Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (17 & 18 July 2019)

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Date of Auction: 17th & 18th July 2019

Sold for £7,500

Estimate: £4,000 - £5,000

A fine Arctic Exploration pair awarded to Able Seaman Benjamin Wyatt, Royal Navy

Arctic Medal 1875-76 (B. Wyatt. A.B. H.M.S. Discovery.); Royal Navy L.S. & G.C., V.R., narrow suspension (Benjn. Wyatt. Lg. Seaman H.M.S. Excellent) impressed naming, mounted as worn, light contact marks, nearly very fine (2) £4,000-£5,000


Benjamin Wyatt was born in Westminster, London, on 25 July 1851, and entered the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class in H.M.S. Fisgard on 18 February 1867. He served in Forte until 5 June 1869, advancing to Boy 1st Class on 28 February 1868. Upon reaching his 18th birthday in 1869 he took a Continuous Service engagement for 10 years, which was extended for a further 10 years in 1879. He was in Nymph from 6 June 1869 to 14 August 1871, and advanced to Ordinary Seaman on 1 April 1870. He moved to Aurora on 15 August 1871, and was rated Able Seaman one year later, before leaving her on 28 October 1872, to join the Reserve Fleet. From 29 January 1873 to 9 April 1874, he was in Excellent, and then in Lord Warden until 6 March 1875, before joining Discovery.

Wyatt joined Discovery on 17 April 1875, one of 125 officers and men hand-picked from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Whaling Marine to crew H.M. Ships Alert and Discovery in what was intended to be a two-year expedition of Arctic exploration and discovery under Captain George Nares. The expedition had the objective of reaching the highest northern latitude (and if possible the North Pole itself), and from winter quarters to explore such coasts as fell within reach of travelling parties. The two ships left Portsmouth on May 29th 1875 amidst intense public interest, this being the first British expedition dedicated to Arctic discovery since Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated venture thirty years previously.

The Spring of 1876 saw much activity by travelling sledge parties of both ships, those formed from Discovery’s crew tasked with exploring the north shores of Greenland and Lady Franklin Sound. This also allowed for communication between Alert and Discovery to be renewed. Wyatt formed one of the regular crew of H.M. Sledge Stephenson, under Dr R. W. Coppinger, M.D., which set out from the ship on 3 April 1876. Remaining away for 124 days, they crossed to the depot at Polaris Bay and, between 18 May and 7 June, explored Petermann Fjord. Quite apart from the challenges presented by the frozen climate, the terrific exertion involved in dragging sledges weighted to more than 200 lbs per man, often over broken ground, brutally exposed the inadequacy of the men’s diet for such work. The effects of scurvy that were now being felt in both crews were exacerbated, and some men became very ill indeed. Wyatt himself is recorded as being detained at Alert at one stage due to his having suffered strain of the thigh. Ultimately the crews of the two ships became so enfeebled that Nares had no option but to bring the expedition to a premature close, and the two ships returned to England in October 1876.

Wyatt left Discovery on 5 December 1876, and afterwards spent short periods in Excellent and St Vincent before serving in Raleigh from 19 December 1877 to 23 July 1879, advancing to Leading Seaman on 1 June 1878. A few months later he transferred to the Coast Guard as a Boatman on 23 December 1879, first at Brightlingsea and then, on promotion to Commissioned Boatman on 23 April 1885, at Reculvers and, from 1 April 1890, at Whitstable where he was promoted to Chief Boatman on 20 February 1893, before moving to Walton-on-the-Naze on 1 March 1893. His Arctic medal was issued to him in St Vincent on 17 May 1877 and he received his L.S. & G.C. medal whilst in Excellent on 22 November 1879. Wyatt was pensioned on 4 December 1895, when he returned to make his home in Brightlingsea. There he answered to the nick-name ‘Tiddly’ and was well known for captivating his drinking comrades with tales of his Arctic adventures. On his death in 1922 many of his mementoes and photographs were distributed among local lads, including his snow goggles, snow-shoes and even one of the muzzle-loading rifles used to stock Discovery’s table.

Around 1980 a hand-written letter by Benjamin Wyatt came to light, giving his own concise but very fresh account of his Arctic adventures, and offering a rare account of the extraordinary conditions of the expedition from the perspective of the lower deck. Substantial portions were subsequently published in a magazine article:

HMS Discovery
Nov 2 1876

I have sent you a few outlines of the Expedition and you can rely on I for the truth of it.
Truly yours
B. Wyatt

The Arctic ship Discovery arrive at Queenstown at 1 o’clock Sunday forenoon and was cheered loudly by the people at the ports we pass, and also the flagship (Revenge). The ship made fast to buoys abreast Haulbowline dockyard and was visited by the Mayor of Cork and many hundreds of people during the day. In the afternoon the Alert our consort hove in sight, she having put in at Valentina to repair damage to her rudder. Both ships coal and left.

