HMS Hecla was one of the most famous discovery vessels of her age and was launched along with a sister ship, HMS Infernal, in 1815 at Hessle Cliff by the firm run by John Barkworth and George Hawkes . Their shipyard, at Cliff Hill Flatt Close, was situated on the River Humber foreshore not far from the old cottages that still stand by the little road that runs close to the water’s edge. Little remains of what was once a thriving shipyard, save a few mud stained cobbles scattered along an almost empty shoreline set against the looming northern towers of the Humber Bridge.
When the Hecla and Infernal were launched into the River Humber, the two ships were probably taken down river to Humber Dock, now the Hull Marina, where the final work of making them ready for the sea was carried out. Hecla was named after the Icelandic volcano Hekla and the ship gave its name to the Hecla class bomb vessels, most were named after Volcanoes. These bomb vessels were heavily built ships intended to carry mortars for bombardment and in 1816 both the Hecla and Infernal saw action in Pellew’s bombardment of Algiers, an attack on the Barbary pirates. Both ships were mentioned in R.M.Ballantyne’s book, The Pirate City.
Hecla’s First Polar Voyage
The Algiers bombardment was probably the last time that the Hecla fired her guns in anger but her naval career was far from over. The Hecla’s heavy construction made the ship ideally suited for working amongst thick ice during polar voyages of exploration and in May 1819, the ship, in command of Lieutenant William Parry and, accompanied by a smaller gun brig called HMS Griper, set sail for the Arctic in search of the North West Passage. Explorers had been searching for the Northwest Passage, a route to the Pacific via the ice-bound seas north of Canada, for centuries. Captain Parry, who had sailed with Captain Ross to the same waters in search of the Passage the previous year, was convinced that he could find a way westwards through the treacherous Lancaster Sound a remote ice bound seaway off Canada’s bleak northern shores. The ships carried sufficient stores and provisions for a three year voyage for Parry intended to spend at least one winter in the grip of the Arctic.
The ships forced their way through the ice, entering the Lancaster Sound towards the end of May 1819 and continued westwards along a seaway that no ship had previously traversed, discovering and naming many islands, bays and inlets. They voyaged up the Prince Regent inlet until their way was blocked by ice and, after returning to the Lancaster Sound, they headed westward through what later proved to be unusually clear waters, passing through the Barrow Straits and into the Melville Sound. By September 1819 the Hecla and Griper passed Meridian 110 and set a record for the furthest west that a ship had traversed down the seaway in one season. By then, however, the short Arctic summer was over and the weather was worsening so the two ships struggled back eastwards as far as Melville Island where,
in the lee of Winter Island, they found shelter for the long arctic winter. Over the following months the ships and crews had to endure the dark and deep frozen monotony of the grim arctic winter but a regime of sensible eating, exercise and various diversions allowed them to come through. In an age before the radio and the telephone there was no way of people back in Britain knowing how the expedition was faring, even so some information did trickle through about the early stages of their voyage thanks to the whaling ships they had passed in on their way north-west through Baffin Bay; some newspapers also reported that a message in a bottle, apparently thrown into the sea by Captain Parry, on the 21st May 1819, had been found by a Norwegian priest.
During the stay at Winter Harbour the expedition inscribed the names of the ship and the date on a remarkable block of sandstone on the beach and many years later a plaque was added. This rock later acted as a sort of post office for future nineteenth century expeditions and is still there to this day. Whilst sheltering at Winter Harbour, Parry sent out a small expedition to explore Melville Island. Although spring and daylight eventually arrived, the two ships remained gripped in the ice until June 1820 when their crews were finally able to saw them out and sail into open water. However, the expedition was unable to resume the voyage to the Pacific as the westward route remained blocked by ice and all attempts by the ships to force their way through were thwarted. The Hecla and Griper, therefore, turned for home. Even though they had not reached the Pacific Ocean they had discovered and explored a substantial part of the North West Passage and set a record for the furthest west that a ship had traversed by this route in one season; this proved a remarkable achievement for no vessel was to surpass it for 150 years. The Hecla and Griper’s record was finally broken by the 940 foot purpose-built tanker icebreaker Manhattan, but not until1969.
