As motorists journey through the Rotherhithe tunnel, little do they know that there’s a memorial to another greater journey above their heads.

In 1553, Sir Hugh Willoughby lead three ships from London to seek out a North-East passage around the arctic ocean to China, bypassing the long route around Africa.

He was one of a member of a joint stock association — an early private company — the impressively named Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands, which had a Royal Charter to explore foreign lands.

The first voyage departed London on 11th May 1553, and after some problems, successfully navigated around the top of Norway and into the White Sea off the northern coast of Russia.

One of the ships wintered in present-day Arkhangelsk, while its captain, Richard Chancellor travelled to Moscow to meet the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible.

The other two ships however left to head back to England, but all the occupants died when they tried to stop for winter in Lapland in northern Finland.

For his part, Richard Chancellor successfully returned to England the following year having secured relations with Russia to open trade between the two countries.

The memorial, in tiles on a stone base was installed in 1922 when the park was opened by King George V in memory of the failed venture. They probably set off further down the river at Deptford, but what’s a couple of miles between friends?

With climate change melting the Arctic Ocean and making the North-East passage increasingly viable as a route, if not necessarily for a good reason, it seems likely that by 2053, cargo ships will routinely follow the route attempted by Sir Hugh Willoughby 500 years earlier.

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One comment on “The memorial to a failed North-East Passage
  1. JCalvertN says:

    National boundaries of 500 years ago were very different. At present Finnish Lapland does not have a northern Atlantic or Arctic coastline. Presumably the two ships’ crews died somewhere in modern-day northern Norway?

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