Friday, May 6, 2022

James Reid Speaks!

In my last post, I gave some previews of the remarkable letters of James Reid, the Ice Master of HMS Erebus, as they will appear in our forthcoming book. Now, I have something even more exiting to share: thanks to the great generosity of Dundee native Gordon Morris -- who memorably portrayed John Weekes, the ship's carpenter aboard that same vessel in AMC's The Terror -- we can now hear some snippets from Reid's letters in the accents of their original writer! A Dundee accent, Morris explained to me, is not all that different from an Aberdeen one -- it's just "a wee bit further up the northeast coast" -- and, heard here in its original tones, Reid's seemingly irregular spelling now reads as nearly phonetic. And more than that: as with many who have so far listened to these recordings, I had the eerie sense that Reid himself had, as it were, returned from the past, as alive as the day in May of 1845 that he sailed down the Thames with Sir John Franklin and his men.

I've arranged the excerpts in chronological order, mainly so that the context of Reid's words will be clearer; each is linked alongside the original text of the letters.

22 March 1845 -- the "Neptune" was a ship previously captained by Reid; he apparently had already made up his mind to sail with Franklin.

8 Smiths Place High Street Wapping March 22/45

Loving wife,

I hope you have received my yesterdays letter with the one pound chake from William –
There is a Letter come from Quebec from the Owner stating that if Captain Reid can be found to get him if not engaged to take charge of the Neptune and sail for Quebec 1st April – now you see how mean some Scotsmen is to pay a Master off for a few weeks. I called on them to day and told them that i wase engagen with Sir John Franklin R.N. to go with him to the North as ice Captain, but I would give them an answer on Tuesday. During th[at] time i will call on Sir John, at Woolwich, [and] if he puts me on pay just now @ £18 pe[r Month], I fix and I take my chance of the Voyage. I go [as] Master & Pilot, it is sure pay and good company. I dined with all the officers, we can find no servant, we must find one amongst [us]. You will have half pay, if I should never return, then there will be something for you and the family. Mr. Enderby will see after that what I have mentioned all Depends on putting me on pay just now, if not I take command of the old ship.

26 March 1845 "I shipped yesterday"-- "thoughts of your leg" -- Ann Reid had been nursing a sore leg.

so now I Shipped yesterday with Sir John Franklin R.N. to go with him to Daviss Straits, and up Langester sound in search of a passage through, it may be two years and it may be three & four but I am quite willing to go. It is no use lying at home being allwise in measurie the thoughts of your leg and leaving the family is worse than the Voyage. Sir John told me that if I went the voyage with him, and landed safe in England again, i would bee looked after all my life. The ship I go in is the Erebus, and the other is the Terror. just such ships as the Hecla but not Quite so Large. Sir John is a man 60 years old. Quite a Hero he is very fond of me as is the officers, as i answer all the quistences they put to me about the Land and ice about the Quarter we are going to.

13 May 1845 "The Black Ladi" -- this refers to the medical exams for the crew; those that were "casten" were deemed not fit to serve. The "Black Ladi" was likely a young Black seaman of the day.

Mr. Valentin[e] wase casten for the Scurvey in his Leges and the others for several things an the Black Ladi wase casten for his Leg having once Broken. – – I Received a Letter from aunty at Dundee mentioning she had Received the four Pound, I would like to here if you have Received the Money. in all sent £4[...] I will write before I Leave the River.
your Loving Husband

James Reid

16 May 1845 -- Mind yourself -- This letter seems to be an admonition to his wife Ann to be careful in her family dealings -- particularly with their sons -- during his absence.

Loving wife, mind yourself. Dount you trust to one of them for as soon as they can do for themselves they will never mind you nor me, you dount see so much of the world as I see. Let them from Home, then the Chief Part of young men Forgets there Parents and friends. Take all but give nothing, mind this Take care of yourself & the three young Lasess they are not able to mind themselves. –

19 May 1845 -- The day of sailing [full letter] "Finlason" was a tailor in Aberdeen to whom the Rieds apparently owed some money. David Leys did sail with the expedition, but not as Quartermaster.

Green Hithe London River May 19th/45  

Loving wife
we are now all clear for a Start. will sail to day we are to bee towed with steam Down to the orkness – Lady Franklin hase ordered all the officers Likeness to bee taken and mine amongst the Rest, with my uniform on – She keeps them all by herself – Sir John Franklin Gave us prayers yesterday his Lady wase in Company, your order will bee sent to you when due. I got 6 Month’s Pay – I joined the Erebus 27 March, bee sure and Call on Mr. Finlason the Tailor and make arrangement with him, you know more about his account than I do, once you are underway with your half pay, you will bee abale to pay him part Every month, once you get the account below twenty pounds he canat Hurt you – the other Ice Master wase taken out of the ship for £37, but I Rather think he hase got it settled, we paid the Ships Comp[an]y on Saturday last. David Leys is not Quartermaster. I have nothing more in the meen time will write by the steamer if we dount go into the orkness. 

Good Biy keep your hart up we will both meate again, this voyage perhapes will [be] the last that ever I make. I have nothing to doo my work is Coming. I am sorry to say I am badly of[f] for Quarter Masters, and we are the leading ship, it will keep me much on my legs – I think I have Every thing Right but short of White Shirts, and whate I have are Quite gone. This Leave me Quite well. Hopes it will find you and the family the same, by this time you have Received my Chest. –

your Loving Husband

James Reid

3 June 1845 -- "your old Gray Hare" (from Stromness, Orkney) -- Reid had apparently asked his wife for a lock of her hair in an earlier letter.

