(William) Edward Parry was born on 19 December 1790 in Bath, the fourth son of the eminent physician Dr. Caleb Hillier Parry. In 1803, he entered the Royal Navy, serving in the English Channel and the Baltic Sea during the Napoleonic Wars. Promoted lieutenant in 1810, he was assigned to the frigate HMS Alexandria employed in the protection of the Spitsbergen whale fishery. Taking advantage of this opportunity for the study and practice of astronomical observations in northern latitudes, he later prepared a short guide on nautical astronomy, which was published in 1816. In 1813, he was transferred to the North American station, serving during the hostilities between Britain and the United States until 1817.
In 1818, he was given the command of HMS Alexander on the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition (leader John Ross), sent in company with HMS Isabella to search for a Northwest Passage by way of Baffin Bay. Although the expedition failed to find a passage, it confirmed the earlier discoveries of Robert Bylot and William Baffin and encouraged whalers to extend their activities north to Baffin Bay and the coast of Baffin Island.
The following year, Parry led the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1819-1820, sailing in HMS Hecla, accompanied by HMS Griper under Matthew Liddon, to seek a passage through Lancaster Sound in the Canadian Arctic. Setting out from London in May 1819, the expedition reached Davis Strait before proceeding to Lancaster Sound where the two vessels continued westward, exploring Prince Regent Inlet before progressing along Barrow Strait. On 6 September 1819, Parry crossed the meridian of 110° West, off the south shore of Melville Island, earning for the expedition the prize of 5,000 offered by Parliament for reaching this longitude. Prevented from progressing still further west by ice conditions, the expedition wintered at Winter Harbour on Melville Island, where the vessels remained until 1 August 1820. This was the first deliberate Arctic wintering by British naval ships and Parry pioneered techniques for protection against illness and the intense cold. On his return to Britain, he was publicly honoured by several institutions and was promoted to the rank of commander for solving the longstanding problem of locating the elusive entrance to the Northwest Passage, in addition to navigating about halfway through the passage. His narrative of the expedition Journal of a Voyage to discover a Northwest Passage was published in 1821.
Parry was subsequently commissioned to command a second British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1821-1823, setting out in HMS Fury and HMS Hecla to search for a passage along the west coast of the unexplored Foxe Basin. After two attempts to sail through Fury and Hecla Strait were hindered by the ice, Parry was forced to return to England in 1823. Although he had failed to find a passage to the Pacific during the voyage, Parry had charted and explored a considerable area of the Arctic, stretching from Southampton Island north to Baffin Island.
Promoted captain during his absence in November 1821, Parry was appointed acting Hydrographer to the Navy shortly after the return of the expedition. In 1824, he undertook a third expedition, the British Naval Northwest Passage, 1824-1825, returning north in HMS Hecla and HMS Fury to seek a passage by following Prince Regent Inlet to the American mainland coast, then following the coast west. In August 1825, Fury was forced aground at Fury Point, Somerset Island, and Parry reluctantly decided to abandon the expedition, taking both crews aboard Hecla before returning to England. Despite its limited success, the expedition extended the survey of Prince Regent Inlet and conducted valuable geographical and scientific observations. Shortly after his return, Parry was confirmed as Hydrographer to the Navy, holding this post until his resignation in 1829.
Parry made his final voyage to the Arctic in 1827 when he led the British Naval North Polar Expedition, sent by the Admiralty to attempt to reach the North Pole from Svalbard using boats fitted with sledge runners for travel over both water and ice. Setting out from Sorgfjorden in June 1827 with two sledge boats, Enterprise, commanded by Parry, and Endeavour, commanded by James Clark Ross, the two parties reached 82° 45 minutes North in July, establishing a new northern record latitude that was to stand for nearly fifty years. His account of this journey Narrative of the Attempt to reach the North Pole was published in 1827. He was knighted in 1829.
From 1829 until 1834, Parry served as commissioner of the Australian Agricultural Company of New South Wales. After returning to Britain, he was made assistant poor-law commissioner for Norfolk, a post he held until 1836 when he was appointed by the Admiralty to re-organize the Home Packet Service. The following year he accepted the post of comptroller of steam machinery in the newly created steam department of the Admiralty, retaining this post until 1846 when he was appointed captain-superintendent of Haslar Hospital at Gosport. Promoted rear-admiral on his retirement in 1852, he became a lieutenant governor of Greenwich Hospital in 1854, where he remained until deteriorating health forced him to seek treatment at the baths at Ems [Germany], where he died on 8 or 9 July 1855.
Parry married twice, his first wife Isabella Louisa (1801-1839) was the daughter of John Thomas Stanley, 1st Lord Stanley of Alderley, his second wife Catherine was the daughter of Robert Hankinson vicar of Walpole St Andrew.
Published work Journals of the first, second and third voyages for the discovery of a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in 1819-1820-1821-1822-1823-1824-1825, in His Majesty's Ships Hecla, Griper and Fury volumes 1-6 by William Edward Parry, John Murray, London (1828) SPRI Library Shelf (3)91(091)[pub.1828-29] Narrative of an attempt to reach the North Pole, in boats fitted for the purpose, and attached to His Majesty's ship Hecla, in the year MDCCCXXVII, under the command of Captain William Edward Parry, R.N, F.R.S., and honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg by William Edward Parry, John Murray, London (1828) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection Folio (32)91(08)[1827 Parry]