He was born in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England, then part of County Durham. He joined the Royal Navy in 1823 at age twelve and rose in the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1835, commander in 1841, and captain in 1842.
Collinson was in command of the Lady Bentinck, a vessel of 1800 tons burden and 520 horsepower, when it appeared with the Phlegethon off Chapoo, causing a "sensation".:303,344
On 1 April 1842, the British Plenipotentiary of Trade Henry Pottinger reported that Collinson, as commander of the Nemesis based in Chusan, had contributed to a successful skirmish with Chinese troops on the island of Taisam near Ningbo in February of that year.:300
The three expeditions sent in 1848 to locate Sir John Franklin all failed. In 1850 Collinson was instructed to look for him by sailing through the Bering Strait while Horatio Austin and others would use the normal route through the Parry Channel. He was given HMS Enterprise and was to be accompanied by Commander Robert McClure commanding HMS Investigator. They left Plymouth in January 1850. After becoming separated off the coast of Chile the two ships became independent. (McClure got to the Bering Strait first and was frozen in on Banks Island. When he was rescued and taken to England he became the first person to cross the Northwest Passage). When Collinson reached the Bering Strait and learned that McClure was ahead of him he turned back and spent the winter in Hong Kong. He returned to Bering Strait in mid-July 1851 and sailed east along the coast. On 29 August he was off the coast of Banks Island and saw an open strait tending northeast. This was the Prince of Wales Strait. He entered the strait thinking that he might have found the northwest passage but after a while he saw a flagpole on a hill. Under the flagstaff was a message saying that McClure had wintered here the previous year. Collinson pushed on a little beyond McClure's maximum before he was blocked by ice. Returning south he found another message saying that McClure had passed that point only 18 days before but it did not mention McClure's plan to circumnavigate the island. He went a little further southeast and chose winter quarters at Minto Inlet. Here he found another message left by one of McClure's sledging parties. In the spring of 1852 he sent a sledge party north to Melville Island where they found tracks from an unknown traveler (these were McClure's men who were frozen in to the west.) On 5 August he was freed from the ice and went along the south coast of Victoria Island into the Coronation Gulf, the easternmost point reached by a ship from the Bering Strait. He wintered at Cambridge Bay on the southeast coast of Victoria Island.
In the spring of 1853 he led a sledge party to the easternmost point on the island (Point Pelly). A little later some Inuit drew them a map of the area to the east. On the map was a ship. If Collinson had not disregarded this, or had had a proper interpreter, he might have sent a sledge party east and found some of Franklin's men, if they were still alive. He returned through Bering Strait and around the Cape of Good Hope. At the cape (January 1855) he learned of Rae's report that Franklin had been lost just to the east of where he had turned back. Collinson's reputation is lower than it perhaps should be. The problems are that McClure was always there first, his constant quarrels with his officers and bad luck. Roald Amundsen praised him for navigating a large ship through waters that were difficult for Amundsen's small ship. His account of the voyage was published six years after his death by his brother, Maj. General Thomas Bernard Collinson.
In 1862 he became an "elder brother" of Trinity House and in 1875 became Deputy Master.
- "The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China, and Australia". Parbury, Allen, and Company. 1842.
- Barr, William (2007). Arctic Hell-Ship: The Voyage of HMS Enterprise, 1850-1855. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-88864-472-8.
- Stephen Davies, Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, University of Hong Kong Press, 2012
- "Thomas Bernard Collinson (1821-1902)", by Philip Heath
- Glyn Williams,"Arctic Labyrinth", 2009
- Barrow's Boys - Fergus Fleming ISBN 1-86207-502-6
- Timeline of HMS Investigator, Her Officers and Crew (1850-54) http://www.pc.gc.ca/culture/expeditions2011/his-sto/his-sto06.aspx
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
- Cooper, Thompson (1884). "Collinson, Richard". Men of the Time (eleventh ed.). London: George Routledge & Sons. pp. 274–275.
- Laughton, John Knox (1887). "Collinson, Richard". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 11. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 383–384.