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William Wales' First Voyage


On Friday 27th May 1768 James Cook took charge of the Endeavour at the Yard at Deptford; he was making preparations for his first Voyage to the South Seas. He had instructions that his task was to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti which would take place on 3rd June 1769. Also on the voyage would be the astronomer Charles Green to help in this task. Green had served as an assistant to three Astronomers Royal at the Greenwich Observatory.

Two days later, on Sunday 29th May 1768, William Wales entered in his Journal "Having settled all my affairs in London; about 22 hours I set off for Greenwich, where I received my instructions from the Rev. Mr Maskelyne, his Majesty’s Royal Astronomer, to observe the Transit of Venus".

Wales was also making preparations to leave the Country; he was bound for Fort Prince of Wales at the mouth of Churchill River, on Hudson Bay, Canada – still under construction, the fort took 40 years to build and was completed in 1771.

It was a previous Astronomer Royal, Edmund Halley who had urged that every advantage be taken of opportunities to observe the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 - suggesting northern Norway, India, Burma, the East Indies and Hudson Bay as observation sites. The need to observe particularly this astronomical event was vital to the future of navigation at that time, and on 12th November 1767 a Royal Society Committee, which included Nevil Maskelyne, met and established the need for two observers to be sent to each of three sites, North Cape, Hudson Bay and a site somewhere in the South Seas. And so it was agreed that William Bayly and Jeremiah Dixon would go to North Cape, that William Wales and Joseph Dymond would go to Hudson Bay, and that James Cook and Charles Green would go to Tahiti. Of these Green, Dymond and Bayly had all worked as assistants to Maskelyne – the curriculum vitae of Wales is not so immediately apparent.


Wales’ Early Life


John and Sarah Wales of Warmfield were "parents of humble circumstances" according to Beaglehole. Their son William was baptised at Warmfield in 1734. John, from nearby Wakefield in Yorkshire married Sarah Cay at Wragby in 1733. They had another son and a daughter also baptised at Warmfield - John in 1736 and Sarah in 1739, when her father was described as a "banksman".

In the 17th century the Wales family had lived in Birkin parish on the old River Aire and moved along the Aire and Calder rivers, made navigable to Leeds and Wakefield in the early 1700s. John the banksman probably worked on the bank or head of a local coal mine.

Beaglehole wrote that young William Wales had walked to London with a Mr Holroyd who became plumber to George III. The Royal Archives at Windsor Castle hold two records of John Holroyd - in 1785 living in Scotland Yard, London he worked at Carlton House for the Prince of Wales, and he had witnessed the attempted assassination of George III in 1800. The International Genealogical Index (IGI) has just one John Holroyd married in London to Sarah Button in 1755, indicating that he and Wales perhaps went to London in early 1750s.

The first record of William in London is in 1762, when he published an Ode to William Pitt. Copies were sold for one shilling. During the mid 1760s he distinguished himself as a contributor to Ladies Diary, a magazine which, despite its name, contained very advanced mathematical problems. On 13th June 1765 he was appointed, along with others, by the Astronomer Royal Maskelyne to compute tables for the first Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris. It was published in 1766 and has been published annually ever since. For this he was paid £70 per annum per Almanac, raised to £75 in 1767. Beaglehole reported that during the Cook voyage Wales had written in his Journal "I have ventured to call the Maskelyne Islands by the name of a person to whom I owe very much indeed; one who took me by the hand when I was friendless, and never forsook me when I had occasion for his help". It is not known how Wales received his education.

On 5th September 1765 he married Mary Green, sister to the aforementioned Charles Green, at Greenwich. The entry from the Parish Register reads: "William Wales, Gent. of the parish of Greenwich in Kent and Mary Green, Spinster of the same Parish, were married by Licence in this Church this Fifth day of September 1765 by me John Green AB. This marriage was solemnized between us. [signed] Wm Wales. Mary Green.
In the presence of John Naylor. Jos. Stack."