You mention that your old Gray Hare wase not worth the sending to me, I cane only tell you that your old gray Hare is as good to me as ever, and I would [have] been very Happy if you hade inclosed one Lock of it.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Letters of James Reid

Of all the officers of the Franklin expedition, James Reid was one of the most lively and colorful.  As James Fitzjames remarked of him in the 'journal' he sent to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Coningham, "The most original character of all. rough, intelligent, unpolished, with a broad North Country accent, but not vulgar – good humored, & honest hearted – is Reid – a Greenland whaler – native of Aberdeen – who has commanded whaling vessels & amuses us with his quaint remarks & descriptions of the ice." 

Reid's own letters, however, proved far more elusive than Fitzjames's; although his family in Australia (to which his daughter Ann had emigrated) searched for them for years, they seemed to have gone entirely missing. A few years back, my friend and colleague Andrés Paredes found excerpts from some of them in an Australian newspaper from 1920; until they had still been in family hands. The newspaper articles spoke of them having been given to the "National Museum" in Adelaide (now the South Australian Museum), but that entity had no record of them.

Until scarcely two years ago, these excerpts were all we knew; that and all other queries to research libraries in Australia turned up nothing. And then, like a bolt out of the blue, our fellow Franklinite Alexa Price found a listing for them in the online catalog of the State Library of New South Wales! This was a surprise on many levels; Reid's daughter had emigrated to Victoria, not New South Wales, and at the time the letters had been reported in the press in 1920, they were in the hands of one of Ann's nieces. They showed the letters to a certain Dr. W.P. McCormack, a physician with a practice in Tumby Bay; it was he who recommended their donation to the museum. But how then did they end up in New South Wales? Some years previous, I'd checked the online catalogs of all the state libraries, and there no listing was to be found -- so my best explanation is that the record showed up when the SLNSW's old card catalogs were digitized and combined into a new, comprehensive one.

Scarcely a week later, our digital request was processed, and there they were; with help from Reid's great-great-great-grandson Rick Burrows we were able to cover the cost of high-resolution versions a few weeks after that. And what a revelation! Not only was Reid distinctive as a character, but as a writer; his odd spellings in some cases seemed to reflect Scots usage, but were often his own invention: "was" became "wase"; "well" was often "will"; "stop" became "stope"; and "job" "jobe." His ear for names produced interesting results, as when Blanky, his fellow Ice Master over on HMS Terror, became "Brinkly." These oddities aside, his rich personality is everywhere in evidence, from his first letter of 22 March (when he tells his wife of his plan to join the expedition) to his final one on July 11th. In all of them, he asks after his children, particularly his "three Darulins" (the Reids’ youngest children, Ann (1833–1899), Mary (1835–1909), and Alexandrina (1838–1901). At one point, apparently, seven-year-old Ann wrote to him herself, as he thanks his wife for "Anns most welcome Letter" -- alas, that note was lost with the ships.

We can see him pondering his fate, and weighing the success of the Franklin expedition against other possibilities; unlike Naval officers, whaling captains were freelancers of a sort, competing for available commands and trading on their experience and connections. Reid had a particularly close relationship with the whaling firm of Samuel Enderby and Sons, and asked them to look after his family in the event he did not return. He was aware of the risks, and of the possible envy some might feel toward him, saying "No doubt there will bee a greate talking about me going this voyage, it will show that I am not frightened for my life, like some men." Most poignantly, he seems to have asked his wife Ann for a lock of her hair, which she declined to send, saying it was too gray. This prompted James to write:

You mention that your old Gray Hare wase not worth the sending to me, I cane only tell you that your old gray Hare is as good to me as ever, and I would [have] been very Happy if you hade inclosed one Lock of it.

As to his shipboard comrades, Reid speaks of them in admiring tones, and particularly seems to have formed a bond with young Harry Goodsir, who was assigned to the neighboring berth. "Him & I is quite chief," he wrote (chief being a Scots word for a close friend) and marveling that Harry had never been to sea before. And throughout his correspondence, his deep love for Ann and his family comes through in every word. His very last letter, sent from the Whalefish Islands, ends thusly:

Respects to Robt., Forbes, and all Friends, may the Lord bee with you and my Dear Family, for three years if not through before that time, keep yourself easy about me. Trust wee will meet Again. Remember me to William Gaudy wife & family Bidding you all Good By.

Remains your loving Husband

James Reid

Monday, April 11, 2022

Uncle Roddy

A guest post by Mary Williamson, co-editor of May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth

Roderic Fenwick-Owen (1921-2011) or “Uncle Roddy” as I knew him, is probably best remembered by Franklin enthusiasts as the author of The Fate of Franklin  (Hutchinson, 1978), an exhaustive biography of his three times great Uncle Sir John Franklin. But his writing career had started thirty years previously with a history of the Desert Air Force (Hutchinson, 1948) and a couple of novels, The Flesh is Willing and Easier for a Camel. The novels are probably best forgotten, but The Desert Air Force fared better and was reprinted in paperback. It led on to a biography of Lord Tedder, who had written a Foreword  to The Desert Air Force. Roddy interviewed him in Washington & then descended on New York. Through a mutual friend from Oxford, he was offered the use of a house in MacDougall Alley, a mews off Washington Square. He just had to be let in and given a spare key by Jackson “something-or-other” (Pollock!) who was living in the studio upstairs. Roddy had no idea how well regarded Jackson Pollock was, so when he was offered one or two paintings to take back to England (“a frightful daub”) he refused! In later years he would admit to regretting this hasty decision.

Roddy had a privileged childhood, being sent to Eton which he always claimed to have hated, but the contacts he made there & later at Oxford would prove invaluable to him on his travels all over the world. It would be wrong, however to imply that money was plentiful. Roddy’s father George Fenwick-Owen had inherited sufficient money to lead a comfortable life, but lost everything in the financial crash of 1929, and to make matters worse, he then ran off with the governess, leaving Roddy & his two sisters to be brought up solely by their mother Bettina. She famously claimed that she had to make do on what was previously her “dress allowance”. 

