Chatham Dockyard to Antartica 


To go where no man has gone before! Today we equate this with space travel but around 180 years ago two ships – The Erebus and The Terror – departed from Chatham on a voyage of discovery from which there was a high chance of no return – a risk that was realised on a subsequent expedition to the Artic.

The accounts of ‘adventures’ are mostly told from the perspective of those who undertook the expedition. This blog attempts to address this by describing the preparations made at Chatham to refit and equip warships to undertake scientific voyages of discovery into the uncharted waters of the polar regions. 

The following demonstrates the advanced technical and logistic skills that were available at the dockyards of Chatham and probably Sheerness, that enabled them to be entrusted with preparing, equipping and provisioning ships for long, high-risk, expeditions.

In respect of the voyage to Antartica, that started in 1839, it was reported that the work at Chatham was so accomplished that “nothing that the art of the shipwright could accomplish [was] omitted to fit [the ships] for their perilous undertaking” (Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service – 21 Sept. 1839).


The Mission

In April 1839 the order was given for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to be refitted at Chatham for a “voyage of discovery” to search for the expected continent of Antartica (and claim it?), and the magnetic South Pole. (London Evening Standard – 3 April 1839). En route the ships were to chart coastlines and collect samples from lands discovered by Captain Cook. In light of the duel purpose of the expedition the cost of the modifying the ships was met by the Government (Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service – 31 August 1839), and cost of the expedition was met by the British Association for the Advancement of Science that was founded in 1831 – to help Britain ‘Build Back Better’ after years of wars that had debilitated the economy!

The contemporaneous reports of the refitting of the Erebus and Terror only speak of the refitting of the Erebus at Chatham, but other documents suggest that the Terror had previously been “doubled, and in every respect strengthen with massive iron and copper  fastenings, for a voyage to the Polar Sea” – probably at Chatham for the 1836 expedition to the Artic. (Narrative of an Expedition in His Majesty’s Ship Terror, in the years 1836-7 p1. ) 

During the 1836 voyage to the Artic the Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich reports that the Terror became trapped in ice. It would appear that this did considerable damage to the ship as it was reported that it limped back to Ireland before being returned to Chatham (Royal Maritime Museum blog)  The Terror had therefore clearly been adapted for polar exploration before being included in the 1839 expedition to the Antarctic.

Terror in Ice

From Bomb-Ship to a Discovery Ship

HMS Erebus was a Hecla-class bomb ship built in 1826. The Terror was an older Vesuvius-class bomb ship. These ships were designed to bombard shore targets and thereby avoid or reduce the risks associated with a military landing. They had a shallow draft to enable them to get close to the shore, had a large hold for ammunition, and were of a sturdy build sufficient to provide a solid platform for the firing of mortars. This solid build made them suitable for conversion into a ship that could resist penetration by ice and to act as an ice-breaker. Their shallow draft though would not have been ‘helpful’ in rough seas.

Refitting & Equipping

The work on the Erebustook several months” in the dock at Chatham – presumably between April and the end of August 1839. The following list of ‘works’ illustrates both the nature and amount of skilled work that was needed to strengthen the ship and to provide for the safety and comfort of the crews. It is largely drawn from the report in the John Bull, 26 August 1839 but augmented with material from other sources.

The work entailed:

