Frederick William Beechey | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Frederick William Beechey

Frederick William Beechey, Arctic explorer, naval officer, hydrographer, artist and author (born 17 February 1796 in London, United Kingdom; died 29 November 1856 in London, United Kingdom). Frederick William Beechey sailed with Sir John Franklin and William Edward Parry and made many sketches of the Arctic. Lake Beechey, Nunavut, and Beechey Point, Alaska, were named in his honour.

Painting of Frederick William Beechey

Early Life and Family

Frederick William Beechey was the second of 16 children of Sir William Beechey (1753–1839) and his second wife, Anne Phyllis Jessup (1764–1833). William Beechey also had five children from his first marriage to Mary Ann Jones. Both of Frederick William Beechey’s parents were artists. His father became a portrait painter to King George III’s consort, Queen Charlotte, in 1793, while his mother was an accomplished painter of miniatures who exhibited her drawings at the Royal Academy of Arts. Beechey’s godfather was Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), the first member of the royal family to visit what is now Canada, visiting Newfoundland in 1786 and Halifax in 1787 as captain of HMS Pegasus.

Several of Beechey’s siblings became artists and explorers, including his older half-brother Henry William (1788–1862), who painted copies of Egyptian tomb paintings, and his younger brothers Richard Brydges (1808–95), an admiral in the Royal Navy and painter of maritime scenes and landscapes such as View of a Town in Canada, 1844, and George Duncan (1798–1852), who became court painter to the Nawab of Awadh in Lucknow, India.

Early Naval Career

Frederick William Beechey joined the Royal Navy in 1806, at the age of 10, under the direct patronage of Sir John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, and became a midshipman the following year. Over the next decade, Beechey travelled the world, serving aboard ships on foreign service in the English Channel, the Portuguese coast, India and Madagascar. He was present at the capture of two French ships off the coast of Madagascar in 1811 during the Napoleonic Wars. In January 1815, Beechey took part in the Battle of New Orleans — the final naval battle of the War of 1812 — and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 10 March 1815.

Arctic Expeditions­

In 1818, Frederick William Beechey was appointed second in command and chief draftsman aboard the Trent, commanded by Lieutenant John Franklin. The ship was part of an expedition commissioned by the Admiralty to seek a navigable passage “by a northern course across the Pole,” reviving the search for the Northwest Passage previously undertaken by James Cook and Martin Frobisher. The Trent became trapped in the ice near Greenland and the voyage had to be abandoned. Beechey returned to the Arctic in 1819 as second in command to Lieutenant William Edward Parry aboard the Hecla, which was commissioned to explore Lancaster Sound, now part of the Northwest Territories. The expedition spent the winter at Melville Island — the first successful winter expedition in the High Arctic — which allowed the crew to record meteorological observations over several months. Beechey commanded the sloop Blossom from 1825 to 1828, which was commissioned to explore uncharted areas of the Pacific Ocean, pass through the Bering Strait and make contact with either Franklin’s overland expedition from the Mackenzie River or Parry’s naval expedition from Prince Regent Inlet. Beechey did not make contact with either Franklin or Parry during the voyage, but he surveyed regions of the Pacific previously unexplored by Europeans. Beechey achieved the rank of captain in 1827 and surveyed the coasts of South America in 1835 and Ireland between 1837 and 1847.

Beechey and Franklin became close friends, and Beechey was part of the Arctic Council, which organized the search for Franklin after the disappearance of the Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic in 1845.

Marriage and Children

In December 1828, Frederick William Beechey married Charlotte Stapleton. They had five daughters, including artist Frances Anne Hopkins, who lived in Canada from 1858 to 1870 and painted canoe voyages undertaken by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Art and Cartography

Frederick William Beechey shared the artistic talents of his parents, brothers and daughter, sketching and painting the landscapes, flora and fauna he observed on his voyages. His aptitude for drawing was observed by the Office of the Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom, which informed Parry in his official instructions for the 1819 Arctic expedition, “You are to cause views of bays, harbours, headlands etc. to be carefully taken, to illustrate and explain the track of the vessels, or such charts as you may be able to make; in which duty you will be assisted by Lieutenants Beechey and [Henry Parkyns] Hoppner, whose skill in drawing is represented to be so considerable, as to supersede the necessity of appointing professional draughtsmen.” Beechey’s drawings reached a wide popular audience. As Parry explained, “The drawings made by Lieutenants Beechey and Hoppner were put into the hands of skillful engravers…such of them being selected for publication as were considered most likely to afford interest or entertainment.”


Frederick William Beechey also wrote three books about his voyages: an 1828 volume about his expedition to North Africa in 1821 and 1822 and two subsequent accounts of his voyages to the Bering Strait and the Arctic Circle. In his accounts of Arctic voyages, Beechey wrote extensively about the environment, noting that on 12 August 1826 in Cape Beaufort (now part of Alaska), “We saw a great many birds, walruses and small white whales.” Beechey was also interested in the customs of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic Circle, describing Inuit dwellings, clothing and migration patterns.

Scientific Endeavours

Frederick William Beechey devoted his later life to hydrography, researching tidal movements and writing a chapter on hydrography for A Manual of Scientific Enquiry: Prepared for the Use of Her Majesty’s Navy and Adapted for Travellers in General, which was published by the British Admiralty in 1849. Along with Henry James, captain of the Royal Engineers, Beechey represented Great Britain at the first International Maritime Conference for devising a uniform system of meteorological observations at sea, which was held in Brussels in 1853. In 1855, Beechey was elected president of the Royal Geographical Society — a position he held until his death the following year.


In 1819, while sailing as second in command to Lieutenant Parry, Frederick William Beechey named Beechey Island — in the Arctic Archipelago of what is now Nunavut — in honour of his father, William Beechey. Beechey Island is best known as the site of Franklin’s 1845 winter encampment — the graves of three members of Franklin’s crew have been discovered there. Franklin named Lake Beechey — near what is now the border between the Northwest Territories and Nunavut — and Beechey Point, Alaska, in honour of Frederick William Beechey. Cape Beechey, on Ellesmere Island, is also named for him.

Further Reading