Admiral Sir George Strong Nares KCB (1831-1915)


(Capt) George Nares, painted by Stephen Pearle in 1877.
On display in the National Portrait Gallery.

Born on the 24th April 1831,  at Llansenseld, Nr Abergavenny in Monmouthshire.  He was the third son of William Henry Nares RN, educated at the Royal Naval School, New Cross, and joined the Royal Navy in 1845. His first distant posting was to the Australian station in 1848 as midshipman and mate, and on his return in 1851 he went to the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth and took his lieutenant's exam in 1852, coming out second.  He managed to get a place on the polar expedition in search of Sir John Franklin in 1852 under Sir Edward Belcher, in HMS Resolute. He returned in 1855 and having been promoted to lieutenant was sent to participate in the Crimean War in HMS Glatton.  To his disappointment no other polar expeditions materialized and he became involved in a training scheme for young would-be naval officers.  It was during this period that he wrote The Naval Cadet's Guide, later to be known as Seamanship, which was the title under which it appeared in the second and later editions.  

In 1865 he was given command of the HMS Salamander surveying on the Australian station for two years.  He then had command of HMS Newport in the Mediterranean, and was at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.  The British ships were lying second to the French in the congested approach to the canal, a fact that did not meet with his approval!  Accordingly, under cover of darkness and with no lights, he manoeuvered his vessel through the flotilla and placed her so that, when morning came, she could not be extricated from in front of the French Yacht L'Aigle, which had been supposed to be the first vessel through the canal.  The French were furious that this small British ship was the first to enter the canal, and protested to the Admiralty.  George Nares was officially reprimanded, but not before he had been closely questioned on his notable feat of seamanship!


On board the "Britannia"

The Challenger Expedition, which set out in December 1872, was the result of an innovative cooperation between the Admiralty and the Royal Society.  In fact, it was such an extraordinary achievement to persuade the Treasury to invest £200,000 (equivalent to £10 million today) in a purely scientific expedition, that for many it represents the birth of Oceanography.  The Challenger was commanded, for most of its 69,000 mile exploration, by Capt Nares.  Interestingly, he took his nine year old son, William Grant Nares, with him on this voyage, accompanied by a tutor, Adam Ebbels, (who died early in the voyage and was buried in Bermuda).  The scientists on board, under the direction of Prof. Charles Wyville Thomson, made observations, soundings and dredgings from hundreds of locations around the world.  From this data they were able to determine the patterns of oceanic temperatures and currents as well as charting the contours of the great ocean basins.  (Nares Deep, in the Western Atlantic, was the deepest known part of the ocean at the time of its discovery, and marks the top corner of the notorious "Bermuda Triangle"!)  Later expeditions supplemented their findings, but did not materially alter them due to the thoroughness and scope of their work, which has made it a landmark in the history of undersea exploration.  Much of the data gathered is still used today, and another innovative feature of the expedition - the extensive use of photography as a means of keeping records - has assured it of a place in history.  There is an excellent book about the expedition written by Eric Linklater, called The Voyage of the Challenger, and more information at the "Challenger Society for Marine Science" website.


The "Challenger"  in the Straits of Magellan 

He was recalled in 1874 to take command of the Alert and the Discovery in the British Arctic Expedition, 1875-76.  He was a natural choice for such a trip as he had both Arctic and Antarctic experience, was one of the leading surveyors of his day and was in the prime of his life.  Unlike the Challenger expedition, this was planned as a voyage of geographical exploration, with scientific work taking second place.  There was still hope in those days that the elusive "North-West" passage would be discovered, (linking the Atlantic with the Pacific), but the North Pole was the prime objective.


"Alert" and "Discovery", from a watercolour by W.F.Mitchell

They were away for 18 months, during which time the Alert attained the highest Northern latitude reached by any ship up to that time, and one of the land parties broke man's record for the same achievement .  However, as time wore on the expedition was blighted by one of the great dreads of all mariners - scurvy.  The  problem became so severe, particularly among the sledging parties who were operating inland, that Nares took the bold decision to make a premature return in the autumn of '76, a decision which undoubtedly saved a significant number of lives.  He was subjected to a lot of criticism for allowing scurvy to develop, even though the cause was not known at the time.  He defended himself vigorously, having meticulously issued rations of lime juice, the only known preventative, which had been specially preserved for the expedition.  In order to improve its keeping properties it had been boiled before bottling, resulting in the loss of almost all the vitamin C, thus rendering it useless.  (It was to be some years before the link between vitamin C and scurvy was established).  In 1878 he published "Voyage to the Polar Sea" which was an account of this expedition in two volumes.  These books are much sought after, particularly for their early use of photography.


"Alert" caught in the ice near Cape Beechy, Robeson Channel.
(Photo from "Voyage to the Polar Sea" by Sir G S Nares)
Click here to see all the rare plates from these two Volumes

He had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1875 and on his return from the Arctic he was knighted and awarded the gold medals of the Royal Geographic Society (1877) and the Société de Géographie de Paris.  In 1878 he commissioned the Alert again for further surveying work in the Magellan Strait but after only one season's work he was recalled to take up his appointment as Marine Adviser to the Board of Trade.

In many ways his work has received possibly less attention than it deserved.  It may be that it has been overshadowed by the high tragedy of the Franklin era before him and the greater polar expeditions that followed.  It may also be to do with the fact that his quiet professional leadership, as commander of a naval expedition, was of a different order to the more personal, heroic even, style of Scott, Shackleton, and others to come.  His contemporaries were in no doubt about their feelings for the man who led them, and spoke highly of him.   He was appointed rear admiral in 1887  and was placed on the retired list of vice admirals in 1892.  


Sir George in Vice Admiral's full dress uniform

In 1964 the Danish and Canadian governments agreed that the waters between North Greenland and Ellesmere Island should be named Nares Strait, after their discoverer and mapper, and there is a district in Greenland called Naresland.  There is a Nares Cape on Ellesmere Island and I also recently discovered that Nares Mountain and Nares lake, in Yukon, were named after him in 1883, by Lt F Schwatka of the US Army.  The Nares River, also known as the Natassa Heenie River, flows from Nares Lake past Carcross to Lake Bennet .  There is also a Nares Inlet on Georgian Bay, Ontario, (see photo below).  I presume that Nares Harbour, (Manus Island, Papua New Guinea), was named after him from his time on the Australian station, and there is a Nares County in North Queensland.  (There is a possibility that some of these places may have been named after his son, John Dodd Nares, who was also a hydrographer).

Watercolour of Nares Lake and
Nares Mountain  by Robert Hunter

Nares Mountain today.


This beautiful sunset photo of Nares Inlet was kindly
sent by Phil Gunyon, who has a cottage nearby.


Mary Grant

In 1858 he married Mary Grant, who was born in Southsea in 1837, and had 9 children: 

Amy (b.1859), 
Mary
(b.1860), 
William Henry
(b.1862), 
William Grant
(b.1863), 
Fanny
,  (b.1865)
Emily
,  (b.c1870)
Katie
,  (b.1872)
George 
(b1873)
John  (b.1877)