But travel could be managed on a shoestring, particularly when there were contacts who could secure a passage on a ship to far flung destinations. Through a friend of a friend, Roddy ended up as Assistant Purser on Clan Urquhart, a cargo ship travelling from Liverpool to Sydney, from where another friend used his influence to get him onto a cargo boat for Fiji. Roddy then spent a year beachcombing in the South Seas, during which he was seduced by, and married, a Polynesian princess called Turia. He left her and moved on, publishing his experiences when he returned to England in his first travel book Where the Poor are Happy (Collins, 1954) along with two more novels set in the South Seas, Green Heart of Heaven and Worse than Wanton.

Roddy’s particular interest in John Franklin began in the early 1970’s. His Aunt Susan, widow of Uncle John Rawnsley, who lived at Well Vale, Lincolnshire, expressed a wish to give “her” collection of books on John Franklin to Lincoln County Library. Roddy pointed out that they weren’t hers to give. They had been inherited by his grandfather Walter Rawnsley, then passed to his wife Maud & from her to Roddy’s mother Bettina, but without having been removed from Well Vale. The deed had already been done, but Roddy turned on the charm and managed to extract them from the County Librarian, and on reading through was well & truly hooked. 

“Day and night, the North-West passage haunted me” he wrote in his memoirs. His recent biography on the life of Mavis De Vere Cole, Beautiful and Beloved (Hutchinson, 1974) had been well received, which left him in a good position to ask his agent Ann McDermid, her immediate reply being: 

“John Franklin? – You mean Benjamin Franklin, don’t you?”  

“No, John. Sir John of the Frozen North!”  

“Oh, that one … we know a lot about him in Canada, of course. Well I can always put it up to Hutchinson’s”

And Hutchinson’s reply “Well, I think that’s absolutely splendid Roddy …” made it all plain sailing!

“I ought to visit the Arctic, if I’m going to write about it properly” were Roddy’s thoughts in 1976. He mentioned his predicament to his brother-in-law by marriage, a former Ambassador to the Holy See, who remarked “Why not get someone to send you there? It shouldn’t be beyond your ingenuity!” As it happened, August 1976 was the 150th anniversary of Franklin’s arrival at Prudhoe Bay, on the second land expedition. Roddy contacted BP, who were already interested in celebrating this event and were delighted to involve a descendant of Sir John Franklin. They wanted a monument in Anchorage, Alaska.

Roddy suggested using just the head of the Franklin figure standing on a plinth in Spilsby Town Square. Nobody had ever seen his head at eye level before. (Russell, Gina, Steve & I located Franklin’s head in Anchorage in 2019 & Steve took this photo) A further plaque would be placed at Deadhorse Airport, for which Roddy agreed to compose the words, make a short speech & unveil it. 

Roddy managed to visit various key places, the first being Franklin’s furthest point west at Return Reef. It seemed likely that the reef had been washed away, so the helicopter landed on Stump Island nearby.  Next on the agenda was Winter Lake by seaplane, to locate the site of Fort Enterprise. Roddy remarked in his memoir “The whole settlement had disappeared, almost without trace …. Even when sitting on the site of Fort Enterprise I found it impossible to reconstruct the Franklin party’s experiences realistically. Nothing fitted my preconceptions. Things as I’d thought they would be, had to be replaced by things as they were. I felt a distinct sense of loss.”

Owen with the mast of the Mary
Roddy was taken to Beechey Island with a fishing party of Americans who were going on to Cresswell Bay. He & his Inuit guide Andrew were left on Beechey at 7:30am & remained there until picked up by the twin otter at 4pm. They had plenty of time to explore – Roddy  noted “the spar of John Ross’ ship “Mary” sticking up at an angle.” They attempted to climb to the top of the hill to see the cairn, but it was too much for Roddy & he had to signal to Andrew “who must have thought me a proper softy”

 I remember Roddy being particularly pleased to get the contract for The Fate of Franklin, because, as he explained to us at the time, “I can now write the book that I want to write”  Roddy always acknowledged the help he received from the mystical “Unseen”. He used to tell us that when faced with a huge pile of papers, an unseen presence would guide him to the right folder. He believed this to be the spirit of his great-uncle Willingham Franklin Rawnsley (1845-1927), great nephew and Godson of Sir John, who wrote The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin (1923).

In spite of Willingham’s ghostly presence, Roddy’s methods of research were somewhat haphazard. His desire “not to pepper the text with little stars” led to the main criticism of his book, which was his total lack of sources, either as footnotes or a separate list.  As for filing and maintaining research material afterwards, this was also hit & miss, as he explained in his memoirs: 

“It had always been my habit to jettison the huge quantity of facts involved in writing any biography as quickly as possible; otherwise I might have gone mad”

Exactly how much was jettisoned is impossible to know.

After Roddy’s death I found letters from researchers amongst his papers enquiring about sources post publication, along with copies of Roddy’s replies, most of which supplied absolutely no information, albeit very politely! In spite of this, Roddy was always very accommodating towards Franklin researchers. A young Dave Woodman was given lunch & shown Roddy’s precious Staffordshire figures of Sir John & Jane Franklin, as well as being taken to the Royal Geographical Society Library. 

I think Roddy was disappointed that there was no separate American edition of his book. 

In a letter to author Sten Nadolny (The Discovery of Slowness, Viking Penguin 1987) in 1981, he wrote: 

“The Fate of Franklin … did well but not very well. I wasn’t nearly as successful as Jane Franklin in enlisting American support”

Although he often claimed to have forgotten everything, Roddy’s interest in Franklin remained and he was pleased to be asked to give an address at the Naval Chapel, Greenwich, in 1986 to mark the bicentenary of Sir John Franklin’s birth. 

Gilston Lodge
One of Roddy’s greatest inherited treasures was the last known letter written by John Franklin to his wife from the Whale Fish Islands, and one of the letters in May we be Spared … We failed to locate the letter before Roddy died, he couldn’t remember anything about it, so there was a great hunt for it afterwards. Eventually and very appropriately, it was discovered tucked into the back of Willingham Rawnsley’s draft copy of “The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin”. We found it in the small attic room above the Tower Room at the top of Gilston Lodge. Accessible by ladder only, the room was boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter and home to numerous ladybirds who seemed to have chomped through a good deal of photocopied material but left Willingham’s draft undisturbed.

Visiting Roddy at his house in London (Gilston Lodge) was always an experience. Meals were eaten in the kitchen, at a small table with huge winged chairs, all taken from a Victorian railway carriage, complete with brass lamps & polished brass luggage rack above. There was always a dog, the most recent one being a shih tzu called “Lovey” who had been notoriously difficult to house train but was adored nonetheless. 

There was a very particular morning routine. After breakfast, Roddy would help the dog into the back of the car (never the boot!) and we would drive to Chiswick Park for a walk, the route being entirely decided by the dog. Whichever path he chose to go down, we would duly follow. 

In the 1990’s Roddy started writing his autobiography, which ended up as three large volumes. His desire for truth, warts and all, laid bare his pursuit of love for both sexes. It was a life of joyous promiscuity until he met the love of his life in 1967, an Italian man named Gian Carlo Pasqualetto. Roddy preferred London to the countryside, though he did risk the occasional visit to my parents farm. It always amused us that someone who had been stranded in far flung places & coped with all manner of tricky situations was unwilling to subject his smart London car to a ½ mile driveway of potholes, brambles & cowpats. But that was all part of Uncle Roddy’s charm!

Gilston was always full of people. There was a lodger on the top floor for many years, a couple in the basement, and of course Gian Carlo. No-one in the family ever commented on their relationship and we were left to work it out for ourselves. When his three autobiographical volumes were printed privately, Roddy was most disappointed that we weren’t more shocked by his many revelations!

Roddy appointed two Literary Executors to administer his literary estate, with the express wish that his autobiography be published after his death. “I would be most unhappy to think that any parts of this long memoir should be cut on grounds of “decency”, for those bits are essential”

The length of the combined volumes meant that inevitably, some bits were cut, but two paperback volumes Travels of Delight and Tours of Delight edited by Nigel Hart were published by Langney Press in 2016. A more recent version which included more of the “essential” bits was edited by Emily Barrett of Little, Brown Book Group & published by Sphere in 2021 under the title Oh, What a Lovely Century

When our own book, May we be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition required funding, I approached the nearest Literary Executor, my brother Charles. Both he and his co-executor agreed that Roddy would have been delighted to help out, so a cheque was duly handed over to me, with a bust of Sir John Franklin in the background looking on approvingly!

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Hurrah for the Dredge!

Of all the many portraits of Franklin's men that emerge from our volume of letters, that of Harry Goodsir, the expedition's naturalist, is perhaps the most vivid. Only twenty-five years old when he sailed, he was already a fast-rising star in the firmament of natural history, serving as the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, and engaged in correspondence and collaboration with many of the leading lights of the field.

Among his closest friends in this endeavor was Edward Forbes, who emerges early in the correspondence, helping his friend secure the post as Naturalist that he'd sought with all his energy. Forbes had mentored Harry for some years, and taken him on a number of outings to dredge for marine specimens along the coasts of Scotland and Shetland. Indeed, the dredge, for Forbes and Goodsir alike, was the principal tool they used in obtaining specimens and discovering new species, a number of which still bear their names. The common marine dredge -- an example is at the left -- could be dragged along the sea-floor, whether by hand off the side of a boat, or at the end of a lengthy cable from a larger vessel. 

The dredge was so potent a symbol of the naturalist's trade that Forbes even wrote a song to celebrate its powers, the first stanza of which is as follows:

Hurrah for the dredge, with its iron edge,
And its mystical triangle.
And its hided net with meshes set
Odd fishes to entangle!

The triangle indeed, became a special symbol for Forbes; one of his letters to Harry contains two of them -- a large one at the top of the letter, and a smaller one by his signature. Forbes also made use of the triangle as a symbol of a fraternal group he organized at the University of Edinburgh, the grandly-named Universal Brotherhood of Friends of Truth. On its edges were inscribed the Greek words for wine (in moderation), love (of a brotherly kind), and learning "of a high order." Of course Harry and his brothers John and Joseph were all members.

But this was all preamble, of course -- what mattered to Harry, and what will fascinate the readers of these letters, was the work of natural history itself. In the early months of the expedition Harry proved a man of enormous energy in this regard, and his enthusiasm was contagious among his brother officers. James Fitzjames described one such scene -- "Goodsir is catching the most extraordinary animals in a net, & is in ecstacies. Gore & Des Voeux are over the side poking with nets & long poles, with cigars in their mouths & Osmer laughing," and Harry himself expressed his delight in their shared labor: 
The Officers who were taking great interest in the collecting of specimens now became very active & during the whole day a range of them might be seen sitting in the main chains each with a net in hand dabbing away for Acalephæ. In this way my time has been fully occupied drawing and taking notes, night & day.
Goodsir quickly earned the respect and praise of Franklin, who gave over most of the space in his "Great Cabin" for Goodsir's work. In a letter to his friend the naturalist Robert Brown, Franklin noted that:
You will be glad to hear that Goodsir has collected very assiduously on the waters and from Depths, and that he has procured many things which are rare & some of them unknown. I must not however attempt to give you their unwriteable names, but trust to your learning what they are from Professor Forbes or some other of his Correspondents.
Not only was Goodsir collecting, he was examining his finds with great assiduousness. Le Vesconte, in a letter to his mother, declared that  they were dredging up enormous varieties of "small blubbers and other marine animals and animaliculae ... strange creatures of whose habits and structure very little is known. Mr Goodsir, provided with powerful microscopes, is making collections of them accompanied by drawings and descriptions." Indeed, Harry was hard at work on a number of scientific papers, two of which he dispatched from the ship's last anchorage in Greenland in a box sent to his brother John.

All this in was only the first eight weeks of the expedition, while the ships were just making their passage to Greenland -- how much more Harry must have accomplished after, we may never fully know. There are a couple of possible hints -- an Inuk named Koo-nik showed Charles Francis Hall a fragment of a jar, from a "large cask filled with glass jars" that had washed up near the shipwreck at Oot-joo-lik -- the Erebus. These may well have been specimen jars, carefully packed by Harry before the ships were deserted. There is also a curious implement (right) that was recovered from near the ships' first wintering, at Cape Riley -- it's an item of unknown function, likely fabricated on board ship -- but it's struck many who have examined it as possibly the handle of a smaller "rake" made for dragging shallow waters. If so, I think we can be fairly certain that Harry's were the hands the dragged it.

(With thanks to Logan Zachary and Alison Freebairn for their research on the Cape Riley Rake, and Peter Carney for reminding me of the Inuit testimony about the glass jars)

Monday, January 31, 2022

The humor of James Fitzjames

Among James Fitzjames's many gifts and proclivities, a weakness for what in Britain are called "puns," and in America "bad jokes" is among the most notable. And, in the world of such puns, the star of them all -- illustrated with a characteristic doodle (at left), goes thusly:

Q: "Why is Prince Albert’s kiss like this ship?"

A: "‘Cause its a hairy bus!"

Aside from the execrable homophony of the pun, it's curious that Fitzjames settled upon Prince Albert as its embodiment; in an age of famous whiskers, the Prince's were relatively moderate. Apparently, though, the jest hit home; in her copies of Fitzjames's correspondence with John Barrow Jr., Lady Franklin made her own copy of the cartoon!

His weakness for such puns is exemplified in many passages in his letters from HMS Erebus, mixed in with his jocular observations about others, as in this interchange with Osmer:

Osmar has just come from on deck (midnight) and is dancing with an imaginary skipping-rope. I said to him “What a happy chap you are Osmar you are always in a good humour.” His answer is, ‘Well, sir, if I am not happy here, I d’ont know where else I could be.”  – This will show you that we are really like a man shaving: So-appy!

Of course, some of the best instances of Fitzjames's jovial spirit are already well known -- his verbal portraits of his fellow officers in the "bundle of yarns" he sent to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Coningham. These, though all meant in a light-hearted way (and meant only for private eyes), did occasionally veer into more pointed observations, using language that was omitted from the printed versions. Collins, the Second Master, he described as 

... the very essence of good nature, and I may say good humour - but he is mad, I am sure - for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking - (or thinking of nothing) and I can get no work out of him, though ever so willing he may be - yet he is not a bore nor a nuisance - but a nonentity.

He added, though, that "we intend however to make something of him." Edward Couch got a similar mix of caricature and praise; Fitzjames calls him

a little bullet-headed - blackhaired - smooth-faced lump of inanity - good humored however in his own way - writes, reads, works, draws - all quietly - is never in the way of anybody - and always ready when wanted.

But doubtless the best among these portraits is his description of James Reid, complete with an imitation of his particular brogue:

The most original character of all— rough, intelligent, unpolished, with a broad North Country accent, but not vulgar - good humored & honest hearted is  Reid - a Greenland whaler - native of Aberdeen - who has commanded whaling vessels. & amuses us with his quaint remarks & descriptions of the ice - catching whales &c. - For instance - he just said to me, on my saying we should soon be off Cape Farewell at this rate, & asking if one might not generally expect a gale off it (Cape Farewell being the south Point of Greenland). “Ah! Now, Mister Gems, we’ll be having the weather fine Sir! Fine! - No ice at arl about it Sir, unless it be the bergs – arl the ice’ll be gone Sir only the bergs which I like to see. Let it come on to blow look out for a big’un. Get under his lee. and hold on to him fast Sir, fast. if he drifts – too near the land - why he grounds afore you do!” I think the idea of all the ice being gone except the icebergs, is rich beyond description.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Our Friend and Pitcher

(National Library of Australia)
In the process of writing the notes for our volume of Franklin expedition letters, we learned a lot of seemingly random things: the name of a builder of cabinets for entomologists in St. Ives (John James Jarman), the fact that Franklin's friend Charles Beverly was then the head of the Bethlem Lunatic Asylum, and that a "treacle posset" might be good for you if you had a cold (recipe here). But among the more surprising discoveries began with the phrase "Our friend and Pitcher." Owen Stanley, a gifted draughtsman, was in command of HMS Blazer, one of two steam vessels (the other being HMS Rattler) that towed Erebus and Terror up the eastern coast of Britain to Stromness. Stanley made a number of sketches of the ships under tow, and gave one of them this title; in a letter, James Fitzjames mentions that "Stanley calls the Terror his friend and pitcher. This turned out not simply to be a pun (on account of the towed ships "pitching" about in the rough seas), but also a reference to a song, now lost in the mists of obscurity but then well-known enough that Fitzjames at once got the reference.

It was said to be George Washington's favorite play -- "The Poor Soldier" debuted in 1783, with music by William Shield and text by John O'Keefe. It was revived on numerous occasions, but by the 1840's one of its more popular songs had become a common feature of musical revues -- it was "My Friend and Pitcher":

My friend so rare, my girl so fair!
With such, what mortal can be richer?
Give me but these, a fig for care!
With my sweet girl, my friend and pitcher.