Free of the ice, through the Lancaster Straits and then out of the Davis Straits, the two vessels made their way back over the Atlantic. In October 1820, after eighteen months away, they reached British shores once more and soon relatives, colleagues and friends received their first real news of the crews since the voyage had begun. Parry disembarked at Peterhead and rushed to London by post-chaise, the whole country anxious for an account of his adventures. Meanwhile the vessels made their way down the east coast to the Thames where the crews were paid off at the end of their long adventure. Back in London in November 1820, Parry was promoted to Commander and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Hecla’s Second and Third Polar Voyages
Parry was to take HMS Hecla back to the Arctic on two further voyages in search of the Northwest Passage. In May 1821, after just a winter at home, Parry set out once more. This time he took command of HMS Fury, another Hecla class bomb vessel and HMS Hecla was placed in the charge of Commander Lyon. This time Parry tried to find a more southerly route for the Northwest Passage, along the coast of Arctic
America. He sailed the two ships down the Hudson Strait, reaching the Frozen Strait and entered Repulse Bay but discovered it to be a landlocked. Hecla and Fury then sailed northwards, searching every inlet for a route west until the Arctic winter set in and the ships were forced to lay up by Melville Peninsula. Conditions were particularly grim that winter but Parry kept his crews occupied and warm and maintained a supply of green food by growing cress in trays around the chimneys of the ships’ stoves. The ships were only eventually sawn out of the ice in July 1822 and on sailing north discovered what was then named the Hecla and Fury Strait. They were soon beset by ice once more and forced to spend a second winter in the Arctic away from home. As soon as the ships were able to break out of the ice the next year they headed for England and home on account of the deteriorating health of the crews.
The vessels arrived home in October 1823 after more than two years absence from home but they were soon being overhauled and prepared for yet another expedition. This time Parry decided to return to the Lancaster Sound and sail down Prince Regent Inlet. The ships sailed in May 1824 but this year the weather proved particularly severe and the amount of ice in Baffin Bay delayed their arrival at the Lancaster Sound. Winter was rapidly approaching and the Hecla and Fury were forced to take up winter quarters at a place named Port Bowen on the eastern shore of the Prince Regent Inlet. After many months frozen in the ice the vessels finally broke free in July 1825 and voyaged southwards down the Prince Regent Inlet but both were eventually pinned against the shore by ice blown in by a heavy wind. Conditions deteriorated and the Fury was soon in real trouble, being driven by the ice on to the beach. The vessel got off but was pushed ashore again and again in the appalling weather. The poor ship was soon in such a state that she had to be abandoned. Luckily for all concerned, the Hecla survived the onslaught and returned to England with both crews and stores. Although the expedition had failed once more to reach the ultimate goal of the Pacific it nevertheless added to the stock of human knowledge of the area. Parry’s expedition returned with important information on arctic fauna and on the likely location of the magnetic pole.
The Hecla and Parry’s attempt on the North Pole
The Hecla was Parry’s favourite ship and a real famous vessel in its own right. Over 5,000 people visited the vessel when it was opened to the public at Deptford for the day prior to sailing on the third North West Passage voyage in 1824. Indeed, Parry had not finished with the vessel and used HMS Hecla as base ship for his attempt on the North Pole in 1827 from Svalbard, the Spitsbergen Archipelago. He took Hecla to Spitsbergen where he set off on the ice for the North Pole. Although he did not succeed in reaching his goal he did reach 82o45′ N, further north than anyone before and this record was to stand for almost fifty years.
Parry was knighted in 1829, at the same time as John Franklin, for his work on exploration and is regarded by many as being as important in terms of Arctic exploration and navigation as Captain Cook and James Clark Ross. He went on to hold a number of important positions at the Admiralty. The Hecla meanwhile was refitted for survey work on the African coast and, in 1831 sold out of naval service, despite Parry’s objections. During the 1830s the vessel was involved in trading, at one time bringing cotton from the southern states of America to Liverpool but also whaling from first Peterhead and then Kirkcaldy. She was finally wrecked on a whaling voyage to the Davis Straits in 1840.
A number of Navy vessels have since carried the name of Hecla and although this famous local ship has long since gone, and there is no memorial to the vessel in either Hull or Hessle, a glance at a map of the north of Canada shows that the Hecla and Griper Bay and Hecla and Fury Straits are still marked as far flung reminders of her epic voyages of exploration as is, of course, the sandstone rock at Winter Harbour on Melville Island where the Parry expedition were the first to overwinter in the Arctic.
Fergus Fleming, Barrow’s Boys (UK: Grove Press, 2001)
Basil Lubbock, Arctic Whalers (UK: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1937).
Colledge J.J.and Warlow, B., Ships of the Royal Navy: the complete record of all fighting ships of the Royal Navy, (UK: Chatham 2006).
W. E. Parry, Journal of the First, Second and Third Voyages for the Discovery of a North- West Passage, vols 1-5 (UK: London, 1828);
W. E. Parry, Narrative of an Attempt to Reach the North Pole: in Boats Fitted for the Purpose and Attached to His Majesty’s Ship Hecla in the Year MDCCCXXVII, Under the Command of Captain William Edward Parry (UK: London, 1828).
Pathfinders & Passageways: The Exploration of Canada. William Parry and the Arctic Archipelago. Library and Archives of Canada.
Exploration Through The Ages: Royal Navy Bomb Ship, The Mariner’s Museum