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The Scoresby Family of Whitby

The father and son duo of Scoresby’s are remarkable men from the town of Whitby. Despite being almost entirely self-taught, they gained a reputation across Europe as incredible navigators and Arctic explorers.

William Scoresby, Senior and Junior, were famous captains. In addition to their work in maritime safety, the Scoresby family also made valuable contributions to climate research. Thanks to their efforts, we still benefit from their research today, even two centuries later. Here’s more information about the Scoresby family of Whitby.


William Scoresby Senior

Captain William Scoresby Senior was a skilled whaler and Arctic explorer who lived from 1760 to 1829. He was born on a small farm in Pickering and later became captain of a whaling ship in 1791. During this time, whaling was a significant industry in Whitby. He was a successful and daring captain. Capturing 533 whales, yielding 4,664 tons of oil and 240 tons of whalebone in just thirty years.

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William Scoresby Senior
Image credit: Whitby Lore & Legend by Shaw Jeffrey

This is “a greater number,” according to his friend Mr Drew, “than has fallen to the share of any other individual hundreds with that of many thousands of seals, some walruses, very many narwhals, and probably not less than sixty bears.”


A Polar bear in Whitby

He even managed to tame a polar bear and bring it back to Whitby. Though it did cause some alarm when it escaped into the Cockmill Woods. However, he could calmly walk up to the massive animal and lead it back to his ship with a rope. The polar bear was usually chained up near a water cask at the corner of Spital Bridge. William Senior was known for his success as a whaler before the industry eventually declined.

Whitby Polar Bear

To pay homage to the explorer and bear, a plastic polar bear proudly sits on top of the Holland & Barret health foods shop, next to Whitby Swing Bridge in the centre of town.


William Scoresby Junior

His son, William Scoresby Junior, was also a successful explorer and natural historian. He was born into a wealthy family that made its fortune through William Senior’s accomplishments in the whaling trade. William Junior started his sea career at age 11. He later became captain of his father’s ship, the Resolution, at age 22.

William Scoresby Junior

After his first wife passed away, William Scoresby Junior became a Reverend but continued to pursue his scientific interests. He married three times and was known for his social conscience, establishing several church schools for factory children.

From 1839 to 1846, he served as a vicar in Bradford and may have crossed paths with Reverend Patrick Bronte—Father of the Bronte siblings. William Junior was also highly travelled. He had visited the Arctic regions and sailed to America twice, where he became fascinated by the massive Atlantic waves.

He published a significant article about his observations on the waves in 1850. In 1856, he embarked on a journey aboard the Royal Charter to Australia. Today, his books and instruments are on display at Whitby Museum and are worth seeing. William Junior passed away in March 1857 in Torquay.


Remarkable achievements

Both Scoresby’s made remarkable achievements. In 1806, senior Captain William Scoresby, with his son, young William, as chief mate, sailed on the “Resolution” to the highest latitude in the Arctic that man had ever reached. Within 510 miles of the North Pole. This was a remarkable achievement for such a small vessel.

Captain Parry, in 1827, went seventy or eighty miles farther north. But this was gained wholly by travelling in dog sledges across the pack ice. For many generations, the Scoresby’s held the record for the highest latitude ever attained by sailing.


The crow's nest

The crow’s nest

In 1807, William Senior invented the barrel crow’s nest, saving many lives at sea.

What is a crow’s nest?

A lookout point known as a crow’s nest is typically located in the upper part of a ship’s main mast. Its purpose is to provide lookouts with a wide field of view. Allowing crew to spot potential hazards, other ships, or land using their naked eye or optical tools such as binoculars or telescopes.

Did William Scoresby really invent the crow’s nest?

William Scoresby Junior said his father invented the crow’s nest in the 19th century. However, it is possible that Scoresby Senior improved on existing designs—using a raised vantage point for better visibility dates back to ancient Egypt.

