In Memoriam: William Battersby

One of the things that has drawn together all of us -- academics, archaeologists, historians, and all manner of armchair searchers and seekers -- fascinated by the mysteries surrounding Sir John Franklin's 1845 Arctic expedition, is its singular embodiment of loss and tragedy -- and how could it be otherwise, with 129 officers and sailors lost, and only a scant five of them accorded the peace of a proper burial. And so, when of our own is suddenly taken from our midst, we feel the loss more keenly, but also with a strange sense of familiarity and proximity to our inmost spirits. When we first heard the news of William Battersby's death, the first thought that sprang to many of our minds, once we'd recovered from the initial shock, was to imagine him among that high-hearted though ill-fated crew. For he, more than most, had sojourned among them so many times in his imagination, and studied the particularities of their plight with such care, that no more fitting or congenial company than that of Fitzjames, Crozier, Franklin and their men might be imagined. Whatever our varied faiths, or even our agnosticisms, such a scene seemed to all of us immediately right and possible.

Some of us had met William, though many had not -- his energies and enthusiasm were so readily conveyed across the ether of the Internet that it seemed hardly to make a difference -- indeed, all of us had the same experience: that of a curious, generous, thoughtful, and immensely sociable soul, the sort of new friend and fellow-traveller that one recognizes almost instantly. Some of us trod the decks of HMS "Victory" in his company; others traded e-mails on the details of ship construction, lead poisoning, facial reconstruction, or the tangled texts of the "Peglar" papers. In my own case, I met him in person just once, when he visited me at my home in Providence, and we enjoyed a lively afternoon in my home library/study, hopping from this text to that, going over new ideas and theories, and enjoying (of course) a few cups of tea. We were so carried away in our conversation that I completely forgot to ask him to inscribe my copy of his book on James Fitzjames; in an e-mail, he assured me that he would, the next time we met. And now that meeting is never to be.

I first came upon William's work in his modest piece, hosted by the Hakluyt Society, in which he proposed that it might well have been the ships' water distillation process, and not the tinned foods, that was the primary source of elevated levels of lead among the crew. It was a glimpse of his singular talent, which in re-examining the things we felt sure were "known," and testing them to see whether the evidence was really there. In two regards he completely overturned the conventional wisdom, as we learned that the National Maritime Museum did not, in fact, have a single Daguerreotype in its collections, but was only licensing images made from a set of Calotype copies held by the Derbyshire Records Office! And, in another significant instance, he made use of studies of tooth enamel and the history of dentistry -- along with co-authors skilled at facial reconstruction -- to make a very good case that the remains interred at the Franklin memorial at Greenwich were not, in fact, those of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, but rather of Harry Goodsir, the expedition's naturalist.

William was able to accomplish these remarkable feats in part because, although he'd spent much of his career in the business world, his first passion as an undergraduate had been archaeology. And so, in a way that relatively few of us "Franklinites" could have managed, he regularly collaborated with scientists and researchers as a co-author of papers in professional journals (a partial list of his publications is given below). Perhaps the most significant broader findings of these papers were that lead poisoning needs to be better understood in the context of known historical exposures (and thus falls short as a "solve it all" theory), along with a quite recent study that examined for the first time the full range of health issues experienced by the crews of Arctic expedition vessels.

But most will know him from his book on James Fitzjames. It's an invaluable contribution to the literature of the Franklin expedition, and along with William's articles, has spurred and will continue to spur further insights into the man and the men among whom he sailed. I'm reminded of the strong positive review by William Barr, surely the dean of modern polar historians, and a man seldom given to praise:
Battersby’s book is clearly based on a vast amount of dogged archival research. Undoubtedly many leads were dead ends, but his persistence paid off in what must have been a stroke of luck—his finding of the letter from Captain Stenhouse, identifying James Fitzjames’s father. But the end product is more than just the result of luck: the book is a well-crafted, highly readable biography. It will appeal not only to those intrigued by the fate of the Franklin expedition, but also to naval historians with a focus on the Royal Navy in the first half of the 19th century, and to members of the general public with a taste for mysteries.
Above all, William Battersby loved a good mystery, and had an almost Sherlockian talent for boiling things down to their essences. And now, his work on earth complete, our friend goes forth --  to a place where all that is hidden will be made clear, and every secret thing made known.


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Battersby, William, with Peter Carney. “Equipping HM Ships Erebus and Terror.” International Journal for the History of Engineering & Tech- nology 8, no. 12 (2009): 192–211.

Battersby, William, with S. Mays et al. “New Light on the Personal Identification of a Skeleton of a Member of Sir John Franklin’s Last Expedition to the Arctic, 1845.” Journal of Archaeological Science 38, no. 7 (2011): 1571–82.

