MECHAM, GEORGE FREDERICK, naval officer and explorer; b. 1828 in Cove of Cork (Cobh, Republic of Ireland); d. 17 Feb. 1858 in Honolulu (Hawaii).
George Frederick Mecham entered the Royal Navy on 1 Sept. 1841 and after serving aboard various vessels attained the rank of acting lieutenant on 8 March 1849. On 5 March 1850 he was appointed third lieutenant of the barque Assistance. Under Captain Erasmus Ommanney, it was one of the four vessels assigned to the command of Captain Horatio Thomas Austin*. His expedition was instructed to proceed to the Arctic in search of the Erebus and Terror, commanded by Sir John Franklin* and missing since 1845. The Assistance, in the company of the barque Resolute and the two screw steamers Pioneer and Intrepid, sailed from London on 3 May 1850 and reached Beechey Island (N.W.T.) in Barrow Strait by the end of August, where the first traces of Franklin’s 1845–46 winter quarters were found. At this time an unusual concentration of effort brought together in the vicinity of Wellington Channel a total of 11 vessels, from the five separate search expeditions under Austin, Sir John Ross, Captain Edwin Jesse De Haven*, William Penny*, and Commander Charles Codrington Forsyth. Austin’s four vessels then continued westward in Barrow Strait and were beset by ice off the northeast coast of Griffith Island, where winter quarters were established. In October, Mecham travelled east by sledge, laying depots for further sledge operations the following spring, and came upon Ross’s and Penny’s winter station at Assistance Harbour (Bay) on Cornwallis Island. During the winter months Mecham contributed articles to the Illustrated Arctic News and Aurora Borealis, two periodicals produced aboard the vessels, and acted in various presentations of the Royal Arctic Theatre. These activities, and others, such as fancy dress balls, were designed to relieve the tedium of the Arctic winter.
Under the direction of Lieutenant Francis Leopold McClintock*, a number of sledge parties were organized in the spring of 1851 to search to the north, south, and west of the expedition’s position in Barrow Strait. Two of these were conducted by Mecham. Setting out first on 15 April in company with another sledge under Captain Ommanney, Mecham and a crew of six men travelled as far south as Russell Island and the northern extremity of Prince of Wales Island before returning to the Assistance on 14 May, having covered a distance of 236 miles. On 27 May he took another party, once again heading south, and made a circuit of Russell Island; after mapping 75 miles of new shoreline he returned to the vessels on 19 June. When the ships were released from the ice on 8 August the expedition returned to England without having added any new information to the search for Franklin beyond what had been learned at Beechey Island in the summer of 1850. None the less, the sledging operations conducted during this voyage, which in total involved 103 men in 14 sledges and covered some 7,000 miles, had helped chart much previously unknown territory.
In 1852 the same four vessels were again commissioned by the Admiralty to search for Franklin, along with a fifth, the supply ship North Star [see William John Samuel Pullen*], and on 14 February Mecham was appointed first lieutenant of the Resolute under Captain Henry Kellett*. The expedition was commanded by Sir Edward Belcher* and left London on 15 April. Having arrived at Beechey Island, it separated into two divisions on 15 August; Kellett continued westward into Barrow Strait with the Resolute and Intrepid while Belcher took the Assistance and Pioneer north into Wellington, Channel. The North Star was stationed at Beechey Island to serve as a supply depot. By mid September the western division was in winter quarters at Dealy Island, off the southern coast of Melville Island, and sledge parties were sent out to lay supplies for operations in the spring. Leaving on 21 September, Mecham crossed Dundas Peninsula on Melville Island to Liddon Gulf where a depot was secured. During the return trip he stopped at Winter Harbour and found a dispatch left the previous spring by Lieutenant Robert John Le Mesurier McClure*, indicating the position of his ship, the Investigator, beset by ice at Mercy Bay, Banks Land (Island), since autumn 1851. Thanks to this fortuitous discovery, the crew of the trapped Investigator was later rescued and taken aboard the Resolute [see Bedford Clapperton Trevelyan Pim*].
The following spring Mecham set out, on 4 April 1853, across Melville Island to Cape Russell with a sledge party accompanied by a support sledge under George Strong Nares, mate aboard the Resolute. On 3 May, after they had reached Eglinton Island, Nares returned to Dealy Island and Mecham continued on alone, exploring the southern and western coasts of Prince Patrick Island. At the sight of the pack-ice to the west he concluded that Franklin could not have gone in that direction. He then crossed the interior of Prince Patrick Island and, tracing the north shore of Eglinton Island, made his way back to the ships, where he arrived on 6 July. In 94 days, Mecham had travelled 1,006 miles and charted 680 miles of previously unknown shoreline.
