WALES, WILLIAM, mathematician and astronomer; b. c. 1734 of humble parents, probably in Yorkshire, England; d. 29 Dec. 1798.

William Wales was one of a number of men of science linked through the Royal Society of London and their mutual interest in exploration who in the second half of the 18th century helped bring Hudson Bay into the public eye. His interest in the Canadian north stemmed from 1768–69, when he spent a year at the Hudson’s Bay Company post of Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.) in order to observe the transit of the planet Venus. He was the first scientist to winter in Hudson Bay, and in addition to keeping a full set of observations “on the State of the Air, Winds, Weather, &c.” he presented to the Royal Society after his return a short but perceptive journal of his experiences at the bay, with information on the severity of the climate, the men’s clothing and diet, and other details. Wales remained interested in the region, may well have been associated with the Royal Society’s request to the HBC in 1770 for natural history specimens to be sent from the bay, and certainly advised two company servants, Andrew Graham* and Thomas Hutchins, on the keeping of meteorological observations at York Factory (Man.) during the 1771–72 season. His career seems to have benefited considerably from his service as astronomer on the second Pacific voyage of James Cook from 1772 to 1775, for on his return he was appointed master of the mathematical school established at Christ’s Hospital, London, to train youths in navigation, and in November 1776 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Wales maintained his interest in North America, mainly through his friendship with George Samuel Wegg, vice president and treasurer of the Royal Society since 1772, and from 1774 deputy governor and then governor of the HBC. In 1778 Wales suggested Philip Turnor to the company as the first of its proposed inland surveyors, a recommendation well worth the five guineas it paid to Wales “for his trouble.” In the early 1780s Wales helped with the editing and publication of the official account of Cook’s third voyage. In 1792 he intervened in a publishing matter of great import to our knowledge of the Canadian north when he negotiated the sale to Messrs Strahan and Cadell of Samuel Hearne’s journal of northern exploration, geography, and natural history. Wales had met Hearne during his stay at Prince of Wales’s Fort in 1768–69. The negotiations were completed in October 1792, shortly before Hearne died, when Wales witnessed the contract that ensured the publication in 1–795 of the journal under the title A journey from Prince of Waless Fort, in Hudsons Bay, to the northern ocean . . . .

Wales died in 1798, active to the last at Christ’s Hospital, where he was remembered as “a good man, of plain simple manners, with a large heavy person and benign countenance.”

Glyndwr Williams

[An outline of William Wales’s career is given in the DNB, which incorrectly states that he accompanied Cook on the third as well as the second of his Pacific voyages. Other biographical details, as well as information of a more general nature about Wales, will be found in Bernard Smith, “Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Cook’s second voyage,” Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Journal (London), XIX (1956), 117–54. The observations Wales and his assistant Joseph Dymond kept at Churchill, and Wales’s more personal “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 the voyage back to England, in the years 1768 and 1769,” are printed in Royal Soc. of London, Philosophical Trans., LX (1771), 100–78. Wales’s role in the publishing of Hearne’s journal is outlined in the Strahan mss 2180, in the BL; extracts from the relevant documents have been printed in Hearne, Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort (Glover). Some information concerning Wales’s contacts with servants of the HBC will be found in Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell), HBRS, XXVII (Williams), and HBC Arch. B.239/a/67, ff.l, 6d.  g.w.]

Cite This Article

Glyndwr Williams, “WALES, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2024,

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Author of Article:   Glyndwr Williams
Title of Article:   WALES, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   July 24, 2024