Sunday, March 28, 2021

John Torrington, Intriguing Person

I'd heard about it for years, how John Torrington -- the unfortunate leading stoke on HMS "Erebus" -- had found himself in the pages of People® Magazine. What I hadn't realized what that he'd been chosen -- along with Bill Murray, Michael Jackson, and Vanessa Williams as one of the "Most Intriguing People of 1984." With a little bit of rummaging around on eBay, it wasn't too hard to get a copy of the original magazine, and have a look at Torrington's pop-cultural debut

The accompanying article, written by Jack Friedman, gives us a fascinating snapshot in time -- not just at Torrington, but at Owen Beattie's perspective on his work. It's not often recalled, but in the 1984 field season, permits came so late that Beattie only had time to exhume one of the three Franklin expedition members buried on Beechey Island, and -- perhaps because his was nearest the shore -- he picked Torrington. So his remarks, as quoted by Friedman, predate the exhumation of Hartnell and Braine, and the later book written in collaboration with John Geiger. 

Interestingly, Beattie characterizes the Franklin expedition as "successful in an unsuccessful way," saying that he believed that they had achieved their goal of the Northwest Passage (this must be based, I'd assume, on the presence of expedition remains near Cape Herschel, a point previously surveyed from the west by Dease and Simpson). Beattie calls his team "simply and extension" of the earlier searches, from the late 1840's to the present day. In response to what must have been a question about how respectful it was to dig up such a long-frozen man, Beattie declared "I work with the bones of dead people all the time. I'm sensitive to the fact that they were people. None of us felt we were violating a privacy."

The condition of Torrington's lungs had already led them to the conclusion that his most proximate cause of death was pneumonia. And yet, according to Beattie, they were still waiting for full lab results: "In the coming months," Beattie said, "we'll be analyzing hair and nail samples to see if other health problems can be identified." Lead, however, had apparently already been detected, and the hypothesis that it came from the food tins is mentioned. The article says that "this may help explain some of the seemingly irrational decisions made by Franklin and his men."

There's one other fascinating detail: 

"Before the coffin was re-sealed, the scientists at the grave site placed a note in it that was written by a woman on Beattie's team, Geraldine Ruszala, and signed by all of them. 'We had some serious thoughts,' says Beattie. 'I don't want to get too schmaltzy about it. It's simply a private note about our feelings as human beings.'"

Torrington's grave has been undisturbed since, but his presence -- as conveyed by Beattie's work and the photographs taken at the time -- lingers on. He's been the inspiration for a number of songs, most notably James Taylor's "The Frozen Man," along with Iron Maiden's "Stranger in a Strange Land," not to mention a range of poems and novels, including Mordecai Richler's wry Solomon Gursky Was Here. His was, as James Dzieszynski has remarked, an "unintentional journal to immortality" -- no one would be more surprised than he to know how long his story has persisted.

NB: You can download a .pdf of the entire article here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

"The Terror" comes to the BBC

Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier
Back in March of 2018, when viewers in North America turned on their televisions to see what "The Terror" was all about, there was a lot of explaining to do. Not so much in Canada, where Sir John Franklin has remained a cultural touchstone, but certainly in the United States, where "Franklin" usually means "Benjamin." And now, three years later, Franklin and his officers and crew are, as it were, returning home thanks to the BBC. Franklin may need a little dusting off even there, though the ground has been admirably prepared by Michael Palin's wonderful book Erebus: The Story of a Ship, but in chatting with Paul Franks on BBC radio's West Midlands service yesterday, I still needed to go over the basics -- what was the Northwest Passage, why was it do damned important, and who was this Franklin chap anyway?

As they say, it's a long story. But the basics are simple: the Northwest Passage, originally envisioned as the "sea route to the Orient," was by the mid-nineteenth century a more abstract prize: numerous expeditions had been launched and failed, enough for Arctic veteran Sir John Ross to declare to a Parliamentary Committee that, even if found, the Passage would be "utterly useless" for commercial ships. Still, for a maritime nation, the lack of having managed it was a perceptible failing, one which Franklin's expedition was widely expected to resolve. Under the command of Franklin -- who had mapped much of the mid-section of the Passage already --  with two ice-strengthened ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror," fresh from a successful Antarctic voyage, the expedition seemed destined to succeed. Until it disappeared with scarcely a trace, defeating every effort to find more than a skeleton or a scrap of paper for decades, even as disturbing accounts, collected from the native Inuit people, told of starvation, cannibalism, and exhausted men who "fell down as they walked."

