Thursday, July 27, 2017

Sir John Franklin's Arctic Medal?

News this morning has emerged that an Arctic Medal, in the possession of the Stromness Museum in Orkney, has been identified as Sir John Franklin's own medal. Certainly, if that's accurate, this modest token would almost at once become the most valuable and significant medal of its kind. One which came to auction a few years ago -- that belonging to Lieutenant John Irving -- sold for $60,000, and there's every reason to believe that Franklin's own medal would be worth many times that.

But how came it there, and how certain is the identification? I met with Janette Park, the curator in Stromness, this past May, at which point she seemed confident that the medal was one of significance, but was still awaiting further research. This was apparently provided by Jeremy Michell at the National Maritime Museum, and although somewhat tenuous, the conjectured line of provenance would run something like this: Sir John was immensely fond of his niece Catherine and her husband the Rev. Drummond Rawnsley; he visited them just a few months before he sailed on his final, fatal voyage. He was there to serve as godfather at the christening of their son, Willingham Franklin Rawnsley, named after his late brother, and presented them with a bound volume including a Bible and prayer book, which he inscribed:
To Willingham Franklin Rawnsley, from his affectionate Uncle and Godfather, on the day of his baptism, 23d March 1845, John Franklin. Search the scriptures. Pray with spirit and with understanding also.
This very infant, as fate would have it, grew up to compile a life of his great-uncle's wife Lady Jane, which was published in 1923 when he was seventy-eight. The Rawnsleys thus had rich reasons to remember Sir John -- which thus connects them with a slip of paper, formerly adhering to the medal, with the initials F.A.R., thought to be those of Francis Anna Rawnsley. The medal remained in the Rawnsley line, and was brought to the Stromness Museum by Rosalind Rawnsley, so the line of provenance is entirely plausible. Unfortunately, no correspondence or family mention of the medal survives, so the line is still somewhat conjectural. There is one other bit of evidence -- a reference to Franklin's medal missing its eyelet and ribbon, which also matches this exemplar. It's also worth noting that the medal is not mentioned in any of the documents associated with Sophia Cracroft, Lady Franklin's niece and one of the executors of her will, and thus was not among the many Franklin-related items from her estate which passed to the Scott Polar Research Institute in the Lefroy Bequest. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course -- but here it at least does not contradict the conjectured transmission of the medal to the Rawnsleys, though it suggests that it more likely happened before Lady Franklin's death. If so, the gift was surely made in the spirit of the strong bonds of affection which linked Sir John to the family -- and so, in any case, makes this medal one of unusually significant historical interest.

6 comments:

  1. Great post Russell, Can you elaborate on why Rosalind Rawnsley brought it to the Stromness Museum? What was her connection with Stromness?

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    1. According to family members, Rosalind was visiting Stromness, and happened upon the old well from which Erebus and Terror drew water. This led her to the nearby museum, and her decision to donate the medal to them.

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  2. The best ways to identify such a piece is (1) contemporarily engraved details, (2) the medal is contained in its named card box of issue, and (3) it is accompanied by original documentation related to the recipient and/or medal. Something to keep in mind is that it was very common in the 19th century for medals to be shorn of their suspenders (and clasps) and transformed into wearing brooches for wear by the mothers and widows of deceased soldiers and sailors. Medals were also put into frames and worn as pendants, thus preventing any damage to the medals themselves.

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  3. Medal collector Hiram Dunn, the researcher involved in the discovery, has made the following statement on a private forum: "Since then there has been extensive research done along with the Franklin family and the NMM 'Jeremy Michell', the medal was mentioned in a family transcript and it has now been confirmed as the medal awarded posthumously and signed for by General Sir Edward Sabine, on behalf of Lady Franklin on 7th May 1857. The faded piece of paper on the back of the medal, the family concluded that these are the initials F.A.R and that of Frances Ann Rawnsley, great aunt of the donor of the medal to the museum, and came from her estate, (Frances Ann Rawnsley was the great niece of Sir John Franklin)". The piece of information regarding mention of the medal "in a family transcript" has evidently not come to the surface in the media, and I have asked him for either an image of these writings, or a transcription of the same.

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    1. Glenn, many thaks for this. The "family transcript," whatever it is, would certainly strenghen the case considerably. I'll be very interested to learn more about it when you hear back.

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  4. Hiram Dunn has further commented on the private forum: "I have to apologise about the statement that the medal was mentioned in a family archive publication, I misheard during the conversation on Wednesday night in Stromness hotel where we all gathered for a meal prior to the broadcast the next day, lots of people were talking and it was busy, my only excuse is that I do have poor hearing, (war wounded disability) so I do apologise for misleading some people. What was said, they are trying to get a look at a family archive to see if it is mentioned, is what was said.

    However this does not detract from the fact that the medal has passed down through the family along with the Quid of Tobacco which was also passed to the museum at the same time as being a Franklin relict, so its providence is solid, I like Russell Potters quote; 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'."

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