Papers of William Scoresby (1789-1857)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers include: a letter from Scoresby to Patrick Neill, Secretary of the Wernerian Society about a meteorological journal, 1814; a number of letters to Professor Robert Jameson about polar ice, whales etc, 1814-1821, and asking if he will read some proofs; a letter about a great telescope, 1846; and, a letter to D. Hodgson, 1854.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Scoresby was born at Cropton, near Whitby, on 5 October 1789. He was the son of the Arctic navigator William Scoresby (1760-1829). In 1800 he accompanied his father to the whale fishing grounds, and in 1803 was aboard the whaler 'Resolution' as his father's apprentice on voyages to Greenland. Scoresby entered Edinburgh University in 1806, studying chemistry and natural philosophy. In 1807 he surveyed Balta Sound in Shetland, and later that year volunteered for service with the British fleet at Copenhagen (after the Napoleonic Wars) and to assist in sailing prize vessels from the Danish fleet to England. Around this time he made the acquaintance of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), and probably at Banks suggestion began observations of natural phenomena and a study of the natural history of the polar regions. Scoresby resumed his studies at Edinburgh University in November 1809 and made the acquaintance there of Professor Robert Jameson (1774-1854). In 1810 he took command of the 'Resolution' as captain, but in 1813 he changed to a new and larger vessel, the 'Esk'. Invention of an apparatus for the measurement of deep sea temperatures followed, along with the discovery that bottom sea level temperatures in the Arctic were higher than surface temperatures. In 1819, Scoresby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the same year he sent a paper on the variations of the magnetic needle to the Royal Society of London. Also in 1819 he and his family moved from Whitby to Liverpool where he superintended the construction of the 'Baffin', specially fitted for the Greenland trade. Voyages were made in 1820, 1821, and 1822. On his return from the 1823 voyage he planned to prepare himself for the ministry, his religious convictions having been intensified by the death of his wife the previous year. He entered Queen's College, Cambridge, also studying Latin and Greek. Scoresby was ordained by the Archbishop of York in July 1825 and obtained the curacy of Bessingby near Bridlington Quay. In May 1827 he became chaplain of the mariner's church at Liverpool, and in 1832 was elected to Bedford chapel, Exeter. In 1834 he obtained the degree of B.D. and in 1839 the degree of D.D., and around the same time he came to the parish of Bradford. Ill health followed in the 1840s and after a long visit to the USA and a search for a cure, he resigned in 1847. He then took up voluntary clerical work and continued occupying himself with science and literature. In his lifetime, Scoresby contributed numerous papers to the Wernerian Society of which he was a member, and his other publications include Account of the Arctic regions and northern whale fishery (1820), Journal of a voyage to the northern whale fishery and discoveries on the east coast of Greenland (1823), Memorials of the sea (1833), Magnetical investigations (1839-1852), The Franklin expedition (1850), Zoistic magnetism (1850), and My father, being records of the adventurous life of the late W. Scoresby (1851). His Journal of a voyage to Australia for magnetical research (1859) was edited by Archibald Smith. William Scoresby died in Torquay on 21 March 1857.

Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letter to Neill, and those to Jameson, Accession no. E74.30. Telescope letter, Accession no.E72.37.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 17. Robinson-Sheares. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show references to Scoresby related material in the Laing Collection (check the Indexes for more details): letter to S. Hope containing suggestions for the Council considering the loan of testaments to the poor, 1832, in La.II.643/53. There are also references to a portrait and an engraving of Scoresby, at La.II.643/53, and Dc.4.101-103, misc., f.97., and material at Dc.4.101-103 misc.,f.79-80.