Like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, the show builds a tissue of horrific fiction around this armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.

I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though the curious can read the episode-by-episode recap and commentary I wrote for Canadian Geographic on their website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror that awaits.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Repost: Christmas in the Frozen Regions

At this time of year, many of us are seeking a bit of Christmas past by revisiting Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." There are innumerable local productions, dozens of film versions (I'm most fond of the one starring Alistair Sim, or else the Muppet Christmas Carol, which I actually feel is the best recent adaptation), and of course the book itself is always available. But most today are less acquainted with Dickens's other Christmas tales -- at one point he was writing a new one every year -- or with the many special Christmas numbers of his magazines Household Words and All the Year 'Round, which Dickens personally selected and edited with great care. It was, in fact, in 1850 -- the very first year of his first magazine, Household Words -- that Dickens, hoping to revive the fading hopes that Franklin and his men might yet live, selected a piece describing an Antarctic Christmas aboard the "Erebus" and "Terror" -- the very ships that Franklin had taken on his expedition a few years later. Making this connection was important enough that Dickens wrote a fresh introduction to the article, as well as a brief coda, himself, and his words are animated with all his usual spirit:

"THINK of Christmas in the tremendous wastes of ice and snow, that lie in the remotest regions of the earth ! Christmas, in the interminable white desert of the Polar sea ! Yet it has been kept in those awful solitudes, cheerfully, by Englishmen. Where crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships, which in a moment might have ground them to dust; where hair has frozen on the face; where blankets have stiffened upon the bodies of men lying asleep, closely housed by huge fires, and plasters have turned to ice upon the wounds of others accidentally hurt; where the ships have been undistinguishable from the environing ice, and have resembled themselves far less than the surrounding masses have resembled monstrous piles of architecture which could not possibly be there, or anywhere; where the winter animals and birds are white, as if they too were born of the desolate snow and frost; there Englishmen have read the prayers of Christmas Day, and have drunk to friends at home, and sung home songs."
The account that follows is by Robert McCormick, who had recently served under James Clark Ross as surgeon and naturalist aboard HMS "Terror," and describes the first Christmas of their Antarctic voyage. McCormick seems to have been an excellent writer, and this account is all the more notable as it's his earliest publication; he found himself unable to write up the expected naturalist's report for the Ross expedition, and his own account of his career, Voyages of Discovery in the Antarctic and Arctic Seas, was not published until 1884. As Dickens hands the narrative off to McCormick, the mystery and anxiety then surrounding Franklin's name is directly evoked:
"In 1819, Captain Parry and his brave companions did so ; and the officers having dined off a piece of fresh beef, nine months old, preserved by the intense climate, joined the men in acting plays, with the thermometer below zero, on the stage. In 1825, Captain Franklin's party kept Christmas Day in their hut with snap-dragon and a dance, among a merry party of Englishmen, Highlanders, Canadians, Esquimaux, Chipewyans, Dog- Ribs, Hare Indians, and Cree women and children.
In 1850, some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions. Heaven grant it! It is not beyond hope ! and be held by the later crews of those same ships ; for they are the very same that have so long been missing, and that are painfully connected in the public mind with FRANKLIN’S name."
You can read McCormick’s account in full here. Of course, much of the resonance of his story is how it shows the explorers keeping the traditions of home, evoking an elaborate Victorian Christmas even in the most desolate regions of the world. On this occasion, the ship was redecorated as a "hotel," and the drinks were kept cold by being served atop an enormous block of solid ice. McCormack, oddly, says very little about the food, but other explorers were far more voluble; you can follow the links here to read of a feast of "Banks Land Reindeer" in "Christmas-Keeping in the Arctic Regions, 1850-51," relish Elisha Kent Kane's Christmas on the Second Grinnell expedition, at which mere "pork and beans" were disguised as all manner of delicacies by the men's scurvy-fed imaginations, or devour A.W. Greely's luxurious first Christmas with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition at Fort Conger, which featured mock-turtle soup, salmon, tenderloin of musk-ox, plum pudding with wine sauce, dates, figs, cherries, egg-nog, and an extra ration of rum -- a sad contrast with the meals of the last few survivors three years later, who endeavored to support life by fishing for brine-shrimp through a sieve.

