Historic shipwreck found near North Pole

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A shipwreck found near the North Pole has been confirmed as the remains of a British vessel whose crew, including Florence Nightingale’s cousin, made a miraculous escape to safety nearly 150 years ago.

Benjamin Leigh Smith was a prolific British Arctic explorer

Benjamin Leigh Smith, whose aunt was the mother of the famous nurse who looked after injured soldiers in the Crimean War, has become a forgotten British explorer of the Arctic.

He undertook five major scientific explorations to the North Pole area but in 1881 he and his crew became stranded for more than 10 months in the freezing cold Franz Josef Land after their ship was crushed by giant icebergs.

The 130ft Eira steam yacht sank deep in the Russian waters and the crew barely survived.

Fortunately some of the men were experienced hunters from the Shetland Islands and the group lived by hunting seals, walruses and polar bears.

The 25 men had to wait 10 months for the ice sheets to clear before they could turn salvaged tablecloths into sails for a new boat.

After crossing 200 miles of treacherous Arctic sea to Novaya Zemlya they were rescued by a British search party.

The boat has now been identified by Russian divers from St Petersburg’s Maritime Heritage Association who found the vessel near Cape Flora, an island just 550 miles from the North Pole which Mr Leigh Smith named after his cousin.

The wreck was accidentally spotted by sonar last year but in September scientists from the Russian Maritime Heritage Open Ocean 2017 expedition made the 2,000 mile journey back to investigate further.

Divers went down more than 60ft in freezing cold temperatures to retrieve artefacts which confirmed the wreck was Leigh Smith’s Eira.

Some of the items included a rum flagon embossed with the name of a wine and spirit shop in Peterhead, Scotland where the ship was built.

Charlotte Moore, a great-great-great-niece of Leigh Smith told she hoped the discovery of the ship would help raise her relative’s profile.

She said: “He deserves to be higher up in the pantheon of Arctic explorers.”

Leigh Smith was born in Sussex in 1828 and is also a distant relative of Helena Bonham-Carter after another of his aunts married into the family.

The ship sank in Franz Josef Land near the North Pole.

He brought back hundreds of specimens from the Arctic region for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew as well as live polar bears for London Zoo.

He built up such a reputation that he was able to commission the Eira to be especially built for his fourth expedition and some of his artefacts are still on display in the British Museum.

Last week, scientists confirmed the oldest shipwreck ever found which dates back to 400BC.

The ancient Greek ship was found almost fully intact in the Black Sea by a joint expedition between British and Bulgarian scientists.