Millar, K., A. Bowman, and W. Battersby, “A Re-Analysis of the Supposed Role of Lead Poisoning in Sir John Franklin’s Last Expedition, 1845–1848.” Polar Record 51, no. 3 (2015): 224–38.

James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition. The History Press/Dundurn, 2010.

Identification of the Probable Source of the Lead Poisoning Observed in Members of the Franklin Expedition. Hakluyt Society Website.


9 comments:

  1. Russell,thank you for this moving and fitting post for William,he was an amazing man,so full of energy on all things regarding the Franklin expedition,he will be missed that`s for sure.

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  2. A week has passed and I still can´t believe the news. For some reason I think there are certain people who are untouchable, so when things like this happen the shock is even worse. Now I am reading your book Finding Franklin, part of your words from the introduction makes an indelible sense.

    William to me was one of those special guys you think he is going to last forever. Though not a very good believer, if any, I have to recognise I shared your comforting thoughts about thinking he would be now accompanied by his beloved Fitzjames and the rest.

    Yours are very nice words, I think we all want to know how were those moments when meeting him for first time. He at least leaves us all a very good present which is his incredible book about James Fitzjames. An astonishing story of a single man whose life shouldn´t envy the lifes of any fictional adventurer.

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  3. Oh Russell, thank you so so much for this wonderful memoriam to my wonderful husband. I am hoping that his recent research will be continued by one of his fellow enthusiasts. With best wishes Rachel Battersby

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  4. In terms of his efforts and contributions to the Franklin community, a more fitting tribute to William could not be written. Thank you Russell.

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  5. Thank you everyone - Rachel and I (William's brother) and the rest of the family are so touched by all the comments about William. Many thanks.

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  6. I actually have two copies of William's book prominently on my bookshelf, the advance copy that I bought immediately, and the signed copy that he very kindly and unexpectedly sent to me. That was typical of Bill. I sadly never met him in person although I greatly enjoyed our correspondence and telephone conversations during the years. His enthusiasm and expertise were infectious, and I am greatly saddened by the fact that our promise to share a pint the next time one of us "crossed the pond" will not be fulfilled. My condolences to his family and friends, he will be missed.

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  7. From Christopher Murphy.

    Many thanks, Russell, for such an eloquent and informative tribute to William Battersby.

    My first encounter with William was when he gave a presentation before his book launch at Trinity House on 27 July 2010. It was a tour de force: a fascinating mystery explained with sharp clarity as he skilfully developed his thesis - a performance greatly enhanced with by his characteristic wit and charm.

    I still treasure the copy of 'James Fitzjames' William kindly signed for me at the reception following his talk. It is a first-rate work - lucid, adeptly structured and compelling. Underpinned by immense scholarly hard graft, demonstrated by extensive references, the book is exemplary in its accessibility. William tells the story in a wonderfully entertaining way, displaying his great gifts of imagination in conjuring up the past so vividly and his empathy with the varied assortment of characters he introduces us to.

    Having read his book I began to see William socially (having been introduced to him by his loyal friend Andrew Chapman) and - as so many others will testify - found him to be wonderful company. William was a constant source of intellectual stimulation, possessing a vast range of knowledge and a relentless desire to learn more. He was also a warm, generous, reliably good-natured companion who provided a delightfully witty and entertaining commentary upon both historical events and contemporary affairs whenever we met.

    His death comes as a very great loss for his many friends, but obviously particularly painfully for his family – especially Rachel who also has to bear the anguish of her father being seriously injured in the plane crash. William and Rachel were manifestly very deeply in love – it was wonderful to see how happy they were together. So it is especially sad that their bond was severed in such a swift and harsh fashion.

    However, William’s philosophy was definitely ‘One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name’ and so, although we mourn his early passing when he still had so much to contribute, we should take comfort in his zest for life and the happiness he enjoyed and gave to others.

    Dear William Rest in Peace.

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  8. I never met him, but upon reading his Fitzjames biography, had to contact him via email and tell him how thoroughly I had enjoyed the book. His reply was not just "thank you" but a wonderful further explanation of several points in the book. He then emailed me updates which helped add even more to the story. His inclusion of someone like me (an enthusiast for "Franklin" but by no means an expert) was much appreciated.
    As the ships were discovered, I often hoped that papers would surface to help him "finish" telling the Fitzjames story. Sadly, he won't be here to do so, but any "final chapter" about Fitzjames will be built upon the foundation William built.
    A final word, Russell, your final paragraph touched all the right notes.

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  9. Dear Russell. Thank you for these most kind and fitting words. Upon publishing they brought me and my brother and sister a great deal of comfort, as they do still now. He spoke very fondly of his visit to Providence, I'm glad you had that time. I just wanted to say thank you. Maddie (William's daughter)

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