The summer of 1853 being short and late in coming, the Resolute and the Intrepid were unable to rendezvous with the rest of the expedition at Beechey Island, and were forced to winter in Barrow Strait. In February 1854 Belcher ordered Kellett to abandon his ships and proceed to Beechey Island. Before executing these instructions, Kellett sent out three sledge parties: one under Lieutenant Richard Vesey Hamilton with reports for Belcher on the condition of the ships, and two others to the west, under the command of Mecham and Frederick J. Krabbé, master of the Intrepid. On 3 April, Mecham set out with orders to search in the vicinity of Prince of Wales Strait for signs of the Enterprise [see Sir Richard Collinson*], the vessel which had accompanied the Investigator from Bering Strait. In company with Krabbé’s sledge he proceeded to Russell Point and from there continued alone down Prince of Wales Strait to the Princess Royal Islands (Amundsen Gulf). Here he found documents deposited by the Enterprise in the summer of 1852 indicating that the vessel had left the area, proceeding south and east. On the return journey Mecham stopped at Dealy Island on 27 May; there he found orders to head directly to the North Star at Beechey Island, the Resolute and Intrepid having been abandoned. In 152 travelling hours Mecham covered the distance to Beechey Island, where he arrived on 12 June. The complete sledge journey of 70 days remains one of the most impressive on record; averaging 19 miles a day the party covered a total of 1,336 miles.
Having ordered the abandonment of the Resolute, Intrepid, Assistance, and Pioneer, and taken under his charge the crew of the Investigator, Belcher decided to turn back to England. With the 263 men from these five vessels crammed aboard the North Star and two supply ships, the expedition arrived safely on 28 Sept. 1854. Mecham was one of the many officers of this group promoted upon its return, being raised to the rank of commander on 21 October. In 1855 he was assigned to the command of the steam vessel Salamander, stationed at Portsmouth, and two years later was transferred to the command of another steam vessel, the Vixen, for duty in the Pacific. While serving aboard this vessel Mecham was taken ill with bronchitis and suddenly, at the age of 30, died on 17 Feb. 1858.
As well as being an excellent navigator and seaman, Mecham was physically large and strong, and endowed with a warmth of personality which won him the admiration of his fellow officers and subordinates. In the field of Arctic exploration, he was, next to McClintock, probably the most skilful sledge operator and the extent of his travels during his two expeditions stands out as a notable achievement. In the Arctic two landmarks of note bear his name: Cape Mecham on the southern extremity of Prince Patrick Island and Mecham Island between Russell and Prince of Wales islands.
Arctic miscellanies; a souvenir of the late polar search; by the officers and seamen of the expedition (2nd ed., London, 1852). Edward Belcher, The last of the Arctic voyages . . . in search of Sir John Franklin, during the years 1852–53–54 . . . (2v., London, 1855). G.B., Parl., Command paper, 1852, 50, [no.1436]: 329–58, 548–58, Additional papers relative to the Arctic expedition . . . ; House of Commons paper, 1851, 33, no.54: 13, A return of all admirals, vice, rear, and retired, captains, commanders, and lieutenants in the Royal Navy, promoted on and since the 1st day of January 1848 . . . ; 1854–55, 35, no.1898: 537–39, 489–97, 499–539, 689–706, Further papers relative to the recent Arctic expeditions in search of Sir John Franklin. . . . Sherard Osborn, Stray leaves from an Arctic journal; or, eighteen months in the polar regions, in search of Sir John Franklin’s expedition, in the years 1850–51 (London, 1852). Papers and despatches relating to the Arctic searching expeditions of 1850–51–52 . . . , ed. James Mangles (2nd ed., London, 1852). Illustrated Arctic News, 14 March 1851. Cooke and Holland, Exploration of northern Canada. G.B., Adm., Navy list, 1848: 204; 1849: 254; 1851: 260; 1854: 282; 1858: 304. C. R. Markham, The Arctic navy list; or, a century of Arctic & Antarctic officers, 1773–1873; together with a list of officers of the 1875 expedition and of their services (London, 1875); Life of Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock (London, 1909). Colburn’s United Service Magazine (London), 25 (December 1854): 623; 26 (December 1855): 628; 27 (October 1856): 320; 28 (February 1857): 140. R. I. Murchison, “Address to the Royal Geographical Society of London; delivered at the university meeting on the 23rd May, 1859,” Royal Geographical Soc., Journal (London), 29 (1859): cxxxiii–iv.