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MIDDLETON, CHRISTOPHER, HBC captain, Royal Navy officer, explorer; b. late 17th century at Newton Bewley, near Billingham, England; d. 12 Feb. 1770.

By his own account Christopher Middleton served on board privateers during Queen Anne’s War (1701–13) and gained experience of the Spanish and Spanish American trades. Then in 1721 he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company to sail as second mate on the Hannah to York Factory (Man.). Contrary to the usual practice of HBC sailors, he spent the winter in the bay; John Scroggs*, master of the Whalebone sloop at Churchill (Man.), was intending to sail north the next summer to search for traces of James Knight*’s lost expedition, and Middleton owned himself eager to participate in the hope of discovering information about the elusive northwest passage. Middleton must already have been a proficient navigator, since he taught the elements of the art to several of Scroggs’ crew during the winter months at Churchill – only to find that Scroggs refused to take him on the expedition in the summer of 1722.

In 1723 and 1724 Middleton made further voyages to Hudson Bay, and in January 1724/25 was appointed commander of the Hannah. He sailed his new command to York and Churchill that summer. In total he made 16 annual voyages, during which he visited all the company’s main posts in the bay. In 1726 came proof of his enthusiasm for scientific observation when the Royal Society published in its Philosophical Transactions Middleton’s “New and exact table collected from several observations, taken in four voyages to Hudson’s Bay . . . shewing the variation of the magnetical needle . . . from the years 1721, to 1725. “

This paper was to exercise a fateful influence on Middleton’s career for it attracted the attention of Arthur Dobbs, an Ulster landowner and an influential member of the Irish House of Commons, whose long-standing interest in trading matters was after 1731 directed towards the finding of a northwest passage. When in 1735 Dobbs decided to approach one of the company’s captains for information about the west coast of Hudson Bay and the possibility of a northwest passage there, he chose Middleton because he had noted his observations in the Philosophical Transactions. Middleton was by this time firmly established as one of the company’s senior captains, and in 1734 had been given command of its newest and largest ship, the 170-ton Seahorse. Middleton’s early interest in the northwest passage was evidently revived by his contact with Dobbs; he passed on what he knew about the voyages of Knight and Scroggs, and promised to seek further information about the passage during his visits to the bay posts. In 1737, under pressure from Dobbs, the HBC sent two sloops north from Churchill along the west coast of the bay and its governor, Sir Bibye Lake, tried to convince Dobbs that after a hazardous voyage not “the least Appearance of a Passage” had been found. But Middleton had been at Churchill when the sloops returned, and he revealed to Dobbs that their crews, “not duly qualified for such an Undertaking,” had sailed only as far as latitude 62°15´N and had made little attempt at serious exploration.

Dobbs in reply to the HBC made it clear that he would now look for support for a discovery expedition from those “who I believe will undertake it chearfully, as they are convinced it will be a national Benefit,” and during the winter of 1737–38 he made the first of a series of approaches to the admiralty with this end in view. In Middleton he seemed to have the ideal commander for the great undertaking: a believer in the northwest passage, a seaman experienced in ice-navigation, and one who in 1737 achieved a rare distinction when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of the contributions to the theory and practice of navigation. Already he was making use of Hadley’s quadrant, and his later publications show that he was continually experimenting to find a practical method of ascertaining longitude at sea.

For three years little progress was made. Middleton’s friendship with Dobbs strained relations between him and the London committee. As he told Dobbs in February 1738, “they keep every Thing a Secret; and from some Questions I have been lately asked, I found they seem suspicious of my corresponding with you.” In 1739 Middleton was at Churchill again, where the factor Richard Norton recalled that while with Scroggs in 1722 he had observed the tide to rise five fathoms in Roes Welcome Sound (near the west coast of Hudson Bay) and had seen the land fall away to the west. Indian reports of trading with Europeans on the Pacific coast of America were further proof to Middleton “that the two seas must unite,” and during the winter of 1739–40 he spent tedious hours waiting at the court and great houses of London in hope of interesting two of Dobbs’ correspondents, the first minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and the first lord of the admiralty, Sir Charles Wager, in an expedition to find a passage. In May 1740, just before sailing to Hudson Bay on what was to be his last voyage in the company’s employ, he wrote to Dobbs with heartening news: George II had been approached by Wager and had given his blessing to the venture. The following year a naval expedition would sail in search of the northwest passage, and the understanding was that it would be commanded by Middleton.