  • Removing ornate trappings on which ice could accumulate
  • Removal of the raised quarterdeck and forecastle – to create a large deck space to carry extra kit which included smaller boats
  • Reduction in number of guns from 12 to six – four six pounders and two salute guns
  • Strengthening the above-the-waterline hull with 6 inch oak planking – increasing to 8 inches near the gunwale/wales – the upper part of the sides of the ship
  • Strengthening the hull below the waterline with 3 inch planks. Extra thick copper was used to shield the hull from the bow to the keel. Iron work was added to the sides – curving at the edge “something like the turning-off edge of a glass or teacup” so as to throw any converging ice from the chainplates and thus protecting the rigging from being damaged – chainplates were used to join hulls to rigging and masts.
  • Adding transverse beams within the hull that were interlaced with cross beams at various angles to “resist the mighty force of invading ice
  • Installing new, and strengthening existing bulkheads to create three watertight compartments in the event of the hull being penetrated by ice. The bulkheads were built of two layers of 1.5 inch African teak – with the layers placed at right angles to each other
  • Installing Massie patented pumps in the fore and main holds to bailout water that may get in
  • The installation of “light optics” to throw light into the cabins below – Reference  (These were probably prisms. Some laid flat to the deck and defused light below, others were used to divert light sideways into dark areas.) 
  • Strengthening the deck with double planking of 3 inch pine – the second laid diagonally to the first for added strength. A layer of insulation material soaked in tallow was laid down between the courses
  • Installing Central Heating – this seems to have been an evolving technology. For the 1839 Antarctic voyage it appears that a hot-air heating system was installed in the ships at Chatham. The system consisted of a square iron tube, above a foot in diameter, that ran around all sides of the ship in a way that ensured warmth was delivered to every berth by means of warm air – the Sylvester’s Patent heating Apparatus (extracts from Sergeant Cunningham’s journal). For the earlier 1836 voyage to the Artic a hot water / brine heating system was installed on the Terror. Brine was heated by coal in a “worm of pipes” that ran through a brick furnace encased in a metal box. It was then circulated around the Terror through a 240ft long wrought iron pipe with a 5/8 inch bore. Although the brine may have prevented the water in the system from freezing the extremely low temperatures caused significant contraction of the pipes which in turn caused pipe joints to break. On one occasion during the 1836 voyage it was found only one side of the Terror was heated. This repair required the dismantling of the brick furnace in order to repair a leak. It took an armourer from Chatham Dockyard, who was on the Terror, a few days to dismantle, repair, and reassemble the furnace – all conducted in extreme weather on the deck of the ship. On another occasion it was found that the thread of the screws that secured the joints were too fine – and presumably could not hold as the joined pipes contracted? (Narrative of the 1836 Expedition of HMS Terror).  Perhaps this could explain why a warm air system was installed at Chatham for the voyage to the Antarctic.
  • Installation of a stove in the Captain’s cabin and the adjoining gunroom mess, and the provision of good ventilation
  • Construction of crew accommodation – the Mates’ cabins were said to be well constructed and those for the officers to sleep in were small but perfectly adequate for a seaman used to making much of little
  • Construction of sick berths well forward in the ship, and well-apart from the quarters of the rest of the crew.
  • The installation of an ‘all mod-cons’ galley that was as “ample and fit for purpose as any that could be found ashore”. There were separate kettles (pots) for melting snow for fresh water, the dressing of salt meat, for fish, and for fresh meat. There were also ovens for baking.
  • The installation of portable forges
  • Equipping the ship with eight boats, two of which were whalers. These served as lifeboats, the captain’s taxi, and enabled the exploration of areas that the ‘mothership’ could not access. Sledges with iron runners, to which wheels could be added, were also provided.
  • The provision of a spare rudder that was stored midship in each ship.
  • The provision and stowing of immense ice-saws – some of them over 3 feet long; were stowed along the lower deck. 

In the third week of August 1839 it was reported in the John Bull, 26 Aug. 1839 that the Erebus made as strong as wood and iron could make it, was “put out of dock” for rigging.


Crewing the Ships

The risks and hardships that would be faced during a voyage to Antarctic would have been well known to experienced seaman. Although the Erebus and the Terror was going to enter uncharted waters in search of the theoretical continent that laid south of New Zealand, previous voyages – one led by Captain Cook (1772-1750)— and whaling ships had operated within the Antarctic Circle.

It should therefore come as no surprise that men were not queuing up to go on a three to four year voyage into this area. In order to recruit experienced sailors a major recruitment drive was undertaken around Medway. This included placing large bill boards about Chatham and offering double wages to able seamen prepared to join a ”voyage of discovery” (West Kent Guardian, 20 April 1839).

By September 1839 the Erebus was fully crewed. 12 officers, 18 petty officers, 26 able seaman and 7 marines – making a complement of 63. Half were first entry men who had never served in the Royal Navy but who had had experience on whalers. The Terror had a similar complement. The men personally received three months salary on departure – the rest was paid to their families whilst they were away.

We cannot be certain that there were no women on board. Bodies recently found of the crew lost whilst on the next expedition to find the Northwest Passage, included at least four women. Whether they were openly female or were disguised as men, and worked as sailors, is not known (Daily Mail, 25 April 2017). Although not officially sanctioned there is evidence that wives and children were on board naval ships in Nelson’s time (Nick Slope, 17 Feb. 2017, BBC History). Bearing in mind the difficulty in obtaining men to sign-on for the voyage – perhaps an additional incentive to double pay was permission being given for a sailor to bring his wife? (No evidence for this has been found – pure conjecture!)

Men with a Known Medway Connection include:

What with a vigorous recruitment campaign being undertaken across Medway it would be thought that a significant number of men who signed-on would have come from the Towns. However an account on wikipedia of the later voyage suggests many of the crew could have come from Northern England, and had served on colliers. 

So far I’ve only found one man with a Medway connection who served on the 1839 expedition to Antartica – William Keating Cunningham. 

William joined the Royal Marines, at Chatham, on 17 December 1829. He was attested, and took the oath of allegiance before the mayor of Rochester two days later. In 1836 he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and joined the crew of the Terror on 15 June 1839. He was discharged from the Navy after the voyage to the southern oceans on 23 November 1843. He never went to sea again. (Cunningham kept a journal of his voyage.)

