John Biscoe collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the British Expedition, 1830-1833 to Antarctica and surrounding Islands and miscellaneous papers regarding Antarctic voyages.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Biscoe was born on 28 June 1794 in Middlesex, England. In March 1812, he volunteered for the Royal Navy, serving off North America during the war with the United States, 1812-1814. Between 1813 and 1815, he was promoted to midshipman and quartermaster, and at the time of his discharge in 1815, he had advanced to acting master.

Little is known about his employment between 1815 to 1830, the year when Messrs. Enderby, a respected whaling firm in London, proposed an Antarctic sealing voyage and appointed Biscoe master of the brig Tula. The British Expedition, 1830-1833, left London, in company with the smaller cutter Lively (Captain Magnus Smith, later Captain George Avery). On 24 February 1831, in latitudes below 66°South, Biscoe discovered Enderby Land, sighting bare mountain tops showing through the ice sheet. He remained off the coast for a month, attempting to make a fuller chart, at some cost to the health of the crew and himself. The expedition sailed northeastwardly, reaching Hobart in May 1831 after severe problems with pack ice and scurvy, the latter leading to two deaths among the crew. Both vessels wintered in Australia.

In a second season, Biscoe again sailed south. On 15 February 1832, he discovered Adelaide Island and, continuing northeastwardly, charted the Biscoe Islands. On 21 February 1832, he discovered and annexed land for King William IV, later calling it Graham Land. (This coast was in fact the southern extension of Edward Bransfield's Trinity Land and Palmer's Land, all part of Antarctic Peninsula). On his return in 1833, he was awarded the Royal Premium of the Royal Geographical Society for his discoveries and seamanship.

In 1833, Messrs. Enderby commissioned Biscoe for a similar voyage of exploration in two more vessels, Hopefull and Rose. Perhaps because of ill health, Biscoe eventually withdrew from this venture and decided to return to seafaring in warmer latitudes. Between 1834 and 1837, he was in the West Indies trade, and in 1837, sailed from London for Hobart, commanding the Superb. There, he became master of the brig, Lady Emma commanding her on the New South Wales sealing voyage (from Port Jackson, Sydney), 1839-1840, visiting the Chatham Islands, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. Between 1840 and 1841, Biscoe was master of various passenger and cargo vessels sailing between Hobart, Sydney and Port Phillip, but ill health brought his career to an end. Biscoe died in 1843, during a voyage bringing his family back to England.

Published work, From the Journal of a voyage towards the South Pole on board the brig Tula, under the command of John Biscoe, with the cutter Lively in company by John Biscoe, edited by George Murray, Royal Geographical Society London (1901) SPRI Library Shelf (7)


The collection is split into two sub-fonds comprising of material relating directly to the British Expedition, 1830-1833 and miscellaneous papers.

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 item is signed by the author.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to 'John Biscoe, Master Mariner 1794-1843' by Ann Margaret Savours in The Polar Record (May 1983) volume 21 number 134 p485-492 and The dictionary of national biography, missing persons ed. by Christine S. Nicholls, Oxford University Press (1994) and Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) ISBN 0471986658 SPRI Library (7) and Robert Keith Headland Antarctic Chronology, unpublished corrected revision of Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events,(1 December 2001) Cambridge University Press (1989) ISBN 0521309034

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

See SPRI collection GB 015 Hobart Marine Board and GB 015 Messrs Enderby (particularly MS 1172;D Enderby, Messrs. Letter (copy) to J. Biscoe, 9 July 1833 giving instructions for expedition that Biscoe withdrew from, 1833-1834)