Richard Collinson collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of correspondence by Collinson regarding the numerous search expeditions mounted by the Admiralty and private individuals to discover the fate of the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1845-1848 (leader Sir John Franklin)

Administrative / Biographical History

Richard Collinson was born in 1811 at Gateshead. In 1823, he entered the Royal Navy, later joining HMS Chanticleer on the British Naval Expedition, 1828-1831 (leader Henry Foster), engaged in survey work on the Atlantic coast of South America and the South Shetland Islands. On his return, Collinson was appointed to HMS Aetna, commanded by Edward Belcher, on a two-year surveying cruise off the west coast of Africa, later serving in the Mediterranean in two steamers under the command of Horatio Austin. Promoted lieutenant in March 1835, he participated in a surveying expedition to the west coast of America between 1835 and 1838, sailing in HMS Sulphur commanded first by Frederick William Beechey and later by Edward Belcher. On the outbreak of the First China War in 1840, Collinson was appointed surveying officer to the fleet, successfully surveying a number of rivers in China, notably the Yangtze, for which he was promoted commander in 1841 and captain in 1842. After the end of the war in 1842, he remained in China for a further four years, surveying the coast from Zhoushan to Hong Kong before returning to England in 1846 for an extended period of leave.

In December 1849, Collinson was offered the command of the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1850-1855, setting out from London in HMS Enterprise, accompanied by HMS Investigator under Robert McClure, with instructions to search for Franklin's missing Northwest Passage expedition by way of Bering Strait. After the two vessels became separated on the outward voyage, Collinson proceeded to Point Barrow, Alaska, where Enterprise was prevented by ice from passing into the Beaufort Sea. Sailing south to winter in Hong Kong, Collinson returned north and entered Prince of Wales Strait in August 1851, hoping to sail through into Viscount Melville Sound but turning back after ice prevented any progress. He returned to the southern end of Prince of Wales Strait where he found a safe winter harbour in Walker Bay, Victoria Island. The following spring, Collinson led a sledge journey to the northern end of Prince of Wales Strait, exploring the north coast of Victoria Island as far as Wynniatt Bay before returning to the ship.

After Enterprise was released from the ice in August 1852, Collinson sailed south and east to explore Prince Albert Sound, which he discovered to be an enclosed inlet and not a strait as previously assumed. Continuing south and east, he later found a safe harbour in Cambridge Bay on the south coast of Victoria Island where the expedition wintered. In the spring of 1853, Collinson led a party of three sledges to search and explore along the east coast of Victoria Island where he found a note left by John Rae indicating that he had searched the same stretch of coast two years earlier. Forced to spend a third winter in the Arctic after bad weather impeded their progress on the return journey, the expedition eventually arrived in England in May 1855. Although McClure and his crew received the :10,000 reward for discovering a Northwest Passage through Prince of Wales Strait, Collinson was awarded the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1858 for his achievements.

Collinson maintained an active interest in exploration, advising Lady Franklin on the preparation of the British Franklin Search Expedition, 1857-1859 (leader Francis Leopold McClintock), and serving as vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society between 1857 and 1875. In 1858, he was appointed younger brother of Trinity House, the establishment responsible for safe navigation around the coasts of Britain, later serving as elder brother from 1862 and deputy master from 1875. Collinson was promoted to the rank of admiral in 1875, the year in which he was knighted. He retired five months before his death on 13 September 1883 at Ealing.

Published work Journal of HMS Enterprise, on the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin's ships by Behring Strait, 1850-1855 by Richard Collinson edited by T B Collinson, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington London (1889) SPRI Library Special Collection (41)91(08)[1850-1855 Collinson]


The correspondence is arranged alphabetically by recipient

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 'Collinson, Sir Richard' by Clive Holland in Dictionary of Canadian Biography volume 11 edited by Francess G Halpenny, University of Toronto Press Toronto (1982) 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 and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills San Diego and Oxford, 2003 and Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland Garland Publishing, London (1994)

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.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


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 Collinson. The catalogue can be searched on line by going to the Picture Library Database and selecting the Enter Polar Pictures link.