Wherever readers of this blog may find themselves this Christmas, I hope that your evening meal is enriched by all the warmth and spirit of domestic tranquility that these men's meals -- whether in reality, or in their imaginations, or both -- sought to evoke so far away from home.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Goodsir Brooch

It may be one of the most extraordinary relics of the Franklin expedition that's never before been seen: a brooch, containing in its inmost oval a weave of human hair, including that of Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir.

But Harry's hair is not alone; ten other individuals from the Goodsir and Taylor families are represented, the eldest being the Reverend Joseph Taylor (1742-1815), and including both of Harry's parents, his brother Archie and his sister Agnes (both of whom died young, Archie at 23 and Agnes at the tender age of one. The choice of the Goodsir siblings suggests to me that the original impulse of the brooch's being made was memorial, which the black border seems to also indicate. The most likely occasion would seem to be on or after the death of the Reverend Anstruther Taylor in 1863; his name is engraved on the back. Presumably, some locks of hair had been preserved by the families from the others; such brooches were not uncommon (see this example from the Victoria & Albert Museum), though the large number of individuals represented -- confirmed in a handwritten list kept with the brooch -- is certainly unusual.

The brooch was kept in the family, passing from Jane Ross Goodsir (who probably commissioned it) to her cousin Dr. Harry Goodsir Mackid (1858-1916) in Canada (he was the son of Harry's aunt Jean Forbes (Taylor) Mackid). From him, it passed through the generations, ending up in the care of his great-grandson Court Mackid. When Michael Tracy tracked him  down, Court shared images and information about it, and both realized its enormous historical significance. One thought, of course, was to have it tested for DNA, but the difficulty of analyzing rootless hairs -- though one technique now seems capable of managing this -- combined with that of isolating one individual's sequence from among 11 -- made such a prospect daunting. Neither Court nor Michael wished to damage the brooch or its contents, and the only available method of DNA analysis would have destroyed the hair used in it.

So the two cousins decided upon a different course -- they would jointly donate it to the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh; the Museum was pleased to accept it, and -- once these current days of pandemic-reduced services are past -- there it will be preserved, in the very halls where Harry once served as conservator.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Henry Le Vesconte's Explorer Cousin

William John Wills
One of the most exciting things about editing the letters of the men of the Franklin expedition and their families is all the research one has to do on their backgrounds -- everyone who's mentioned in a letter should (ideally) be identified, and every topic explained, from steam-ship races to Chartist meetings, to Church politics in Tasmania. And every so often, one finds a diamond in the coal-chute of mere facts -- so it was with a reference in H.T.D. Le Vesconte's letters. He mentioned that he had gotten a letter from "William," apparently a doctor with a practice in Totnes, Devonshire -- and this William was trying to sell his home and practice. Once I identified him, the reason became clear.

William turned out to be Dr. William Wills, the brother of Les Vesconte's mother Sarah -- and the reason he wanted to sell was because he'd decided he wanted to emigrate to Australia! It seems, however, that his wife was initially unwilling to go, and so their sons headed out ahead of them; the stratagem worked, and the Willeses followed them a few months later. The family ended up in Ballarat in Victoria, where the father set up a new medical practice. 

And it was there that his son William John Wills began a series of pursuits that would soon lead him to become, as had his cousin, an explorer. He'd had medical training with his father, and the younger William showed a gift for natural history reminiscent of Harry Goodsir's. He also became an avid outdoorsman, and learned the art of surveying; it was in this capacity that he was engaged by Robert O'Hara Burke, who had conceived of the almost-unheard-of idea of crossing the entire Australian continent on foot. The expedition departed in August of 1860, and endured almost unimaginable difficulties, primarily with a shortage of rations and the lack of other edible food sources. With the dismissal of the expedition's second-in-command, Wills became Burke's lieutenant. As they neared their final goal, though, Will's health declined steadily. Their only food at this point was the occasional fish and great heaps of nardoo -- a sort of Australian aquatic four-leaf clover. It was far from lucky for them -- instead, it became their "tripe de roche."

Finally, when it was clear he could go on no longer, Williams voluntarily stayed behind in their hut when Burke went to gather more nardoo. Fittingly, he wrote a final letter to his father before he died, and it's there that his thoughts turned to his cousin Henry:

Cooper's Creek, 27 June, 1861.


