William Penny was born on 12 July 1809 at Peterhead, Scotland. He made his first whaling voyage at the age of twelve, sailing to the Greenland Sea in Alert under the command of his father, by 1829 had risen to the rank of mate. In 1832, while fishing with little success off Pond Inlet in Traveller, Penny persuaded his captain, George Simpson, to explore Lancaster Sound where they killed a large number of whales. Returning with Simpson to northern Baffin Bay the following year on the British Whaling and Exploring Expedition, Penny was sent to investigate Eskimo reports of a large bay further to the south where whales abounded. Discovering Exeter Sound, Penny sailed about 50km into it before adverse winds forced him to turn back.
Penny returned to Baffin Bay in 1839 in command of Neptune, searching for a large whaling ground reputed to lie in the unexplored waters farther south, in an inlet known to the indigenous peoples as 'Tenudiakbeek'. Failing to locate the inlet, Penny returned to Scotland with a guide named Eenoolooapik, who accompanied him the following year in Bon Accord on the British Whaling and Exploring Expedition. At the end of July, Penny located the sound running into Baffin Island off Davis Strait that Eenoolooapik confirmed was 'Tenudiakbeek'. Naming it Hogarth's Sound, Penny had, in fact, rediscovered Cumberland Sound, first discovered by John Davis in the sixteenth century. Although large numbers of whales migrated into the sound in early September, Penny returned to Scotland having failed to take a single whale.
Deprived of a vessel due to the decline of Arctic whaling for three years, Penny resuming whaling in Cumberland Sound in 1844. Sailing to Baffin Bay in 1847 in St Andrew he attempted, unsuccessfully, to sail through Lancaster Sound in a search for new whaling grounds and hoping to obtain news of Sir John Franklin's expedition. Returning in 1849 in Advice to attempt to sail through Lancaster Sound in the search for Franklin, Penny was turned back by ice.
With the approval of Jane, Lady Franklin, Penny was appointed to command the British Franklin Search Expedition, 1850-1851, instructed to search for Franklin in Jones Sound and Wellington Channel and beyond Cape Walker in the brigs HMS Lady Franklin and HMS Sophia . After finding Jones Sound blocked by ice, Penny entered Lancaster Sound to join Horatio Thomas Austin's expedition at Beechey Island where Austin's officers had found traces of the missing expedition. Following a meticulous search of the island, Penny was able to confirm that this was the site of Franklin's first winter quarters when his men discovered three graves dating from 1846. Spending the winter in Assistance Bay, Cornwallis Island, in close proximity to Austin and Sir John Ross, Penny agreed with Austin's plan for an extended search in spring in which Penny was to concentrate on the Wellington Channel region. Between May and July 1851, Penny discovered Queens Channel and sighted the strait that now bears his name. In August, Penny promptly abandoned the expedition after failing to convince Austin to allow him the use of one of his two steamers to conduct a more thorough search for Franklin in Wellington Channel.
On his return, Penny was denied any further participation in the Franklin search after an Arctic Committee investigating the dispute between the two men ruled in favour of Austin. Turning his attention to establishing a British colony in Cumberland Sound in order to prolong the whaling season, Penny formed the Royal Arctic Company in 1852, later renamed the Aberdeen Arctic Company. With the company's purchase of the brigs Lady Franklin and Sophia, Penny led the first whaling expedition to winter deliberately with ships in the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait region between 1853 and 1854, introducing the practice of floe whaling which allowed whalers to commence work earlier in the season. Penny had sought to carry a missionary from Greenland to Cumberland Sound but had been unable to land in Greenland, later introducing a Moravian missionary during a voyage to Cumberland Sound in 1857. From 1859, Penny was among the early promoters of the construction of steam whalers, taking command of one of the new Dundee steamers Polynia on her first voyage in 1861. He made his final whaling voyage in 1863, spending the remaining twenty-five years of his life in retirement in Aberdeen where he died on 1 February 1892.
From the guide to the William Penny collection, 1839-1857, (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)