On 5 March 1740/41 Middleton received his long-awaited commission in the navy, and four days later was formally appointed commander of the Arctic discovery expedition. The same day the deputy-governor of the HBC informed the committee that Middleton had resigned, and in April the governor warned shareholders that the forthcoming expedition “might affect their Property and be Prejudicial to the Company in their Trade.” The company’s attitude was one of vital concern to Middleton, who was experiencing frustrating difficulties in his efforts to get the expedition to sea in time to pass through Hudson Strait as the ice broke up. His command, the bomb-vessel Furnace, had to be converted to a sloop and altered in order to provide more storage space; her consort, the Discovery, was a collier which was not bought by the admiralty until late April; and above all there were the crew problems familiar to the wartime navy. Middleton had persuaded a few old HBC hands to sail with him, including his cousin and former chief mate, William Moor, who was to command the Discovery; but for the rest he had to rely on the press-gang to make up his complement. Of the men already on the Furnace most “looked ailing, having scarce any Cloths,” an admiralty report noted, and they were kept under close guard to prevent desertion. Middleton knew that there was little possibility of returning to England that year; so it was essential for him to obtain permission from the HBC for his crews of ragamuffins and pressed men to winter at one of its posts. After a brisk exchange of acrimonious letters with various government departments the HBC capitulated and ordered its factors in the bay to give Middleton “the best Assistance in your Power.” During these arduous weeks Middleton was further distracted by the death of his wife, which brought on him “a great many Family Fatigues.”

At last, on 8 June 1741, Middleton’s two vessels sailed from the Nore on their historic voyage – the first naval expedition to leave England in search of the northwest passage. Middleton’s instructions, largely drawn up by Dobbs, directed him to look for a passage on the west coast of Hudson Bay near latitude 65°N, Scroggs’ most northerly point on his voyage of 1722. Once through the passage Middleton was to make a rapid survey and then return, so that a more powerful expedition could be sent out to secure his discoveries. The vision of a short trade route to the east, which had lured so many English seamen to the ice-choked bays and inlets of northeast America, was still a glittering one, but for the moment Middleton had more immediate problems. Delay in leaving England (six weeks later than the HBC ships) meant that the expedition did not reach the west coast of Hudson Bay until late July, and amid thick fog and with the threat of gathering ice always imminent, Middleton decided to winter at Churchill and attempt the discovery the next summer.

The winter at Churchill, farthest north and coldest of the HBC posts, with most of Middleton’s men miserably housed in the semi-derelict “old fort,” was an ordeal which (in the words of Dobbs’ later allegation) “broke the Spirits of the Men.” There was more truth in this than in most of Dobbs’ accusations, for ten men died of scurvy, and many others were ill or had toes amputated after frost-bite. On 1 July 1742, however, Middleton’s vessels set sail, watched with some relief by the factor James Isham, who reported to the London committee that Middleton had been “a Very Troublesome Guess [guest].” By 12 July Middleton had passed Scroggs’ Whalebone Point (Whale Point), the farthest north of previous explorers. On the other side of a headland in latitude 65°10´N, named Cape Dobbs by Middleton, an inlet opened out which he called after Sir Charles Wager. For three weeks masses of ice driving into the Wager trapped the ships and so gave Middleton time to send four boat expeditions to explore the area. Their reports convinced him that he was anchored in an inlet or river, nothing more, and as the ice cleared in early August the ships worked their way out of the Wager to continue their voyage north through Roes Welcome. A flood tide so strong that the ships could hardly steer gave rise to excited speculation that they were in the entrance of the passage, but on 6 August Middleton entered in his journal “to our great Disappointment we saw the Land from the Low Beach quite round to the Westward of the North which met the Western Shore and makes a very deep Bay. Thus our Hopes of a Passage that way were all over.” The Welcome was a closed inlet, whose northern extremity Middleton named Repulse Bay, and the flood tide swirling down it came not from the Pacific but through an ice-choked strait in the northeast corner of the Welcome, which Middleton termed Frozen Strait. To all intents and purposes the expedition was over. A perfunctory examination was made of the west coast of the bay on the way home, and Middleton – like his predecessors – mistook the entrance of Chesterfield Inlet for a deep bay. At times on the grim homeward voyage only two men on the Furnace could take the wheel, and the officers did the work of seamen in order to keep the sloop afloat.

It says much for Middleton’s own stamina that within a month of the expedition’s return he was ready to read before the Royal Society a paper on climatic conditions at Churchill, together with some observations on latitude, longitude, and the magnetic variation, which won for him the society’s Copley prize medal. Of the results of his exploration Middleton had no doubt, but in the spring of 1743 Dobbs claimed that the Wager was in fact a strait, and crew members, notably Edward Thompson, John Wigate, and John Rankin, came forward to swear that Middleton had deliberately concealed the passage. Thus began a prolonged and vituperative dispute which continued with an inconclusive investigation by the admiralty in May 1743, and with the publication of five books and pamphlets by Middleton and three by Dobbs. The key to Dobbs’ conduct is to be found in his initial plea to Middleton in January 1743 that if he would admit the continued possibility of a passage, then “the Presumption will be a great Inducement to open the Trade to the Bay.” From this time forward the passage was part of a more ambitious scheme to abolish the trading monopoly of the HBC, and Middleton’s blunt refusal to agree that a passage might still be found meant that his conduct of the expedition had to be discredited. On all but one of the points at issue Middleton was correct: the Wager was a closed inlet (as Moor was to discover in 1747); the Frozen Strait existed, and the tide and whales passed through it into Roes Welcome (as Edward Parry* noted in 1821). Middleton’s only lapse was that on the homeward voyage with his sickly and dispirited crew he had missed Chesterfield Inlet. In every other way his achievement was a praiseworthy one. His map of the expedition’s discoveries, published in 1743, contains the first recognizable outline of the west coast of Hudson Bay, and included all its main features except Chesterfield Inlet.