These are probably the last lines you will ever get from me. We are on the point of starvation, not so much from absolute want of food, but from the want of nutriment in what we can get. Our position, although more provoking, is probably not near so disagreeable as that of poor Harry and his companions.

He died the next day, followed soon after by Burke himself. It was to be William's letters and journals, posthumously edited by his father, that became the best-known account of the journey. You can read them in full here. The expedition has many other similar aspects to Franklin's -- numerous searchers were sent, but mis-read the clues and narrowly missed rendering aid, and the exact cause of Wills and Burke's deaths is disputed even to this day, with some blaming the improper preparation of the nardoo, some blaming scurvy, and some pointing to beri-beri (caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B1) as the main culprit.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Curtain calls ....

You're about to embark on one of the greatest adventures in the history of exploration -- the search for the Northwest Passage under the command of Sir John Franklin. Your room aboard ship, small as it is, is crammed with your books, clothing, and instruments; everything is in order. Your new shipmates are a goodly lot; you feel certain that, with them as your comrades, the long and isolated voyage will be the more bearable. And yet, a few weeks remain before you sail, and near at hand you have London, with all its attractions. What do you do?

Well, if your name is Harry Goodsir, you take yourself -- though money is tight -- and manage one of the cheap seats at Drury Lane. There, as you've read in the papers, the great singer Gilbert Duprez is to appear in the role of Arnold in Rossini's masterpiece Guillaume Tell. Duprez, famed in his time for being the first to sing a "high C" from his chest, was -- apparently in part from the exertion required for this feat -- perhaps a little past his prime, but nevertheless his singing, as the Illustrated London News declared, remained "transcendant." Their review went on to lament, "when will English singers, possessed as they are of fine voices, emulate the foreigners in passion, feeling, and true perception of character?"

It's a small detail, one I stumbled upon in one of Harry's missives that I'm currently working on for a forthcoming volume of all the letters of Franklin's officers and sailors, but a telling one. Goodsir only just had enough money to cover the cost of the required undress uniform; for the required silver table setting, he had to write home to his family. Having secured an appointment as Assistant-Surgeon and naturalist, he was eager to expand human knowledge, and make his name cataloging the sea-fauna, fish, and mollusks of the Arctic regions; he seemed -- both to himself and others -- at the beginning of a brilliant career. And yet, even at that moment, when resources were scarce, he did not neglect the Arts in the name of Science.

Such small but significant details abound in his letters, and those of all the others who would sail with Franklin; I can't wait to share them with the world. But time -- and editorial labors -- oblige us to wait; watch this space, as over the next months I hope to share a few more of the insights they contain. And, when the volume of them is ready for the press, you'll read about it first here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Joseph Taylor Goodsir

Largo Kirk (photo by James Denham CC-by-SA)
On the occasion of Harry Goodsir's two hundred and first birthday, it seems fitting to recall some of the other members of his illustrious family. His brother John was certainly the best known; an eminent anatomist and pioneer in cellular theory, he was for many years a Professor at the University of Edinburgh. Those who know Harry will almost certainly know Robert, who participated in two searches for the Franklin Expedition, and wrote a book about one of them; he later emigrated to Australia. The least well-known may be his sister, Jane Ross Goodsir, who kept Harry's memory alive, even saving some of his old laundry receipts!

The Pulpit at Largo Kirk
But perhaps the most enigmatic and tragic figure among the Goodsirs was Joseph Taylor Goodsir (1815-1893). Unlike his more scientifically-minded siblings, Joseph found himself drawn to theology; after attending United College at St. Andrews, he studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh from 1833 to 1837. Although his grandfather John Goodsir (1746-1816), had long preached at the Baptist meeting house in Largo, Joseph aimed for a post in the established Church of Scotland. His father sought out the aid of Admiral Sir Philip Durham -- a man whose influence he would call upon again in 1845 to help Harry get his post with Franklin -- and through him secured an appointment for Joseph as the minster of Largo Kirk in 1843. Given the nature of the post -- it was more or less a lifetime sinecure -- Joseph's future would seem to have been assured. And yet, in 1850, he abruptly resigned his position, offering by way of explanation only his conviction that “the standards of the Church were not consistent with the teaching of the scripture."

