The story of how a Tyneside ship ended up as the Resolute desk of the President of the United States Part One

It’s hard to say much about the desk of the Prime Minister outside the Corona virus, it is almost unheard of him or her to address the nation or indeed The Queen outside her customary Christmas message of goodwill and even then she has more desks than I had hot dinners in 2020 so whilst many of them are undoubtedly more grandiose and expensive, thanks to the regular Presidential addresses from The Whitehouse, none are  as well known as the Resolute Desk which usually sits inside the Oval Office.

I’ve written previously on the British builders who helped construct The Whitehouse but how many people know that the famous desk in the Whitehouse has its origins not only in the U.K. but from my home city of Newcastle.

In the year 1810 Thomas Smith Jr. and William Smith, along with their father Thomas Smith Sr., started a shipbuilding business on the Tyne in Newcastle, England. It was in their shipyards at what is now St Peters Marina that they built a barque style sailing ship known as the Ptarmigan.  It never really served in is planned role due to one of the great incidents of the Victorian Age.

For centuries British sailors had been looking for a more direct route from the west coast of British North America back to the U.K. but the obvious problems of Artic ice and and endless maze of islands in what is now northern Canada made it a fruitless task.  Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin left on a voyage in 1845 to explore and if possible find a direct route through Northwest Passage but tragically him and his crew were never heard from again.  (Incidentally on my Memorials Tour of London and my Churchill Tour we see a splendid memorial to him and his crew).

When they hadn’t returned after three years, it was decided search vessels would be sent to either track them down or at least find out what happened to them.   One of these ships was the newly built Ptarmigan which the Royal Navy bought on the 21st February 1850 in such a hurry, it was en-route with its first cargo of coal from Newcastle to London!

The Ptarmigan was upgraded in London with strengthened bows and even fitted with a central heating system to try to minimise the artic cold and a polar bear figurehead was also added. and a central internal heating system to keep the ship warm in the icy Arctic weather. On its maiden voyage, under Captain Horatio Thomas Austin, Resolute found Franklin’s winter camp near Beechey Island in the Canadian-Arctic archipelago in 1851.

A brief return to the U.K. was in ordered before HMS Resolute was placed under the command of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher.  Sir Edward Belcher was given the near impossible task of launching an Arctic Expedition and finding Sir John Franklin and his missing ships.  Unbeknownst to anyone at the time however, Sir Johns ship had become icebound in 1846 and he slowly starved to death along with most of his crew either on or near the ship or in incredibly brave attempts to cross the barren terrain by foot.

1920px-Lossy-page1-4800px-H.M.S_Resolute_and_Intrepid_winter_Quarters,_Melville_Island,_1852-53_RMG_PU6194_(cropped)

HMS Resolute and HMS Intrepid at Melville Island during the 1852-1853 winter.

After Sir Belcher’s thorough scouring of the seas he eventually found evidence that the crew had perished  entire crew had perished.  It wasn’t long afterwards in 1854 that Sir Edward and his crew were also compelled to abandon their exploration due to terrible sickness brought about by the conditions and the fact that an exceptionally cold snap rendered HMS Resolute to be icebound.  The ship was abandoned and all returned safely home onboard HMS North Star and a number of support vessels.

The British Government announced in The London Gazette that the ships, including Resolute, were still Her Majesty’s property, but no salvage was attempted.

My next post on Wednesday will look at how the Resolute was found and how it ended up being the desk of the President of the United States.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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1 Response to The story of how a Tyneside ship ended up as the Resolute desk of the President of the United States Part One

  1. Pingback: The story of how a Tyneside ship ended up as the Resolute desk of the President of the United States Part Two | Stephen Liddell

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