Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cecil Higgins and the Arctic Explorer

One of the nicest things about the redevelopment is that the curatorial team now share an office. In the past I would have to walk from my office in the old Higgins House on one side of the site to offices in the attic of the brewery on the other side to see Lydia (Keeper of Social History) and Liz (Keeper of Archaeology). This meant I tended to only see them when I had a specific purpose, so didn’t get the chance to talk to them about what we were up to with our work.

Now that we are so close, and can bounce ideas off each other at the turn of a head, we have found lots of links between our collections we never knew existed. For example, if I didn’t share an office with Lydia I would neverhave heard her talking last week about how she is researching into Arctic explorers from Bedford, and she would never have known that a few weeks earlier I had come across a medal in the Cecil Higgins Collection given for Arctic Exploration. This led to Lydia finding the name Henry Piers on the rim of the medal, me remembering that Cecil Higgins had an uncle by the name of Henry Piers and Tom (Head of Collections and Exhibitions) googling Piers and finding that not only did Piers’ dates, name of wife etc. match the Higgins Piers, but that he had been on the boat in 1851 that had discovered the North West Passage. Meaning, we had found an Arctic Explorer with a Bedford connection that was related to the Higgins’, which in Curatorial terms is like discovering gold.

Obverse and Reverse of the Campaign Medal awarded to Henry Piers, Assistant Surgeon on the HMS Investigator

Since the 15th Century explorers had been trying to find the North West Passage, a navigable channel that was believed to connect the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. By the early nineteenth century the eastern and northern ends of the passage had been charted, with only the link between the two to be found. In May 1845 Captain Sir John Franklin of the Royal Navy with 127 men set sail on the Erebus and the Terror to discover this last remaining part. By 1848 no word had been heard from the expedition and the search for Franklin and his crew became a national priority. In the course of a decade almost 40 expeditions were sent out on the search, and although none were successful in bringing Franklin home (sadly, he and his entire crew had long since perished), major explorations of the Canadian arctic were made; including the discovery by Robert McClure in the HMS Investigator, of the Prince of Wales Strait, which was the last link of the fabled passage.

Henry Piers an Assistant Surgeon had volunteered along with 66 officers and men for McClure’s expedition, which set sail in 1850. What Piers can’t have imagined when he left Woolwich, was that he would not return to England until 1854, after spending three harsh arctic winters trapped by ice onboard the Investigator before abandoning the ship and walking with the remaining crew for fifteen days across the ice to rescue. Although the crew’s original mission to find Franklin had been unsuccessful, during the first year that they were trapped they made several explorations by sledge and on the 31st October an entry in the ships log stated that the existence of a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean had been established.

On his return to England he married Ellen Colburne, Cecil Higgins’ maternal aunt in Bedford and a year later continued his naval career as surgeon various ships before retiring in 1873.

Colburne and Higgins Family Tree

What makes finding Henry Piers even more interesting is that unlike the Higgins, who we have very little personal information about, Pierce kept diaries of his travels, which are now in the National Maritime Museum.

More research needs to be done, but Henry Piers is turning out to be a very exciting member of the Higgins family.

Victoria Partridge
Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art

Thanks to Jane Wickenden the Historic Collections Librarian at the Institute of Naval Medicine and Jean Forshaw at the Institute of Naval Medicine for all their help with the research into Henry Piers.

No comments:

Post a Comment