Sir Leopold McClintock


By Garret Magowan



August 5th, 1967




At the Northern tip of Canada, inside the Arctic Circle, between Victoria Island and Prince of Wales Island, is a stretch of icy water about the size of the Irish Sea. This expanse, linking the Victoria Straits and Melville Sound is called the M’Clintock Channel, and it takes it’s name from a man who was born in Dundalk early in the 19th  century.



            Leopold M’Clintock was born in 1819 in Number One, Seatown Place (Kincora House), Dundalk. His grandfather, John M’Clintock of Drumcar, was an M.P. in the Irish House of Commons, and in 1766 he married Patience, daughter of William Foster, the Member of Parliament for County Louth. The youngest son of the marriage Henry joined the army, and on his retirement, from the dragoons, Lieutenant M’Clintock was appointed Collector of Customs a the port of Dundalk – an appointment he held for more than thirty years. He had a large family and three of his sons became famous in their chosen professions. There was Dr. Alfred M’Clintock, M.D., F.R.C.S.I., who became Master of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, General Ernest, and Sir Leopold.


            Sir Leopold when a boy attended Dundalk Grammer School, then conducted by the Rev.Dr. Darley, afterwards Bishop of Kilmore. Having selected the Naval Service as a career, at the age of twelve he joined the crew of H.M.S. Samarang at Portsmouth, and sailed to South America. There the young sailor distinguished himself by the recovery of H.M.S. Gorgon in Monte Video, and, on the strong recommendation of his Captain, M’Clintock received his lieutenancy on 29th July, 1845.


            When he returned from South America in 1847, he enrolled at the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth. Determined to acquire a thorough knowledge of every branch of his profession, he studied hard to master the various details of nautical science, especially steam navigation which was then in it’s infancy.









            After his year at Portsmouth the young Lieutenant went to sea again, but this time in a region far removed from the sunny waters of the Pacific. For years there had been efforts to find a North West Passage through the Polar Seas, the latest expedition being led by Sir John Franklin. Public anxiety, however, was growing and it was decided to send another expedition to try and find out the fate of Franklin’s ships, and so in 1848 Sir James Ross set out on a rescue voyage, with McClintock as one of his officers. The voyage lasted well into 1849 and proved fruitless, as did M’Clintock’s second trip under Captain (later Admiral) Austin in 1850-’51. In the following year, McClintock, having been promoted to the rank of Commander, was put in charge of the screwsteamer “Intrepid” and he again sailed to the Arctic, this time under the leadership of Sir Edward Belcher, C.B. This was the first expedition to reach Melville Sound. During this expedition, M’Clintock astounded his brother officers by the length of his sledge journeys. He performed the wonderful feat of traveling 1,400 miles across the ice in just over one hundred days. This expedition met the same fate as the previous ones, and in the autumn of 1854, the four ships were  abandoned in the ice as Sir Edward Belcher, his officers and crew sailed home on board the “Phoenix” and the “North Star”.






            In a letter, written to the Admiralty, from Cork, shortly after his arrival there in 1854, Sir Edward wrote in these positive terms about the fate of Franklin. “I feel satisfied that no reasonable being in this expedition, with brain free from the delusions of interested motives, will venture to suggest that our unfortunate countrymen ever passed Beechey Island after the spring of 1846”. Despite the Admiral’s strongly worded assertion M’Clintock not only suggested, but also proved that Franklin’s expedition did exactly that which the dictatorial officer considered impossible.






            Although every expedition to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his men had failed, Captain McClintock believed that another attempt could prove successful. He maintained that the previous expeditions had taken too northerly a course, and he felt certain that a search in the region of the North Magnetic Pole, as yet untouched, would prove fruitful. The Admiralty, however, did not share his optimism and they rejected his request for another attempt saying that “after so may failures there is no justification to risk the lives of brave men in such a hopeless cause”.






            Disappointed by the Admiralty rejection, Lady Franklin decided to finance the expedition herself, and with this in mind, she bought Sir Richard Sutton’s screw yacht “Fox”. She offered the command of the proposed expedition to Leopold M’Clintock, who gladly accepted.






            McClintock was thoroughly conversant with all the peculiar needs of an Arctic expedition and apart from any financial gain, his whole heart was in the cause. As well as this, he was proud of the discoveries he had made in the Arctic regions of Canada and, as he afterwards wrote “I could not willingly resign to posterity the honour of filling up even the smallest remaining blank upon our maps”.


            On the First of July 1857, the “Fox” sailed from Aberdten, and by the winter reached Melville Bay on the north coast of Greenland. Here the ship became locked in the frozen ice and for eight months she drifted southwards, until finally she was released from the ice more than 1,000 miles from Melville Bay, Captain McClintock seized the first opportunity and at  once sailed northwards. This enabled McClintock to lay down the unknown northern coastline of Canada, and map King William’s Island. It also enabled him to prove the existence of a channel from Victoria Straits to Melville Sound which is now known as the McClintock Channel.





            Landing on King William’s Island, the expedition was divided into three sledge trains. One of these explored the estuary of the Fish river, one went onto the nearby Prince of Wales Island, while the third examined the west coast of King William’s Island, where McClintock’s idea that traces of the missing ships would be found, was borne out. At Point Victory, on the north west coast of the island, the expedition found a record of the missing men. The first entry was dated 28th May, 1847, and read “Sir John Franklin is commanding the expedition, and all is well”. The diary traced the fate of the expedition from May 1847 to April 1848. It recorded the death of Sir John Franklin on 11th June, 1847. The last entry was dated 25th April, and tells us that “the ships were frozen in the ice since 12th September. The officers and crew (105 men) are leaving the ships and starting back along the banks of the Fish river. The total loss by deaths on the expedition so far has been to this date, nine officers and fifteen men”.











            Nearby was found a large boat, 28 foot long and 7 foot wide. Portions of two human skeletons were in the boat. There also were five watches and several articles of clothing, some small books and a Bible. Spoons and forks with the crest of Sir John Franklin were also found and, taking these memorials, the expedition set off on the homeward voyage. The “FOX” reached Blackwell deck on 23rd September, 1858. The relics were deposited at the Admiralty where, in McClintock’s words, “they now form a simple and most touching momento of those heroic men who perished in the path of duty, but not before they achieved the purpose of their voyage, the discovery of the “North West Passage”.

            Immediately on his return, Captain McClintock reported to the Admiralty the result of his search and the reply acknowledged that he gave the first authentic account of the fate of Sir John Franklin. They also informed him that on the instructions of Queen Victoria, his period of service on the “Fox” was recognized by them as “sea time” thereby giving him  much seniority.






            And then from every quarter, honours were showered upon the distinguished seamen. In Dundalk-Court-house, on 31st October, 1859, he was the guest of honour at a dinner, at which he received a presentation of silver and an address of welcome. Accepting the address, Sir Leopold said that he would “cherish it always, more than any other honour, as it comes from the town where I spent my youth, from the friends of my boyhood days, from my home”.

            Dublin and London followed suit, and he received the freedom of both cities. Dublin university gave him the honorary degree of L.L.D. and Queen Victoria conferred on him a Knoghthood. A more tangible token of the nation’s gratitude was a parliamentary grant of five thousand pounds, awarded at the instigation of Lord Palmerston and Disraeli.






            The newly elevated Sir Francis McClintock was not a man to rest on his laurels. The use of the recently invented “Electric Telegraph” was spreading and it was decided to lay a cable from Europe to America. The task fell to Sir Leopold who was given command of H.M.S. “Bulldog”. He plotted a course from the Faroe Islands, through Iceland and Greenland to Labrador. By following this course, it was found that then length of the submarine cable did not exceed five-hundred miles in any one section.









            In 1870, at the age of 51, Sir Leopold married Annette Elizabeth, daughter of the Honorable Robert Foster Dunlop of Monasterboice, and retired from active service, taking a position as Aide de Camp to Queen Victoria. Sir Leopold died on 17th November, 1907 at his home in London. Most of the people of Dundalk hoped that his final resting place would be in his native place, where he was born, raised and educated by the side of his father in Saint Nicholas Churchyard, but this was not to be. On 20th November, Sir Leopold McClintock was laid to rest in London, with representatives of the King of England and the Prince of Wales at the graveside.