Provisions for the Ships’ Crew

It was reported that the expedition was extremely well equipped by any standards. Although re-provision could take place en route the ships were provided with stores to sustain a three to four year voyage. Again drawing from various sources the stores included large amounts of vegetable soup, pickled cabbage and carrots to keep scurvy at bay (Dover Telegraph, 28 Sept. 1839). The carrots, and probably other root vegetables would have been stored in barrels of dry sand. 

A few days before departing for Antartica it was reported that nearly one third of the Erebus’s deck was occupied by casks containing four years supply of beef and pork (Globe, 25 Sept. 1839). One has to suspect that the meat was not very palpable as pimento (all spice), and other spices were mixed in with the meat.

The description of the decks of the Terror in 1836 – three years previous – offers an insight into the provisions that were carried, as well as the working / living environment of the ship:

“… there was a large stack of coals stowed in double rows along the quarter-deck and gangways, leaving but a narrow space for officers and men to pass. There were three boats on the booms and two on the quarter-deck. On the skids over the quarter-deck were two whale-boats, besides several immense sledges, and whatever else could be  stowed there. Large spars, planks, and a hand-mast, two tons of potatoes, provender for twenty sheep and ten pigs, the sheep and pigs themselves, with sundry ducks and fowls, occupied every other disposable nook; and though, by a little method and skilful stowing, all this mass of dead and living lumber had been made to assume some degree of form and regularity, yet it may to be well imagined that there was no superfluous space.” (Bedding and feedstuff would also have needed to be carried for the livestock that was unable to feed on food-waste.)

Provisions also included cask of carrots stowed in sand. Not particularly effective it would seem as a preservative as they became so “offensive .. that even the pigs refused to eat them.” This loss was serious and the ships’ crew needed to be placed on 2/3rd rations. 

The problem was put down to the sand in which the carrots had been stacked not being dry.

The following image from the reference shows the arrange and amount of provisions needed for 18 months.


Clothing: In addition to providing food the ships’ crew, an abundant store of warm clothes was also provided. The clothing included fur caps, carpet or cloth boots, with soles insulated by cork, flushing trousers lined with baize, flannel shirts and bear-skin blankets.

Entertainment: Provision was also made for the entertainment of the crew – who could become trapped, for months, in ice – with only pack-ice to look at, and then only when there was no ‘white-out’ caused by snow storms. 

For the the 1839 voyage to Antartica a small printing press was provided for the use of Mr McCormick, the ship’s surgeon. This was to enable him to ‘publish’ reading material for the crew. It was reported by Micheal Palin that the crews of the subsequent and fatal voyage of the Erebus and the Terror were provided with “copies of The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, stacks of the satirical magazine Punch as well as two hand-organs. (Financial Times, 21 September 2018). It is fair to assume that similar material would have been provided for the 1839 ‘Voyage of Discovery.

Provisioning for Science

As well as navigational equipment essential to the voyage and the charting of new found lands, the ships needed to be equipped to undertake scientific investigations. The ships were small and had to carry a considerable amount of equipment and provisions just to undertake the expedition. It therefore comes as no surprise that “Great ingenuity [was] displayed in providing the means of taking and preserving whatever may be important to natural history”.

Walking sticks, not larger than those commonly in use had been hollowed so as to carry nets for catching insects. The ferrule at the bottom had been removed in order that the nets could be quickly deployed in capturing an insect. The ship was also equipped with long gauze bags which were to be drawn through the water at various latitudes in search of marine animals that may not have previously been known. Spirits of wine, in bottles of all sizes, were provided in which specimens could be preserved”. The ships were also equipped with small conservatories (greenhouses?) which could be kept at any temperature, to enable the bringing home of living plants (Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser, 28 Sept. 1839).

The Voyage to Antartica – 1839 to 1843

This is not the place to go into the details of the voyage as its secondary to the purpose of this blog. However in January 1841 in testimony to the work undertaken at Chatham, the hull of the Erebus (and that of the Terror) proved itself capable of cutting through 6 – 8 inches of ice, and thus made it possible to confirm that the Antarctic Continent existed.

By 23 January 1841 the crew had travelled further south than any human before. Faced with an ice barrier 150ft high and the risk of becoming trapped in ice beyond the barrier, Captain James Ross decided to abandon the search for the magnetic south pole (Bells Weekly Messenger, 14 Aug. 1841).

The Terror and Erebus arrived back at Woolwich on 7 Sept. 1843 having confirmed the existence of a ‘new’ continent, having charted a large part of its coastline and brought back many specimens and much scientific data.

The Final Ill-Fated Voyage – to Seek a Northwest Passage – 1845 to ?1848?

The Northwest Passage is a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Ocean.

