Orders, Decorations and Medals (22 September 2006)

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Date of Auction: 22nd September 2006

Sold for £13,000

Estimate: £3,500 - £4,000

The Arctic Discoveries group of three awarded to Sir Alexander Armstrong, K.C.B., Director-General of the Medical Department of the Royal Navy, latterly Honorary Physician to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, who was ‘Surgeon, Naturalist and Historian’ of the Investigator under McClure in the Franklin Search Expedition of 1850-53, a voyage that led to the discovery of the North-West Passage: Armstrong later published his own account of this Arctic epic and was credited with proving beyond dispute that lime juice could effectively deter scurvy

Arctic Discoveries 1818-55
(Alexander Armstrong, M.D., H.M.S. Investigator), contemporary engraved naming; Baltic 1854-55 (Alexander Armstrong, M.D., H.M.S. Invesigator), contemporary engraved naming; Sir Gilbert Blane’s Gold Medal (Alexander Armstrong, M.D., “Investigator”, 1853), fitted with claw and ring suspension, the former partially obscuring the recipient’s surname, the first with traces of repair to suspension device, edge bruising, otherwise generally very fine and better (3) £3500-4000


In 1843 he was selected to take charge of the medical and scientific department of an exploring expedition to Xanthus, in Lycia, composed of 100 officers and men drafted from the flagship Queen, under the command of Captain Frederick Warden of the Medea. For the successful results of his exertions on this occasion, Dr. Armstrong received the thanks of the Trustees of the British Museum, conveyed through the Admiralty. The general excellence of his sanitary arrangements, and the character of his scientific observations and official reports, procured him the repeated acknowledgements of the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Edward Owen, who expressed his approbation in a general order to the squadron, and recommended him for promotion.

On his return to England, he was again appointed to Haslar, 8 April 1846. A few months later he was transferred to the
Grappler, fitting for the West Coast of Africa; and in November of the same year, he joined the royal yacht Victoria & Albert, Captain Lord Adolphus FitzClarence. From that vessel, on the occasion of Her Majesty’s visit to Ireland, he was promoted to the rank of Surgeon on 19 October 1849.

His next appointment was, 19 December following, to the
Investigator, Captain Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, a vessel in which, sailing in search of Sir John Franklin, he entered the polar seas through the Bering Strait, and became a participator in the honour of discovering the North-West Passage. He returned to England at the close of 1854, via Baffin Bay. During an absence of nearly five years in the Arctic regions, Dr. Armstrong, the naturalist and historian of the expedition, greatly mitigated the effects of hardship and privation endured by his brave companions, owing to the admirable means he adopted for the preservation of health; his services in this respect - for it is worthy of record, as an unprecedented fact, that during upwards of three years the Investigator lost not a single man - being frequently noticed in the despatches of Captain McClure. On the day the crew were paid off, he had the gratification of receiving from them a valuable gold chronometer-watch and chain, the former bearing the following inscription: “Presented, October 1854, to Alexander Armstrong, M.D., late Surgeon, H.M.S. Investigator, by the Petty Officers, Seaman and Marines of that ship, as a testimony of their sincere respect and gratitude for his unwaried professional skill and humanity during the unparalleled Arctic service which resulted in the discovery of the North-West Passage.”

Dr. Armstrong’s last appointment afloat was in the
Cornwallis, in which ship he served from 6 February 1855 until paid off in 1856, in the Baltic and on the North America and West India stations. In the Baltic he was present on 9 August at the bombardment of Sveaborg, and of the batteries at Saudhamn, where the Cornwallis, the senior officer’s ship, had 10 men wounded. He was also, on the nights of the same day and the 11th, engaged with the rocket-boats of the Cornwallis, Hastings and Amphion, as Senior Medical Officer, in two attacks on a Russian frigate moored in the Kung Sund, under the batteries of Storholm, in reference to the first of which occasions he was mentioned in the official despatches.

Dr. Armstrong has received the Arctic and Baltic Medals, and Sir Gilbert Blane’s Gold Medal. In addition to his narrative of the discovery of the North-West Passage, already alluded to, he is the author of a
Report on the Use of Lime-Juice in Scurvy, published in the Medical Times, in December 1854. He received a portion of the Parliamentary grant of £10,000 awarded for the discovery of the North-West Passage. In 1857 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.’

A summary of Sir Alexander’s subsequent career is to be found in
The Dictionary of National Biography:

‘On 19 July 1858 he was promoted to be Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets, and from 1859 to 1864 was in medical charge of the hospital at Malta. On 15 November 1866, he was promoted to the rank of Inspector-General of the Medical Department of the Royal Navy. On 17 June 1871 he was nominated a military K.C.B., and on 12 June 1873 he was elected F.R.S. He retired from the service in December 1871, living, for the most part, in the Albany, or at the Elms, Sutton-Bonnington, near Kegworth, where he died on 4 July 1899. In 1894 he married the widow of Sir William King Hall. Armstrong was the author of
Personal Narrative of the Discovery of the North-West Passage (8vo., 1857), and Observations of Naval Hygiene (8vo., 1858).’

