Romantic image of the Arctic, from the Illustrated London News (13 Oct 1849)

John Hepburn: Arctic Explorer, 1794–1861 or 1864

Hepburn was born in Whitekirk parish, where he attended the parish school. His career took him from East Lothian cowherd to naval officer and Arctic explorer, via a sailing apprenticeship and later friendship with Sir John Franklin.

In 1810 Hepburn left Whitekirk for Newcastle, where he undertook his sailing apprenticeship with Mr Renwick, a local shipowner, and sailed regularly between Shields and London. On completing his apprenticeship he sailed toNorth America but was shipwrecked on the return journey. He and the crew were later taken into the Royal Navy.

Romantic image of the Arctic, from the Illustrated London News (13 Oct 1849)

Romantic image of the Arctic, from the Illustrated London News (13 Oct 1849)

He was selected by Sir John Franklin for his first Arctic expedition during 1818–22. This trip covered 5,500 miles by land and water. Franklin wrote of his ‘fidelity, exertions, and uniform good conduct, in the most trying situations … to whom in the latter part of our journey, we owe, under Divine Providence, the preservation of the lives of some of the party … During the last few hundred yards of our march, I fell down upwards of twenty times, and became at length so exhausted, that I was unable to stand. If Hepburn had not exerted himself far beyond his strength, and speedily made the encampment and kindled a fire, I must have perished on the spot.’ In gratitude Hepburn’s name was given to one of the islands they explored.

Franklin petitioned for Hepburn to be well rewarded on their return, and he received a promotion in the Navy at Leith, near Edinburgh, and charge of a ship, The Hope. When Franklin was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1836, Hepburn went with him and was put in charge of running parts of the convict settlement there. Hepburn stayed on in Van Diemen’s Land for some years after Franklin was recalled, returning to Britain in 1850.

In the meantime, Franklin had returned to the Arctic, this time never to return. Lady Franklin invited Hepburn to take part in one of the expeditions to find her husband, and though he was quite old by then, Hepburn agreed. The expedition searched in vain, however.

In 1856 he was given a government appointment in Port Elizabeth in the Cape of Good Hope, where he fell ill and died on 5th April in either 1861 or 1864.

It is interesting to see that in the indexes of the Haddingtonshire Courier there are three references to the death of John Hepburn: a brief mention of his death in the edition of 7 June 1861; a longer article commemorating his career on 5 July 1861 and another long piece about him on 22 August 1913. In this latter article his year of death is given as 1864, and that seems to be the year recorded in other official articles – but it seems likely that he actually died in 1861, when his obituary appears. These articles can be viewed on microfilm at the John Gray Centre, and make fascinating reading.

Hepburn had risen from humble beginnings to high government position, partly because of his hard work, dedication and skills, but also because he inspired great respect and affection in those who met him, as is shown in letters and journals written at the time.

Further reading

Dick, David, A Millennium of Fame of East Lothian, 2000

East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists Society, East Lothian Biographies, 1941

Franklin, John, The Journey to the Polar Sea, John Murray, 3rd ed. 1824

Haddingtonshire Courier, ‘The Late John Hepburn’, 7 June 1861 (obituary)

Haddingtonshire Courier, ‘The Late John Hepburn’, 5 July 1861

Haddingtonshire Courier, ‘An East Lothian Polar Explorer’, 22 August 1913

Holland, Clive A., ‘Hepburn, John’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, 2000

Article about the Coppermine Expedition 1819–22 on Wikipedia

Online exhibition (Princeton University) about Franklin’s first polar expedition




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