Sir Edward Sabine collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1818 (leader John Ross), the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1819-1820 (leader William Edward Parry) and correspondence by Sabine.

Administrative / Biographical History

Edward Sabine was born on 14 October 1788 in Dublin, Ireland. He was educated at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, receiving a commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in December 1803. Promoted second captain in 1813, he served in the war with the United States, participating at the siege of Fort Erie in Canada. In 1818, he was appointed astronomer on the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition (leader John Ross), sailing in HMS Isabella on his first Arctic expedition in an attempt to discover the Northwest Passage by way of Baffin Bay. During the expedition, Sabine conducted pendulum experiments at different latitudes, thus laying the basis for an accurate determination of the shape of the earth.

Sabine returned to the Canadian Arctic as astronomer in HMS Hecla on the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1819-1820 (leader William Edward Parry), sent to seek a passage through Lancaster Sound. During the voyage, he edited The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle and his pendulum experiments gained him the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1821.

Between 1821 and 1823, he continued to travel extensively, sailing in HMS Pheasant to conduct further pendulum observations at different latitudes in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1823, he sailed in HMS Griper on the British Naval Scientific Expedition (leader Douglas Clavering), sent by the Board of Longitude to Svalbard and the east coast of Greenland to enable Sabine to extend his observations on the length of the seconds pendulum.

Promoted first captain in 1827, Sabine acted as one of the secretaries of the Royal Society from 1827 to 1829, and was appointed one of three scientific advisers to the Admiralty in 1828. While serving with the army in Ireland between 1830 and 1837, he began work on what was to be the first systematic magnetic survey of the British Isles in 1834. He was instrumental in the establishment of magnetic observatories throughout the British Empire, initially at St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope and Toronto, and was appointed to superintend the enterprise in 1839, publishing his first volume of results in 1843. In 1849, he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society for his papers on terrestrial magnetism. An active member of numerous scientific organizations, he served as president of the Royal Society between 1861 and 1871. He was knighted in 1869 and promoted general in 1870. Retiring from the army in 1877, he died on 26 June 1883 at Richmond.

Published work An account of experiments to determine the figure of the earth, by means of the pendulum vibrating seconds in different latitudes; as well as on various other subjects of philosophical inquiry by (Sir) Edward Sabine, John Murray, London (1825) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection 528.2 The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle edited by (Sir) Edward Sabine, John Murray London (1822) SPRI Library Shelf (41)91(08)[1819-1820 Parry] Observations on days of unusual magnetic disturbance made at the British colonial magnetic observatories under the departments of Ordnance and Admiralty... by (Sir) Edward Sabine, Longman, London (1843)


The collection is split into three sub-fonds comprising of expedition material and correspondence respectively.

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 Dictionary of National Biography volume 50, Smith, Elder & Co. London (1897) and 'Sabine, Sir Edward' by Trevor H Levere 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 'General Sir Edward Sabine' by L S Dawson in Memoirs of Hydrography Part I Cornmarket Press, London (1969) SPRI Library Shelf 92(08)[pub.1969] and Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland, Garland Publishing, London (1994) ISBN number 0824076486 and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills, San Diego and Oxford, 2003

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