George Strong Nares
Early Life & Career
Nares was born at Clytha, Monmouthshire, and baptized on 22 May 1831 at the nearby church of St Bridget, Llansanffraid, the third son and sixth child of Commander William Henry Nares RN (1788/9–1867) and his first wife, Elizabeth Rebecca Gould (1796/7–1836), daughter of John Dodd, of Redbourn, Hertfordshire. He entered the navy in 1845 from the Royal Naval School, New Cross, as prize cadet. After serving as a midshipman in HMS Canopus, Nares joined the Havannah on the Australian station, 1848–51. He showed courage in the attempted rescue of a man overboard. The future hydrographer G. H. Richards, a passenger in the Havannah on her return voyage, suggested, when Nares was looking for work after passing the lieutenant's examination early in 1852, that he apply to join the Franklin search expedition preparing to sail under Sir Edward Belcher. Nares was appointed mate on HMS Resolute. From winter quarters at Dealy Island, to the south of Melville Island, he took part in several sledge journeys.
After returning to England in 1854 Nares was promoted lieutenant and specialized in gunnery. He served for two years in the Mediterranean in the Conqueror before joining the staff of the training ship Illustrious in 1858. On 22 June in the same year he married Mary (d. 1905), eldest daughter of William Grant, banker of Portsmouth. They had four sons and six daughters. The Illustrious was succeeded by the larger Britannia in 1859. Nares wrote The Naval Cadet's Guide (1860) which, under the title Seamanship, ran to several editions and was regarded as the best such manual of its day. In 1862 he was promoted to commander and in September 1863 took command of the training ship Boscawen.
In July 1865, Nares's seagoing career took a further turn with his appointment to the paddle steamer Salamander on the east coast of Australia. His duties there included surveying. In 1868 he took command of the Newport for hydrographical work in the Mediterranean, which included a survey of the Gulf of Suez via the Suez Canal (opened November 1869). He was promoted to captain in December 1869. In the Shearwater (1871–2) he did similar work, including oceanographic research on the Gibraltar currents in collaboration with W. B. Carpenter. It was this work that led to Nares's appointment as captain of HMS Challenger, a steam-assisted corvette of 2306 tons dispatched by the government in December 1872 on a three-year voyage of circumnavigation devoted to oceanographic exploration.
Nares commanded this influential expedition, the first to undertake systematic investigation of the deep ocean for scientific purposes, for two years. His officers were all naval surveyors, and there was also a team of civilian scientists, led by Charles Wyville Thomson, on board. The methods employed to sample the life and conditions of the deep sea owed much to surveying techniques recently developed in connection with submarine telegraphy, and the expedition's work had practical as well as scientific objectives. The first year was spent in the Atlantic. Early in 1874, between Cape Town and Australia, the Challenger made a southerly detour, calling at Marion, Kerguelen, and Heard islands, and continuing to 66°40' S, 78°22' E, before being turned back by ice—being the first steam vessel to cross the Antarctic circle. The dredging of glaciated rock fragments in the deep-sea muds helped in the revival of interest in geographical exploration of Antarctic regions towards the end of the century.