In 1788, Wales’ biography of Charles Green was included in a work by Andrew Kippis, The Life of Captain James Cook. It reveals that Charles was the youngest son of Joshua Green of Swinton, Rotherham, Yorkshire. Charles had received most of his education from his eldest brother Rev. John Green, of Denmark Street, Soho, London. John was a master of a school in that place, and after some time he took his brother Charles on as an assistant teacher. It may be that William also received some education from John Green. I did note from the Swinton parish registers a family called Cay - this had been the maiden name of William’s mother, and is a very rare spelling.


Preparing for Hudson Bay


Charles Hutton in 1815 writes of William Wales "by his natural talents and close application, he rose from a low situation, little connected with learning, to some of the first ranks in literary pursuits". Knight in 1856 suggests of Wales’ education "..it is probable that he was one of the many persons who, for their attainments in science, owe more to nature and intense application than to the precepts of a teacher".

No matter how he gained his education, the Royal Society Committee agreed he join the select team of Transit observers. Wales had asked to be sent to a warm climate after researching the fate of the 1761 transit observers and learning of the expedition of Jean Chappe d’Autoroche, who had observed this transit from Tobolsk in Siberia. He had travelled through the Siberian winter by sled and then, when an early thaw flooded the town, was accused of interfering with the sun. He narrowly escaped a lynch mob. Fears of global warming are not new!

Despite his pleas, the Royal Society decided to send Wales to Hudson Bay. There was a problem with this venue, in that the Bay was subject to pack ice that limited the shipping season to just two months, starting after the June 3rd transit, so it would be necessary for the observers to go in 1768 and over-winter there. This must have made Wales even more apprehensive. But if their work was judged a success on their return, Wales and Dymond were promised pay of £200. Cook was to leave Plymouth on 26th August 1768, Bayly did not set off for the North Cape until the following year on 13th April 1769.

The Royal Society wrote to the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) asking for "an estimate of the expense to convey Wales and Dymond by their annual ship to Fort Churchill in May 1768, and return in October 1769, that they may be maintained by the Company, and furnished with all necessary articles throughout this time, that the Company supply them with materials and servants to assist in the erecting of an observatory. The cost of all to be paid to the HBC by the Royal Society."

The Company wrote to Maskelyne asking for details of the Portable Observatory which was to be shipped over for the Astronomers. They also asked what lengths of timber were required for transporting the supplies. This Observatory had been designed by John Smeaton, civil engineer and Fellow of the Royal Society. He had been engaged in conjunction with Maskelyne. Smeaton presented his design to the Royal Society in February 1768; this design was also used on the various Cook Voyages.

There is evidence from the catalogue of Wales’ Library after his death that he helped Smeaton in 1788 with a paper for the Royal Society on the Application of the Quadrant. John Smeaton was born at Austhorpe, eight miles north of Warmfield.

The Company replied that it was "ready to convey the persons desired, with their baggage and instruments, to and from Fort Churchill, and to provide them with lodging and medicine while there, gratis, they to find their own bedding." The Company demanded £250 for diet during the absence of the astronomers from England, which would be about eighteen months. The Adventurers recommended the Society to send the intended building in frame, with all necessary implements, tools, etc., which "will be conveyed upon freight, the Royal Society likewise paying for any clothing that may be supplied to the observers during their residence in Hudson’s Bay."


Domestic Preparations


Included in those affairs which William Wales had to settle prior to him going to see Maskelyne in May 1768, must have been to arrange for his heavily pregnant wife and their young daughter Sarah (born c1767) to travel to Yorkshire, almost certainly by coach.

I discovered that their eldest son was christened on 10th June 1768 at North Witham, which is on the Great North Road in Lincolnshire. The parish register records the baptism of "William, son of William and Mary Wales of Fleet Street, London". So it seems Mary would have set off for Yorkshire at the time William started out for Hudson Bay. A month later, on the 10th July, the baby was christened again at Warmfield.

