Fire and Ice: Reverend George Fisher, R.N., Arctic Scientist and Educator

by Glenn M. Stein, FRGS


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon





Fire and ice—an unheard of mixture, but this whimsical phrase aptly fits George Fisher’s life from his teenage years through early adulthood.

Fisher was born on the last day of July 1794, in Sunbury (Middlesex, England), son of surveyor James Fisher and his wife Henrietta. When James died three years later, Henrietta was left to raise a large family. Having received little early education, by the age of 14 George entered the office of the Westminster Fire Insurance Company in 1808—humble beginnings that were to have monumental consequences for the young man.

The Fire Office

In that day, each of the insurance companies, or fire offices, established fire brigades. In addition to firemen, companies also hired porters, who were responsible for salvage at fires. Fisher was a clerk, and may also have been a porter; his “devotion to uncongenial duties won the respect and rewards of his employers.” This was in part a medallic reward, as he was honored with a silver medal from his masters.

Through the Fire Office, Fisher came in contact with eminent men of science, including Sir Humphry Davy, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Everard Home, and others, all of whom fostered Fisher’s “ardent desire for knowledge [and] strong mathematical and scientific tastes”. At the time, a clerical appointment was a typical path to a university assignment, and young Fisher entered St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, in 1817.

North Towards the Pole

Fisher’s studies were interrupted by serious illness, which continued to plague him in later years, but he persevered and garnered an appointment as one of two astronomers for an Arctic expedition. The recommendation came from the President and Council of the Royal Society.

The reasons for the expedition grew out of reports from Greenland whalers that open water extended much further north in 1816 and 1817 than in previous years. Consequently, the Admiralty sent out four ships on April 25, 1818: HMS Alexander and Isabella sought a north-west passage. Meanwhile, HMS Trent and Dorothea (Fisher’s ship) were ordered to sail over the top of the world. Fisher’s branch sought to jump off from the Svalbard Islands, sail northward to reach the Bering Strait, and then on to the Pacific Ocean. This course was chosen due to the belief in an open polar sea.

The Royal Society placed great faith in “Mr. Fisher, who is represented to us as a gentleman well skilled in Astronomy, Natural History, and various branches of knowledge”. He was provided with instruments to make observations concerning the length of a pendulum vibrating seconds—for the determination of the Earth’s shape—and to make other scientific observations.

Eerily, just four months previous to the expedition’s departure, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein made its appearance, featuring the passionate explorer Robert Walton who burst from its pages as he hungered for glory and knowledge on his North Pole quest. He eventually learned to temper his desire for glory in order to protect those for whom he was responsible—and decided to escape the crystal prison and sail for home. It was a lesson Victor Frankenstein did not grasp until it was too late.

During the real North Pole expedition, the Trent and Dorothea reached their rendezvous at northwest Spitzbergen. After surveying the harbor, the ships left on 7 June, and were soon trapped, drifting helplessly. After eventually finding refuge at Fair Haven, another attempt by the pair on 6 July penetrated to 80º 34’N—their farthest north on the voyage—before becoming trapped again.

After freeing themselves, a gale sprang up, causing severe damage. Retreating to Fair Haven, temporary repairs were carried out, and the expedition sailed for home on 30 August. Never again did any Royal Navy vessels attempt to sail across the Arctic Ocean.

Fisher reaped a scientific harvest based on experiments on the length of the pendulum. An abstract of these experiments eventually saw print in an appendix of Beechey’s book (a Lieutenant on Trent). In addition, the results of Fisher’s observations of the ships’ chronometers were embodied in a paper read before the Royal Society on 8 June 1820.

Polar Chaplain and Astronomer

Fisher appears to have specially taken Holy Orders to become a naval Chaplain. There were not enough chaplains for shrunken post-Napoleonic War requirements, and by 1824, the whole chaplains’ list consisted of only 17 “retired” and 39 “active” names in all. Afterward, he was again recommended by the Royal Society to be the astronomer for an Arctic expedition—this time for William Parry’s second attempt at sailing a north-west passage.

In April 1821, HMS Fury (Fisher’s ship) and Hecla were sent by the Admiralty to search for a passage along the west coast of the unknown Foxe Basin (northernmost Hudson Bay). Parry became the first to sail through Frozen Strait, and by late August, finding no way through Repulse Bay, he probed the fringes of Melville Peninsula northward. Sailing as far as Ross Bay by boat, the two inlets were scrutinized before it was decided to make winter quarters off southeast Melville Peninsula, at Winter Island.

A portable observatory, embarked on the Fury, was set up ashore during the winter and Fisher had Supernumerary Able Seaman Henry Siggers as his servant. Numerous wide-ranging experiments were conducted; among them were those of value to navigators in high latitudes, including comparative tests of compasses and numerous observations to determine refraction when stars were observed near the horizon in very cold weather. He also measured the velocity of sound, the contraction of a series of different metal bars at low temperatures, and the behaviors of various chemicals.

In fact, the following year, Fisher’s discovery of the liquefaction of gases (especially chlorine) took place—one year before the noted English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, who is usually credited with being the first to liquefy chlorine.

Parry and his men made detailed observations from the time the Inuit visited the ships on 1 February, through much of the winter. After breaking out of winter quarters on the second day of July, it was an Inuit map of the region that guided the expedition northward, until the Inuit were again encountered at Igloolik.