Surely one factor may have been the emotional toll of the preceding years, years which saw the deaths of  John Goodsir (1782-1848) as well as the energetic Archie, youngest of the brothers. Harry's fate was yet unknown, though what news had reached home -- such as the discovery of the graves on Beechey Island (by a party that included Robert Goodsir) -- was not encouraging. But there also seems to have been a certain bent of mind among all the Goodsirs: a laser-sharp intellect paired with an almost-obsessive energy, so much so that nervous exhaustion was often the result. For Harry, this became a fascination with natural history, an enthusiasm which - by the account of his shipmates -- was both congenial and contagious. For John, it meant long hours in the laboratory and dissecting-rooms, combined with teaching duties. For Joseph, it seems to have meant an extensive study of scripture, and a series of theological tracts critical of the established church, which eventually led him out of the pulpit entirely. It seems significant that none of the Goodsir brothers ever married -- they all seem to have been too busy for such engagements.

Joseph ended up a man without a real profession; his sister Jane looked after him. Increasingly troubled by fits of melancholy, he was twice admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum (in 1856 and 1858). His closest relationship in these years was with his brother John; the two travelled together to Berlin and later to Rome. John's death in 1867 was a heavy blow, but Joseph managed to fight off the shadows by throwing himself into organizing his brother's scientific papers for publication. For a time, it seemed as though this work had re-invigorated him; in 1868 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Yet it was not to be a lasting thing. As he had with theology, so now with science he threw himself into disputes. When, later that same year, the Royal Society proposed making Rudolph Virchow an honorary Fellow, he fixed upon some passages in Virchow's work that he felt insufficiently acknowledged John Goodsir's research. Indeed, though the passages were only roughly similar, he accused Virchow of plagiarism, and wrote an angry pamphlet as part of a one-man-campaign against Virchow. Needless to say, it did not endear him to his fellow Fellows, who elected Virchow anyway.

The remainder of his life was largely a story of a very gradual decline, punctuated with additional bouts of melancholia; though he purchased a small cottage, attended some lectures, and took up projects such as making scrap-books, none of these activities seemed to lift his spirits. Finally, on 29 April 1881, he was again admitted to the Asylum for melancholia and suicidal thoughts; he would never leave again. He died there on 27 April, 1893.


With my deepest thanks to Mike Tracy, whose research on his Goodsir relations provided the basis for this post.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Harry Goodsir's Kayak

 When Harry Goodsir, serving as Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist aboard  HMS "Erebus" under Sir John Franklin, arrived in Greenland to see a small fleet of hunters in kayaks headed their way, he was not surprised. Indeed, the form and style of these particular kayaks was a familiar one to him, even though he'd never been to sea before. Here is his description:

We have at length got to our anchorage in the Whale Fish Islands It was rather a heavy sea when we were beating off & on about 2 o clock in the morning but notwithstanding we very soon saw several specks just like Ducks upon the surface of the water which we very shortly found to be the Esquimaux in their canoes coming off to the Ships. It was the strangest sight possible to see them rising up and down upon the tops of the waves in shells exactly the same size as that in the Gallery of the College of Surgeons and going through the water at a tremendous rate most of them without any covering for the head & dripping wet all over. 

It may be remembered that Harry had, up until the moment the expedition sailed, been the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh, and thus the curator of the kayak that apparently once resided there. But where was it now? A search of the collections at Surgeon's Hall produced a model kayak -- but no, this was only a few inches long. Further digging disclosed an old record, apparently copied off a paper catalog card, of a kayak with the unusual accession number 1800.0.0.

Since most items are catalogued by date, this number seemed at first to suggest an 1800 acquisition -- but it more likely was just a placeholder for an item acquired at an indefinite date prior to 1800. I then noticed a small note stating that the kayak had been de-accessioned and sent to the National Museum of Scotland! So of course I went there, and searched, and found a kayak -- in fact, I found quite a few of them, none of which was described as ex-Surgeon's Hall. But again, a small note stood out: most of the kayaks in their collection had been examined and catalogued by a man named Harvey Golden. Who was he, I wondered -- a bespectacled Scotsman in a tweed jacket? The name didn't sound Danish. Perhaps if I could track him down, he would know which kayak was the one I sought.

With the estimable aid of my faithful servant Google, I found that he was based in Portland, Oregon, where he operated a kayak museum and website. More significantly, he was the author of the book Kayaks of Greenland, an authoritative (but presently out-of-print) reference on the subject. I e-mailed him and waited, impatiently.

