Home > History of Wine > “In the shortest Space of Time he is froze” : The Effects of Cold on Wine at Hudson’s Bay

“In the shortest Space of Time he is froze” : The Effects of Cold on Wine at Hudson’s Bay

Captain Christopher Middleton was appointed in command of H.M.S. Furnace on March 5, 1741.  The Furnace was built as a bomb vessel which were exceedingly stout ships designed to withstand the forces generated by the mortars they contained.  Their rigid hulls were viewed as ideal for arctic ice conditions thus they were commonly refitted for arctic expedition.  In May 1741, Captain Middleton left England for the Hudson Bay in search of a northwest passage.    The H.M.S. Furnace arrived at the Hudson’s Bay Company fort in August 1741.[1]  By September the winter had set in.  Nearly one year later on October 28, 1742,  Captain Middleton read his paper on The Effects of Cold to the Royal Society in London.[2]  The winter cold was brutal, the men wore several layers of clothes yet “not withstanding this warm Cloathing, almost every Day…some have their Arms, Hands, and Face blistered and frozen in a terrible manner.”  The ground was frozen to a depth beyond their discovery.  The bottles of strong beer, brandy, strong brine, and spirits of wine which were “set out in the open Air for Three or Four Hours, freeze to solid Ice.”

Detail from A new and accurate map of North America. Huske, John. 1755. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Detail from A new and accurate map of North America. Huske, John. 1755. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The houses in the fort had walls of stone two feet thick with very small windows that had wooden shutters.  The wines, brandy, strong beer, butter, and cheese were stored underneath in cellars.  Four large fires were made each day.  Once the fires died out the chimney was closed to preserve heat and within four to five hours the walls were “Two or Three Inches thick with Ice”.  Every morning they cut away at the ice with hatchets.  To counter the heat escaping through the windows they hung red-hot 24 pound shot in front of each window.  Captain Middleton kept a fire burning in his room almost 24 hours per day.  These efforts did “not preserve my Beer, Wine, Ink, &c. from freezing.”  Another description of a subsequent journey noted that any liquid with less alcohol than common spirits froze “perfectly solid, and burst the Vessels that contain them, whether of Wood, Tin, or even Copper.”[3]  In 1786 Henry Cavendish published the results of his experiments relating to the freezing of mixtures at Hudson’s Bay.[4]  Mr. Cavendish sent a variety of bottles to John McNab at Henley House to observe what happened to them in the cold.  Mr. Cavendish remarked that “the natural cold, when these experiments were made, is remarkable”.  He concluded that the temperatures reached a low of -45 °F to -50 °F.

[1] “From on Board His Majesty’s Ship the Furnace in Churchill River, North America, June 21, 1742” Date: Sunday, July 28, 1743 Paper: American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, PA) Issue: 1229 Page: 1
[2] Middleton, Christopher.  The Effects of Cold; Together with Observations of the Longitude, Latitude, and Declination of the Magnetic Needle, at Prince of Wales’s Fort, upon Churchill-River in Hudson’s Bay, North America; By Capt. Christopher Middleton, F. R. S. Commander of His Majesty’s Ship Furnace, 1741-2  Phil Trans R Soc 1742 42: 157-171.
[3] Ellis, Henry. A Voyage to Hudson’s Bay by the Dobbs Galley and California, in the Years 1746 and 1747. 1748. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=hcdOAAAAcAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] Cavendish, Henry. Account of Experiments made by Mr. John McNab, at Henley House, Hudson’s Bay, related to freezing Mixtures. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volume 16. 1809. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=0Oc_AAAAYAAJ&pg=PP7#v=onepage&q&f=false

  1. John
    September 6, 2014 at 9:25 am

    HMS Furnace…the irony in the name as compared to the conditions has me wondering if the dispatcher back home had a sense of humor and maybe a slight smirk when making this assignment.

    • September 7, 2014 at 6:58 am

      Since these arctic explorers were mostly stout bomb vessels they tended to have fiery names like Vesuvius, Blast, and Furnace. I can only imagine there were a few jokes cracked!

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