Friday, October 10, 2008

John Hornby: the Slapdash Explorer

“The finest man I have ever known and one who has made a foundation to build my life upon” – Edgar Christian

Hornby's final resting place
THERE ARE TWO WAYS of looking at Jack Hornby: lovable oddball-adventurer or hare-brained suicidal idiot. Either way, he’s a hard man to dislike. Even by the eccentric standards of British Arctic explorers, Jack’s life – and death – were spectacularly strange.

He was born in Cheshire in 1880, the son of Albert “Monkey” Hornby, a celebrated sportsman who captained England at rugby and cricket and played football for Blackburn Rovers. Like his dad, Jack was a pocket Hercules – short, wiry and strong. And like his old man, he was educated at Harrow. His was a life of pomp and privilege. And at the age of twenty-three, he threw it all in and left Britain in search of adventure.

Jack sailed to Canada and headed straight up into its extreme, frozen north – the so-called Barren Ground or Barrens. And for the next quarter-century, the tough little toff wandered aimlessly up there, embarking on some of the most fantastically ill-equipped and ill-judged expeditions of all time. He was what you might call a slapdash explorer. Unprepared and Unconcerned was his motto; surviving by the skin of his teeth his idea of fun.

The Barrens are brutal: a landscape of icy plains and lakes that stretch flat and treeless for a thousand miles along the Arctic Circle. It has a terrible beauty. Winter lasts nine months; temperatures plunge to glacial depths; snowstorms can kill a man in minutes. Yet the harder things got, the more Jack enjoyed himself. The colder and hungrier he became, the more he felt alive. “Not many men know how to starve properly,” Jack once boasted, “but I think you can be taught.”

He would be gone for months, sometimes years – heading out into the Great Unknown with little more than a rifle, a fishnet and a belly-full of British pluck. He moved around by canoe, dog sledge or on foot, dragging his gear behind him. He built his own shelters. He hunted and trapped his own food. Sometimes he travelled with Indians, sometimes with other whites – but mostly he operated alone.

When he did come in from the cold, his reappearance always caused a stir. His hair would be long and tangled, his beard bushy, his trousers ragged. Jack never washed in the Barrens and didn’t care who knew it. And once he’d stocked up on fresh supplies of tea and bullets, he was always in a tearing hurry to get back to the wilds.

Jack’s grit and stamina became the stuff of legend. They called him the Hermit of the North. He was the lone wolf, the white man who could live off the land like an Indian – even in the frozen sub-Arctic. The Edmonton Journal reported that the eccentric Englishman “could out-run any Indian on the trail, could outlast any Indian in endurance and could out-starve any Indian when there was nothing left but starvation”.

The outbreak of 1914-18 war saw Jack in France, where he fought with honour in the trenches. But within a year of that blood-bath ending he was back in the Barrens and pulling off his oddest feat yet: enduring a bitter winter living alone in an abandoned wolf’s den. He headed out to the wilds alone again the following year – one of the coldest on record – and nearly starved to death as the thermometer sank to minus 62F. The winter of 1924-25 was a similar desperate struggle for survival, this time spent holed up in a freezing cave with another adventurous Englishman, James Critchell-Bullock.

“Rather more than eccentric” was Critchell-Bullock’s verdict on Jack when the skeletal pair finally crawled back to civilization. Joining mad Jack in the Barrens had nearly cost Critchell-Bullock his life. Yet the newcomer found it impossible to dislike his reckless, gutsy little companion. Critchell-Bullock called him “the most lovable creature I ever knew”.

Jack headed to Europe again in 1926 for his famous dad’s funeral. And while he was there he picked up another fan – his young cousin Edgar Christian. Just seventeen and straight out of public school, Edgar was a trusting, ambitious kid in awe of his heroic relative. He was also tall and strong and keen to see the Canadian wilds. So Jack, now forty-five, agreed to take the lad on his next expedition – the trip, he figured, would make a man of him.

Surprisingly, Edgar’s dad, Colonel Wilfred Christian, agreed to let his son go. He wrote wishing the lad every success in his “great adventure” with Jack. “You are out to lay the foundation of your life…” the colonel told Edgar, “all your future depends on how you face the next few years.” No one warned the boy how savage the Barrens can be. And Edgar was too young to know that lovable lunatics like Jack Hornby can be dangerous men to follow.

The cousins sailed to Montreal in April, 1926, and trained it across Canada to the northern city of Edmonton, the stepping off point for expeditions into the Barrens. People they met along the way wondered what Jack thought he was doing taking a teenager with him up to the edge of the Arctic. Some tried to talk him out of it. But Jack waved them away. He was confident that this trip, like all the others, would work out just fine.

In Edmonton, the pair ran into Harold Adlard, a young shop worker from Dorking in Surrey who was also mustard-keen to see the Barrens. Jack had known and liked Harold for years – so on a whim he too was enlisted. It doesn’t seem to have bothered Jack for a moment that both his young companions were “greenhorns”. Neither had any experience of survival in the wilds. Each was putting his young life in Jack’s gnarly hands.

The unlikely trio set out on 25 May, traveling by train for a day and then, when the rail line ended, transferring to a large canoe and taking to the water. They paddled north for more than a thousand miles – along mighty rivers, across enormous lakes, past remote Indian villages and Christian missions, beyond the last isolated cabins and trading posts, then further north still till they crossed the tree-line where the Canadian forest stops suddenly and the flat, naked plains of the Barrens begin.

The going was rough. Progress was slow. The mosquitoes made mincemeat of Edgar. And the three adventurers had to keep dragging their boat out of the water and carrying it overland, together with all their equipment and supplies, around rapids and waterfalls.

The kit, although basic, still weighed about a ton: they had rifles, ammunition, axes, stoves, a tent, tea, blankets and animal traps. But oddly Jack had taken no shotgun, the best weapon for hunting small animals. And the few hardy fur trappers and frontiersmen they met on route noticed something else about Jack’s little party: their supplies of flour and dried meat looked alarmingly thin for a winter in the Barrens.

Jack and the lads traveled slowly north for more than three months. In June, Edgar turned eighteen. In July, they met a Swedish trapper going in the opposite direction – he was the last person they saw on their journey. In August, the trio watched in awe as thousands of caribou (reindeer) thundered past on their annual southward migration. And at the start of September, later than expected, they finally arrived at their destination, a wooded bend on the Thelon River, high up in the Barren Ground.

Jack had passed here the previous year and marked it down as a perfect spot to overwinter. The place was a little miracle: an oasis of trees, grass and flowers in the middle of the bald, rocky Barrens. Jack was convinced they’d find plenty of animals to eat amongst all that foliage – even in coldest months, even when most creatures had moved south or gone to ground. And the icy months would soon be on them. The river was about to freeze making travel impossible. So he ordered a halt and the men made camp.

This was Jack Hornby at his most slapdash. He had previously seen the Thelon “oasis” in high summer - there was no evidence to suggest it’d be teaming with life during winter too. Yet he felt confident that he and his young companions would be okay here. He convinced himself they’d be able to catch fish, trap birds and shoot prime caribou in these woods till spring arrived. He was sure of it. He was positive. And, not for the first time, he was spectacularly wrong.

It took a further two months for Jack, Harold and Edgar to build a log cabin and storehouse, and by the time that work was done they were already hungry. Jack’s imagined herds of caribou never arrived. The men caught next to nothing in the traps they set. And as winter started to bite the river ice got so thick, fishing became a nightmare.

On 14 October, Edgar started a diary. Jack, he notes, had already started to leave the Thelon woods and go out onto the freezing, windswept Barrens to look for caribou. But he shot nothing. Instead the hungry men had to make do with the occasional trapped bird or weasel or scrawny fox. Sometimes they ate mice. And then, at the end of October, the first blizzard of winter arrived, trapping the men in their cabin.

Things got worse in November. The days closed in, the snow underfoot became deep and treacherous. Frostbite threatened if the men spent too long outdoors hunting or chopping firewood. On 27 November, Harold marked his twenty-seventh birthday in subdued style. That same day Jack was forced to dig up an emergency stash of fish that he’d buried in the frozen earth only a few weeks earlier.

Through December the adventurers continued to scrape by on slim pickings: a hare one day, a wolverine another, a trout the next. Some days they caught nothing at all. Two long hunting trips into the Barrens proved fruitless. Harold became dull and silent from hunger – “not quite the ticket”, according to Edgar. And the teenager himself was near-paralyzed by the cold.

Only Jack remained unbowed. The caribou had failed and other smaller animals were thin on the ground - but he remained upbeat. Something would turn up, he was sure of it. There was still some flour and sugar left which would keep them going for a while. And after that, well, Jack figured they would just have to tough it out – his young companions would have to learn how to “starve properly”.

In January the thermometer fell to minus 54F. A three-day blizzard made gathering food impossible. Jack kept his companions going by collecting old bones that lay discarded in the snow outside the cabin, and then smashing and boiling them to make a nutrient-rich grease which he mixed with flour to make a meal of sorts.

At the start of February, a small miracle – Harold shot a scrawny caribou spotted wandering on the Barrens and it gave them enough meat for six days. But by 15 February, things were once again looking grave. More fish and animal scraps were found in the snow and boiled. “Hope to God, we get caribou soon as nothing seems to get in traps…” writes Edgar in his diary, “flour is nearly gone & we are grovelling round for rotten fish.”

