Bay, proved the accuracy of the observations made by Christopher Middleton (d. 1770), passed one winter at Winter Island, another at Igloolik, and traced the Fury and Hecla Strait to its junction with Regent Inlet. Through the summers of 1822 and 1823 this strait was blocked by ice, and, as symptoms of scurvy were beginning to show themselves, Parry judged it unadvisable to attempt a third winter in the ice. The ships arrived at Lerwick on 10 Oct., and were paid off at Deptford on 14 Nov. 1823.

Parry had meantime been advanced to post-rank, 8 Nov. 1821, and was now appointed acting-hydrographer 1 Dec. 1823; but a few weeks later he was entrusted with the command of a third expedition in the Hecla, accompanied by the Fury, which sailed from Deptford on 8 May 1824, and, again attempting the passage by Lancaster Sound, wintered at Port Bowen. On 30 July 1825 both ships were forced ashore in Prince Regent's Inlet, and, though they were got off, it was found necessary to abandon the Fury. All the men were got on board the Hecla, but there was no room for the stores, and Parry considered it unsafe to make a longer stay. He accordingly returned to England, and on 22 Nov. was confirmed as hydrographer to the admiralty.

In the following April he proposed to the first lord to attempt to reach the pole from Spitzbergen, by traveling with sledge-boats over the ice or through any spaces of open water. The proposal was referred to the president and council of the Royal Society, and, on their approval, Parry was appointed again to the Hecla, and sailed from the Nore on 4 April 1827. On 14 May he was in latitude 81° 5 30" N., and from the broken state of the ice believed he might have gone many miles further had he not judged it more important to secure the ship in some harbor before attempting the journey with the sledge-boats. This was effected in Treurenberg Bay, in latitude 79° 55, on 20 June; and on the 21st the boats started under the immediate command of Parry himself.

On the 24th, in latitude 81° 31, the boats were hauled on the ice, which proved to be very rough, often soft and sloppy, and much broken; the sledge-boats too were very heavy, and the labour was excessive. It was impossible to make more than seven miles a day over the surface; very frequently not more than the half of it; and when, on 23 July, their latitude was found to be but 82° 45 the task was judged hopeless. The fact, which they were slow to realize, was that the current was setting the ice-floes to the southward nearly as fast as the men could drag the sledges towards the north; for the last three days it set rather faster, and when, on the 26th, Parry decided to return, their latitude was some miles less than the 82° 45, which is marked on the charts as 'Parry's farthest.'

It was not only Parry's farthest, but the farthest north of civilized man till on 12 May 1876 Markham and Parr attained the latitude of 83° 20, over the palaeocrystic sea to the north of Smith Sound. Since then, in May 1882, in the same locality, the latitude of 83° 24 was reached by the American expedition under Greely. The Hecla left Treurenberg Bay on 28 Aug., and arrived in the Thames on 6 Oct. When she was paid off, Parry resumed his duties as hydrographer till 13 May 1829, when he resigned, having accepted the appointment of commissioner for the Australian Agricultural Company. He had been knighted a few days before, 29 April; and on 1 July the university of Oxford conferred on him the degree of D.C.L.

In 1834 he returned to England; from March 1835 to February 1836 he was assistant poor-law commissioner in Norfolk; from April 1837 to December 1846 he was controller of the steam-department of the navy; and captain-superintendent of Haslar Hospital from December 1846 to 4 June 1852, when he was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral. In the latter part of 1853 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Greenwich Hospital. During the autumn and winter of 1854 his health was most seriously broken, and in the summer of 1855 he went for medical treatment to Ems, where he died on 8 July.

His body was brought to Greenwich, and buried there in the mausoleum of the hospital burial-ground. He married, in October 1826, Isabella Louisa, daughter of Lord Stanley of Alderley, by whom he had issue two daughters and two sons, the elder of whom, Edward, suffragan bishop of Dover (1830-1890), is separately noticed; the younger, Charles, a commander in the navy, died at Naples in 1868, and is the subject of a biography by his brother. His wife died in 1839, and he married for a second time, in 1841, Catherine Edwards, daughter of the Rev. Robert Hankinson, and widow of Mr. Samuel Hoare, by whom he had two daughters.

Parry's portrait, by Charles Scottowe, is in the museum of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

Parry was the author of: 1. 'Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, performed in the Years 1819-20 in H.M. Ships Hecla and Griper,' 4to, 1821. 2. 'Journal of a second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage … performed in the Years 1821-3, in H.M. Ships Fury and Hecla,' 4to, 1824. 3. 'Journal of a Third Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage … performed in the Years 1824-5, in H.M. Ships Fury and Hecla,' 4to, 1826. 4. 'Narrative of an Attempt to reach the North Pole in Boats fitted for that purpose and attached to H.M. Ship Hecla, in the Year 1827,' 4to, 1828. These were all published by the authority of the admiralty. A neat and convenient abridgment of the three voyages for the discovery of a north-west passage, in 5 vols. 16mo, was published in 1828.

[The career of Parry as an arctic explorer is to be best studied in his own Journals; his Life, written by his son Edward in 1857, which ran through many editions, dwells, with a natural bias, on the religious side of his character, which was strongly marked. The memoir in Marshall's Roy. Nav. Biogr. viii. (suppl. pt. iv.) 315, is a good notice of his professional life. See also Gent. Mag. 1826, ii. 233-9.]


John Knox Laughton, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 43. pgs. 392-393.

History of Humanity - History Archive Logo
History of Humanity - History Mysteries Logo
History of Humanity - Ancient Mesopotamia Logo
History of Humanity - Egypt History Logo
History of Humanity - Persian Empire Logo
History of Humanity - Greek History Logo
History of Humanity - Alexander the Great Logo
History of Humanity - Roman History Logo
History of Humanity - Punic Wars Logo
History of Humanity - Golden Age of Piracy Logo
History of Humanity - Revolutionary War Logo
History of Humanity - Mafia History Logo