Sir James Clark Ross collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to Ross's early voyages with his uncle Sir John Ross, the British Relief Expedition, 1836 sent to whalers in the Davis Strait, the British Naval Expedition, 1839-1842 to the Antarctic (led by Ross) and correspondence by Ross on a number of subjects.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Clark Ross was born in 1800 in London, nephew of the explorer Sir John Ross. He joined the Royal Navy in April 1812, serving as midshipman under his uncle's command. In 1818, as a midshipman in HMS Isabella, commanded by John Ross, he sailed on his first Arctic expedition in an attempt to discover the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Between 1819 and 1827, he took part in four Arctic expeditions under Sir Edward Parry, attempting to explore northward from eastern Canada and Svalbard. During these expeditions, he particularly interested himself in making observations of magnetism and natural history. Promoted to commander on his return to England in 1827, he was employed between 1829 and 1833 under his uncle on a private expedition to find the Northwest Passage. As second-in-command, James Clark Ross led several overland sledging parties, reaching the North Magnetic Pole on 31 May 1831. For his achievements, he was promoted to captain in 1834 and was employed in making a magnetic survey of Great Britain and Ireland between 1835 and 1838 by order of the Admiralty. In 1836, Ross led the British Relief Expedition from Hull to rescue the crews of eleven whaling vessels, which had been beset and forced to winter in Davis Strait in the Arctic during 1835.

In 1839, he was appointed to command the British Naval Expedition, 1839-1843, to conduct a series of magnetic observations in the southern hemisphere and to locate and reach the South Magnetic Pole if possible. The expedition, with Ross in HMS Erebus and Captain Francis Crozier commanding HMS Terror, left England in September. Establishing magnetic observatories in St. Helena, Cape Town, and Iles Kerguelen, and taking running observations en route, the two ships reached Hobart, Tasmania early in 1840. A geophysical observatory 'Rossbank' was established in Hobart with the co-operation of the Governor, Sir John Franklin, Later in the same year, the two vessels headed south into the Southern Ocean, crossing the Antarctic Circle on 1 January 1841 and were the first vessels to force a way through the pack ice of the Ross Sea. Ross discovered and roughly charted 900 kilometres of new coast in Victoria Land, which was claimed for Queen Victoria on Possession Island on 12 January and Franklin Island on 27 January 1841. Continuing south, he discovered Ross Island; with twin peaks that he named Erebus and Terror, and the huge ice shelf that also bears his name. He calculated the position of the South Magnetic Pole as 75.83°South, 154.13°East, but was unable to reach the Pole either by boat or by sledging. After wintering in Australia, the expedition returned to the Ross Sea in December 1841, then visited the South Shetland Islands, the Falkland Islands and proceeded into the South American sector of Antarctica, where a number of discoveries were made off the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula.

On return to England Ross was knighted. During the years 1848 to 1849, he led a further expedition to the Arctic in HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator in search of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. His exploring parties sledged to within 180 miles of the point where the missing vessels had been abandoned, but on attempting to sail westward through Barrow Strait, HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator were beset and drifted into Baffin Bay. He returned to England, but continued to be consulted as an authority during the search for Franklin and on all matters relating to the Arctic. He retired from the Navy in 1856 with the rank of rear admiral, and died at home in Aylesbury, England in 1862.

Published work, A voyage of discovery and research in the southern and Antarctic regions during the years 1839-1843 by (Sir) James Clark Ross, David and Charles Reprints Newton Abbot (1969) SPRI Library Shelf (7)91(08)[1839-1843 Ross]

Biographical work, Polar pioneers, John Ross and James Clark Ross by Maurice Ross, McGill-Queen's University Press Montreal (1994) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Ross] 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]


The collection is split into four sub-fonds covering the expeditions and correspondence 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 The Geographical Journal (September 1962) volume 128 part 3 and Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) ISBN 0471986658 SPRI Library(7) 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 and Clive Holland Arctic, exploration and development circa 500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia Garland Publishing, London (1994) ISBN number 0824076486.

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.