It was in 1760 that the first regular coach started running from London to Leeds, being advertised as "Flying Machines on Steel Springs". They ran twice a week, setting out at 4 am, and took three days to complete the journey, stopping at Northampton the first night, and Mansfield the second night. By 1765 the Leeds to London post coaches being "an easy and genteel construction with the latest new patent spring" travelled from Leeds to London in two days, carrying 6 inside passengers, each paying £2.10s and allowed 14lb weight of luggage.


John Dymond


Assisting Wales with the Transit observations was Joseph Dymond. He had been appointed Maskelyne’s assistant in March 1765, when Green left, and had stayed until November 1766 when William Bayly was appointed. I was curious to find out more about Dymond, and I eventually discovered that he had been born in 1746 at Brierley in Yorkshire, a small village mid-way between Warmfield and Swinton. Could this be pure coincidence or had Wales, Dymond and Green some "Yorkshire" link apart from the "Maskelyne" one? Little is known of Dymond after the Hudson Bay voyage, except that he died on 10th December 1796 at Blyth aged 50.


The Expedition Departs



The route to  Canada from Stromness
The route to Canada from Stromness
(Hoy is on the left)
Wales and Dymond sailed in the Prince Rupert north from the Thames heading first for Stromness in the Orkney Islands. These islands have strong links with the HBC; they hired a lot of labour from the population.
Logan's Well
Logan's Well
Near the end of the town, a plaque on Logan's Well today reads:
There watered here
the Hudson Bay Coy's ships
Capt Cook's vessels
Resolution and Discovery
Sir John Franklin's ships
Erebus and Terror
on Arctic Exploration
Also the merchant vessels
of former days
Well Sealed up 1931



Wales’ Journal


The Journal of the expedition ("Journal of a Voyage, made by Order of the Royal Society, to Churchill River, on the North-west Coast of Hudson's Bay; of Thirteen Months Residence in that Country; and of the voyage back to England in the Years 1768 and 1769") shows Wales was not just an astronomical observer; he describes also the fauna and flora, the geography, the people and the weather. He was the first scientist to spend a winter at the Bay and to record the weather in Canada. This event was commemorated with a Philatelic First Day Cover in 1968 on the 200th Anniversary of the first Meteorological Readings [see Cook’s Log, page 137, vol. 5, no. 1 (1982)].

In 1947 an article appeared in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada on the Hudson Bay Journal of Wales by Helen Sawyer Hogg. She remarks on the quaint vivid phraseology in which Wales describes the conditions he found – she adds "his Journal is written in a scientific manner, with personalities ignored, and almost no comments on the discomforts he must have endured, especially during the winter, when the ice on the planks of his bed was half as thick as the planks themselves. …Nearly two centuries after Wales wrote his Journal, its reading is still conducive of pleasure".

William also busied himself computing tables of equal altitudes for facilitating the determination of time. They appeared in the 1773 edition of the Nautical Almanac. During his stay at the Prince of Wales Fort William Wales forged strong links with the HBC and its servants that lasted for the rest of his life.

His Journal was read to the Royal Society on March 8th and March 15th 1770, and during this year they asked for natural history specimens to be sent to London from the Bay.

In 1771-2 he was to advise company servants Andrew Graham, naturalist and Thomas Hutchins, surgeon of Hudson how to keep records of the weather, and on the observing of the 1771 eclipse of the sun.


Samuel Hearne



Samuel Hearne
Samuel Hearne
Overwintering also at the Bay was Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) who gained many navigational skills from Wales. The HBC's charter included responsibili-ties for exploring and in the Spring of 1768 the Prince of Wales Fort received accounts of a "Great River" from the northern Indians, who also produced specimens of copper.

