I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Who Is John Hornby?
He threw aside a privileged background to seek a life of isolation and personal challenges in the Canadian Arctic. John Hornby was an extraordinary man who took unnecessary risks that eventually caught up with him.
A Man of Privilege
Born into a wealthy family in 1880, John (Jack) Hornby enjoyed all the privileges that automatically fell into the hands of an upper-class Englishman.
His father, Albert “Monkey” Hornby, was an accomplished athlete; he captained England at cricket and rugby and played professional soccer. Although it has to be said, his cricketing career at the international level was a flop; he led England to defeat, at home, against Australia, a loss that was called the death of English cricket.
“Monkey's” offspring was educated at Harrow, an exclusive private school before going to Germany to learn the language. The plan was for him to pursue a career in the diplomatic corps but his character dictated another course away from the frock coats and stuffy staterooms of the ambassadorial calling. He craved adventure and that desire took him to Canada in 1904.
He dabbled in a few jobs and, in 1908, decided he would explore the Barrens, a desolate area of the Northwest Territories (NWT).
The Barrens is not a people-friendly place. Beyond the tree line, there is almost no vegetation and temperatures can plunge to minus 60 F (-50 C), the effect of such cold intensified by icy winds. Winter dominates the climate for three-quarters of the year.
The people of the Dene Nation whose traditional land is the NWT have legends of folk going into the Barrens and never being seen again.
It was this unforgiving landscape that Jack Hornby chose to explore with a cavalier attitude to preparation and equipment. He courted death with a nonchalant attitude. Journalist Simon Bendle writes that “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.'”
That first excursion took him to Great Bear Lake and led to his enchantment with the Arctic wilderness. He was gone for three years, overwintering in the brutal cold. In his 1962 book, The Legend of John Hornby, George Whalley wrote that this was the time when Hornby developed a “fatal devotion” to the Barrens.
Most of the time he travelled alone with minimal supplies, living off what he could shoot or catch by fishing. He occasionally came back to civilization to replenish his supplies, mostly just tea and ammunition, then he was away to the Barrens again.
The War Interlude
When World War I broke out, Hornby enlisted as a private and was at Ypres in 1915 when the German Army first used poison gas. He survived that ghastly weapon and was soon promoted to Second Lieutenant in time to go into the meat grinder that was the Battle of the Somme.
He came out of this bloody fiasco with wounds to his back and shoulder and a Military Cross for acts of “exemplary gallantry,” Invalided out of the conflict he was itching to get back to the Barrens.
Writing for The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, John Ferns, suggests that Hornby was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the horrors of trench warfare. He also proposes that guilt over his own survival caused him to be reckless about his safety and that of his companions.
Back to the Barrens
In 1920, Hornby set off again to the solitude of the wilderness he loved. Simon Bendle recounts how he pulled “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 62 F” (-52 C).
From 1923 to 1925, he took a companion, James Charles Critchell-Bullock, with him on his treks. The story of these journeys fits the now-familiar pattern of near-death by starvation or hypothermia. Their supplies were meagre, flour, tea, ammunition, and a dog team. By mid-winter, the wildlife on which they relied for food had become scarce.
Coming out of the Barrens in the spring proved to be a challenge for survival. Already malnourished, they faced fierce blizzards and their dogs started to die. With slightly warmer weather, they were beset by clouds of mosquitoes and black flies.
Despite almost getting him killed because of his slapdash disregard for the dangers of the Arctic, Critchell-Bullock had a favourable assessment of his friend. He called Hornby “the most lovable creature I ever knew.”
Jack Hornby's Last Trek
In April 1926, Hornby started another expedition. This time, he took two companions, his 17-year-old cousin, Edgar Christian, and Harold Adlard in his late 20s. Neither of the younger men had any Arctic experience. The plan, if there was one, was to spend the winter in a ramshackle cabin on the Thelon River.
They travelled in a large canoe that they had to portage around rapids. The mosquitoes were a terrible menace. In August, they watched vast herds of caribou migrate south but did not kill any. That was a big mistake. This was prime hunting season for the Native People who dried the caribou meat to see them safely through the winter. Jack Hornby seems to have assumed there would be plenty of caribou at their overwintering camp. He was wrong.
In October, Edgar Christian started a diary in which he recorded their plight. They were only able to trap small game, and you don't have to be a survivalist to know that a few mice and a skinny fox are not enough to sustain three grown men. The cold and heavy snow made hunting somewhere between very difficult and impossible. The only member of the trio to remain upbeat was Hornby, who believed something would turn up.
In February, Christian wrote in his diary, “Hope to God, we get caribou soon as nothing seems to get in traps . . . flour is nearly gone & we are grovelling round for rotten fish.” They were also dealing with frostbite. Every day, Hornby went out to hunt but he never caught anything.
By March, they were all in a pitiful condition and too weak to leave the shelter of their little cabin. Jack Hornby was the first to die. At the end of April, Harold Adlard died from a stroke brought on by starvation, and Edgar Christian was now alone. He kept his journal going and clung to the hope that the spring migration of the caribou would be his salvation. It was not to be.
The last entry in his diary is June 1, 1927. He wrote to his parents saying “Please don’t blame dear Jack.”
Another year went by before a party of prospectors found the sad scene and the remains of the three men who had ventured into the wilderness ill-prepared for the savage conditions they would face.
- Martin Hartwell was an Arctic bush pilot who crashed in 1972. Of the four people aboard his plane, he alone survived. You can read more about his ordeal here.
- Captain Robert Scott set out to be the first person to reach the South Pole, but, as with Jack Hornby, failure to properly account for risks tripped up his expedition. From their last base camp, Scott and four adventurers set out for the pole, man-hauling their supplies on a sled. They got to the South Pole only to discover that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen had beaten them by about a month. Despondent, they began the return journey, but Scott had miscalculated the food they needed. The strenuous work of pulling the sled required a high-calorie intake and they ran out of food before reaching their base camp. All five died of starvation and hypothermia.
- If you are looking for an adventurous “holiday” how about skiing to the North Pole. For about $70,000 tour operators will supply you with all the gear you'll need along with experienced professional guides for a trek. Don't forget the sunscreen.
- “ 'The Barrenlands Are not a Friendly Place,' Says N.W.T. Trapper after 2 Searches in 1 Month.” Alex Brockman, CBC News, February 25, 2017.
- “John Hornby: the Slapdash Explorer.” Simon Bendle, greatbritishnutters, October 10, 2008.
- “Hornby, John.” John Ferns, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 2005.
- “Long Before McCandless, John Hornby Tested Himself in Northern Canada—and Failed.” Brook Sutton, adventure-journal.com, October 27, 2016,
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor