Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

“HMS Breadalbane” sank in ice, sharp as knives, 1853

A National Historic Site, the wreck of HMS Breadalbane lies deep in icy waters high above the Arctic Circle, off the coast of Nunavut

In the summer of 1853, HMS Breadalbane and HMS Phoenix set sail from England carrying cargos of supplies. The expedition party of Sir Edward Belcher was running low on supplies; organized by the Royal Navy, the Belcher team had been searching since the year previous for the missing crew and ships of the Franklin Expedition. (Sailing from England in May 1845, Franklin was on a mission to find the North West Passage. Last seen a few months later in August near Baffin Bay, the explorers then vanished.)

Pack Ice Sharp as a Knife

HMS Breadalbane arrived in Canada’s northernmost waters, but by August the Arctic ice was already building. The wood-hulled vessel was firmly trapped and in a dangerous position. Polar pack ice was hard as rock, sharp as a knife, unforgiving and indiscriminate. In the early morning hours of August 21, 1853, the Breadalbane crew were forced to flee for their lives. The ice cut through the starboard bow.

Breadalbane Sank in 15 Minutes

The men had little time to spare but took what they could of supplies and personal effects. “From the time the first nip took her, until her disappearance, did not occupy more than fifteen minutes,” recounted a crew member, according to Russell Potter in Visions of the North: The Terrors of the Frozen Zone, Past and Present. HMS Breadalbane sank to the bottom of Barrow Strait. It would remain desolate and undisturbed for 127 years. No doubt fearing for their very lives, the 21 members of the crew were rescued by HMS Phoenix.

HMS Breadalbane

Admiral Edward Augustus Inglefield, RN

A 500-ton ship, HMS Breadalbane was a three-masted, square-rigged barque. About 40 metres in length, the sturdy wooden ship was built at a Clyde River shipyard in Scotland in 1843. Operating as a merchant ship, ten years later the British Navy brought the vessel into service to carry supplies to Arctic expeditioners.

Breadalbane and Phoenix were under the command of Admiral Edward Augustus Inglefield. The Admiralty was aware of natural dangers and the Commander’s orders were direct. “His ’most essential duty’ was to clear the stores, after which he was, ‘without a moment’s delay’ to return,” according to “Arctic Profiles” on Arctic Institute of North American Publications, University of Calgary. Inglefield was later knighted for his long and successful career of service.) In 1978, an expedition was organized to find the missing ship. Three years later, Breadalbane was found near Beechey Island, close to Resolute Bay..

Preserved in Frigid Arctic Waters

Using side-scan sonar in 1980, “on 13 August Breadalbane ghosted onto the screen… her hull intact, 2 of her masts still standing,” stated Joseph B. MacInnis in The Canadian Encyclopedia. The next year a remote submersible captured amazing images of the lost vessel. The anchor and rudder were readily visible, and, added MacInnis, “in a small cabinet hanging on the deckhouse were her compass and a signal light; nearby was the big wooden wheel that had guided her across the storm North Atlantic.” The frigid waters preserved the Breadalbane in time, its equipment and payload as if the wreckage happened only recently, its hull and masts standing strong.

Most Northerly Shipwreck

In 1983, the Government named the wreckage of HMS Breadalbane a National Historic Site of Canada. The designation included the ship and the debris field around the vessel. “The shipwreck is also a component of Beechey Island Sites National Historic Site of Canada,” said Canada’s Historic Places.

HMS Breadalbane is recognized as “the most northerly known shipwreck,” located far above the Arctic Circle, a treasure in Canadian History.


  • Potter, Russell, Visions of the North: The Terrors of the Frozen Zone, Past and Present, April 30, 2012 Accessed August 13, 2012
  • MacInnis, Joseph B., “Breadalbane,” The Canadian Encyclopedia Accessed August 13, 2012
  • “Wreck of the HMS Breadalbane National Historic Site of Canada,” Canada’s Historic Places Accessed August 13, 2012
  • “Edward August Inglefield (1820-1894),” Arctic Profiles, Arctic Institute of North American Publications, University of Calgary PDF accessed August 14, 2012

This article first appeared on in August, 2014.  Copyright Susanna McLeod


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