The next day brought a reply -- yes, indeed, he knew exactly which kayak it was -- its previous residence at Surgeon's Hall wasn't on the written records, but the museum staff had told Harvey of the connection when he came to assess -- and sketch! -- their kayaks. The one in question had been transferred in 1995. and bore the accession number 1995.886. And, as it turns out, it is a kayak from West Greenland -- the very place where Harry saw the scene he'd described -- and probably dated to the 18th century. 

And so, with deepest thanks to Harvey, I present to you Harry Goodsir's kayak!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Jane Franklin and the Westminster Memorial (2 of 2)

 Getting the Monument right in Jane Franklin's eyes had clearly proved something of a headache for Sophy Cracroft, as her journal entry for 29th December 1874 showed:

"I went to Mr Noble and explained the placing of the flag at half-mast would be inconsistent to the circumstances intended to be set forth, namely the discovery of the NW Passage. My Uncle's death having, as we judged by the date, followed the return of Graham Gore's party, which had undoubtedly ascertained the fact of the continuous channel to the coast. He fully accepted and agreed to this and flags will be raised. I pointed out also that the condition of the atmosphere and the temperature as shown by the frozen sails and ropes forbid the possibility of either ensign or pennant being displayed or recognised to be such; they would be mere stiffened ropey masses. Everything proved to him that the fancy was irrational. He has difficulty of finding marble of the right kinds, as it must be uncommonly hard."

(Cracroft Journals 1874, SPRI)

Somehow in the end the pennant was included & lowered, but no wonder Noble had looked "shadowy" to Catherine, the execution of this monument must have been highly stressful for him. He suffered ill health for years & died 23rd June 1876 aged 58 (Wikipedia)

Monument & Inscriptions

The architectural design in alabaster surrounding Matthew Noble's white marble bust & bas-relief was by Sir George Gilbert Scott, RA and carried out by Messrs Farmer and Brindley (Daily Telegraph 2 August 1875) The Dean of Westminster had been responsible for choosing the inscriptions on the Monument. On the base of the bust was simply written: "FRANKLIN." Above & below the bas-relief of Erebus in the ice were verses from the Benedicite:

O ye frost & cold, O ye ice & snow,
Bless ye the Lord; Praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.

Below them the lines from Tennyson:

Not here: the White North has thy bones; And thou, 
Heroic Sailor-Soul,
Art passing on thine happier Voyage now,
Toward no Earthly Pole.

The inscription to the right of the Bust read:

"To the memory of Sir John Franklin, born April 16, 1786, at Spilsby, Lincolnshire: died June 11, 1847, off Point Victory, in the Frozen Ocean, the beloved chief of the crews who perished with him in completing the discovery of the North-West Passage"

and to the left:

"This Monument was erected by Jane, his widow, who, after long waiting and sending many in search of him, herself departed to find him in the realms of Light July 18, 1875, aged 83 years"

After the ceremony Catherine wrote a letter (whereabouts unknown) to her friend Mrs Halliday with an account of the unveiling. Mrs Halliday wrote several pages of notes based on Catherine's letter, & these notes reveal something which isn't mentioned in Catherine's diary or Hardie's funeral letter:

It seems that as Jane Franklin lay in her coffin, before the lid was sealed, the immortal lines composed by Tennyson & written out by him, were placed into her hand to accompany her in death, along with a letter from Bishop Selwyn.

From Mrs Halliday's notes:

"The words of the Benedicite, chosen by the Dean, are so appropriate!

Tennysons too, are remarkable.

A copy of them, written by Himself, were put into her Hand in her Coffin, with the letter of Bishop Selwyn of Lichfield, from which the words of the Inscriptions, (recording her placing that Monument to her Husbands Memory) were taken."

Only death would have prevented Jane Franklin from attending the unveiling of this last Monument to her husband, but at least in death she carried the essence of that memorial in her hand, clutching those papers in her coffin as she descended via hydraulic machinery to the Catacombs of Kensal Green.