Nares's leadership was an important factor in the expedition's success. The arduous and repetitive nature of the deep-sea operations, and the potential conflicts of interest between the different sections of the shipboard community on such a voyage, could have led to friction but he was perceived as a fair as well as a firm commander. The smooth running of the project made it possible for the new Conservative government to recall him in November 1874, when the expedition still had 18 months to run, to lead the British Arctic expedition of 1875–6, in the vessels Alert and Discovery, the chief aim of which was to reach the north pole. Reports of the American expeditions of Isaac Israel Hayes, 1860–61, and C. F. Hall, 1870–73, had revived the belief in an open polar sea and suggested that land extended far to the north, west of Robeson Channel. Both these theories proved to be wrong, but at the time they indicated the Smith Sound route as the best line of advance to the pole. The vessels sailed on 29 May 1875 and reached winter quarters on the coast of Grinnell Land (Ellesmere Island), the Discovery in latitude 81°44' N., and the Alert, with Nares, in latitude 82°27' N ‘the most northerly point hitherto reached in the Canadian Arctic’ (Levere, 281). The following spring sledge parties were sent out. That led by Lieutenant Pelham Aldrich of the Alert explored the north coast of Ellesmere Island westwards. They reached its most northerly point (Cape Columbia) and continued to Cape Alfred Ernest (Alert Point) before turning back, having charted some 400 km of new coastline (Hattersley-Smith, 121). Lieutenant Lewis A. Beaumont of the Discovery followed the coast of Greenland northwards to Sherard Osborn Fjord. Meanwhile, a party led by Commander A. H. Markham of the Alert struck out over the ice in an attempt to get to the pole. They reached 83°20' N, a heroic achievement considering that the pack ice was extremely rough, and also drifting south almost as fast as they were travelling northwards. Their experience and an outbreak of scurvy affecting both ships led Nares to call off the entire expedition and return home early, in the late summer of 1876.
This was a morally courageous action which undoubtedly prevented further loss of life. Nares was a humane man, but acting within the rigid structures of the Victorian navy. When one of the sub-lieutenants shot a seal (a vital source of fresh food for the scurvy sufferers) he ‘was reprimanded by Nares for disturbing the ship's company at divine service. However, he was later congratulated in the wardroom by the captain on his marksmanship’ (Hattersley-Smith, 124). It would be unfair to blame Nares alone for mistakes in planning the expedition, though he was responsible for the low priority given to scientific work (perhaps a reflection of his experiences in the Challenger.) In spite of this, valuable scientific as well as geographical results had been obtained. Nares wrote a narrative of the expedition, A Voyage to the Polar Sea (1878).
An Admiralty committee of inquiry subsequently blamed Nares for the outbreak of scurvy, on the grounds that the sledging parties had not been carrying lime juice. That this was due to the logistical difficulties involved was in their eyes no excuse. In spite of this slur on his competence, which was unfair in that the expedition's experience did not bear out this over-simplistic conclusion, Nares, who had been elected FRS in 1875, was created KCB in 1876, and received the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1877 and a gold medal from the Geographical Society of Paris in 1879. In 1878 he was again in command of the Alert during the survey of the Strait of Magellan. From 1879 to 1896 he was employed in the harbour department of the Board of Trade, having retired from active service in 1886. From 1896 to 1910 he was a conservator of the River Mersey. He was promoted rear-admiral in 1887 and vice-admiral in 1892.
Nares was an able and conscientious naval officer who wished to rise in the service. His search for promising openings, rather than great personal enthusiasm for science and exploration, explains the several changes in direction taken by his naval career, but he contributed to both, especially through his competent leadership of the Challenger expedition, whose findings presented the first substantial body of scientific information on the interior of the ocean. As a young officer he had dark hair and beard, but began to go bald in his twenties. He was described as quiet and reserved, with an equable disposition, but also as a man of action, backed by ‘sound sense and good judgment’ (GJ, 257). Nares died at his home, 10 Uxbridge Road, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, on 15 January 1915 and was buried in Long Ditton churchyard on 19 January. His name was given to Nares harbour in the Admiralty Islands, the Nares deep in the north Atlantic, Nares Land in northern Greenland, two capes in the Canadian Arctic, and Mount Nares in Victoria Land (Antarctica). The seaway dividing Ellesmere Island from Greenland is now called Nares Strait.
Two of Nares's sons entered the navy: Lieutenant George Edward Nares died in 1905; Vice-Admiral John Dodd Nares (1877–1957) became assistant hydrographer of the navy and director of the International Hydrographic Bureau at Monaco.
- "Death of Sir George Nares" (Obituaries). The Times. Saturday, 16 January, 1915. Issue 40753, col F, pg. 10.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/70.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/37.
- The National Archives. ADM 196/13.