Ice Poles & Phipps' 1773 Arctic Expedition

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    Frank Scott

    A friend of mine is researching the 1773 Phipps expedition to the Arctic (the Nelson one) and has come across references to HM Ships Racehorse and Carcass being outfitted with ‘Ice Poles’. He has not been able to track down any illustrations or descriptions of these devices, and wonders how they were used & what they looked like. Any pointers towards sources would be appreciated.

    Sam Willis

    Frank the suggestion I can make is to look at the information relating to Charles Douglas’s relief of Quebec in the New Year of 1776. He makes it to Quebec through the ice-bound St Lawrence on 6 May, one of the earliest ships to do so. I am certain that there is information about them using fenders to protect the ships from the ice and some sort of poles. It is almost exactly contemporary and I know that there is a large amount of unexplored material relating to that voyage at the National Maritime Museum and National Archives.

    These may help.

    TNA: ADM 1/1706, 8 May 1776.
    TNA: ADM 51/484, ff. 27–8.
    Naval Documents of the American Revolution V: 225–7.

    Douglas was also instrumental in some North Sea exploration a few years before the American War and there may be something relevant in the material from Cook’s exploration of the St Lawrence in the preceding decade.

    As a matter of interest I would be very keen to read any material relating to ice-seamanship from this period. There is plenty written afterwards, particularly in the early 20thC but I have not found anything specific from the 18thC or earlier. Any ideas?

    Frank Scott

    On the MarHst-L forum I have received the following responses:

    From John Harland:
    Judging by this passage they were poles used to push ice floes away from the ship’s sides.
    “The captain shouted to the men ‘Bear a hand with the ice-poles!’ Each man seized a long pole and stood ready for action. The ice was rushing in and the bay was full in a minute, and although the men used their ice-poles actively and worked with a will, they could not shove the pieces past them.”
    R M Ballantyne. Fast in the Ice: Adventures in the Polar Regions (1863)
    (Note: Although not a work of history, early in his career Ballantyne spent six years working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, so this is well grounded in factual detail).

    From Ingo Heidbrink:
    The use of such ‘Ice Poles” seems to have been pretty common for sailing ships in the ice.
    One of the few illustrations that I am aware of goes back to the First German North Polar Expedition of 1868 (SS GROENLAND) and one of the illustrations can be found in low-resolution on the following web-page:
    1: This small picture repays study as it shows ice poles being used from the ship.
    2: Groenland (built 1867) is now owned by the German Maritime Museum at Bremerhaven & is still seagoing.

    From Olaf Janzen:
    The use of ice poles was quite common in the Newfoundland seal fishery. There’s a very good photo of sealers attempting to free a vessel jammed in the ice in an article by Capt. Bob Bartlett which appeared in the July 1929 issue of the National Geographic Magazine, vol 56 (1929), pp. 91-130.
    (Note: The attached picture shows ice poles being deployed by men on the ice, as opposed to being used from the ship)

    My thanks to all three MarHsters


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    Alexandre Solka

    Dear Mr Scott,

    Thank you very much for this very interesting topic. I am also very interested in early Arctic expeditions but
    also on the early career of Lord Nelson and of course, the Phipps’ Artic expedition is one of his most interesting and quite unusual assignments.

    So to come to the point, first of all, I recommend you to read entirely the wonderful study and fascinating chapter specifically dedicated to this expedition in Mr John Sugden’s book, called Nelson, A Dream of Glory, entitled “Northward Ho!”, pp.63-81 and the notes attached to it, pp. 802-3! You will find a very accurate description and account of the entire expedition as well as a precise comparison of the different documents related to the Phipp’s expedition as well as the ships’ logs and other letters as well.

    I also recommend you to read the anonymous diary published as Journal of a Voyage Undertaken as well as his publication by Albert H. Markham, ed., Northward.

    Finally, the related charts and views, most of the time produced by Philippe d’Auvergne, are in the William L. Clements Library, the University of Michigan, Ann Harbor.

