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1 June 2008

On this day in history: First expedition reaches the North Magnetic Pole, 1831

In the seventeenth century, an Elizabethan courtier called Sir William Gilbert proposed that the Earth acted like a giant magnet, prior to that accepted wisdom suggested that there was a body - such as an island or mountain - that attracted compass magnets, located somewhere in the far north. Gilbert was also the first to define the North Magnetic Pole as the point where the planet's magnetic field pointed downwards: a definition still used today.

In May 1829, a Liverpool steamship called Victory sailed from London to explore the Arctic captained by a Scottish Royal Navy officer, John Ross. His nephew, James Clark Ross, was second-in-command and would later find fame exploring the Antarctic. The expedition was made possible by funds obtained from the Gin distiller Felix Booth, who was a friend of Ross'. The main purpose of the expedition was to find the Northwest Passage - a route to the Bering Strait through the Arctic pack ice - which Ross had sought on previous expeditions. After a brief stop in Scotland and with enough provisions to last one thousand days the Victory set off across the North Atlantic before heading up the west coast of Greenland into the Arctic Circle.

Later that year, Ross located the HMS Fury, which had been abandoned by William Edward Parry four years earlier in 1825. The crew of the Victory took on extra provisions from the Fury and sailed on in search of the Northwest Passage. The Victory found a body of water to the east of Baffin Island, which became known as the Gulf of Boothia (in honour of the expedition's patron). While sailing through this gulf, on 1st June 1831, James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic Pole for the first time with the instruments he had taken aboard his uncle's ship.

The following winter disaster struck the expedition. The Victory became ice-bound and had to be abandoned. In the spring of 1832, Ross led his crew north to the Fury repaired her boats and in the summer they rowed south in an attempt to meet up with the whaling fleet. Unable to do so they returned to the Fury and saw out the winter in the building they had previously constructed there, Somerset House. In August 1833, a route opened finally through the ice and the set off again. After 12 days of rowing Ross' crew caught sight of the whaler, the Isabella, which rescued them and returned them to Stromness in Scotland in October.

In spite of the discovery of the North Magnetic Pole, the expedition had not achieved its main goal and had cost the lives of three men and the eyesight of another. Nevertheless, John Ross received a hero's welcome back in London where he became a celebrity. He received many honours: the freedom of the cities of London, Liverpool and Bristol; a £5000 award from Parliament, and in 1834, a knighthood. He went on to become British consul in Stockholm. King William IV also received James Clark Cook at the same time as his uncle, and in 1843 he received his own knighthood after leading an expedition to the Antarctic.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography includes a page dedicated to 'Sir John Ross' and another to his nephew 'Sir James Clark Ross'.