The Voyage of the “Investigator” 1850-53

In 1850, in company with the
Enterprise, the Investigator, under the command of Captain McClure and with Armstrong aboard as Surgeon, set sail for the Bering Strait to continue the search for Franklin to the west - as it transpired, the two ships became separated, and the accolade of discovering the North-West Passage fell to McClure and the Investigator. The movements of that ship and her gallant crew after arriving at the Bering Strait are best summarised in British Polar Exploration and Research, A Historical and Medallic Record with Biographies 1818-1999, by Poulsom and Myres:

‘ ... McClure continued to the north and then cruised eastward as far as the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and men were frequently sent ashore to erect cairns and question the natives about Franklin’s ships of which no trace was found. The ship sailed northwards through uncharted waters naming Nelson’s Head and Prince Albert Land, and then pushed north-eastwards up Prince of Wales Strait towards Melville Sound and Barrow Strait. However, as winter approached and the ice closed round
Investigator, sweeping her back to the south-west, McClure decided to winter in the pack ice on the eastern side of Banks Island. From the ship a sledging journey was undertaken towards Barrow Strait which at last linked up the route to the North-West Passage. In the spring a further three sledging parties were undertaken, one to the south-east shore of the Prince of Wales Strait, another to the northern shore and a third to trace the north-eastern corner of Banks Island. During these sledging journeys large areas of Banks Island and Prince Albert Land were mapped but no trace was found of Franklin.

By the spring of 1851
Investigator was within 25 miles of Melville Sound but ice barred the final passage. McClure therefore returned to pass west around Banks Island eventually finding refuge on the northern shore in the Bay of Mercy where they wintered in 1851-52. Investigator was never to leave here again. In the spring of 1852 sledging parties reached Parry’s Winter Harbour on Melville Island where a cairn was found which had been left by McClintock during a previous expedition, and here a note was left giving details of Investigator’s position.

The winter of 1852-53 was spent in the same position in the Bay of Mercy and it was found that some of the provisions had gone bad. Scurvy developed amongst some of the crew, the doctors advised that the ship should be abandoned in the spring of 1853 and plans were made for the weakest to try to sledge to safety. The sledging party was all set to leave when suddenly out of the Arctic wastes appeared Lieutenant Pim of the
Resolute, one of the ships that had been searching for Franklin from the east.

McClure was ordered by the Captain of
Resolute (Kellett) to abandon Investigator and, in April 1853, all the crew made their way to Resolute, were later transferred to North Star, which was accompanying her, and all eventually returned safely to England. At the subsequent and customary Court Martial to enquire into the loss of one of H.M. Ships, the Captain, officers and crew were honourably acquitted.

It could be said that, as a result of their expedition,
Investigator’s ship’s company were the first people to circumnavigate the American continent, albeit some of it was on foot over the ice between Investigator and Resolute. Certainly it was accepted by a Select Committee of Parliament, in its report published on 20 July 1855, that McClure and his men were ‘the first who have passed by water from sea to sea and have returned to this country a living evidence of the existence of a North-West Passage.’ The Committee went on to recommend a reward of £5000 for McClure and a further £5000 to be divided between his men. Furthermore the Committee recommended the grant of a medal ‘to all those of every rank and class engaged in the several Arctic Expeditions ... ’ Eighteen months later this recommendation was translated into the London Gazette of 30 January 1857 giving preliminary information about the award of the Arctic Medal.’

Sold with an original edition of the recipient’s book
A Personal Narrative of the Discovery of the North-West Passage (Hurst and Blackett, London, 1857), in which is to be found a most detailed and entertaining account of the hardships and challenges faced by Armstrong and his comrades. Fortuitously for those selected for the expedition, the good doctor set himself stringent standards of fitness - so stringent, in fact, that it is a wonder he was able to find enough men:

‘The selection of men for Polar Service is a duty of the greatest import, for on their physical capabilities and moral endowments must depend not only the efficiency of the Expedition, but its safety in the hour of emergency. This duty, therefore, demanded my greatest care and attention. Men, for Arctic Service, should be of a cheerful disposition, free from disease, ‘without blemish and without spot’, inured to the life of a sailor, or, in other words, regular ‘man-o’-war’s men’, in age varying from twenty to thirty or thirty-two years, of middle stature, well-proportioned bodies, strong, and active, with a well-developed, capacious chest, sound heart and lungs - organs which, under any circumstances, are the most severely taxed - of stout, muscular limbs, with a light, active gait, and free from any constitutional or hereditary predisposition to disease.’

Also sold with a bound photocopy of his
Observations of Naval Hygiene, a modern edition of Captain R. McClure’s The Discovery of the North-West Passage, and a modern oil portrait of Armstrong in uniform, wearing his Honours and Awards.