Of course, along with my fellow editors, I was enormously curious to hear this song -- but nary a recording of it seemed to exist. And then, to our great good fortune, we tracked down and got in touch with Dr. Sarah McCleave of Queen's University, Belfast. She had, we found, directed a student performance of "The Poor Soldier," and had recorded it on video. Making sure that she first obtained permission from the performers, she's generously agreed that we can share it here, so that everyone can hear the tune that was somewhere in the back of Stanley's and Fitzjames's mind -- so here it is! 

With our deepest thanks to Dr. McCleave, and to the performers: Laoise  Ní Cearnaigh (voice), Amy Wright (piano), and Vanessa Ní Gaoithín (violin). The complete lyrics can be found here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth

At last it can be told: after more than five years of work collecting, transcribing, and annotating -- not to mention permission-getting, proofreading, and all the other thousand-and-one tasks that go into making a book, our volume of Franklin letters will be coming out in 2022!

One aspect of the challenge of this collection has been that there were many more letters than we'd originally thought -- when we started, we knew of only around 150 letters, but in the end we found nearly 200-- 195 to be exact. They include every known letter written by Franklin and his men from aboard ship, as well as letters written about the expedition during its planning stages. In addition to these letters -- 173 of them -- we have twenty-two additional letters written by friends and family members of the lost men during the early years of the search, in which hope still held that they might someday be delivered.

To give context to these letters, we've also prepared a series of chronologies, showing each stage in the preparations, and all the stops along the route the ships took on their way to Greenland; these are accompanied by detailed maps showing each stage of the voyage. In a series of Appendices, we offer other documents from the voyage, including a scientific report by Harry Goodsir, Franklin's official dispatches to the Admiralty, and three letters whose authors are unknown, as their only extant versions are from their appearance in newspapers. The book is also illustrated with drawings and charts made on board, ranging from the dramatic naval sketches of Owen Stanley, the playful doodles of James Fitzjames, and an engraved plate of natural history specimens based on sketches made on board by Goodsir. To top it all off, Sir Michael Palin (Erebus:The Story of a Ship) has contributed a Foreword!

So far as we are aware, the majority of these letters have never appeared in print before; those few that were printed during the living memory of the expedition were often redacted to remove personal information (these parts have been restored). Some others have appeared in books about the expedition, or biographies of its key figures, but others were unknown until quite recently. Among these are the letters of James Reid, Ice-Master aboard Erebus, which turned up in the State Library of New South Wales (his family members emigrated to Australia); Henry Le Vesconte (much of his family settled in Newfoundland, in whose archives his letters ended up), and Harry Goodsir, whose correspondence has been preserved in the archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Family members and descendants have also provided scarce letters, and we've also been the beneficiary of the family archive maintained by one of our editors, Mary Williamson, who is Sir John's great-great-grand-niece.

The book isn't due out until next July, but in the meantime, we're going to share some of the highlights of the volume, including -- where rights conditions allow -- some of the illustrations. As the publication date grows closer, we hope also to share news of book-related events, podcasts, and other social media happenings related to its release. It's an exciting time -- we can't wait to share our discoveries -- and give everyone some hints about what's to come!

Monday, September 27, 2021

Reginald the (un)Lucky

Levinge's grave on Ascension
Along with my colleagues Peter Carney, Gina Koellner, and Mary Williamson, I've found that the work on our forthcoming volume of letters of the Franklin expedition has produced all sorts of new insights into their undertaking. The earlier letters contain a good deal of discussion as to the selection of officers; while Sir John had the ultimate say-so, both Crozier and Fitzjames lobbied for several candidates, not all of whom ended up joining them.

One of the more interesting of these was Reginald Thomas John Levinge. We first hear of him in some of Crozier's letters to his friend James Clark Ross; he asks Ross to mention his name, and notes that his family is "among the oldest in County Meath." Levinge, in fact, was heir to a baronetcy, making him one of that class of Anglo-Irish gentry for whom Crozier's father, a solicitor, often worked. The Levinge Baronetcy had been created in 1704 for Richard Levinge, then Speaker of the Irish House of Commons; the family seat was Knockdrin Castle, an impressive Gothic pile commissioned by Richard Levinge, the 6th baronet, Reginald's father.

His older brother Richard began his career in the Army, while Reginald chose the Royal Navy; his date of entry was the 7th of January 1827, making him all of fourteen years old. The first step -- as was so often the case in an era of Naval downsizing -- was the longest; he didn't obtain his first commission until 1839. 1844 found him the senior lieutenant aboard HMS Volage, which post he still held at the time of Crozier's letter. Indeed, that service was probably the reason that Crozier was unable to reach him to make any offer; in the end, he accepted Franklin's recommendation of Edward Little. Although the prospect would certainly have been attractive to him, Levinge would seem to have dodged a bullet, at least for the moment.

In 1845, Levinge was appointed to his first command, that of HMS Dolphin, a small brigantine with only three guns. In November of that year, at the Battle of Parana off the coast of Argentina, he distinguished himself by remaining in the midst of the fray; as the Naval Biographical Dictionary describes it:
The little Dolphin on that day occupied a berth better suited to a frigate, and was so much exposed that the Commodore, the present Sir Charles Hotham, declared in his public despatch that he sometimes trembled when he beheld the shower of shot, shell, grape, and rockets flying over her. The gallantry of Mr. Levinge was in consequence rewarded with a Commander’s commission dated 18 Nov. 1845.
It was a glorious moment, to be sure. For, although the NBD next describes him as on half-pay as though retired, he evidently remained in service, where he encountered one more opponent more wily than the Argentinians: ship-board fever. The record is confusing, as no further command is listed in any source, but apparently he was aboard HMS Penelope when he succumbed on 24 April, 1848. Like many others in that situation, he was laid to rest on Ascension Island, in the Georgetown Cemetery.

