Mariner, explorer, and author, son of a lieutenant in the navy who had served at Trafalgar and through the war, was born at Poole on 27 Nov. 1817. His father died in 1826, leaving the family ill provided for; but the boy was admitted to the hospital school at Greenwich, and four years after was sent as apprentice in a small brig bound to Calcutta. The hardships and cruel usage suffered in a second voyage sickened him of the sea, and at the age of sixteen he made up his mind to emigrate to Canada; the project, however, fell through, and he was obliged to ship on board a bark bound to Australia. At Sydney he got employment in a shop, but, tiring of that and getting into bad company, fled into the bush, where for some time he led a wild, if not criminal life. He at length reached Sydney in extreme want, and by good fortune got a berth on board a ship trading to the islands, in which, after some experience among the natives, then but little known, he returned to England in 1836. His mother was dead, his family and friends dispersed. He fell again into bad company, lost all his money, and entered on board a ship of war. The restraint was irksome, and he deserted; he was arrested, sent on board, and punished.
After a year's service on the coast of Africa he obtained his discharge—in reward, it is said, for his gallantry in jumping overboard to save a man from a shark. He had always had an inclination to the pen, and on his return to England, with some pay and prize-money to go on with, he began to write for the papers, and met with some success. But he was robbed of all his money, and for a time suffered from blindness. When he recovered—weak, destitute, and helpless—he married a young woman as poor as himself. They raised enough to emigrate to Melbourne, where they became managers of an hotel. In a few months they cleared 200l.; but Snow's health broke down, and after many wanderings they returned to England. Snow now resumed his literary work; he obtained a situation as amanuensis to a retired naval officer, and after him to others, including Macaulay, for whom he transcribed the first two volumes of the ‘History.’ He consulted Macaulay as to his literary projects, which included a history of the Jews; but Macaulay pointed out that he had not sufficient scholarship for that task, and suggested a detailed life of Nelson.
After a year in America, Snow returned in 1850 to volunteer for one of the expeditions in search of Sir John Franklin. To this step he was prompted by a dream, which he believed had pointed out to him the true route. The idea took so firm a hold on him as to dominate his whole life. He served through the summer of 1850 as purser, doctor, and chief officer of the Prince Albert, a small vessel of about 90 tons, fitted out at the expense of Lady Franklin, under the command of Commander Forsyth of the navy. On his return Snow published ‘Voyage of the Prince Albert in search of Sir John Franklin’ (1851, post 8vo), an interesting and moderate little book: but he was convinced that success had been hindered by Forsyth's refusal to go on, and during the following years he constantly but vainly memorialised the admiralty to send him out again in command of any vessel, however small.
In 1854 he went out to Patagonia in command of the South American Missionary Society's vessel Allen Gardiner, and for two years he was employed in carrying missionaries and their stores between Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, and different stations on the mainland. The service ended in a disagreement between him and the society's agent at the Falkland Islands, who, assisted by the magistrate, deposed Snow from his command for disobedience to orders, and left him and his wife to find their own way to England. On his arrival Snow published ‘A Two Years' Cruise off Tierra del Fuego. . . A Narrative of Life in the Southern Seas’ (1857, 2 vols. post 8vo), which had some success, and might have recouped his expenses had he not brought an action against the missionary society, which, after dragging its way through the courts for the next three years, was decided against him. Left penniless, he went to America, where he declined a commission in the confederate navy, and for some years lived in the neighbourhood of New York, working for the booksellers. Among much that was published anonymously he edited, and practically rewrote, Hall's narrative of ‘Life with the Esquimaux’ (1864, 8vo); and he compiled ‘Southern Generals: their Lives and Campaigns’ (1866, 8vo).
On his return to England he still brooded over the fate of Franklin, and during the last twenty or five-and-twenty years of his life spent his whole time in compiling volumes of indexes of Arctic voyages, of notes and biographical records of Arctic voyagers, which he called the ‘Roll of Honour.’ He received towards the end of his life some pecuniary assistance from the Royal Geographical Society and from a few friends. He died on 12 March 1895. He left a mass of manuscripts, which was purchased by the Royal Geographical Society.