Additional Memorials

In 1908 a memorial to Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock was added beneath the monument to Sir John Franklin, of alabaster made by Farmer & Brindley:

"Here also is commemorated Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock 1819-1907, Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin in 1859"

A memorial stone to Dr John Rae was unveiled in September 2014, in red Orkney sandstone with Celtic style lettering by Charles Smith: 

"John Rae 1813-1893 Arctic Explorer"

Friday, August 21, 2020

Jane Franklin and the Westminster Memorial (1 of 2)

This week, we present another guest post by Mary Williamson, who is Sir John Franklin's great-great-grand-niece and a skilled researcher and archivist in her own right. This acount, compiled from letters in her family archive, gives us a fresh look at the final days of Lady Franklin, and the memorial to her husband at Westminster Abbey.


Catherine Rawnsley, John Franklin’s niece who lived at Halton Holgate Rectory in Lincolnshire, visited her Aunt Jane Franklin two or three times a year. On 29th January 1874, she attended “Friday dinner at Aunt Franklins” but a visit the following November had found her ailing:

        “Saturday 21st  Went to see Aunt Franklin whom I found up stairs very feeble but quite herself in mind & memory. She is unable to walk up & down stairs but can go across her room, after a few minutes talk about things in general & the Arctic Expedition in particular I left her feeling it doubtful whether I shall ever see this very remarkable woman again as she is so bent on going abroad to Lisbon for the winter & I can hardly believe she will return. Mrs Grinnell & Mrs Ruxton came in while I was there”

Jane Franklin struggled through the winter, but was too ill to see Catherine when she  visited on 4th June 1875: “went to see Sophy Cracroft & found Aunt F was very ill & unlike herself”

So her death just a month later on 18th July came as no surprise, & Catherine wrote a fitting tribute in her Diary to an Aunt she admired & respected: 

     “The tidings reached us first through the Times of 19th which contain a long & ably written notice of her. She was as it described her a very gifted & remarkable woman. She had seen, done & suffered much in her long life, the suspense as to my Uncles long unknown fate would have worn out a less brave & indomitable spirit. It was singular that two people of such determined & untiring energy as my Uncle & Aunt should come together. Brave, persevering & deeply pious as he was, hers was I always believe the master mind, her intellect so clear to within a few months of her death, her judgement so sound, her breadth & depth of intellect so remarkable, no petty feelings or narrow views. She had been gradually failing for 2 years but only because too feeble to walk up & down stairs the last few months…” 

Catherine’s son Hardie (Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley) attended Jane Franklin’s funeral at Kensal Green on July 23rd 1875. His description of the funeral in a letter to his mother has already been covered (Visions of the North 13 December 2018). He didn’t attend the unveiling of the Monument to Sir John Franklin at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 31st July, possibly because he had already seen the Bust in the Sculptor Matthew Noble’s studio on the morning of the funeral, which he recorded in  a poem:

“Quiet, and cold, and white as frozen snow!
Well has the master’s cunning hand expres’t
The honours on that honourable breast
The speaking eye, the calm command of brow -
Ah! if those eyes could weep, they would weep now!
Today we carry to a well-earned rest
One who hath need, not any more, of quest
Whose love out championed her marriage vow.
She needs no tomb, her monument shall be
The ancient bergs, that mound the Northern Sea,
And when to summer waters melting slip
Those giant crystals that enshrine thy ship
The men that sail where thou & thine do sleep
Shall tell her love more lasting, & as deep.”

Hardie’s mother did attend the Unveiling & wrote about the trip to London: 

     “29th  Left Skegness by the 3.30 train to go to London to stay till Monday with Sophy Cracroft & be present at the unveiling of the Monument to my Uncle John Franklins memory at Westminster Abbey on Saturday… Found Sophy as well as I expected after her illness & terrible over fatigue & anxiety, in watching her Aunt.

Friday 30th  … In the evening heard many details of Aunt F’s last days on earth, painful but interesting to me.

Saturday 31st  … Returned to 45 Phillimore Gardens to luncheon where I found Harriet Wright & Emma Lefroy arrived with Franklin & Bella, soon after Capt. Hobson the finder of the record arrived with his wife, met Bishop Nixon whom I had not seen since 1848 at Hartley, kind & courteous.  We all went at 4 to the Abbey, were joined in the Nave by Mrs Osmer the widow of the Purser of the Erebus & her daughter. Found the Dean (Stanley) waiting for us in the Nightingale Chapel & several friends assemble & amongst them the Ice Masters widow Mrs Blanky, an aged woman. Noble the Sculptor met us at the gate of the Chapel looking shadowy to the last degree. Margaret was there. The Dean asked if all Miss Cracrofts party were there. 

