An artist's impression of the ice-bound HMS Investigator
In 1853, when HMS Investigator settled on ice in the Arctic, her sixty-nine man crew were forced to abandon ship. The vessel was on its second mission to search for two other lost ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror which made up the ill-fated 1845-48 British Arctic Expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin.
Though Franklin’s abandoned ships have never yet been found, some remains of the crew were later discovered with evidence of deaths from exposure, cannibalism, disease; and even lead poisoning from tinned food.
An artist's impression of Franklin's crew abandoning HMS Erebus
When the Investigator was finally abandoned on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea, most of the crew went on to survive for three winters, though in the most unimaginably desperate conditions. Yet only three sailors died of scurvy, and now their remains have also been found.
Eventually, with rations almost dwindled away and the threat of starvation iminent, McClure divided his men into three groups. Two were going to set out on foot, which would have been suicidal. One was to remain on board in the hope that the ice flows might melt in the spring, enabling them to sail away. However, by good fortune, another ship’s officer appeared with word of two other trapped ships nearby, and both of those in far healthier states. McClure then gave orders to abandon ship. All cabins were cleaned and whatever supplies remaining were unloaded and left in a cache on the land which has since been much depleted with items removed by scientists as well as the aboriginal people, later known as the 'Copper Inuit' because of the large amounts of copper they salvaged and then put to use.
Meanwhile, the Investigator’s crew spent a fourth winter aboard HMS Resolute, and in far more comfortable conditions – after which that ship was also abandoned and the entire crew set sail for England again, aboard HMS Northern Star.
Robert McClure, the Investigator’s captain, wrote an official account of how they completed the north-west Passage and although this is an ongoing matter of dispute, at the time of his return to England British MPs voted for McClure to be given the posted reward of £10,000, earlier promised for its discovery.

Now, thanks to a team of Parks Canada scientists, archeologists and surveyors, HMS Investigator has been  re-discovered. Her masts and riggings have been sheered off by ice, but the deck which lies about 8 metres below the surface still has much of its timber and iron work preserved by the water's cold temperature. There are no plans to raise the ship, but underwater cameras will be sent down to photograph all that remains  - a small example of which is shown on the left, above.

Addendum - The VV is posting this underwater footage, showing what the Parks Canada scientists found when they managed to take their cameras under the ocean surface.

This video, from an auction house organising its sale, describes a letter that was sent by Captain McClure to his wife


  1. This is amazing! When I was a kid I was obsessed with this song about the North West passage (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVY8LoM47xI) - the story has always had some pull over me.

  2. Thank you, Writerspet. Really appreciate your comment. Sadly, the link hasn't worked here - but I'll see if I can find it on youtube.


  3. It's an amazing story!
    First, I would to say hello from Germany and apologize for my "special english" ;-)
    It could interesting for you, that the HMS INVESTIGATOR was found for the second time!
    Here you can find an Austrian Newspaper from January 1910:


    The article on Page 2 descripe the discovery of the Investigator in 1909 (I research further, it was April 1909, when Canada take the official possesion of Banks Island). The Ship was at that time intakt and already above the waterline after 50 years! (see the main page of the newspaper).
    I try to translate the article:
    "A missing polar ship was found

    Some times ago a ship, impacted between enormous ice masses, was founded offshore Backs Island and Bering Strait. The London Geographical Society sent out an expedition, which determined that this relative well-preserved ship is the long buried believed "Investigator", that expedition ship, on which in the fifties of the last century the English captain Mac Clure (sic!) left the country to research for Sir John Franklin and his companions and for the discovery of the northwest passage. [It follows a few words about the Expedition]. After expert judgement, the "Investigator", which resisted 50 years of ice pressing, will become automatically free in the next three years. However, it's uncertain, whether it will be able to become haveful of it or whether it will be driven on any abandoned coast".

    A very interesting story, I think.

  4. Flagman - thank you so much. That's fascinating. I'm really grateful for that...and your 'special English' is very good!

    Thank you!


  5. Thank you, Mylady ;-)

    Well, I found a Video on Youtube from Parks Canada

    It's really amazing to see the Investigator in this good condition after 150 years!


  6. Thank you, again, Flagman - that's wonderful. When I posted originally the scientists hadn't been down with the cameras, so it's great to have this now.

    I've just embedded the video footage into the main body of the post.


  7. I find this utterly fascinating. There is some kind of thrill, although a bit warped, I feel when I imagine the voyages of these people and their sad end. This is a tragic story beautifully told.

  8. Elizabeth Matthews17 June 2012 at 10:17

    You’ve done a good job of telling HMS INVESTIGATOR’s history, but there are several errors:
    "In 1853, when HMS Investigator settled on ice in the Arctic, her sixty-nine man crew were forced to abandon ship."
    During her 1st Arctic winter (1850-1851) the ice was remarkably open & she made winter camp in Mercy Bay. The ship remained frozen in this one campsite because the ice never thawed sufficiently for them to move.

    "When the INVESTIGATOR was finally abandoned on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea, most of the crew went on to survive for three winters"
    The Investigators stayed with & lived in their ship from 1850 until 1853, when Lieutenant Pim, from HMS RESOLUTE, found their Mercy Bay campsite.

