John Hornby (1880–1927) was an English explorer, best known for his expeditions in the Arctic region, notably in the “barren lands” in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Hornby was born to a wealthy family in England and migrated to Canada in 1904.
Hornby’s first trip to the Arctic was to the Great Bear Lake region in 1908 and he developed a strong fascination with the Canadian Arctic wilderness. Apart from occasional trips to Edmonton and service in World War I, Hornby spent the rest of his life in the Arctic region of northern Canada.
He became known as the “hermit of the north” for his efforts to live off the land with limited supplies. In 1923, Hornby teamed up with an Englishman James Critchell Bullock (1898-1953) in efforts to spend an entire year in the Arctic near Hudson Bay living off the land without supplies except for weapons. The pair barely survived and Critchell Bullock’s diaries formed the basis of Malcolm Waldron’s book Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands first published in 1931.
John Hornby’s cabin on the Thelon River as it appeared in 1978
In 1926, Hornby tried to spend a year in a spot by the Thelon River with his 18-year-old cousin Edgar Christian and another young man Harold Adlard. Unfortunately, the trio missed the caribou migration southward and therefore lacked sufficient food to survive the winter. Hornby died of starvation along with his companions in 1927. The graves of the three men can be found by the Thelon River.
Hornby recommended in a report following his expedition with Critchell-Bullock that the areas near the Thelon and Hanbury Rivers be created as a wildlife sanctuary. The Thelon Game Sanctuary was established in 1927, renamed Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary in 1956, and this area remains the heart of the largest area of wilderness in North America. The publication of Waldron’s book proved successful and sparked further interest in the Northern wilderness.
Pierre Berton, “Prisoners of the North”, Anchor Canada, 2005
Malcolm Waldron, Snow Man: John Hornby in the Barren Lands, Kodansha America 1997 reprint (originally published in 1931).
George Erickson, True North. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2000
George Whalley, The Legend of John Hornby. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1962.
Edgar Vernon Christian, Death in the Barren Ground (edited by George Whalley). Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1980.
Clive Powell-Williams, Cold Burial: A Journey into the Wilderness. London: Viking, 2001.
Elizabeth Hay, Late Nigh