As fate would have it, the very next day, those who would have been his colleagues and commanders stood at Victory Point on King William Island, where they removed a record left the year before, and made their poignant marginal addition:
H.M. ships 'Terror' and 'Erebus' were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37' 42" N., long. 98˚ 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847 ; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.
Levinge might well have been among these casualties, had he left to serve with Franklin -- and yet here he was, thousands of miles away, and death found him all the same. In a final irony, his grave at Ascension is just across the bay from "Comfort Cove" -- now known as Comfortless Cove -- a cemetery whose name appears in the notorious Peglar Papers, and may possibly have leant its name to a gathering of graves in the Arctic.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Found! John Gregory

After a considerable amount of diligent searching over several weeks, I'm very happy to be able to say that John Gregory's baptismal record -- as well as the marriage record of his parents -- have been found! The christening record was located first, with the assistance of Juliette Pochelu and Margaret Stanley. Margaret, in particular, did the valuable work of checking through all the records of 1805/1806 to be sure there were no other John Gregorys about. The result of this work was to identify a John Gregory born on 22 September 1806; his parents were listed William and Fanny (the latter a nickname for Frances). Everything matched, but there was one puzzle: the christening took place at St. Michael's, a "chapel of ease" (a place where more convenient church ceremonies could be held for those who lived at some distance from their parish church) -- and it was located in the district of Angel Meadows, the city's most notorious and squalid slum!

It was hard to imagine our John Gregory having grown up in such adverse circumstances, but the answer to the mystery was hinted at when Juliette sent me John Gregory's parents' marriage record; it turned out they had been married at Manchester Cathedral. Then, just recently, local family history expert Gay Oliver found records of William Gregory listed as a grocer on Chapel Street in Salford, a respectable middle-class trade in a respectable mercantile town. Since he signed his own name in the register, he was certainly literate, and doubtless his son learned to read and write as well.

Rev. Joshua Brookes
But why marry in the Cathedral and then have your firstborn baptized in a poorer neighborhood? The answer lies in Manchester's unusual ecclesiastical arrangement: while people could have baptisms at any church, weddings could only be held at the Cathedral -- specifically its Collegiate Church -- since it was the only official parish church of the entire city of Manchester and environs. The Wardens and Fellows of the Collegiate Church jealously guarded their sole right to conduct marriages, along with their fee of three shillings sixpence. This of course meant an extraordinary number of marriages, which were often conducted in "batches," often including as many as a dozen couples; William and Fanny were in a more modest batch of four. Presiding over all these ceremonies was the well-known divine Joshua "Jotty" Brookes, who had the duty from 1790 to his death in 1821; of him it was said that he conducted more marriages than any cleric in the history of England before or since!

All of which explains why William and Fanny were married at the Collegiate Church, but opted to have their son christened at a "chapel of ease," where the fees would be far more modest. Salford in their day was a growing, prosperous town -- it has since been entirely absorbed by the City of Manchester -- and Chapel Street was more or less its main thoroughfare. 

On a whim, recalling that my own ancestor -- James Clarke, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather -- was born in Salford in 1804, two years before John Gregory -- I looked up his and his siblings' records. To my astonishment, I found that their address was also Chapel Street! It's a long street, of course, but it's wonderful to imagine my ancestor and John, only two years apart, passing each other on the pavement and perhaps knowing one another. James Clarke even had a sister, Frances, who was known as "Fanny," and also named after his mother -- and indeed we know that, John Gregory honored his mother's name by giving it to a daughter. And to add icing to the cake, James's parents were married in the same church as the Gregorys, and also by Brookes!

The Arctic shores of King William Island, where John Gregory's skull lay for more than a century and a half, are very far indeed from the streets of Salford -- but back in the early 1800's, my ancestor and he were almost neighbors. It certainly makes his death feel a bit more personal to me.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Who was John Gregory (Part 2 of 2)

While we may never know exactly which of the several candidates for John Gregory's birth is the right one, there's a good deal more we can say about him. Perhaps most significantly, he has a listing in the Royal Navy's earliest volume recording the service of engineers; so far as I know, this entry hasn't been seen or cited by anyone researching his career.

Unfortunately, rather than recording his age, service, and character, the entry simply contains a statement, written across both pages of the ledger: ""This Engineer was recommended by Messrs. Maudslay to serve in the Vessels employed on the Arctic Expedition having been accustomed to locomotive engines his pay to be double of that allowed to 1st class Engineers (Woolwich 6th May 1845) ... Appointed 13th May 1845 Admiralty "Erebus" 1st acting ... Apptd. 1st Class Assistant 6 June 51." So we now know for a fact what we previously only inferred -- that he was recommended by his employers, Maudlay, Sons, and Field; we also know that he was specifically appointed with double wages. I checked the ledger, and a nearly identical statement is written in the record for James Thompson, who served as engineer aboard HMS Terror, but as with Gregory, there are no personal details.

Yet we do know one other thing about John Gregory, thanks to the envelope containing his lone surviving letter: we know his address was 7 Ely Place, St. George's Road. The location is a fascinating one; scarely a stone's throw to the east of the old Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum (now, perhaps fittingly, the Imperial War Museum), it also had an interesting neighbor for the first few decades of the nineteenth century: a large cylindrical shed used by Henry Aston Barker and his successors to paint new paintings for the Panorama in Leicester Square -- among them depictions of three Arctic expeditions: Franklin and Buchan in 1818, James Ross and James Clark Ross discovery of "Boothia" (1829-33), and James Clark Ross's search for Franklin (1848-49) -- it's the circular structure just to the southwest of Ely Place. This map, made circa 1800, shows that there was, originally, a row of small flats along the eastern side of Ely Place at the time. They seem likely to have been modest, townhouse-style flats; it would have been solidly respectable --- though somewhat cramped -- housing for John's wife Hannah and their six children. It was also within walking distance of John's employers.