During the wearisome pamphlet war Middleton was not offered another command by the admiralty, and he was forced to live on his capital until in May 1745 he was given command of the tiny Shark sloop. Even then, Middleton continued to bombard the admiralty with petitions for “the command of a Ship of Force, by which I may hope to retrieve the fortune I ruin’d, In my former attempt to be of Service to my Country,” but his pleas met with no response. In 1747 he was involved in an incident during which he struck his boatswain and, concluded the investigating officer, “I fear . . . he is passionate, which I have given him a Caution of.” When peace came in 1748 it was no surprise that Middleton was placed on the half-pay list at 4s. a day, in company with hundreds of other officers. The minute books of the HBC record the receipt of two letters from him in December 1751 and February 1752, shortly after the dismissal of Captain William Coats, but if Middleton was seeking re-employment with the company he was disappointed. He remained on the half-pay list until his death on 12 Feb. 1770, a skilled navigator and enterprising explorer whose career was wrecked by a malicious campaign of denigration.

About the circumstances of Middleton’s last years there is some uncertainty. The Monthly Review for 1784 has a melancholy passage on Middleton: “He died, some years ago, near Guisborough, in Yorkshire, in the utmost penury and distress: having, long before, been drove to the necessity of parting with Sir Godfrey Copley’s gold medal. . . . His children, four daughters, brought up in ease and elegance by the produce of his labours in the early part of his life, all died, if we remember right, before him: some of them, at least, in a more wretched situation than himself.” This account is belied by local reports that Middleton died and was buried at Norton, county Durham (certainly his home since the days of his HBC service), and by his will, drawn up in December 1769. It referred to a daughter Judith by his first marriage, his second wife Jane (originally his servant according to local sources) who was to receive £40, and two girls and a boy by his second marriage. The Copley medal was bequeathed to the boy, and his books, instruments, and an unspecified sum in South Sea annuities were left to the three children jointly. The values involved seem small, but the will indicates that although Middleton may have lived in straitened circumstances during his enforced retirement at least he did not die a pauper.

Glyndwr Williams

[References to Middleton’s service with the HBC are in HBC Arch. A.1/34–35, A.1/120–22; a note of his letters to the company in 1751 and 1752 in A.1/39. Middleton’s log and journal of the Furnace, 1741–42, are in PRO, Adm. 51/379, pt.i–iii. Details of the fitting out of the expedition are in PRO, Adm. 1/2099; 2/57, 2/202, 2/473; 3/45; SP 42/81, 43/103; and in HBC Arch. A.1/35, A.2/1. The admiralty investigations into Middleton’s conduct are in PRO, Adm. 1/2099, 2/479, 3/47. References to his service between 1745 and 1748 are in 1/2105–6; to his years on the half-pay list and his death in 25/35–78. Middleton’s will is in PRO, Prob. 11/963. Of contemporary printed sources the most important are the books published by Middleton and Dobbs between 1743 and 1745, which give full if repetitious details of events after their first meetings in 1735. A list of these books can be found in Williams, British search for the northwest passage.

Middleton’s scientific papers are in Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions (London), XXXIV (1726–27), 73–76, and XLII (1742–43), 157–71. His map was published in 1743 with the title Chart of Hudson’s Bay and Straits, Baffin’s Bay, Strait Davis and Labrador Coast (London).

Some local evidence on Middleton’s last years is retailed in John Brewster, The parochial history and antiquities of Stockton upon Tees . . . (2nd ed., London, 1829), 374–80. See also, Monthly Review or Literary Journal (London), LXX (1784), 469. A short biographical sketch is contained in HBRS, XII (Rich and Johnson), 325–34.

For differing views by two modern writers on the Middleton-Dobbs controversy see Desmond Clarke, Arthur Dobbs, esquire, 1689–1765; surveyor-general of Ireland, prospector and governor of North Carolina (London, 1958), and Williams, British search for the northwest passage.  g.w.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Glyndwr Williams, “MIDDLETON, CHRISTOPHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/middleton_christopher_3E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/middleton_christopher_3E.html
Author of Article: Glyndwr Williams
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1974
Year of revision: 1974
Access Date: April 24, 2014