Since entering the ice we left Disco Greenland on the 15 July 1875 and arrive at Rittenbenk on the 16 and left on the 17 for Praven passing through Wougatt channel… at Praven on the 19 of July there we got the Esquimaux Hans Christian… the same man who was with Captain Hall in 1871-72, the American Expedition, and also Dr Kane of the same country in 1851-52.

Rounded Cape Sabine and force our way to Hayes Sound intent if possible to pass to the westward of Henry Islands, but finding no passage through the ice we retraced our steps on the 6 of August and secured to ice in Franklin pierce bay on the 8. The Alert shot a walrus… length 12ft 6inches, round gut 11ft 3inches and weight 24cwt. In the evening of same day both ships’ company playing on the ice at football. We left on the 9 of August and made fast to the ice near Cape Prescott till the 11… here we had to unship the rudder to save it being crush to pieces by ice; in the evening, ship it again and arrive at Dobbin Bay. Here a Depot of provisions was left and we had great difficulty in getting through the ice. On the 13 eve tried to get out of the Bay but could not, in the evening both ships cut dock in the ice which took over 4 hours to do it. The ships were safe for a time the ice was very heavy in the Channel and move fast… next day, the 14, unship rudder again… here we all though Dobbin Bay would be our winter quarters. On Sunday the 15 of August in the evening after using gunpowder to break the ice we then manage to get the ships out and rounded Cape Napoleon and here we stock… the ice very thick and heavy. We saw Cape McClintock on the 20 August, Lat. 80° 3m N, Long. 70° 37.W… On the 21 saw open water in mid-channel… we took advantage of it and made a good run of about 8 hours arriving at Joe Island. Here we stop at a barrier of ice extending from Cape Moreton to Gunnel Land stops all further progress we anchored in Bessels Bay. We cross the channel and enter a large and deep bay on the north side of Lady Franklin Strait named Bellot Harbour… both ships arrive very early the morning of the 25 August. A herd of Musk Oxen was seen on shore, the Officers landed and shot 9 of them… they are a very peculiar animal to look at having very long black hair covering the body, and rather short legs but very powerful upon them and swift, climbing rocks with ease. They much resemble our English Beef… when killed they have a taste of Musk… average weight was from 280lbs to 400lbs.

Bellot Harbour was to be the winter quarters of the Discovery… it affords a most sheltered place from all winds… the land was very hilly – the Latitude was 81° 44 minutes N and Long. 65° 3m 14 W. The Alert left next day with one Officer and 7 men and boat and sledge from the Discovery to fetch back the news. We parted with ringing cheers from each other and success to her. She proceed towards to the Pole. The Discovery then found a suitable place for landing her provisions and stores and commence the same day and then prepare for winter. She was frozen in on the 5 of September 1875 and never move again until the 18 of August 1876. We lost the Sun on the 16 of oct and never saw it again till the 2 March 1876 altho he was due on the last of February but the weather was too thick to see it till March 2… being absent 139 days. The winter soon set in the glass showing 14° above zero. On the 9 September a party was sent away shooting and shot several Musk Ox which was fetched by the crews on sledges having some times to go 6 miles over very hilly country. After making the ship snug for winter inside we then built outside of her up with snow to the level of the upper deck.

We then built a theatre of ice near the ship which had the appearance in every shape and form inside of a first class theatre. We than built a black-smith for the Blacksmith to work in. The days were getting very short towards the end of Oct and early in November we could see the stars at mid-day, in fact we had to finish our Royal Alexandria Theatre by candle light. It was to open early in December and Playing was acted weekly. Having play-bills printed and we also had a concert every week so the winter passed very pleasant. The weather was getting colder the glass showing 46° zero and 70° of frost in the middle of November… O, I forgot to say we kept the 5 of Nov up having a Guy Fawkes, and in the evening burnt him after dragging him around the ship on a sledge and the band playing several lively tunes, we all then spent a couple of hours dancing around sending up fireworks.

On the 20 of December we prepare for Christmas and a most happy one it was a day never to be forgot by us. We received two letters each man containing two Christmas cards sent by kind friends to us before we left. The mess deck was well got up although we had no green stuff to decorate our messes out but we had coloured paper and plenty of good mottoes and a kind welcome to Father Christmas. At 12 we sat down to a dinner that was fit for a Lord Mayor to sit down to and kind loving friends had not forgotten us for we had plenty of good English plum-pudding and also many other good things. It was well enjoyed too and many hearty thanks went forth to the donors of the gifts. In the afternoon the presents was serve out to every man and very useful many of them was to us and also pass many a long day afterward. We then gave three cheers for our friends and also 3 for our consort ship Alert although we had not heard anything of her since leaving us.

Note: While around 30 of the 1875 expedition's total of 163 participants are thought to have qualified for a L.S. & G.C. medal, intact combinations of such with the second Arctic medal are rarely encountered, Wyatt's apparently being only the fourth recorded to date.

Sold with copied service record, and May 1982 edition of Guns, Weapons and Militaria magazine in which an article about Benjamin Wyatt appears.