In December 1844 it was agreed that the Erebus and the Terror should be brought back into service to search for a Northwest Passage. In February 1845 the Erebus was taken from Sheerness for refitting and modernisation at Woolwich. Such was the urgency – presumably because of a seasonal weather window – that the men working on the refitting of the Erebus and the Terror were ordered to work from 6am to 7pm and to take their breakfast and tea in the dockyard (Evening Mail, 24 March 1845). 

The refitting, based on various reports, shows much had been learnt from the earlier polar expeditions. It is not clear whether some of the work was to reenforce earlier work or whether previous adaptations had been removed whilst the ships were mothballed.

  • The hulls, below the waterline, were greatly strengthen by the addition of timbers of considerable thickness
  • A roof structure was provided – similar to that of a house – that could be erected between the masts in the event of the ships having to winter in the Artic regions
  • A hot water / brine heating system that reached all parts of the ships, was installed. This shows a return to the heating system that was used before the warm-air system that was used for the voyage to Antartica; perhaps the problems of ‘1836 system’ had been resolved?
  • 20hp steam engines from the railway were installed to drive “the most approved Archimedean screw propeller” by Messrs Maudslay & Co.  This provided additional power to that of the sails when it was necessary to drive through ice or combat the strong currents of the North Polar Seas. (Use of these propellors shows a significant change of attitude on the part of the Navy. Prior to 1837 the Navy felt they would be unsuited for use at sea. Reference. Had propellors proven their worth – or was this a risky experiment?
  • The expensive copper plating on the brow was replaced with iron as barnacles and boring molluscs did not pose a threat to timber in the cold waters to which the ships would be travelling.

Departure in search of the Northwest Passage

On the 19 May 1845 the ships departed from Greenhithe with a company of 129 officers, men – that may have included four women (Daily Mail, 25 April 2017). It was reported that each ship carried provisions for three years. This included 14,646kg of meat, 207kg of raisins and 2,636 litres of pickles (KentOnline, 19 Oct. 2020) – however this would have been a fraction of what was taken. 

Erebus and Terror go ‘Missing’

Despite the ships being the best equipped to leave these shores they were never to return. 

What happened to the ships was fodder for the conspiracy-theorists of the late 1840s/50s – some of which where highly coloured speculations that were promulgated in the press. Many attempts and rewards were offered – first to rescue, and then to explain what may have happened. The Government offered a £20,000 reward to anyone who could find the ships and offer assistance to the crews, and a lesser amount of £10,000 for information that could lead to the discovery of the ships (Toronto web-news, 9 Sept. 2015).

A fictional account of what happened to these the ships was dramatised in the BBC’s serial “The Terror” – that can be found on the iPlayer. A factual account of the final and fatal voyage of the Erebus and the Terror can be found on the website of the National Maritime Museum.

Canadians find the Wrecks of the Erebus and Terror

The wreck of the Erebus was found in 2014 and that of the Terror in 2016, (National Geographic, 16 April 2017). The graves of men who died early – whilst there were sufficient men fit & able to bury them – are now being found. The bodies being recovered are well preserved as a consequence of being buried deep in the permafrost. For fascinating but disturbing images of the recovered bodies – visit:  Secrets of the Ice”  and “The preserved body of Royal Navy stoker John Torrington” 

Medway Crew – this section will be added to as and when members with a Medway association are discovered. For certain we know the lost crew of the Erebus and the Terror, included:

Francis Pocock, born at Upnor in 1817, and who had been a fisherman on the Medway (Michael Palin, 2018. p201). 

Brothers John & Thomas Hartnell from a family of ship-builders, who were born in Brompton / Gillingham, Reference 1, Reference 2.

William Orren – born in Chatham on June 4th, 1806 to John and Margaret Orren. He joined the Navy in the 1820’s leaving in June 1830. Five years later he signed up as an able seaman on the the Erebus for the voyage to the Artic, Reference

Northwest Passage Found:

It was another 60 years before Roald Amundsen was able to take a vessel through the Northwest Passage from end-to-end. It took him four years (1903/1906) using a much smaller vessel than the Erebus and Terror. 

Until 2009 pack-ice regularly prevented use of the route global warming has now rendered this far less likely.

Let’s Celebrate Chatham Dockyard’s Contribution

The dangers of sailing into polar waters were considerable. From the range and extent of modifications made to the ships between the voyages of 1836, 1839 and 1845, it is clear that the work on refitting / modifying ships for these voyages was cutting edge. Crafts and trades deployed at Chatham were clearly at the forefront of this work – perhaps this explains why an armourer from Chatham was on board of the Terror when it departed for the Artic in 1836, and was therefore available to undertake repairs to the ship’s heating system – something I suspect that would have beyond the competence of an average seamen in the 1830s?

Additional Sources 

In addition to references in the body of this blog:

  • The Royal Museums Greenwich website
  • Newspaper searches on British Newspaper 
  • Erebus – The Story of a Ship. Michael Palin, 2018
  • Ice Ghosts – The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition. Paul Watson, 2017