Robert McClure collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of correspondence by McClure to the Polar explorer James Clark Ross. Some of the letters relate to the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1848-1849 (leader James Clark Ross)

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (M'Clure) was born on 28 January 1807 in Wexford, Ireland. He was educated at Eton College and Sandhurst before entering the Navy in 1824. He first travelled to the Canadian Arctic when he served as mate in HMS Terror on the British Naval Exploring Expedition, 1836-1837 (leader George Back), instructed by the Admiralty to complete the survey of the north coast of Canada. The expedition was abandoned after Terror became frozen in the ice in Foxe Channel and was badly damaged. Promoted lieutenant in 1838, McClure served on the Canadian Lakes, on the West India Station and from 1842 until 1846, commanded Romney , a receiving ship at Havana. He spent the following two years on coast guard duty.

In 1848, McClure returned north as first lieutenant in HMS Enterprise on the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1848-1849 (leader James Clark Ross), sent in company with HMS Investigator to search for Franklin's missing expedition along the shores of Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Wellington Channel and Prince Regent Inlet. The two vessels entered Lancaster Sound but were soon frozen in and further searches had to be conducted by sledge. McClure, who spent a month on the sick list, took no part, returning with the expedition to England with no information about Franklin.

Returning to the Arctic to search for Franklin by way of Bering Strait, McClure took command of HMS Investigator on the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1850-1854, which was attached to the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1850-1855, led by Richard Collinson in HMS Enterprise. Following the separation of the two vessels on the outward voyage, Investigator proceeded to Point Barrow in August 1850 and sailed along the north coast of Alaska, becoming the first ship to navigate the waters of the Beaufort Sea. The ship ran aground near Return Islands but was freed to continue her voyage in a northeasterly direction. In September 1850, McClure discovered Prince of Wales Strait between Banks and Victoria Islands, which he managed to sail part way up before becoming frozen in for the winter. Further exploration by sledge showed him that the strait led to Viscount Melville Sound, confirming the existence of a Northwest Passage. In 1851, ice blocked further travel up Prince of Wales Strait so McClure turned back and attempted to reach Melville Sound by the west and north coasts of Banks Island. In September 1851, he succeeded in reaching the northern end of the island where he wintered in a large bay, which he named Mercy Bay. Investigator remained beset in Mercy Bay throughout 1852, and in the spring McClure sledged east to Winter Harbour on Melville Island where he left a note describing the ships position, which led to the rescue of the expedition in 1853 by members of HMS Resolute on the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1852-1854 (leader Henry Kellett). After the crew was transferred to Resolute and HMS Intrepid, McClure and his men were forced to spend a fourth winter in the Arctic when the two vessels became trapped in the ice in Barrow Strait. In April 1854, both vessels were abandoned and Investigator's men were sent to Beechey Island from where they returned to England in the depot ship HMS North Star and two supply ships HMS Phoenix and HMS Talbot.

On his return, McClure was court-martialled for the loss of HMS Investigator but was honourably acquitted. Promoted captain in 1850, he was knighted and awarded the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1854. Parliament granted McClure and his men a reward of 10,000 for discovering a Northwest Passage.

Between 1856 and 1861, he served on the Pacific Station, commanding a battalion of the Naval Brigade at the capture of Canton in 1857. Promoted rear-admiral in 1867, he advanced to the rank of vice-admiral on the retired list in 1873. He died on 17 October 1873 in London.

Published work Discovery of the Northwest Passage by HMS Investigator, Capt M'Clure, 1850, 1851, 1852, 1853, 1854 by (Sir) Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, edited by Sherard Osborn, Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts London (1856) SPRI Library Shelf&42;41)91(08)[1850-1854 McClure]


The correspondence with Ross is arranged chronologically

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland Garland Publishing, London (1994) and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills San Diego and Oxford, 2003 and 'McClure, Sir Robert John Le Mesurier' by John Norman Leonard Baker in Dictionary of Canadian Biography volume 10 edited by Marc La Terreur, University of Toronto Press Toronto (1972) SPRI Library Shelf 92(08)[pub.1966-] and British polar exploration and research a historical and medallic record with biographies 1818-1999 by Lieutenant Colonel Neville W Poulsom and Rear Admiral John A L Myres, Savannah Publications London (2000) SPRI Library Shelf 737.2

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

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Further accessions possible

Related Material

The Scott Polar Research Institute holds a number of photographs, film and other illustrative material in the Picture Library, which includes images of McClure. The catalogue can be searched on line by going to the Picture Library Database and selecting the Enter Polar Pictures link.