Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
“He immediately made one spring at me, & a stab with his knife, only to find himself reclining in the corner of his house, his nose having come violently in the way of my left. I pulled out my revolver & showed it to him, sat down, lit my pipe and offered him a piece of tobacco.” The man with the forceful left hook is Hugh Lowther, the notorious Yellow Earl. The man offered the solace of tobacco was a Mackenzie Eskimo from Liverpool Bay on the northern coast of Canada.
It was 1888. The Yellow Earl was making a journey across the frozen wastes “in search of pleasure and sport”. He shot musk and deer, and arctic grouse on the glorious twelfth, and sent a polar bear skin back to Lowther Castle. He’d spent the day in question watching the eskimoes driving beluga whale into the shallow waters and was “walking home” when he sensed the threat from this man “with a villainous countenance” and a large knife in his hand.
The only true Arctic explorer to come from Cumbria was Skeffington Lutwidge, a native of Whitehaven of Irish descent. In 1773, he was captain of HMS Carcass when he was ordered to undertake “a voyage of discovery towards the North Pole”. In August, the Carcass and its commanding ship the Racecourse under Captain Phipps were stranded in the ice north of Spitzbergen. The crews were preparing to abandon ship as the ice threatened to crush the hulls. Fortunately, the ice opened out and they were able to sail south. The sixteen year old Horatio Nelson, who was on the Carcass, had ventured on the ice, armed with a musket, when he encountered a polar bear. Nelson is reputed to have said to Lutwidge: “Sir, I wished to kill the bear, that I may carry its skin to my father.” It was Luttwidge’s only voyage to the Arctic. He died, aged 78, at Holmrook in 1814, and was buried at Irton Church.
The whaling industry was the cause of more frequent journeys to the Arctic. In 1762, the Royal Bounty was fitted out at Whitehaven to be “employed in the Whale Fishery to Davis Streights and the Greenland Seas”. In the 1770s John Spedding was part-owner of the Neptune. Two pictures in his family home at Mirehouse show the ship. In one the men are enthusiastically catching and flensing whales. In the other, the Neptune is nipped in the ice and the men are stranded with whalebones and barrels of blubber awaiting rescue by a fellow whaler. Whaling was a high-risk and not always profitable investment. In 1786, the Lonsdale landed at Whitehaven with two whales – the first to be landed at the port – and forty seals. Lonsdale had built a whale-processing facility, a place for boiling the blubber, in the town. There was no whaling out of Whitehaven after the Napoleonic Wars, but Whitehaven-built ships, such as the Alfred and Jumna, sailed out of east coast ports for Arctic waters.
Cumbria’s most conspicuous link to the Arctic is the Barrow Monument that stands above Ulverston. The town was the birthplace of Sir John Barrow, who, as Second Secretary to the Admiralty for more than forty years from 1804, was responsible for redeploying the navy on voyages of exploration.
Rob David’s well-illustrated book is a thoroughgoing account of Cumbria’s diverse and often tenuous connections with Arctic exploration. It was a subject that was popular throughout the Lake Counties in the days of magic lantern shows and it continues to be an interesting part of Cumbria’s maritime past.
In Search of Arctic Wonders is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.