Henry Wolsey Bayfield

Henry Wolsey Bayfield Henry Bayfield was born in Hull on the 21st January 1795, the son of John Wolsey Bayfield and Elizabeth Pettit. Henry spent his first few years in Hull before the family moved to Norfolk but at the age of eleven he joined the Royal Navy and a year later, whilst still just twelve years old, he saw action for the first time, distinguishing himself in a battle off the Gut of Gibraltar. He was a midshipman before he was fifteen and became a master’s mate at nineteen. During his early career he served with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, as well as in the seas off France, the Low Countries and, the Iberian Peninsula. He also voyaged to the West Indies. When still only fifteen years old, he was sent to North America and served at Quebec and Halifax before being assigned to the British squadron operating on Lake Champlain during the war with the USA between 1812 and 1814. In January 1816 he was transferred again, this time to the warship, Prince Regent, stationed at Kingston in Upper Canada. A few months later, at the age of twenty one, he was promoted to lieutenant and joined the sloop, Star.

Plaque in memory of Henry Wolsey Bayfield at Discovery Harbour Bayfield’s Point of View exhibit, Penetanguishene, Ontario

The Star was used by the Royal Navy’s surveying service and during the summer of 1816, Bayfield worked under the Star’s commander, Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen, as he surveyed the upper St Lawrence and Lake Ontario. Bayfield displayed a considerable aptitude for the work and the next year, after Owen returned to England, he was placed in charge of the projected surveys of Lakes Erie and Huron; he was just twenty two. Admiralty cutbacks meant that he had to work at first with only one inexperienced assistant, Midshipman Phillip Collins, and a couple of small boats. However, they completed the survey of Lake Erie in 1817 and started work on Lake Huron. Some twenty thousand islands were charted in the Lake Huron survey and whilst working from their small boats the surveyors had to take six weeks of provisions with them. Bayfield later recounted that he slept on a Buffalo Robe under the mainsail in all kinds of weather. They were sometimes plagued with mosquitoes whilst they worked and the ague and scurvy were continual afflictions for his small crew.

In 1823 Bayfield was provided with a schooner, chartered from the Hudson’s Bay Company which he used mainly to transport provisions whilst using his small boats for surveying work. During the course of the next three summers, Bayfield and Collins circumnavigated Lake Superior and as a result they were able to chart all of its bays and coastal islands. The surveyors made their winter quarters at a place called Fort William and here in May 1825 they met with John Franklin, then about to embark upon his second expedition. In the autumn of 1825 Bayfield returned to England and for nearly two years worked on completing the charts of the three lakes.

In 1826 he was promoted to Commander and persuaded the Admiralty to authorise a full survey of the St Lawrence River and Gulf as well as a chain of surveys from Lake

Superior eastwards. Bayfield was duly appointed superintendant of the St Laurence survey in 1827 and devoted the next fourteen years to a survey of the entire north shore of the great river, systematically charting the main harbours as well. He also covered the northern Gaspe coast, the Strait of Belle Isle, a substantial portion of the Labrador coast as well as parts of the Belle Island coast of Newfoundland and other places. During this work he was provided with more substantial survey vessels including a schooner and cutters and worked out on the waters and coasts during the summer plotting their observations on to plans and charts in the winter. These were then forwarded to the Admiralty Hydrographic Office in London for engraving.

The survey work was carried out each summer, often from dawn to dusk, whenever weather conditions permitted. On one occasion, Bayfield and his assistant were marooned on a barren granite island off the north-eastern shore of the St Laurence for five days, eking out their provisions with puffins, young gulls and shellfish whilst continually afflicted by hordes of mosquitoes. The work was hazardous and his colleague and assistant Phillip Collins was drowned about 1833 during a surveying trip.

In 1834 Henry Bayfield was promoted to Captain and throughout his life he remained keenly interested in astronomy, tides geology, flora and fauna whilst publishing articles on navigation in the Nautical Magazine. He wrote a substantial piece of work, Sailing Directions in the Gulf of St Laurence which was published in three stages and between 1837 and 1857; then revised and republished in 1860 as the St Laurence Pilot. By the late 1840s Bayfield and his team had completely surveyed Prince Edward Island, the Northumberland Strait coast of Novas Scotia and over the next few years he covered much of the coasts off north-east Canada and his final large project was to survey Halifax harbour and the surrounding bays and headlands in 1852-53.

In 1856 Bayfield, by now in his early sixties and in declining health, retired from active surveying and became a rear-admiral. He was promoted to vice-admiral in 1863 and made an admiral in 1867. During his career Bayfield had worked on the production of about 114 charts out of the 215 Admiralty Charts which were issued for Canadian waters. He was awarded a Greenwich Hospital pension in addition to his regular superannuation and died, aged ninety in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in 1885. A number of geographical features and the like are named after him, including the town of Bayfield, Ontario which is situated on a bluff overlooking the point where the Bayfield River empties into Lake Huron.

The Bayfield Institute in Burlington, Ontario, a Canadian national centre of expertise in aquatic biology, freshwater fisheries and navigational charting is also named after Admiral Henry Bayfield. Today, the Bayfield Institute serves as a focal point for scientific research in the central and arctic regions of the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Henry Bayfield would no doubt have approved of its work.

Select Bibliography

Henry Wolsey Bayfield and Ruth McKenzie, The St Lawrence Survey Journals of Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield, 1829 – 1853 (Canada: Champlain Society, 1984)

William Stewart Wallace, Robert H Blackburn, The Encyclopedia of Canada (Canada: University Associates of Canada,1940)

The Times, 2nd March, 1885.

On-line References


Ruth McKenzie , Bayfield (Westmorland) Admiral H. W. Bayfield, R.N., Fisheries and Marine Service Ottawa, 1976.


Henry Wolsey Bayfield, naval officer, hydrographic surveyor, The Canadian Encyclopedia (Canada 2008) Historical Foundation of Canada.


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