18 September 2023
Medals for some of the most demanding voyages of exploration and discovery in British maritime history revealed by Peter Duckers
In May 1857 the London Gazette announced that a medal would be awarded for service in Arctic exploration from 1818 - the date that the government inaugurated a series of voyages of exploration in the Arctic seas beyond Canada's north coast. There were good reasons for this new policy. Despite sporadic voyages to the Arctic since Tudor times and although fishermen and whalers had sailed into the seas west of Greenland, there had been no concerted attempt to map Canada's Arctic coastline nor the maze of islands to its north. There was also another reason for taking a closer look. For centuries, it had been speculated that there was a northwest passage, a sea route through the islands and ice-sheets that would connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. Such a route would be of huge commercial value to a maritime trading nation like Britain, enabling a more rapid crossing from Europe to the markets of the spice islands, China, India and the Far East. Geographical and scientific knowledge aside, the search for the legendary North West Passage would provide a driving force behind Britain's exploration of the area for 50 years.
Left: The obverse of the Arctic Medal: the Queen shown with hair in fashionable chignon
The Arctic Medal covered significant voyages of discovery prior to 1848. These Arctic expeditions, financed by the government and employing Royal Navy warships, made significant contributions to the study and mapping of the Arctic islands, the geography of northern Canada and to scientific research on meteorology, wildlife, ice flow, magnetic fields etc.
Perhaps the most celebrated voyages were those associated with Sir John Franklin and the warships Erebus and Terror which set out to find the Northwest Passage in 1845 and were lost with no survivors. From 1848 to 1859, there was a series of Franklin Relief Expeditions which (when the fact of their total loss became undeniable) became Franklin Search Expeditions. A number between 1850-59 were private ventures, notably sponsored by Lady Franklin who was indefatigable in her determination to find her husband or establish his fate. United States warships also joined the search in three voyages, 1850-55. These eventually established the trajectory of Franklin's journey but despite the huge effort only fragmentary remains of the ships, equipment and men were ever found, scattered over a wide area. However, in 2014 and 2016, the ships were actually located on the seabed, hundreds of miles apart, and in an excellent state of preservation.
Right: The reverse, showing a warship and a sledge party. These could cover hundreds of miles and spend days away from their ship
The Arctic Medal has an attractive and unusual design. The medal is octagonal, with beaded edge, the suspension carrying a silver star, symbolising the North or Pole Star. The obverse carries the profile of Queen Victoria and Victoria Regina. The well-drawn obverse bears the legend 'For Arctic Discoveries' and shows a sailing warship iced in, with icebergs in the background and a sledge party (or travelling party) of the type sent out to undertake scientific and geographical work away from the ships. The reverse also has the dates '1818-1855' but entitlement was extended to 1859 to cover the later Franklin searches.
The medal has no clasps but examples are known with privately-made dated clasps to those who served in more than one voyage but received only one medal. The medal was worn from a plain, watered, white ribbon, obviously referencing the ice and snow of the Arctic wastes.
It is estimated that about 2,600 men would have been entitled to claim the medal but only about 1,500 applications were made in the initial award period and, unsurprisingly, there were comparatively few surviving claimants for the early voyages of 1818-36. However, late claims continued to be made and by c. 1900 it is thought that about 1,800 medals were issued, the majority to Royal Navy personnel and Lady Franklin's ships. In addition, the medals were awarded for a series of gruelling land expeditions along the Canadian coast between 1819-1848, including 187 to men of the Hudson Bay Company, about 80 to the US crews of four ships for 1850-1855 and to other recipients who had taken part in shore or naval journeys - some military personnel, Inuit guides and interpreters, foreign seamen (such as French or Danish) and a few civilians, medical officers and scientists.
Left: The Arctic Medal with a Naval Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Officially named medals greatly add to the value of the award
The medals represent truly extraordinary service often under the most demanding and dangerous conditions of ice, snow, seas and temperature. They have always been popular with collectors and scarce on the market (1,500-1,800 is not a large issue) and their price has risen steadily over recent years. A basic, unnamed example in nice condition would now cost about £1,500.
The medals were issued unnamed but are frequently found with personal details engraved or impressed along their narrow rim. This greatly adds to their market value and their interest to the collector and is reflected in the price. Named examples start from £2,000 upwards and they can reach far more than that, depending on the ship, the rank or status or the recipient and the story of that particular expedition. Examples found with officially-named medals, typically the Naval General Service with clasps 'Algiers', 'Navarino' or 'Syria', the 1842 China Medal or the Naval Long Service and Good Conduct medal are particularly sought after and correspondingly expensive.
Right: The Arctic Medal with a Naval General Service Medal, in this case with clasp ‘Algiers’
As a footnote, it is fascinating to read that in recent years, the ships Investigator and Breadalbane have been rediscovered, upright on the seabed, in excellent condition, though a number of lost warships remain unlocated. Also, in the 1980s, the bodies of three of Franklin's men who died in 1846 were examined on Beechey Island and found to be in a remarkable state of preservation in the frozen ground. Some of their descendants were traced and examples the Arctic Medal were re-struck from the original dies to present to their families. Only 160 years late!
Can't get to the newsagents for your copy of The Armourer? Order it online (now with free postage!) or take out a subscription and avoid the general public for the next 12 months entirely. And if you're confined to quarters, stock up on some bookazines to keep you entertained.
Buy the latest copy or any back issues, either in print or digital editions by clicking on The Armourer.
Get the special magazines!
They were the mightiest of ships, able to project power around the world courtesy of fearsome armament. Now, a new 132 page special, Battleships of WWII, brings their story to life with 85 battleships from seven nations. Here is your guide to why they were built, how they were armoured and fitted out with equipment and weapons, and what action they saw in WWII, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With colour photos and blueprints, statistic tables and key production details, it’s the ultimate guide to the greatest ships of World War II. Order your print or digital copy here.
New, digital specials!
We have a new range of digital special editions, drawn from the archives of The Armourer magazine. All are just £4.99 and are in digital formats only. This is what you can discover:
British Empire Medals & Clasps - Your guide to collecting classic, rare and unusual medals and clasps of the British Empire.
Inside Hitler’s Third Reich – The people, events, places, organisations and collectables from Hitler’s regime.
Military Collectables of WWI - Your guide to collecting the medals, badges, ephemera, uniforms and equipment of the Great War.
Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Militaria - From finding items to buying, restoring and displaying them, this is everything you need to know about collecting militaria.