Monday, November 19, 2012

Arctic Newspapers III: The Polar Almanac

In the annals of Arctic newspapers, the Polar Almanac holds pride of place: it was actually printed using movable type and a press aboard H.M.S. Enterprise in Arctic Bay in 1853-4, making it -- at a slim 24 pages -- the most northerly printed book in the world. The technical challenges facing such a production, in a period when ink could, even aboard ship, freeze solid, and the cold metal parts of the press labored under the reduced efficacy of congealed lubricants, were daunting, and it is a remarkable credit to Henry Hester, the ship's coxswain, that he managed as much as he did.  Some pages were blank, or contained only a literal "almanac" of locations and temperature readings, but many had full-page text. The whole was printed on light green paper and bound in cream-colored wrappers; the print run seems to have been fairly small, as only a handful of copies have survived. Elaine Hoag, a rare book bibliographer at the National Library of Canada, and expert on Arctic shipboard printing, says only five. In her article, "Caxtons of the North," she also notes several unusual features of this newspaper: 1) That the coxswain, rather than the ship's clerk, served as printer (a necessity since the clerk, Edward Whitehead, had died earlier on the voyage); 2) The green paper of four of the surviving copies, originally intended for balloon messages, perhaps to aid in their visibility amidst the wilderness of white; 3) That it was printed with a very limited fond of type, which contained (for instance) no italic letters. It was not at all a newspaper in the sense of (even) some of the more elaborate manuscript papers, but it had the distinction of being entirely printed.

The page shown here is from what is believed to by Captain Collinson's personal copy, as it was passed down through his family, and is in remarkably good condition.


  1. It is fantastic. I supposse that it would be equally dangerous touching the metal parts of the type and the press with bare hands in such cold conditions. Thank you Russell to share this.

  2. Was Collinson the infamous Captain of the hell-ship? If he was, then no wonder Polar Almanac had little news and was as you say, just an almanac of locations etc. In Parry's other voyages, was The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle ever published again? I was wondering too, about physical descriptions of Franklin's officers and men, do any exist? Oh and where can I read 'Caxtons of the North'?

    (full of questions today :)

  3. Noelia, many thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes, it was that same Collinson, and indeed some feel that the clerk's death was attributable to Collinson's refusing him sick leave in Hong Kong before the Enterprise sailed. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the North Georgia Gazette was included in some versions of Parry's narrative, and there has been a recentreprint edition. And you can find "Caxtons of the North" here, though you may need an account or interlibrary loan to access it.