James Weddell collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to Weddell's voyages south including the British Sealing Voyage, 1820-1821 and the British Sealing and Exploratory Voyage, 1822-1824, (both led by Weddell), correspondence by Weddell and biographical notes on him and the Weddell family.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Weddell was born on 24 August 1787 in Ostend, of Scottish parents. At a very early age and with little education, Weddell was apprenticed to ships in the North Sea coastal trade. In 1808, while in a merchant vessel, he knocked down his captain in a dispute and was handed over as a prisoner to the Royal Navy. There, taking advantage of the opportunities for study and rendering himself a capable navigator, he was rapidly promoted to midshipman, petty officer and master.

Paid off from the Navy in 1819, he accepted command of the Jane of Leith, a sealing brig of 160 tons, in which he made two successful voyages to the newly-discovered South Shetland and South Orkney Islands, discovering in the latter the species of seal that bears his name. Although he had no previous experience as a sealer, the voyages were sufficiently successful to enable him to buy a share in the brig, and he was entrusted with the command of a second voyage, the British Sealing and Exploratory Expedition, 1822-1824. Setting out in September 1822, accompanied by Matthew Brisbane in the cutter Beaufoy, he arrived off the South Orkney Islands in January 1823. Seeking new islands, the two vessels turned south and crossed the Antarctic Circle, reaching 70° south, where they found themselves in open sea, free from pack ice due to unusually benign weather. Continuing south, Weddell and Brisbane reached 74° 15' south, at 34° 15 ' 45 seconds west on 20 February 1823, achieving a record furthest south that took them 214 nautical miles beyond Cook's previous record. Weddell named his discovery the Sea of George IV. It is now known in his honour as the Weddell Sea.

Mindful of the weather and the voyage's commercial objectives, he decided to turn north, visiting South Georgia and wintering in the Falkland Islands. In the following summer, the vessels returned to the South Shetland Islands and eventually to Tierra del Fuego in search of fur seals. On his return to Britain, Weddell published an account of his explorations, including his carefully recorded observations of weather, tides and natural history.

Little is known of Weddell's later years, apart from his continuing in trading ventures. He died in London on 9 September 1834.

Published work A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-1824 containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea by James Weddell, David & Charles Newton Abbott, England (1970) SPRI Library Shelf (7)91(08)[1822-1824], Observations on the probability of reaching the South Pole by James Weddell, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, London (1826) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection (7)[pub. 1826]


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

Access Information

By appointment.

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Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) ISBN 0471986658 SPRI Library (7) and 'Weddell in the Antarctic' by Roger P. Bradley in The Geographical Magazine (November 1984) p558-559 and 'James Weddell (1787-1834)'by John Knox Laughton in The Dictionary of National Biography volume 60, London, 1899 p129-130 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.

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