These humble homes, alas, didn't stand for long; in the 1880's they were replaced by the West Square School for Boys, Girls, and Infants; its building still stands and is presently the Charlotte Sharman Elementary School. The building reduced Ely Place to more of an alleyway than a street; in 1934, after the land and buildings of the nearby asylum were purchased by Viscount Rothermere (then owner of the Daily Mail), the land on the opposite side of Ely Place was turned into a park named after his mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. At around this time, it seems, the name of the street was changed to match, becoming Geraldine Street -- a name which the UK gazetteer tells me is unique in Britain. This image from Google Earth shows the view looking down Geraldine Street; the school building is on the left and the park is on the other side of the brick wall on the right.

I've already mentioned that John and Hannah's children were accomplished people -- several generations of them worked as engineers, with the exception of grandson Edward John Gregory, who became a noted painter. As to Hannah herself, she seems to have remained in the neighborhood, if not at the same address; in the 1870 census she appears to be living with her in-laws on South Street (modern Greenwich South Street) in Lambeth, but at her her death in 1873 she was apparently resident in the parish of St. Saviour's Southwark, a bit further north and closer to the river. I still hope to locate her grave, and will update this post if I do!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Who was John Gregory? (Part 1 of 2)

As the news spreads around the world that John Gregory of HMS Erebus has become the first member of the Franklin expedition whose remains have been identified using DNA, many personal details about him have emerged. One them, or so it seems, was the fact that he married Hannah Wilson on the 14th of  April, 1823 at St. Michael's church in Ashton-under-Lyne, part of Manchester. And yet, the original record, now presented here thanks to parish sleuth Margaret Stanley, raises questions. For one, Hannah's name was originally recorded as "Ann," though in the top of the entry this has ben corrected. Second and more puzzling is the fact that neither John nor Hannah signed their name, instead making only a "mark" -- an "x" -- which generally in this context means the named person was illiterate. And yet, as we know from John's letter to Hannah sent back from the ships, he was at that time a literate man, one in fact with particularly neat and fine handwriting, a man who used words such as "circumference" and "jocosely." I find it nearly impossible to imagine that he was illiterate in 1823.

There are other possible reasons for the "x," however. Sometimes, if the minister simply assumed that the parties weren't literate, he may have instructed the bride and groom to simply "make a mark." Gregory, after all, was still a teenager, and since his and Hannah's first child was born a mere two months later, the circumstances of their appearance before the Curate may have not been particularly comfortable. Indeed, our best evidence that this John Gregory is the right one comes from the ages and dates of this children. As compiled by Juliette Pochelu (based on Margaret Stanley's researches), they were:

1. Edward, baptised June 15th 1823. Family resident in 'Town' 
2. Emanuel, baptised on August 21th 1825. Resident Stalybridge.
3. Frances, baptised June 17th 1827. Resident Stalybridge.
4. James, baptised on Decemer 20th 1829. Resident Stalybridge.
5. Rebecca, baptised September 23rd 1832. Resident : Town - so back in Ashton.
6. William, baptised October 12th 1834. Resident Manchester.
7. Eliza, baptised on July 9th 1837
8. John Jr., said to be 7 months old in the census, and the only one born at that address.

A ninth child, Frederick, was born on December 7, 1844 and baptized the following January; by the that time the family were living at Ely Place -- he was doubtless the baby John asked his wife to kiss! From the 1841 census, we can see that not all of these children were still living: Edward (18, though the census rounds this down to 15), Frances (13), James (11), William (6), and Eliza (4); Emmanuel and Rebecca died in childhood; the future fate of John Jr. is less certain.

We get a lively picture of this growing family, but some questions still remain. In the 1841 census, Hannah (once again, as she was in the marriage register, mis-recorded as Anna) is listed as 40 years of age and John as 35. Apparently, it was the practice of census takers then to round down to the nearest 5-year interval, which would explain Hannah being listed as 40 when she was probably 41. John, for the same reason, could have been any age shy of 40 and been listed as 35. We have her christening record from 1801, but with John, his name being far more common, we have a crowd of candidates. The most likely seems to be a man born in 1805 and christened at St. Michaels (not the later parish church of St. Michael and All Angels, but a small "chapel of ease" in Manchester); his parents were Ralph and Elizabeth.  According to research by Michael King Macdona, both Ralph and Elizabeth signed their names. There is also a candidate from 1798; his parents were Mary and Joseph, and his father's profession was given as "cordwainer" (shoemaker). 

And there are others: the noted historian of the non-officer classes of Franklin's men, Ralph Lloyd-Jones, has located a candidate born in 1790, although Stenton et., al. say they have a record of the death of that same person from 1791. Mr. Macdona has also located a candidate born in Eccles (on the other side of Manchester), baptized in January of 1802. In order, these candidates would give John Gregory an age in 1841 of 51, 43, 40, or 36; only the last of these matches the census record (and census records could be wrong, of course). 

By any measure, Mr. Gregory, who would have been at least 40 when the ships sailed, was among the older members of the expedition; Franklin was 59, and Crozier (the next oldest) 48; Osmer the Purser was 46; Thomas Blanky and James Reid, the Ice Masters were 45 and 44 respectively. One would think that, having already had a career as an engineer and a family, John Gregory would have left behind some more definite trace -- and in my next installment, I've more to tell! Certainly, though, he was well-remembered by his family, so much so that when his grandson, the artist and Royal Academician Edward John Gregory died in 1909, his grandfather's service in the Franklin expedition nearly as much space as the deceased himself!

UPDATE 5/24/21: Juliette has located a likely grave for the Eccles candidate, who I think we can now eliminate.