Crow’s nests also appear on representations of Phoenician, Etruscan, and Boiotian ships from the eighth to seventh centuries BC. After the seventh century, depictions of boats no longer included crow’s nests. The value of a raised vantage point for better visibility remained well understood. Theon of Smyrna wrote that climbing a ship’s mast provided a view of land that was otherwise invisible to those on deck.

Scoresby’s lookout platform resembled a crow’s nest in a tree

The term “crow’s nest” was first recorded in 1807 and used to describe Scoresby Senior’s barrel crow’s nest platform. A popular naval legend suggests that the term derives from the practice of Viking sailors, who carried crows or ravens in a cage secured to the top of the mast.

In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released, and the navigator plotted a course corresponding to the bird’s flight path because the bird invariably headed “as the crow flies” towards the nearest land. However, other naval scholars have found no evidence of the masthead crow cage. They suggest the name was coined because Scoresby’s lookout platform resembled a crow’s nest in a tree.

The crow’s nest as a punishment

Because the crow’s nest is located far from the ship’s centre of mass, the rotational movement of the ship is amplified and could lead to severe seasickness, even in accustomed sailors. As a result, being assigned to the crow’s nest was often considered a punishment.


Vital research for climate change

William Scoresby Junior made some fascinating discoveries during his voyages to the north. His meticulous recording and logbooks have proven invaluable to modern-day climatologists as they provide comparative data.

In addition, his sketches of Svalbard/Spitsbergen ice maps are now compared to modern satellite images, demonstrating how ice sheets are shrinking.

In 1822, William Junior mapped out a large part of the east coast of Greenland, advancing geographical knowledge of the country. It’s worth noting that he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1824 and met many famous scientists of his day, including Sir Michael Faraday and Sir Joseph Banks.


Compass Readings

Scientists gained a better understanding of how iron affected compass readings thanks to the contributions of William Junior. His fascination with magnetism improved the accuracy of this crucial instrument.

During the era of sailing, many ships were lost due to faulty compass readings caused by metal on board or iron-laden cargo. Compasses became even more unreliable as sailors approached the North Pole and North Magnetic Pole.

William Junior conducted experiments with steel needles to observe how they reacted to iron. Today, it’s hard to imagine the significance of an accurate compass reading since we now rely on satellite navigation. Nonetheless, using a compass can be incredibly useful in a technological failure!


7 interesting facts about the Scoresby’s

Snowflake Study

Did you know that no two snowflakes are ever the same? It’s a fascinating fact! William Junior was so intrigued that he studied snowflakes and drew their shapes. Imagine how cold that task must have been!

Plankton

William Junior was the first to observe tiny creatures in some regions of the sea with the help of a microscope. He noticed that the yellow edges of the sea were caused by these creatures, which he called animalcules. Today, we know them as plankton, which are crucial to the health of marine ecosystems.

House in Whitby

A blue plaque at 13 Bagdale marks the house where William Senior lived.

Captain Jack Movie

The Movie Captain Jack

In 1997, the movie Captain Jack was filmed in Whitby and starred Bob Hoskin as the lead character. It was based on William Seniors’ experiences.

Interesting facts about Whales

William Senior’s research uncovered many interesting facts about whales, such as the incredible lifespan of a Bowhead whale, which can live up to 200 years. It’s possible that one of the younger whales encountered by William Junior during his studies could still be living to this day.

Referenced in Moby Dick

In the cetology chapter of Herman Melville’s famous novel, Moby Dick, there is a reference to the work of William Junior. Ishmael quotes Captain Scoresby, who stated in 1820, “No branch of zoology is so much involved as that which is entitled Cetology.”

His Dark Materials

If you’ve read His Dark Materials, there is a character called Lee Scoresby, an old Arctic hand and balloonist aeronaut, penned by Sir Philip Pullman.


From William Scoresby Senior’s pioneering work as a whaling captain and Arctic explorer to William Scoresby Juniors’ contributions to science, the Scoresby family left quite a mark on the Whitby community and the world. We hope you found this article informative; you can let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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