    But most of all, I found a wonderful file in pdf which should really give you more important datas. I tried to download here for the forum but it sounds it is a
    too big file..(

    Also finally, you may find this link interesting as well on Sir Phipp’s own account:

    Below here are my first comments and I hope they will be interesting to you as well.

    Now, strictly regarding ice poles connected to these two ships, the HM Ships Racehorse and Carcass, here is what I found. Specifically on page 70, after mentionning the ice shifting along the two ships in a very heavy fog, here is this key information: “… Minds had to be concentrated, because the navigation was fiendishly tricky amid drifting bergs big enough to damage ship timbers and near an ice pack that could close, trap and crush with fearful speed…

    For days the ships tacked to and fro, using ice poles to stave off bergs and ice anchors thrown from each bow. The small boats were constantly out, hauling the ships this way and that. Nelson was probably employed on the boats of the Carcass, the longboat, launch and cutter… But try as they might, neither ship could entirely avoid colliding with chunks of ice, and the succession of severe shocks they received proved the worth of the additional strengths that had been built into the tough little vessels before sailing…”

    Then should be quoted a somewhat later event in this expedition, pages 77-78, between the 7th and 8th of August 1773. “… Aboard the ships, some four miles behind the launches, movements in the ice were detected. ‘Rending and cracking with a tremendous noise’ [quoted, not said from where, possibly from Sir Phipp’s own account, “A Voyage Towards the North Pole”(cf. BL King’s 224) but most probably from Albert H. Markham’s edition p.203 as well as Journal of a Voyage Undertaken, pages 81-83”, cf. notes 22 and 23, page 803 in John Sugden’s monography],
    it changed direction with the current and started moving the ships westwards, towards the launchers and open water. Once again, the deliverance seemed Heaven sent. (And this is clearly what everyone must have felt then, personal comment) ‘Every officer and evey idler on board laboured now for life’, wrote one diarist. Sails were spread, and
    anchors, poles, axes and saws joined the battle to push the ships through the shattering ice pack…

    ‘It is impossible to conceive the joy which, like wildfire, spread throughout the ship at this news’, Floyd wrote.

    Finally, strictly concerning ice poles, I am sure you may find in the different sources I mentioned, you will find illustrations of these and I hope these different elements will be for you of interest.

    Finally, you may also be interested to contact this institute (

    I stay at your disposal for any further information and you may contact me by email ( and skype (sashavsmokve)

    If any other member is also interested to share other informations on the Phipp’s Artic Expedition, fell free to contact me.

    Sincerely yours,

    Alexandre Solcà

    Frank Scott


    Many thanks for all that info, which I have passed on to my friend.

    It was the Ice Poles specifically that were the subject of the query, as he had read about their use in the primary sources consulted during the course of his research, without finding out much more than the fact that they were employed when beset by ice. The illustration from the Groenland expedition, although a century later, seems the most useful picture found so far.

    Frank Scott

    Alexandre Solka

    Dear Mr Scott,

    Thank you very much for your answer, comments and support. I am very glad that my informations proved to be useful.

    I have also been searching more informations specifically concerning ice poles in early North Pole expeditions but for the moment, I didn’t find
    any specific illustration except on the site I mentioned ( ). However, I will keep on searching specific illustrations of ice poles and how they were used and I will keep you informed of the results.

    All the best and good luck as well,

    Sincerely yours,


    Alexandre Solka

    Hello once again,

    I found a very important website for the early Arctic expeditions and especially regarding illustrations and pictures concerning British Northern Pole travels, boats and other informations.

    Here is the website:

    And on this website, I found some very interesting pictures.

    And please do see the following page

    with pictures numbered 67a to 71a!! (rows 12-13)

    I will ask then to this center if they have more pictures or illustrations but I think this is already very interesting material.

    All the best and looking forward your comments,

    Sincerely yours,


    Ian S

    Painting by Zoffany in the possession of Lord Normanby at Mulgrave Castle, he is Phipps descendant. Another version is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and on display at Benningbrough Hall, North Yorkshire

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