Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Fox the Explorer


July marks the 384th anniversary since the death of Captain Luke Fox. Despite being one of Hull’s most famous explorers, there is no plaque in Hull to commemorate or record his achievements. He was one of a number of early explorers that set out to seek the Northwest Passage, and like all before and almost as many since, he failed. His expedition, however, was the first to circumnavigate Hudson’s Bay. And although he did not find the Northwest Passage his voyage helped pave the way for its eventual navigation in 1908.
Born on 20th October 1586, Fox was christened that same month at St. Mary’s Lowgate. The son of Richard Fox, a Hull mariner who later became an assistant at the Trinity House in Hull, Fox learned his seafaring skills on voyages to the Mediterranean, Spain, France, Holland, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic Sea. He had also been employed in the coasting trade working between Hull, Whitby, Newcastle and London.
The bug for exploring caught Fox at a young age when in 1606, aged 20, he applied to join explorer, John Knight, in an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, in which Knight himself never returned. Fox, however, was deemed to be too young for such an expedition.

Title page of Fox's 'Northwest' [L.001 FOX]

Undeterred Fox successfully petitioned King Charles I in 1629 for assistance to seek out the Northwest Passage. He set sail from Deptford on HMS Charles on 7th May 1631. Twenty men and two boys signed on as crew and stores were carried for an 18 month voyage. The expedition sailed up the North Sea and called at Orkney before crossing the Atlantic. On the 22nd June Fox and his crew entered the Hudson’s Strait. For the next three months Fox searched for the illusive Northwest Passage but concluded there was no route through to the Pacific Ocean.
Whether Fox intended to remain for winter, or simply planned for the possibility of becoming trapped in ice, the voyage was cut short due to the health of his crew, and on the 22nd September he set sail for home, arriving back on 31st October after nearly six months away.
The legacy of Luke Fox’s six month voyage cannot be underestimated. His expedition was the first to circumnavigate Hudson Bay, proving this stretch of water did not link in to the Pacific Ocean. Exploration, particularly Arctic and Polar carry massive risks. Franklin’s famous expedition almost 200 years later to explore the remaining unexplored Arctic coast ended in failure with the loss of the entire expedition. What makes Fox’s expedition all the more remarkable is that while Franklin’s ships were fitted with the latest technologies of the time, including steam engines, reinforced iron plates for protection against ice, and even internal steam heating for crew comfort, Fox’s ship afforded none this. And unlike Franklin whose crew were all lost, Fox returned without the loss of a single man.

Map showing Fox's Northwest voyage around Hudson's Bay in 1630

Fox recorded his voyage in some detail and went on to publish one of the earliest books on polar exploration and perhaps the first book published by someone from Hull. His book, Northwest Fox (1635), commissioned by Charles I, was one of the most important works in its field, providing an account of his, and other voyages, including tides, depth of seas, longitude and latitudes, proving invaluable for future expeditions. 
Despite his achievements, Fox died poverty stricken at Whitby in 1635 and was buried on 20th July 1635 at St. Mary’s Church, Whitby. His name and legacy live on with the Foxe Channel and Foxe Basin bearing his name to this today.
You can read the account of Captain Luke Fox voyage in his book Northwest Fox (Ref: L.001 FOX), which is available at the History Centre.
Neil Chadwick, Project Officer, Unlocking the Treasures

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