Governor Norton recommended him as worthy of the attention of the Company and that year, when he visited England, he was asked by the Committee in London to despatch an intelligent person by land to observe the latitude and longitude of the Great River's mouth. Hearne had proved himself a worthy mariner as mate of the brig Charlotte, and he was appointed to take charge of an expedition to locate copper mines and to report on the navigability of the adjacent Coppermine River.

His tasks also included recording the latitude and longitude of the chief points visited. His brief was signed by, among others, Samuel Wegg, and his trek northwards began in November 1769.

Hearne's Journey paved the way for the Company's new policy despite Mr Dalrymple, one of his enemies, questioning the accuracy of the latitude on the Coppermine River. Hearne had done the best his instruments would allow after his quadrant broke and he had to make do with an old one from the fort.

Sketch of the  north-west view of the Prince of Wales Fort
Sketch of the north-west view of the Prince of Wales Fort,
by Samuel Hearne
An account of Hearne's journey was found in manuscript among the papers of the Governor of the HBC, and La Perouse declared that Hearne was very pressing that it should be returned to him as his private property. It was returned to Hearne, with the proviso that it should be printed and published immediately on his arrival in England. Mr Fitzgerald observed that they did not appear in print until 1795, 23 years after they were performed. They were issued in pamphlet form in 1773 and again in 1778-80. The volume of 1795 was merely an amplification, the product of Hearne's leisure upon retirement in 1787.


The Editor of Hearne’s Journal writes in his Introduction, of William Wales. "His presence for more than a year among the little band of white men assembled at this remote fur-trading post on Hudson Bay must have had a helpful influence in preparing Hearne for his great explorations overland to the Arctic Ocean". He also suggests that Wales may have helped Hearne to write the Preface that deals fairly trenchantly with Alexander Dalrymple.

It followed that, in 1792, William Wales together with Dr John Douglas, Editor of Cook’s Journals, intervened in a publishing matter and negotiated the sale of Hearne’s manuscript for £200, just before Hearne’s death in October of that year. Wales witnessed the contract which ensured publication in 1795.

In 1772 Wales sailed with Cook on his Second Voyage. On his return he was appointed Master of the Mathematical School in Christs Hospital, Newgate Street, London. In 1778 the HBC sent three surveyors into Ruperts Land, a wilderness vast and uncharted in order to survey and positions of lakes and rivers.

Attempts were made after Hearne’s journey to further the exploration of the vast unknown regions, when fur trader Alexander MacKenzie’s set out from Hudson Bay to the Arctic and then the Pacific which he reached in 1792.

In 1785 the Company sent orders that the exploration of the west begun by Hearne should be continued, and this was attempted by various Company servants, though not very successfully.


Philip Turnor


Finally in 1791 after correspondence with the Colonial Office the Secretary of the Company, apparently an old friend of Wales’ wrote:

Mr. William Wales,
Mathematical Master at Christ’s Hospital.

The Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company intending to send Out this year by their Ships which will sail the latter end of May next for their several Settlements in Hudsons Bay, three or more Persons well skilled in the Mathematics and in making Astronomical Observations, under the Direction of the Chiefs at the respective factories which persons are to travel Inland with the title of Inland Surveyors, and to rise to higher Stations in the Company’s Service according to Merit, and that each of the Persons so employed shall have a fixed Salary of Fifty Pounds a year, with the promise of a Gratuity in proportion to Services performed.
The Committee therefore request you to use your best Endeavours to procure Persons, answering the above Description for the Company’s Service.
I am, Sir, Your most humble servant (signed) W[illiam] R[edknap] Secy.

Wales recommended Philip Turnor, and he was engaged accordingly. The Company ordered that £5.5. be presented to Mr Wales for his trouble, and Turnor went on to become Inland Surveyor with the Company for three years at £50 per annum. He arrived there in August 1778.