It was now so cold Edgar could barely bring himself to step outside. Harold’s face was frostbitten so he too had to stay indoors. But as the lads slowed down, Jack went into overdrive, determined to keep his two greenhorns afloat. He gave them his share of the food scraps they’d scraped from the snow, convinced that he could run on empty. And, despite a frostbitten hand, he took up his rifle almost every day and forced himself to march out onto the frozen plains to look for caribou. Each night he returned empty-handed.

By the middle of March, Edgar was starting to worry about his cousin. Jack’s toughnut behaviour was unsustainable; he was beginning to fail. He “looks very poor”, Edgar notes in his journal, “and must feel it though he will keep a-going”. Jack did keep a-going, until 4 April. On that day he made his last desperate - and once again fruitless - trip out onto his beloved Barrens. But then Jack Hornby’s strength was spent.

All three men were now filthy, soot-covered skeletons. And for the next fortnight, not one of them trapped or shot a single animal. They were surviving solely on ground-up bones, discarded fish guts and boiled animal hides – anything that might bring them a drop of nourishment. Too weak to cut fresh wood, they began dismantling the storehouse they’d worked so hard to build and feeding the logs into their stove to keep warm. Harold was staggering round in a fog, a broken man. Edgar was so weak he could barely stand. And on 9 April, Jack collapsed in agony, pain tearing through his left leg which he’d hurt in a fall and was refusing to heal.

The next morning, Edgar’s diary has Jack “looking very bad… [he] seems to be all in”. And that evening, after six months of near-starvation, Jack finally admitted defeat and set down his will, leaving everything to his young cousin. He also wrote to Edgar’s parents, calling their boy “a perfect companion” and expressing hope for the lad’s safe return. And then, after doggedly clinging to life for another grim week, Jack Hornby, the Hermit of the North, the slapdash explorer, died of hunger at the age of forty-six.

His death knocked Edgar for six. The boy sat stunned as Harold took care of Jack’s bony body, wrapping it in a groundsheet and dragging it outside the cabin. By the next day the plucky teenager had regained his balance. “We are both very weak,” he writes in his diary, “but more cheery and determined to pull through and go out to let the world know of the last days of the finest man I have ever known and one who has made a foundation to build my life upon.” But the teenager was being hopelessly optimistic. Within days Harold too was sinking fast. On 27 April, he suffered a hunger-induced stroke. Five days later, he had another. And by the next evening Harold too was dead, leaving eighteen-year-old Edgar Christian alone in the Barrens.

The boy was now so skinny his “joints seemed to jerk in and out of position instead of smoothly”. He was suffering nose bleeds. Moving around was “a wobbly process”. But it was May - spring was close. The lad knew that soon, any day now, the caribou would come thundering north again in their thousands. If he could hang on till then and shoot one, he’d be able to regain his strength. The caribou migration would save him, just as Jack had predicted. He would escape the Barrens. He would make his cousin proud.

Despite his suffering, Edgar kept up that diary. He records fighting off fevers. He describes moving around like a zombie, his brain sluggish from lack of food. But he never panicked and he never gave up. Every day Edgar waited for the caribou’s return and for spring’s sunshine to once again fill the Thelon oasis with life. And he waited in vain: the sky above him stayed cold and grey, the clump of trees around his cabin remained dead and wintry.

Edgar made his last journal entry on 1 June, 1927. Like Jack before him, he describes feeling “all in” and “weaker than I have ever been in my Life”. Then he pulled out a separate sheet of paper and wrote farewell notes to his parents. “Bye Bye now Love & Thanks for all you have ever done for me,” he tells his dad. “Please don’t blame dear Jack,” he asks his mum. And after stashing his papers safely inside the cabin’s empty stove, he dragged himself onto his bunk, pulled a red blanket up over his hollow face, closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him.

Just over a year later a party of mining prospectors passed along the Thelon River and discovered Edgar Christian’s body still lying on the bunk. A search of the log cabin turned up the boy’s diary and a few ounces of tea, but no other food. Outside the prospectors found the remains of Harold Adlard and Jack Hornby lying head to toe in the dirt. It was July 1928 now, high summer in the Barrens, and all around them the wooded bend on the Thelon River was teeming with life.

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my Thanks again!

Powell-Williams, Clive, Cold Burial: A Journey into the Wilderness (London, 2001)
Waldron, Malcolm, Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands (New York, 1997 reprint)
Whalley George, The Legend of John Hornby (London, 1962)


Barrington said...

There's a display in St Beuno's Church, Clynnog-fawr, just off the A499 in Gwyedd, North Wales. It mentions in some detail the ill-fated tale of one of it's parishoners, young Edgar Christian, who accompanied his cousin John Hornby and Harold Adlard on this journey. St Beuno's is well worth a visit for its history and architecture.

Handrey Correa said...

I had never heard about these men and this strange and harsh history, Thanks, good reading!

Simon Bendle said...

Hi Barrington and Handrey - thanks for your comments!