On the answer yes! being given Sir George Back stepped forward & in silence drew off the white cloth that had covered the Monument & reveal a most beautifully executed Bust & bas relief. The Bust is a very fair likeness, even to me who remember him so perfectly that I could point out the 2 or 3 failing points, as Sir George B said it is a fine Historic bust but not a perfect likeness. He is the last left of my Uncles brave companions in both his land Expeditions beside having served with him in the Trent. The bas relief representing the Erebus in the ice & the pennant lowered to show the death of the beloved Captain, is singularly beautiful, the dazzling whiteness of the marble gives so much effect to the representation of bergs & shrouds & hung with icicles”

The ceremony was clearly a very moving occasion. Catherine noticed that: “The poor Ice Masters widow was quite overcome” 

Monday, August 17, 2020

New Franklin Discovery from the Air

Photo by Joseph Monteith
Photo by Joseph Monteith
Sometimes even the most significant discoveries happen by happy accident. Such was the case with a series of aerial photographs of Beechey Island taken by Joseph Monteith of Iqaluit. It's a storied location, and since there are no expedition cruise ships or other visitors this season, it's one of the few ways any Franklin buff was going to be able to catch a glimpse of its graves and monuments. Joseph shared his photos with fellow aficionados on Facebook, and I was glad to see them, surprised as their clarity and detail. The second photo of the series, though, caught my eye at once: there was a structure, some sort of earthwork, with a curious shape -- a shape I felt certain I had seen before.

And I had. In the pages of my late friend Garth Walpole's Relics of the Franklin Expedition, which I edited after his death, there was a reproduction of a sketch made by Sherard Osborn, who arrived with the very first ships that reached Beechey and discovered the iconic Franklin expedition graves. There were other features in the vicinity of these memorials, though -- a place where a forge or smithy had been erected, an attempt at a garden (by means a transplanted chunk of muskeg from the adjoining flats), and a structure -- apparently a storehouse. Osborn described the structure in some detail:
It consisted of an exterior and interior embankment, into which, from the remnants left, we saw that oak and elm scantling had been struck as props to the roofing; in one part of the enclosed space some coal-sacks were found, and in another part numerous wood-shavings proved the ship's artificers to have been working here. The generally received opinion as to the object of this storehouse was, that Franklin had constructed it to shelter a portion of his superabundant provisions and stores, with which it was well known his decks were lumbered on leaving Whale-Fish Islands.
Even better, he provided a sketch, which indicated the extraordinary scale of this establishment: it was nearly 70 feet long on its longest edge, and 60 feet wide, along with an L-shaped interior embankment -- all described as "four feet through at the base, and five feet high, in which posts had been sunk." Within what must have been a sturdy enclosure, an area thick with wood shavings suggested a carpenter's workshop. Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, in his own account, also mentioned finding "a stocking without a foot, sewed up at its edge, and a mitten not so much the worse for use as to have been without value by its owner" -- and amazingly, this very stocking is preserved in the collections of the National Maritime Museum!

It must have been quite a solid structure -- but Osborn's idea of it as a storehouse for "superabundant provisions" seems unlikely -- for no provisions were left in it. Quite beyond that, the timbers which supported its structure, possibly of canvas, had themselves been removed -- so its use was more likely as a shelter for activities in the winter. That there was time to take it down so thoroughly also argues against the usual assumption that the ships left their anchorage there in a hurry.  So thorough was their work that the remaining earthworks were almost completely forgotten, and never -- so far as I know -- studied by archaeologists. And yet we can see, in Monteith's photo, the entire structure survives intact, its outline an exact match for Osborn's sketch. What a fortunate accident indeed -- the light was just right to throw it into relief!

The observant viewer will also note a second structure, almost perfectly circular, nearby; from Osborn's scale I'd guess its diameter at around twenty feet. My friend Andr├ęs Paredes suggests that it may have been an observatory, noting that the Ross Arctic expedition constructed one that was similarly circular (left). It's certainly a possibility; what we'd want to do would be to have a proper site excavation by modern archaeologists; assuming that some material still lies at or near the surface, the use of each structure might have been. As the one trace of a building actually erected by Franklin's men, there's no underestimating the significance of what might be found.

With thanks to Joseph Monteith for permission to use his photograph!