Wales’ Legacy


Wales had certainly made his mark during his stay in Canada, and it is recorded in the Hudson Bay archives that the expedition was entirely successful. The two astronomers went out to Prince of Wales’ Fort, and returned in the Prince Rupert, having witnessed the transit of Venus on the 3rd June 1769. This had been the first trip specifically for astronomic purposes in Arctic Canada.

It was an anticlimax when the precious Arctic clothing which was given to Wales by the Hudson Bay Company and which he apparently treasured was forcibly taken from him by the British Customs officers when his ship sailed up the Thames. This was graphically illustrated in 1995 when the HBC sponsored a comic book Tales from the Bay which features the Transit of William Wales, a ten page cartoon strip of William’s adventure directed at Canadian Junior High Schools to aid the teaching of their history.

Today Churchill is the Polar Bear capital of the World. Only here can wild polar bears be observed. It is accessed by rail and air and visitors can witness up to 200 species of birds. The Churchill Research Range studies the upper atmosphere, including the northern lights, and the Northern Studies centre here runs courses on Arctic Ecology, Botany and Geology.

The next transit of Venus will happen on 8th June 2004, 122 years after the last occurrence. There is now no scientific urgency to record its passing, but the beauty of this rare event will be observed by many.

To those who have avidly studied the voyages and life of Captain Cook, the event will hold special significance – for he and his astronomers all played a vital part in the discovery of that all important astronomical unit, opening the door to more accurate navigation on the high seas.

Wendy Wales



  1. 1.
      Beaglehole, J.C: The Journals of Captain James Cook. (4 Vols) Hakluyt Society, 1967.
      Beckles Willson: The Great Company (1667-1871). (2 Vols) Smith, Elder & Co, 1900.
      Maor, Eli: June 8, 2004 Venus in Transit. Princeton University Press, 2000.
      Howse, D: Nevil Maskelyne. The Seamen’s Astronomer. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
      Tyrrell, J.B (Ed): Journals of Samuel Hearne and Phillip Turnor. Champlain Society, 1934.
      Portwood, John: Tales from the Bay (Comic Book).
      Williams, Glyndwr: Dictionary of Canadian Biography University of Toronto Press, 1979.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 27, volume 27, number 1 (2004).

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I am a descendant of John Wales, brother of William and have been researching both William and John and their descendants. I have been trying to get in contact with Wendy Wales via an e mail address I was given but have had no response. I am hoping Wendy may see this message and respond. I know that a few years ago you were researching the descendants of Capt John Wales, Marine Surveyor General of India (nephew to William). I have quite a bit of information about him and his descendants and would love to hear from you to perhaps compare notes. Thank you Wendy for all your hard work and diligent research which was so incredibly helpful to me when I began this journey of discovery.
By Jan Shoulders on 3/14/2014 7:28:36 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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I am so pleased you enjoyed learning about your 5 x great grandfather Frances. He was an interesting man to research, and played an important part in the history of not only our nation, but the wider world. It would be interesting to hear more about your connection to him.
By Wendy on 1/26/2014 9:59:29 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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I am the 5X great granddaughter of William Wales and am thrilled to be able to read so much information about William. When I first began my research, information was very difficult to access. I am a descendant through a female Wales married to Rodney Edward. The name has been preserved through several generations as a middle name for males and females, alike. Eg. My father was William Wales-Edward Anderson. One of his female aunts was Rodney Wales Edward.
By Frances Anderson on 1/24/2014 3:23:59 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Catherine, All that is known is that Naylor is a common surname around Warmfield, the birthplace of Wales at the beginning of the 18th century - so perhaps one of his friends from Yorkshire. It certainly seems that the other witness, Joseph Slack is the brother-in-law of Rev John Green, who performed the marriage ceremony. Joseph was also from Yorkshire.
John Naylor
By Wendy on 6/11/2013 8:45:52 AM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Is anything known yet of John Naylor - wedding witness to Wales please?
John Naylor
By Catherine on 5/28/2013 12:55:05 AM Like:0 DisLike:0

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