Francis Cresswell (1789-1861), a former naval officer with the East India Company, married Rachel Elizabeth Fry (1803-1888), daughter of Joseph Fry (1777-1861) and his wife Elizabeth Fry, née Gurney (1780-1845), the social reformer and philanthropist. The Cresswells lived at Bank House, King's Lynn, where Francis Cresswell, his son F.J. Cresswell, and his grandson G.F.A. Cresswell were partners in Gurneys, Birkbeck, Barclay, Buxton and Cresswell's Bank at King's Lynn (later Barclay's Bank).
Francis and Rachel Cresswell had six sons and one daughter: Francis Joseph (1822-1882), John Addison (1824-1867), Samuel Gurney (1827-1867), William Edward (1835-1857), Gerard Oswin (1837-1865), Oswald (1839-1872), and Harriet Frances Elizabeth (1842-1849).
The collection includes ninety-eight letters (WMH 3/1/B1) from Elizabeth Fry, 1803-1845, mainly addressed to her daughter Rachel Cresswell, but with some to other members of the Fry and Gurney families. Many of these describe her journeys in Britain and France advocating the cause of prison reform.
However, the largest part of this collection consists of the papers (WMH 3/1/C-D) of Francis and Rachel's third son, Samuel Gurney Cresswell (1827-1867), naval captain and Arctic explorer, who first went to sea at the age of fourteen, who served and fought in China and the Baltic, and who was the first man to traverse the North-West Passage. His letters to his parents (WMH 3/1/C) cover all stages of his career and many have been published in 'War, Ice & Piracy, The Remarkable Career of a Victorian Sailor', edited by Dominick Harrod (Chatham Publishing, 2000). Page references to these transcripts are given below, and a copy of the book is available in the Searchroom of the Norfolk Record Office.
Samuel Gurney Cresswell was also a talented artist, some of whose watercolour views of the Arctic were presented to Queen Victoria and published in 1854. The bulk of his work however is contained in an album in this collection (WMH 3/1/D4).
Cresswell sailed to the Arctic on HMS Investigator in 1850, which was trapped in the ice between 1851-53, with the crew unable to send word to England. His unexpected return to England in 1853, as living proof of the existence of the North-West Passage, was greeted with rapture by his family, the inhabitants of King's Lynn, and the British press, all of whom expected that he would be promoted immediately. But the promotion that followed was slow, although no slower than that of many young officers in peacetime. However deserving an officer might be, his chances of promotion were increased by the 'interest' his family could wield, and this collection provides a good illustration of this process. Cresswell's mother Rachel was a daughter of Elizabeth Fry and she seems to have inherited much of her mother's drive and perseverance. She mustered all the support she could from her wide circle of relatives and acquaintances, and helped by her husband and his family, and the connections of her daughter-in-law Charlotte, wife of her eldest son Francis Joseph and daughter of Lord Calthorpe, she firmly brought her son's claims to the attention of the Admiralty.
Rachel attributed his death in 1867 at the age of thirty-nine to the hardships he had endured in the service and to disappointment at his lack of promotion; however it must be noted that most of Rachel's sons died young, and all pre-deceased her. After Samuel Gurney Cresswell's death she carefully preserved his letters with their original envelopes and compiled two scrapbooks (WMH 3/1/D5) of his life for her grandsons.