Exhibit of the Week: Boring lump of metal with interesting tale

Engraving shows HMS Fury abandoned on Fury Beach, Somerset Island.
Engraving shows HMS Fury abandoned on Fury Beach, Somerset Island.

Of all the many items from the Scarborough Collections that have featured in this column over the last couple of years, today’s is perhaps the least promising.

It’s a cylindrical, rusted tin with no discernible features other than that it has a lid – the sort of thing we usually try to avoid, as we like to give our readers something interesting to look at, as well as to read.

The metal tin of meat from HMS Fury, now in the Scarborough Collections and on display in the Rotunda Museum.

The metal tin of meat from HMS Fury, now in the Scarborough Collections and on display in the Rotunda Museum.

But the story behind this particular object is so fascinating, we couldn’t resist. It’s believed to be one of the oldest known tins of meat in the world: nearly 200 years ago it travelled from this country to the Arctic where it lay on a beach for the best part of four years, and then returned to England and ended up in the Rotunda, where it can still be seen today.

The tin was part of the provisions of the HMS Fury, a warship which was converted to an Arctic exploration ship in the early 1820s. Along with her sister ship the Hecla, the Fury, under the command of Captain William Edward Parry, made two forays to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, the much sought-after route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The first expedition, in 1821, was relatively uneventful, although the furthest point reached, a permanently frozen strait north of Canada, was named Fury and Hecla Strait.

The two ships ventured forth for their second Arctic expedition in 1824, with Parry in overall command but aboard the Hecla and Captain Henry Parkyns Hoppner in command of the Fury. In August 1825, the Fury was crushed by ice in the Gulf of Boothia, north of Canada. The crew was forced to abandon ship at Somerset Island, transferring as much as they could to the Hecla, but leaving some stores behind on the beach, our tin of meat amongst them.

In the August of 1829 another expedition seeking a North-West passage led by Captain Sir John Ross found the abandoned food and retrieved it – his ship’s surgeon opened several of the tins, and pronounced the contents to be in excellent condition.

We don’t know what meat is in our tin – and we have no intention of opening it to find out! – but other tins known to have been retrieved from what’s now known as Fury Beach have contained veal and mutton.

The tin was donated to Scarborough Philosophical Society which founded the Rotunda by member Sir John Johnstone of Hackness Hall – how it came into his possession, we don’t know.

In 1960, The New Scientist carried an article by Dr FH Banfield, from the British Food Manufacturing Industries Research Association, who had tested the contents of various very old tins of food including a tin of veal from the Fury expedition.

“The first canned food reached the British housewife in 1830,” he reported. “It was expensive: a quart of canned peas cost 3s, which in those days was as much as the rent for a week of an average-sized house. The housewife was also faced with the problems of opening the tins, which were very heavy by modern standards. The use of a hammer and chisel was recommended in the instructions supplied.”

The veal from the Fury, he tells us, contained ‘much more dissolved metals’ from the can than was acceptable: ‘2,000 parts per million of tin, which would be sufficient to make anyone who ate much of the veal sick’. Despite that analysis, he bravely tasted it in the name of science, and found it to have an ‘objectionable’ and ‘bitter’ taste.

The tin of meat from the HMS Fury is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.