Having looked into the later history of Wall’s family, the next step was to see how much more I could find out about his own story. The records of the 1829 Ross expedition don’t have much to say about Richard Wall, but John Ross did give a summary of his previous career.
He served his apprenticeship of seven years to the sea in the Mary and Joseph, in the Madeira, Gibralter, and coal trade, and after his time was served he went on a voyage to Archangel; he was afterwards both in the East India and West India merchant service. His father was a sailor, and after being twenty-three years in the Navy, retired as a pensioner.
A chapter by John Ross’ nephew James Clark Ross reveals that Wall was part of a small exploring party in April 1831, during which the third mate George Taylor suffered a frost-bitten foot which had to be partly amputated. Wall is mentioned only to say that he was ill from exhaustion for several days after the party had hauled Taylor back to the ship, but recovered fully.
The Huish / Light account states that Wall was one of the best shots on the expedition, and often sent to hunt. It also lists Wall as a petty officer, which, since it conflicts with Ross listing him as seaman / harpooner, suggested to me Wall might have been promoted during the voyage. There was some support for this in the list of wages paid to the men of the Victory, which was published in House of Commons papers relating to the voyage. Wall received £171 and 16 shillings; considerably less than the ship’s mates, (Thomas Blanky received £345 9 shillings and 4 pence, the other two around £16 less) but more than the other seamen who received between £121 and £128. Perhaps he was given more responsibilities after Taylor was injured, although that is speculation.
A less positive reference is a claim by Light that one occasion, when the crew were hoping the ice would break up enough for their ship to leave Victory Harbour, Light in the middle of the night saw the bay free of ice, but could not convince Wall, who was on watch, to wake up either John or James Ross. Even Light’s ghost writer Huish seems to have been not entirely convinced by this story, as he points out Light could have woken up one of the Rosses for himself. The reference to Wall being in charge of the watch, however, seems likely to be true. John Ross writes that after the Victory was frozen in the crew were divided into five watches, ‘The three leading mates, the engineer, and the harpooner, had, each, with one seaman, the charge of the deck in their respective turns’. This freed the officers for other duties. There were two harpooners on the Victory, Wall and James (or Joseph) Curtis, but the Light / Huish account indicates the harpooner entrusted with charge of one of the watches was Richard Wall.
There is also a mildly salacious anecdote about a visit by some of the crew to an Inuk who had two wives, who Light snidely claimed were both ugly. The account goes on to say that no sooner had the sailors entered the Inuit ‘toopik’ (tent) than the younger of the two wives advanced ‘towards Richard Wall, who was the stoutest of the party, and with a bewitching look, invited him to the ceremony of kooniging’, apparently with no objection from her husband. Koonig is elsewhere defined as ‘kiss’ or rubbing of noses, but there are coy suggestions it might go further. Wall in this case was not tempted, and made a hasty exit; the Inuit did not take offence.
There is an interesting parallel to this story told from the Inuit point of view in Dorothy Harley Eber’s book on Inuit oral history of this period, Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers,about a meeting between a group of sealing Inuit near the Adelaide peninsula and some white men. ‘The Inuit found out they were friendly and someone put up a small igloo for them. … One of the men was a big man and very friendly. He was hairy, they touched his skin and he had hair on his chest, a big man and very friendly. After a few days they treated him specially – they gave him a woman.’ That is all that is said about the hairy man, presumably he, unlike Wall, accepted the offer, but the Inuit did not stay with the white men for long, and it’s not clear from the story whether or not these were Franklin’s men.
I’m going to conclude this post with a question – or rather two questions. The first question, unlikely ever to be answered, is whether Richard Wall might actually have been one of the men who accompanied James Ross on his 1830 westward journey to the land we now know as King William Island. If he was, that would make him the only member of the Franklin Expedition who had set foot on King William Island before Franklin’s ships became iced in to the north of the island in 1846. Thomas Blanky, the other man known to have been on both expeditions, was certainly not one of the party who visited King William Island in 1830, he started with them but had to turn back due to snow blindness. James Ross states four men went with him on the journey, but the only one named is Thomas Abernethy. Richard Wall, we know, was picked for a later exploring expedition, and his hunting skills might have made him a useful addition – but there’s ultimately no evidence either way.
The second question is about a name. On King William Island there is a place named Wall Bay about half way between Victory Point and Cape Felix. The name appears on maps from the 1829 Ross expedition, and it was probably James Ross who named it. John Ross did apply his own names to some areas mapped by his nephew, but usually with the names of royalty or other famous people. Could Wall Bay be called after Richard Wall? James Ross in his chapter on the journey to Victory Point does not explain the name, but two other names given on the same journey are fairly clearly derived from members of the Victory’s crew: Blenky Island (a small islet between Matty Island and the coast of Boothia), called after First Mate Thomas Blanky, who also spelled his name Blenky, and Cape Abernethy (on Qikiqtarjuaq or Tennant Island) called after Second Mate Thomas Abernethy. A tipoff on the ‘Remembering the Franklin Expedition’ Facebook page lead me to an online book on Canadian nomenclature dating from 1910, which confidently states that Wall Bay on King William Island was called after Richard Wall, ‘harpooner on the Victory’, so I am at least not the first person to have made the connection.
If Wall Bay was named after Richard Wall then he would be, as far as I know, the only non-commissioned member of the Franklin Expedition to have a place on King William Island called after him. He would also be one of two men of the expedition to have a place on the north-west coast of King William Island given his name over a decade before Erebus and Terror became coincidentally stuck off that very coast – the other man being John Franklin himself. Regardless, his history is remarkable. I hope to have been able to resurrect it a little.
- Dorothy Harley Eber, Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers
- Report of the Geographic Board of Canada containing all decisions to 30th June, 1910
- John Ross, Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage, and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833, and Appendix (2 vols)
- House of Commons Report from the Select Committee on the Expedition to the Arctic Seas Commanded by Captain John Ross R.N.
- Robert Huish, The last voyage of Capt. Sir John Ross, R.N. Knt. to the Arctic regions : for the discovery of a north west passage; performed in the years 1829-30-31-32 and 33