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Sir William Edward Parry (1790–1855)

by Ann Parry

This article was published:

Sir William Edward Parry (1790-1855), naval officer and explorer, was born on 19 December 1790 at Bath, Somerset, England, the son of a fashionable doctor, Caleb Hillier Parry, and Sarah, née Rigby. In 1803, after the brief truce in the French wars, he joined the navy and in the next thirteen years served in the blockade of Brest, in Baltic convoys and in America.

In 1817 he was chosen as second-in-command of Captain John Ross's naval expedition to Davis Strait and spent nearly ten years in exploring the Canadian Arctic in search of a North-West Passage. In the summer of 1818 Ross sailed around Baffin Bay and reported it to be landlocked. The Admiralty was unconvinced and next year sent Parry out again with two ships. Boldly traversing the pack-ice in Baffin Bay, he entered Lancaster Sound and found a broad channel which took him to long. 112° W., more than half-way to Bering Strait, in one season. He wintered there, his ships the first to winter deliberately in the Arctic, and, although intending to push farther west, he was defeated by ice. Many of the next generation of Arctic explorers sailed with Parry on this and two later voyages to the North-West (1821-23, 1824-25). In 1827 he attempted to reach the North Pole over the ice from Spitsbergen; he failed, but his record of lat. 82° 45' N. stood for fifty years. Parry was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.

In 1826 he married Isabella, daughter of Sir John Stanley, baronet, later first Baron Stanley of Alderley, in Cheshire, by whom he had ten children. In 1829 he and his friend John Franklin were knighted for their services to Arctic exploration. Meanwhile he had been appointed hydrographer to the Admiralty, but he found a sedentary life irksome and in 1829 accepted the offer of the Australian Agricultural Co. to go to New South Wales as commissioner in charge of their enterprises.

Parry landed in Sydney in December 1829 and was well received by Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling. His first tour of the company's million-acre (404,690 ha) grant at Port Stephens convinced him that at least half of it was unfit for the prime purpose of raising sheep and would have to be exchanged. Fortunately the British government was amenable and Parry's chief task in his four years in Australia was to seek out new land and secure it for the company. A surveyor, Henry Dangar, had been engaged by the directors and Parry sent him first north of the Manning River and then west over the ranges to explore country known only to stockmen and from the accounts of John Oxley and Allan Cunningham. Dangar reported favourably on the Liverpool Plains and in March 1832 Parry himself rode over these splendid pastures. In the meantime Darling had been succeeded by Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, who received Parry at Parramatta. At this interview the governor was advised by the surveyor-general, (Sir) Thomas Mitchell, who had never concealed his suspicion and dislike of the company, a view shared by others in the colony. Since the size of the grant was limited, Parry laid claim to good land only in two regular blocks; Mitchell was determined that he should take good land with the bad and all in one block. Inevitably they clashed, and Bourke referred the question to the British government. Nearly a year later Parry was relieved to learn that his stand had been justified, and he saw the new land occupied before handing over to his successor, Colonel Henry Dumaresq, in March 1834.

Parry had found the company's servants disaffected, the flocks dwindling, and the local proprietors willing to forfeit their shares rather than respond to calls for their money. All this was gradually changed. To his dismay the flocks continued to decline at first, because of the poor quality of the stock that had been bought locally and the prolonged drought that ended in 1830; but by 1834 losses had been more than made good and the flocks numbered 36,600. The company's estate was almost an imperium in imperio and Parry found himself commissioner, magistrate and minister to some 500 souls, half of them convicts; he not only started schools for the children but also baptized them. The local government's reluctance to take any responsibility for this large grant of land on the edge of the settled area, even for policing it, and the shortage of labour, were the subjects of copious official correspondence.

After his return to England Parry successively held the posts of comptroller of steam machinery at the Admiralty (1837-46), captain superintendent of Haslar Hospital, Gosport, and from 1853, on attaining flag rank, lieutenant-governor of Greenwich Hospital, the home for naval pensioners. In 1841, his first wife having died, he married Catharine, née Hankinson, widow of Samuel Hoare, by whom he had three children. In his last years he helped to organize the search for the lost Franklin expedition which finally ended the search for a North-West Passage. He died at Ems on 8 July 1855 and was buried at Greenwich.

Parry seems to have had all the qualities of leadership, including a gift for careful planning and management, infectious enthusiasm and trust in God; his evangelical piety increased with age. Contemporaries described him as tall and strikingly handsome.

Portraits include those by William Beechey (1819; on permanent loan to the National Maritime Museum), Samuel Drummond (1820; Royal United Services Institution) and Thomas Phillips (1827; Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge).

Select Bibliography

  • W. E. Parry, Journal of the First, Second and Third Voyages for the Discovery of a North-West Passage, vols 1-5 (Lond, 1828)
  • W. E. Parry, Narrative of an Attempt to Reach the North Pole: in Boats Fitted for the Purpose and Attached to His Majesty's Ship Hecla in the Year MDCCCXXVII, Under the Command of Captain William Edward Parry (Lond, 1828)
  • E. Parry, Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Sir W. E. Parry (Lond, 1857)
  • A. Parry, Parry of the Arctic (Lond, 1963)
  • J. F. Campbell, ‘The First Decade of the Australian Agricultural Company, 1824 to 1834’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 9, part 3, 1923, pp 113-60
  • W. E. Parry, Australian journal (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann Parry, 'Parry, Sir William Edward (1790–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 December, 1790
Bath, Somerset, England


8 July, 1855 (aged 64)
Ems, England

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