Sir John Ross collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of correspondence by Ross including both family and naval news. The second part of the collection comprises of papers, which include mention of his Arctic expeditions and the search for the missing British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1845-1848 (leader Sir John Franklin).

Administrative / Biographical History

John Ross was born on 24 June 1777 at Balsarroch, Scotland, son of the Reverend Andrew Ross, minister at Inch. He entered the Royal Navy in 1786, serving in the Mediterranean and in the North Sea. On the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, he was posted to HMS Grampus under Sir James Saumarez, later acting as liaison officer and interpreter for Saumarez aboard the Swedish flagship during a combined Swedish-English action against a Russian squadron. Promoted commander in 1812, Ross served with distinction until the end of the wars in 1816.

In 1817, Ross was selected by the Admiralty to command the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, sailing from London in 1818 in HMS Isabella, accompanied by HMS Alexander under William Edward Parry, to search for a Northwest Passage by way of Baffin Bay. Among the ship's complement were his nephew, James Clark Ross, and the astronomer Edward Sabine. After reaching northern Baffin Bay, Ross sighted Smith Sound and Jones Sound, erroneously declaring that both were bays and making no attempt to explore them. On 30 August 1818, he entered Lancaster Sound but decided to turn back in the mistaken belief that it was a small inlet enclosed by mountains. Sailing south off the east coast of Baffin Island, Ross passed but did not attempt to enter Cumberland Sound, returning promptly to London in November 1818. On his return, Ross was criticised for his failure to explore the sounds, and, in particular, for his decision to turn back in Lancaster Sound against the wishes of his junior officers.

Promoted captain in 1818, Ross retired to North West Castle at Stranraer, publishing A treatise on navigation by steam in 1828, advocating the use of steam in warships. When his proposal to the Admiralty to send a steam vessel on an Arctic voyage was rejected, Ross persuaded his wealthy friend, Felix Booth, a gin distiller, to sponsor his British Northwest Passage Expedition, 1829-1833. Sailing from London in the small steamer Victory with James Clark Ross as second-in-command, the expedition entered Lancaster Sound in August 1829, reaching Prince Regent Inlet shortly afterwards, where they found the wreck of HMS Fury on Fury Beach. Proceeding south, the expedition discovered the Gulf of Boothia and put into winter quarters at Felix Harbour, southeast Boothia Peninsula. From here, Ross and his nephew made several journeys of exploration across Boothia Isthmus, and in May and June 1830, James Clark Ross discovered King William Island. During a sledge journey the following year, James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic Pole on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula on 1 June. During the third winter of 1831 to 1832, Ross decided to abandon ship, leading his men in the spring of 1832 to Fury Beach, where they spent their fourth Arctic winter. The whaler Isabella eventually rescued the expedition in Lancaster Sound on 26 August 1833, arriving in England in October 1833. On his return, Ross was the recipient of numerous awards and medals and was knighted in 1834.

In 1839, Ross was appointed British consul at Stockholm where he remained until 1846. On his return to Britain, he was one of the first to express his concern over the fate of Sir John Franklin's Northwest Passage Expedition, missing since 1845. In 1850, Ross took command of the privately sponsored British Franklin Search Expedition, 1850-1851, financed by the Hudson's Bay Company and public subscription, including a large donation from Felix Booth, to search for Franklin along the shores of Barrow Strait and Viscount Melville Sound in the schooner Felix. On his return to Britain, he was promoted rear admiral on the retired list, publishing a short pamphlet on the Franklin search in 1855, bitterly criticizing everyone associated with it. He died on 30 August 1856 in London.

Published work A voyage of discovery made under the orders of the Admiralty in His Majesty's Ships Isabella and Alexander for the purpose of exploring Baffin's Bay and enquiring into the probability of a North-west Passage by (Sir) John Ross, John Murray, London (1819) SPRI Library Special Collection (3)91(08)[1818 Ross], Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of a North-West Passage, and of a residence in the Arctic Regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833... and the discovery of the north magnetic pole by (Sir) John Ross and James Clark Ross, A.W. Webster, London (1835) SPRI Library Special Collection (41)91(08)[1829-1833 Ross], Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, a narrative of the circumstances and causes which led to the failure of the searching expeditions sent by the government and others for the rescue of Sir John Franklin by (Sir) John Ross, Longmans, Green, Brown and Longmans London (1855) SPRI Library Shelf (41)91(091)[1847-1859 Franklin search]


The collection is split into two sub-fonds comprising of correspondence and papers 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 'Ross, Sir John' in Dictionary of Canadian Biography volume 8, edited by Francess G Halpenny, University of Toronto Press, Toronto (1985) 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 Polar pioneers, John Ross and James Clark Ross by Maurice Ross, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal (1994) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Ross] and The Polar Rosses, John and James Clark Ross and their explorations by Ernest S Dodge, Faber and Faber, London (1973) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Ross] 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 Ross. The catalogue can be searched on line by going to the Picture Library Database and selecting the Enter Polar Pictures link.