    You correctly say McClure was making ready to split his crew. You’re correct also in saying that this group would be facing a "suicidal" mission, though suicide is something that is usually carried out voluntarily by the soon-to-be-dead person: these men would have had no choice, they would have been under orders from McClure!

    "However, by good fortune, another ship’s officer appeared with word of two other trapped ships nearby, and both of those in far healthier states. McClure then gave orders to abandon ship."
    McClure had correctly done what Franklin failed to do: he left the "industry norm" cairns at various locations that told anyone who might find the cairns where the INVESTIGATOR was located. It was while the Resolutes were completing their autumn sledging that Lt. Mechum (RESOLUTE) found one of these cairns.
    HMS RESOLUTE & INVESTIGATOR were NOT trapped in the ice. (See my website corrections page www.HmsResolute.com) All Arctic exploration expeditions planned to spend 2-3 winters in the ice. They had made their 1st winter camp, luckily, within sledging distance of one of McClure's cairns.
    McCLure created a fiction that he did not need to abandon INVESTIGATOR, forcing Kellett to order the abandonment. (Kellett had his doctor examine the Investigators, & found that only THREE of the men were in sufficient health to stay with McClure & the INVESTIGATOR.) This order formed the basis of McClure's later claim that he would have been able to complete the NW Passage if Kellett hadn't interfered.

    Because the NW Passage was completed for the 1st time, & McClure had found the western entrance to the Passage, & probably like you say got his report in first, he got the reward. You are correct in saying that this award was, and still is controversial. In my opinion, McClure screwed Kellett who should have received half of the award. Kellett completed much more of the NW Passage by sailing from Beechey Island to Dealy Island off the SW coast of Melville Island. It was his men who sledged to Mercy Bay & rescued the Investigators. As such it was Kellett & his men who completed most of the NW Passage!

    It was in these 3 sections: Kellett sailing in from the East, McClure sailing in from the West, & Pim sledging from RESOLUTE to INVESTIGATOR, that the NW Passage was 1st completed.

    "Her masts and riggings have been sheered off by ice..."
    [ALSO: the artist's impression of a ship being abandoned]
    Artist's impression indeed! Not only would they not have any sails up, they wouldn't have even had much of their standing rigging still up, when abandoning their ship in its winter camp!
    When Arctic explorers prepared for winter camp, they removed all of the standing rigging, including all the upper sections of their masts, leaving only the bottom section. They used this bottom section to set poles across in order to make a tent over the main deck so that the men would have a protected place to exercise. Because of this only these lowest sections of the masts would have been still in place. What was left might have been sheared off, but it wouldn't have been the entire standing rigging.

    Still in all, it is exciting stuff to see the INVESTIGATOR after all these years!!

  9. Elizabeth, that's brilliant information. Thank you. I try to be as accurate as possible but can never be sure that all sources are correct...and I really do appreciate it when the blog comments can add to and correct any facts. It's such an interesting story, exciting and also humbling.

  10. Elizabeth Matthews wrote: "Artist's impression indeed!"

    The picture represents the ship in 1851, not 1853. The artist probably knew a lot better than anyone and the drawing is NOT "an artist's impression" as he was there, being Samuel Gurney Cresswell, an officer on H.M.S. Investigator under Captain McClure …

    See “Critical position of H.M.S. Investigator on the north-coast of Baring Island. August 20th. 1851” in Samuel Gurney Cresswell, "A series of eight sketches in colour (together with a chart of the route)... of the voyage of H.M.S. Investigator (Captain M’Clure) during the discovery of the North West Passage..." London, 1854.

    On the net: http://ve.torontopubliclibrary.ca/frozen_ocean/s4f_cresswell.htm

  11. Brilliant article! Thanks for sharing your experiences.


  12. Usually I do not read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and do it! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice article.


  13. The illustration, by Cresswell, Elizabeth Matthews was referring to represents his party leaving Investigator on 6th April, 1853 - this was not the abandonment. At this point McClure still hoped that his ship could be broken out of the ice that year and she was rigged appropriately. After the medical examination of Investigator's crew by Resolute's surgeon, Dr. Domville, Kellett ordered the abandonment of Investigator. She would have looked very different from Cresswell's picture. The ship was stripped of her sails and upper rigging, and the hatches battened down. McClure abandoned his ship on 4th June, 1853. She was left as a possible refuge for Collinson if needed. That summer Cresswell was dispatched to Beechey Island and then England, becoming the first man to circumnavigate the Americas The crew of Investigator,including McClure, remained safely on Resolute and Intrepid for another winter, returning to England in 1854. There were two fatalities that winter, far fewer than that which had occurred if Kellett had not turned up and stopped McClure's suicidal marches. Back home the Investigators gave their surgeon, Dr. Armstrong, a 70 guineas gold watch and turning to Lieut. Bedford Pim said " If it had not been for you, Sir, many of us now present would never have seen Old England again." Pim replied, "Thank you, my lads; I shall never forget our meeting. I congratulate you on your having escaped a fate similar to that of Sir John Franklin". (O'Byrne,1855)

  14. Thank you so much, William. Great to have this information. Essie