Thomas Blanky of Whitby: Arctic Seafarer

By Katherine Bullimore, Record Assistant

Part One of this post covered the family background and early career of Thomas Blanky or Blenky of Whitby, a seaman who took part in four Arctic voyages of discovery in the 19th century, this post will cover his later life and disappearance on the tragic Franklin Expedition.

In 1829 Thomas Blanky signed up for his third Arctic discovery voyage, under the command of Captain John Ross. Although the expedition did not achieve its aim of finding the northwest passage, the men did carry out a good deal of exploring, most of it with the help of local Inuit guides and dog sleds. The usual leader on these journeys was James Clark Ross, John Ross’ nephew, and Thomas Blanky often went with him, although snow blindness caused Blanky to miss out on a long westward journey in 1830 that ended at a place James Ross named Victory Point. Here, by a curious coincidence, the surviving 105 men of the Franklin expedition, would come ashore in 1848 and begin their fatal march southwards. In 1831 a party again led by James Ross, and this time including First Mate Blanky, located and reached the Magnetic North Pole. Although the Magnetic North Pole is not as far north as the geographic North Pole, and is also not a stationary spot but a mobile one, this was a big achievement, and seen as the major success of the voyage.

Although the expedition had begun well it almost ended in disaster, as the ship became hopelessly stuck in the ice, and the men were left with no choice but to abandon it and attempt to make their way on foot to the parts of the Arctic regularly visited by whaling ship. It was a slow and painful journey, broken by a grim winter in a hut built largely of snow, but it had a happy ending as the almost starving explorers were finally rescued by a whaling ship from Hull in 1833, after more than four years in the Arctic. Amazingly only three men had died in the whole period. Back home the survivors were hailed as heroes. According to John Ross, Thomas Blanky became captain of a merchant ship not long afterwards. That he had emerged from the Arctic alive and well after more than four years may well have raised his family’s hopes he would do so again after his final expedition also went missing.

For the next stage in Blanky’s story it is necessary to again turn to Whitby parish registers. On 2nd January 1834 the marriage of Thomas Blenky, mariner and bachelor, and Esther Wilson, widow is recorded. Thomas’ neat signature can be seen in the register, which shows Esther was literate also.

PR/WH 1/30 Marriage of Thomas Blenky and Esther Wilson 2nd January 1834, Whitby

Esther’s first husband, James Wilson, had died in 1832. He too was a mariner, and would almost certainly have known Thomas Blanky. The registers show James and Esther married in 1816 and had six children:

  • Francis born 1818
  • Alfred born 1820
  • James born 1822
  • Hannah born 1826
  • Robert born 1830
  • Esther born 1832

Sadly Alfred, Hannah and Robert all died in infancy. Francis and Esther can be traced later, although not in North Yorkshire documents; Francis was granted a Master’s certificate (qualifying him to be captain of a merchant ship) in Liverpool in 1850 and Esther married a Bohemian emigrant named August Balaun and was living in London in 1891.

Esther Wilson the elder had been born Esther Walker in 1797, and was therefore rather older than her second husband, Thomas. Perhaps because of her age the couple appear to have had only one child, a daughter named Hannah Mary, who was born on 21st November 1834 and baptised the same day.

PR/WH 1/18 Baptism of Hannah Mary Blenkey on 24th November 1834, Whitby

This is the last mention of Thomas Blanky in the Whitby parish registers. By 1845 he and Esther had moved to Liverpool, and it was in that year that he signed on for his final, fatal, Arctic Journey, Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition in search of the northwest passage.

That Thomas Blanky, now over forty, would choose to go back to the Arctic after almost dying on his previous voyage there might seem extraordinary, but being a mariner was far from a safe job anyway and perhaps he had been bitten by the exploration bug. This time he signed on in the position of ice master on HMS Terror, a specialist post whose holders were chosen for their experience of ice navigation. For the first time on his Arctic voyages he was one of the ship’s officers, and most likely it was his experience on the 1829 expedition that got him the position. The Franklin Expedition set out with high hopes, but none of the 129 men ever returned. Exactly why the expedition failed and how the men died is still debated, perhaps exploration of the recently discovered ships will soon provide some answers.

Esther Blanky was granted a widow’s pension of £60 a year by the government in 1854. She moved to London, and died in Islington in 1879. Hannah Blanky, Thomas Blanky’s only known child, never married. The 1891 census lists her as having a small government pension, presumably by right of her father’s death on the Franklin expedition; at that time she was living with her married half-sister. She died in Edmonton in 1912.

Thomas Blanky’s date and place of death are not known. He is commemorated in Blenky Island, a small uninhabited islet in the Arctic which was named on the 1829 expedition. In the recent US TV series, ‘The Terror’, Blanky was a fairly major character, played by Ian Hart.

Despite the tragic ending it’s a striking tale, of how a man from an ordinary Whitby family travelled widely, worked his way up to a senior position, and earned a small place in history. It’s also a tale which shows how local resources, like parish registers, can be used to add background and detail to a national story.

Further Reading

Our holdings of parish registers can be consulted on the subscription website Find my Past.

There is a good deal of information about the Franklin Expedition online. A good overview can be found on the National Maritime Museum website.

This Canadian website discusses the mysteries surrounding the Expedition, and includes quotes from some nineteenth century sources.

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