Finding HMS Investigator at the 1891 Royal Naval Exhibition


The story of HMS Investigator was very nearly a tragedy on the scale of the Franklin Expedition it had been sent to find.

Were it not for Lieutenant Bedford Pim of HMS Resolute, more than 60 officers and men would probably have died, and the ship herself may never have been found.


Investigator was abandoned in Mercy Bay, Banks Island, on 3rd June 1853.  This dramatic moment was recreated with scale models at the 1891 Royal Naval Expedition, and a photograph of it was later sold as a magic lantern slide:

(Please click for full size version)

The Investigator panorama was built inside a structure designed to look like an iceberg. There are two polar bears prowling above the entrance. 

Iceberg exterior, Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891 in London.
Iceberg exterior, Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891 in London. Copyright: Alamy.

The sign on the side is a Royal endorsement: Queen Victoria and Prince Edward visited it twice.

An excerpt from the catalogue of the Royal Naval Exhibition


She was Clyde-built, by Scott’s of Greenock, as a merchant ship.

HMS Investigator enters the story of the Franklin Expedition in 1848, when she sailed to the Arctic alongside HMS Enterprise in the search commanded by James Clark Ross. But this expedition was unsuccessful and returned after only one year.


She was dispatched once again in December 1849, this time under the command of Robert McClure.

Robert McClure by James Scott, published by Henry Graves & Co, after Stephen Pearce mezzotint, published 15 February 1856.
Robert McClure by James Scott, published by Henry Graves & Co, after Stephen Pearce; mezzotint, published 15 February 1856 (1855). NPG D38113

His orders were to penetrate the North-West Passage from the west, via the Bering Strait.

Other Royal Navy vessels would be searching for Sir John Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror from the more familiar east to west approach.

But McClure found his path blocked by ice. He eventually anchored Investigator on the north-east of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories – and he called this place Mercy Bay.

They would be frozen in here for three long years in increasingly bleak and difficult conditions. 

Investigator’s surgeon Alexander Armstrong later noted that “it would have been a mercy had we never entered it.”

Five men died, and the health of many others was wrecked by scurvy.

It’s an astonishing story and I won’t even try to tell it here: Glenn M. Stein‘s 2015 book, Discovering the North-West Passage, is recommended instead.


HMS Investigator would never leave Mercy Bay. Parks Canada found her in 2010, “sitting upright in silt” some eight metres below the surface. Her masts were gone, but she was otherwise in an excellent state of preservation. 

She has so many stories to tell us: I hope that underwater archaeologists will one day return to Mercy Bay and let those stories be heard.



Bernier, Marc-André – The wreck of HMS Investigator by Parks Canada (NAS Conference 2013)

Cohen. Andrew – Lost Beneath the Ice (2013)

HMS Investigator

Lewis-Jones, Huw W.G. – ‘Heroism displayed’: revisiting the Franklin Gallery at the Royal Naval Exhibition, 1891. Polar Record 41 (218) 185–203 (2005)

McClintock, Annette – The Story of the Franklin Search Illustrative of the Franklin Relics brought together and exhibited in the Royal Naval Exhibition 1891.

Stein, Glenn M. – Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of HMS Investigator and the McClure Expedition (2015)


With thanks to Logan Zachary.

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