Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, explorer, adventurer (born 28 Jan 1807 in Wexford, Ireland; died 17 Oct 1873 in London, England). McClure was an Irish naval officer credited with being the first European explorer to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage. In 1838 he gained lieutenant status as a reward for his 1836–37 service on the HMS Terror under George Back. He served as Sir James Clark Ross’ first lieutenant during an 1848–49 attempt to rescue Sir John Franklin and his men. In 1850 McClure was appointed commander of the HMS Investigator in Captain Richard Collinson’s expedition, which involved taking two ships to the Arctic via the Bering Strait. McClure’s accomplishments in the Arctic lead to his being knighted in 1854.
Robert McClure was born in County Wexford, Ireland, to the widow of one of General James Abercrombie’s captains. He was raised by his godfather, General Le Mesurier, who ensured that the young McClure was given a rigorous military education at Eton and Sandhurst Academy. McClure eventually ran away from Sandhurst to France, only returning when his godfather promised that he would not have to rejoin the army. McClure joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1824. Twelve years later, while serving aboard the HMS Terror, he made his first journey to the Arctic. The expedition would prove to be a disaster, and the Terror barely made it back to England. Between 1838 and 1839 McClure would serve aboard the HMS Niagara on the Great Lakes. From 1840 to 1846 he was shuttled back and forth between West Indian and North American naval stations.
Searching for Franklin
By 1848 it was obvious that the Franklin Expedition had run into trouble, and Lady Jane Franklin organized a number of search parties. Robert McClure volunteered to take part in the expeditions; and was appointed first lieutenant of the HMS Enterprise under Sir James Ross. During the first expedition, ice forced the Enterprise back to England with no information about the missing Franklin.
The first expedition’s failure raised the public’s ire in England, forcing the British government to re-commission the Enterprise and the HMS Investigator in 1850. McClure was given command of the Investigator, and Richard Collinson the Enterprise. The two ships planned to sail around South America, through the Strait of Magellan, and meet in Hawaii before approaching the Arctic through the Bering Strait. The two vessels would miss each other at Honolulu by just hours, and not cross paths again. The Investigator carried on north through to the Arctic Ocean towards Point Barrow, Alaska, where its crew planned to rendezvous with another British expedition. McClure ignored the advice of a superior officer at Point Barrow to wait for the Enterprise, and continued east, discovering what would be named Victoria Island and the Prince of Wales Strait. After becoming frozen in the ice, McClure and his crew explored the region via sledge, finding a Northwest Passage in the process.
Rescue, Return and Retirement
The Investigator was trapped in ice throughout 1852, causing Robert McClure and his crew to suffer from malnutrition and scurvy. McClure went to great efforts to evacuate the members of his crew who were unlikely to survive the coming winter. Help arrived in the spring of 1853, when Captain Henry Kellett’s HMS Resolute found McClure and his men. Unfortunately, the Resolute was also frozen in the ice, forcing both ships’ crews to spend another winter in the Arctic.
On 28 September 1854, McClure and the crew arrived back in England via the HMS North Star. It was mandatory for the Royal Navy to court martial any officers who had lost their ship. McClure was no exception; however, the court cleared McClure of any wrongdoing. Later that year he received a knighthood, a Patron’s Gold Medal and a £10,000 reward. McClure served with the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station from 1856 to 1861. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1867 and vice-admiral in 1873. McClure’s papers were used by Captain Sherard Osborn to write Discovery of the north-west passage, a slightly embellished account of his McClure’s Arctic expeditions.