Pressing farther north, the entrance to Fury and Hecla Strait unfolded before Parry hit a wall of ice. Parry struck out overland and confirmed the strait led west into open sea—“in fact, this was the entrance to the southernmost possible north-west passage (but modern knowledge confirms that ice conditions made it impassible to sailing vessels).”

Parry returned to Igloolik Island and established winter quarters at that place, where the expedition again had close contact with the Inuit during the winter of 1822–23. Fisher once more set up the portable observatory ashore and patiently continued his valuable experiments.

Leaving winter quarters in August 1823, Parry made a second unsuccessful attempt to sail through Fury and Hecla Strait, but the fear of scurvy plagued his mind so he abandoned the effort and returned home. This was the last major attempt to find a north-west passage through Hudson Bay, and the search for an elusive passage continued in more northern latitudes.

Parry’s journal specifically praised Rev. Fisher’s advancements in the departments of science:

I have the most sincere pleasure in offering my testimony to the unabated zeal and perseverance with which under circumstances of no ordinary difficulty from climate, and in spite of frequent ill health, he continued to pursue every object which could tend to the improvement of Astronomy and Navigation, and to the interests of Science in general.

Indeed, of Parry’s 800-page published journal, the last 300 are observations of weather, position and astronomy by Rev. Fisher.

Over the course of two Arctic expeditions, Fisher pondered the cause of an Arctic splendor—the Aurora Borealis—clinging to the general belief that the Aurora was an electrical phenomenon. Like his contemporaries, he had no inkling that its true origin was a stream of ionized solar particles made visible on reaching Earth’s atmosphere.

High Honors and the Greenwich Hospital School

Fisher’s diligence paid off, and at only 31 years of age he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1825. In that same year, he became the Chaplain of Stansted, Essex. Two years later, he was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS), and became the Chaplain of Ampthill, Bedfordshire. Though Fisher was also made Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) in 1830, he resigned in 1840.

From 1827 to 1831, Rev. Fisher was employed as Chaplain to HMS Spartiate (1827–30) and Asia (1831), continuing his magnetic observations at London, Ryde, Malta and various ports on the coast of the Mediterranean. On his return, he was assigned to HMS Victory at Portsmouth from 1832–33, after which he retired from the Navy on half-pay.

Various biographical sources state that in 1834, Lord Auckland (First Lord of the Admiralty) offered Fisher the choice between the living of Falstone in Northumberland or the Chaplaincy and Headmastership of Greenwich Hospital School. H.D. Turner (in The Cradle of the Navy) qualified this information: “I suggest that as Chaplain he [Fisher] was regarded as he was some kind of principle [sic] to be included on committee, and there is also a possibility that at some time, headmaster of the Lower School.” At about this time, Fisher married Elizabeth Alicia Woosnam, and they came to have two daughters and a son.

Fisher found the School in much need of guidance, and through his fortitude he carried out schemes for the good of the establishment. To aid navigational studies, Fisher supervised the planning and construction of an observatory, which continued under his guidance for 13 years. Some sources state that Fisher may have become the Headmaster in 1856, and continued at this post until his retirement in 1863. However, other sources indicate Fisher was Principal of the School from 1860–63.

Arctic Honor

Fisher claimed the Arctic Medal 1818–55 in May 1857, and this and the Fire Office medal were his only medallic entitlements. He had the distinction of being the only chaplain entitled to this Arctic award, and one of only two astronomers. The other was Major General Edward Sabine, R.A. (1788–1883), a veteran of three expeditions.


Fisher retired in 1863, sold many of his books, and moved to Rugby, Warwickshire. During his later years, Rev. Fisher continued to contribute to practical knowledge by producing a most valuable paper to the seventh edition of Riddle’s Navigation, titled Circular Arc Sailing. It was a highly practical and instructive attempt to modify great Circle Sailing when the latitude into which a ship would be led is so high as to render navigation dangerous.

Nearly 80 years of age, Rev. Fisher passed away on May 14, 1873, “Always of singularly childlike and contented disposition, the companionship of those dearest to him, and his books, were all he needed for happiness”, noted one obituarist.

© 2009 Orders and Medals Society of America. All rights reserved.
This is an edited extract from the original article published in the
Journal of the Orders and Medals Society of America (January/February 2009).

Glenn ‘Marty’ Stein, FRGS, is a historian and writer. His objective is to preserve the memories of those who would otherwise be forgotten. Stein was the website Polar Historian for the International Polar Year 2007–08 (Certificate of Appreciation), and was awarded the Journal Prize for 2008–09 by the Orders and Medals Research Society of Great Britain. He lives in Florida, USA.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the people who have assisted in the preparation of this article, namely Mr Brian Cannon, Mr David Cerull, Dix Noonan Webb, Dr Trevor Levere, the late Mr Len Matthews, and Mr Richard Schlecht.

Postscript: Polar Worlds received the following communication from Prof Bernard de Neumann, Royal Hospital School Archivist, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, The City University, London:

Fisher joined GRHS on 4 December 1834 as Chaplain and Headmaster of the Upper School. In August 1840 he was superseded as Headmaster of the Upper School by Edward Riddle, but he retained his position as Chaplain. In 1848, following a reorganization, and in acknowledgement of his pioneering work in numerical educational attainment assessment, he was made Principal, whilst retaining his post as Chaplain. He retired in 1863. Fisher's work on educational assessment is now recognized as being the first such work in a field that still continues to thrive.



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