George Back collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of correspondence by Back.

The special collection comprises journals, notebooks, correspondence, expedition material, publications and other ephemera by Back and his contemporaries including the Franklins, Sir John Richardson, Sir William Edward Parry, Sir John Ross, James Clark Ross, Robert McClure, Henry Kellett, Sir Francis Beaufort, Horatio Austin and John Barrow.

Administrative / Biographical History

George Back was born on 6 November 1796 in Stockport, Cheshire. In 1808, he entered the Royal Navy, serving off the coasts of France and Spain until French soldiers captured him. He spent five years as a prisoner of war before returning to England in 1814, later serving as midshipman until 1817. In 1818, he joined the British Naval North Polar Expedition (leader David Buchan), as midshipman in HMS Trent under John Franklin. This expedition was sent by the Admiralty to seek a passage from Svalbard by way of the North Pole to Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. Although the expedition did not achieve its objective due to heavy ice, it reached a farthest north of 80° 34 minutes.

Back returned to the Arctic with John Franklin on the British Naval Exploring Expedition, 1819-1822, sent by the Admiralty in the Hudson's Bay Company vessel Prince of Wales to explore the north coast of America east from the mouth of Coppermine River. The expedition passed one winter at Cumberland House (Saskatchewan) and a second at Fort Enterprise, a base camp they had built by Winter Lake, between Great Slave Lake and the Coppermine River. Soon after their arrival at Winter Lake, Back returned to Fort Chipewyan for more supplies, thereby saving the expedition from early failure. In July 1821, the party left Fort Enterprise in two canoes, descended the Coppermine River to the sea, explored the coast as far east as Bathurst Inlet. Dogged by starvation and increasing debility, the party abandoned hope of reaching Repulse Bay and struggled back overland across the barren tundra towards Fort Enterprise. Half the party was saved when Back, who had gone on ahead, located an Indian tribe and sent them to the main group with supplies. Back was promoted lieutenant in January 1821 while the expedition was still in progress.

On his return to Britain in 1822, Back resumed service at sea until he was invited to participate in the British Naval Exploring Expedition, 1825-1827 (leader John Franklin), organized by the Admiralty to extend the previous exploration of the coast west from Coppermine River to Icy Cape, Alaska. The expedition completed the mapping of about half the north coast of mainland America and conducted valuable scientific observations. During the winter of 1825, Back learned that he had been promoted commander. His watercolours and drawings were used to illustrate Franklin's published narratives of both Arctic land expeditions.

After the expedition, Back toured Europe until 1832 when he offered to command a search for Sir John Ross's missing Northwest Passage expedition. In February 1833, the British Expedition in search of Ross, 1833-1835 (led by Back), set out from Liverpool to search by way of the Thlew-ee-Choh or Great Fish River [Back River]. After news reached Back in April 1834 of Ross's safe return to England, he and his companion, Dr Richard King, naturalist and surgeon, decided to remain in the region, exploring Back River and the seacoast adjoining its mouth. On his return, he was promoted captain and received the Royal Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

In 1836, he made his final voyage to the Arctic in command of HMS Terror on the British Naval Exploring Expedition, 1836-1837, instructed by the Admiralty to sail to Wager Bay and then trace the coast by boat as far as Point Turnagain, thus completing the survey of the north coast of Canada. Although the expedition failed in its objective, Back and his officers did chart parts of the north-east coast of Southampton Island. Further honours followed this expedition and he was knighted in 1839.

He did not participate in any further naval voyages due to ill-health but maintained an active interest in Arctic exploration. On 13 October 1846, he married Theodosia Elizabeth Hammond, a widow, spending six months with her in Italy. On his return, he served on the Arctic Council, advising the Admiralty on search expeditions for Sir John Franklin's missing Northwest Passage expedition.

Retiring with the rank of rear admiral in 1857, he became a prominent member of the Royal Geographical Society, serving as its vice-president for seven years. Promoted admiral in 1876, he died on 23 June 1878 in London.

Published work Narrative of an expedition in HMS Terror, undertaken with a view to geographical discovery on the Arctic shores, in the years 1836-1837 by (Sir) George Back, John Murray London (1838) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection (41)91(08)[1836-1837 Back] Narrative of the Arctic land expedition to the mouth of the Great Fish River and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the years 1833, 1834 and 1835 by (Sir) George Back, John Murray London (1836) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection (41)91(08)[1833-1835 Back]


The collection is split into two sub-fonds comprising of correspondence and the special collection.

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 'Back, Sir George' by Clive Holland 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 Dictionary of National Biography volume 2, edited by Leslie Stephen, Smith, Elder & Co. London (1885)

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