A brief account of a polar explorer from Bray who never came home, and whose memory is enshrined in the name of Greenland’s Hand Bay.
James J. Hand was born in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, on 31 August 1847, to John and Anna Hand. A family of Hands was living on Purcells Square in Bray at the time of the 1911 census. It is believed Jim’s father worked on Lord Meath’s staff at Kilruddery staff while his mother is said to have worked at nearby Powerscourt. Jim, one of eight children, attended the only boys’ catholic school in Bray, located on Seapoint Road. From here he must have watched the ships sailing to and from Seymour Dock and thus ignited his passion for a maritime life. On 26th January 1862, aged 14, he joined the Royal Navy, serving as a Boy Sailor, Second Class, on HMS Ajax out of Dun Laoghaire. He sailed on at least 9 different ships in his ensuing career.
In April 1873, James J Hand was back in Ireland, rowing in the Dolphin Rowing Club Trial 8s on the River Liffey. (Irish Times, Saturday, April 12, 1873). The following year, British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, gave permission for an arctic expedition in November 1874. The main objective was to reach the North Pole or the highest latitude possible. Able Seaman James Hand, aged 28 and at least 5 foot 10 inches high , was amongst those on board when HMS Alert and HMS Discovery set sail from Portsmouth Harbour on 29 May 1875 in view of a crowd of 200,000.
By April 1876, the men were within the Arctic Circle. When their ships were unable to go any further, it was decided to trey and reach the North Pole on foot. On 20th April, Jim was one of a group of a dozen men who set off with sledges but with temperatures plunging to -40 degrees it was a hopeless challenge. Jim was stricken with scurvy that got worse every day, turning his legs black and blue, and causing a dreadful rash to explode around his calves. At length, unable to walk, he had to be fastened to a sledge. When the expedition conceded defeat and turned for him, Commander Markham, second-in-command of the Alert, placed the Union Jack in the ground as a marker of how close they had reached. (It is sometimes erroneously said that Jim Hand performed this feat).
Alas, Jim was destined to die in the Arctic Circle at 11pm on 31st May. His colleagues buried him under the snow on the 8th June in North Western Greenland where he has a bay, Hand Bay, or Hand Bugt, named in his memory.
For more, see Cyril Dunne’s book ‘Buried In The Arctic Ice – One Irishman’s role in 19th Century Polar Exploration’ published 2009.