Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Library of the Erebus and Terror

"To-day we set to work, and got a catalogue made of all our books, and find we have amongst us, a most splendid collection."
-- Commander James Fitzjames, on board the Erebus, June 18th 1845

Among the many singular points of interest which distinguish Franklin's last expedition, the enormous number of books brought along is one of never-failing fascination.  Estimates of the actual number of books vary widely, and while the official libraries of each vessel certainly amounted to many hundreds of volumes, many other sorts of books would have been in the possession of the men.  Every sailor had been issued a prayer-book by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and individual officers, and even sailors, brought their own collections.  Fitzjames's occupation of making a catalogue of all the books aboard HMS Erebus was therefore a significant undertaking, albeit taken on principally for his own interest.  If only this document had survived!

And yet our knowledge of this library is more extensive than might be imagined, given the loss of both vessels. Some descriptions of its contents survive in the letters, such as Fitzjames's, posted home from Greenland, and in documents from the period of time when the ships were being outfitted.  We know that copies of all the previous narratives of polar exploration were included as a matter of course. Phrase-books of the "Esquimaux" language, Inuktitut, were provided, although the dialect used in these volumes would have been somewhat different from that common in the area the ships were headed.  Play-books were brought along in expectation that this voyage, like all since Parry's in 1819, would resort to shipboard theatricals to keep the men busy and amused during the long winter months.  It's also known that a few volumes of Punch -- the well-known reservoir of humor which had just been founded in 1841 -- were also included.

But the most dramatic evidence of what books were brought along, and what value Franklin's men placed in them, is to be found in the few tattered, mouldering volumes recovered by searchers.  Displayed in a case (shown above) in Greenwich alongside other Franklin relics in 1859, these books are still preserved in the vaults of the National Maritime Museum and other collections.  And, thanks to the internet, especially Google books, it's possible to peer over the shoulders of the original readers of these volumes, and see the words they found so valuable that, even when the weight of supplies was of the essence, their owners hauled them along -- quite literally -- to their deaths.

Images of the books may be seen at the National Maritime Museum's website, but it takes a bit of additional research to find which editions and books they are.  Famously, there is a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield; from the frontispiece this appears to be the 1842 edition published in London by VanVoorst, with illustrations by William Mulready.  A book of "Christian Melodies" depicting "Home and its Scenes" (London: Thomas Ward, 1836) is inscribed to G.G. -- presumably Graham Gore.  Neither of these editions, unfortunately, is readily available online.

Better results are to be had with Charles Blomfield's Manual of Private Devotion, another publication of the SPCK.  The edition found in the Arctic was that of 1837, but it is largely identical to his Manual of Family Prayers (1824), which can be read here via Google Books.  Another book, of which only two leaves were found, was the Reverend John Todd's The Student's Manual.  One leaf was found folded so as to highlight the following passage:

"Are you not afraid to die?
"No!  Why does the uncertainty of another state give you no concern?"
"Because God has said to me -- Fear not: when thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee."

This gave rise to much comment in the press; although the words were printed, they seemed to arrive almost as if uttered by the dying seaman who'd last clutched the paper to his breast.  And, while this edition is not online, a very similar 1871 reprint may be perused via Google Books here.

Many other books survived in damaged or fragmentary form, including several copies of The Book of Common Prayer, two Bibles, and a New Testament in French.  When Inuit found these books, they did not understand their use; as one Inuk acknowledged to a disappointed Charles Francis Hall, they gave the books and papers to the children to play with.  And yet it remains entirely possible that further books may be found, especially if they remained aboard an intact ship.  As those who have seen the items recovered from RMS Titanic know, paper items -- including business cards, currency, menus, and such -- fare reasonably well in the water, the more so in the Arctic where colder temperatures and the absence of wood-borers make their preservation even more likely.  The same applies to handwritten materials, and although everyone likes to imagine a ship's log or officer's journal, I myself have always hoped that the sheets containing Fitzjames's catalogue may survive.  For by their books, one may know the men.


  1. Fascinating stuff - the Student's Manual really gives a glimpse into the ethos of the day.
    Your link to that book has earlier versions in the "other editions" column.

    Google Books is a fantastic resource and gets better daily as more books are added. Sometimes the bibliographic data is wrong and sometimes searches don't work because the OCR produces nonsense so finding what you're looking for can be time consuming and sometimes a matter of luck.

    These two may be of interest:

    The Vicar of Wakefield, Van Voorst 1842

    Christian Melodies, Thomas Ward & Co, 1837

    For several reasons, one book which I would expect to have been on board would be Barrow's "The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H.M.S. Bounty" which ironically includes an appendix on the Whaleship Essex - one of the few occurences of cannibalism which Dickens forgot to mention in his refutation of Rae's report.


    16:52 GMT

  2. Yet another fascinating post, Russell.

    Just a couple of items which might be interesting.

    The Admiralty records show that each ship had a ‘Library’. There are Admiralty references on 15th April, 1845 to ‘Seaman’s Library Special Books’ and on 29th April, 1845 to a ‘List of Books to be Supplied’. As you say they took a lot of earlier explorers’ books, presumably for the officers rather than ‘seamen’, and of course officers would have taken their own books. I’ll check, but I don’t think either list referred to has survived in the Admiralty’s records. It would be great if it had. It’s mildly amusing that it was only later, on 1st May, 1845, that Franklin asked for book-cases to fitted to the ships, presumably after the ‘Library’ was delivered and they found out they’d nowhere to put all the books!

    Fairholme referred to the same catalogue of books as Fitzjames when he wrote, on 1st July, “I've here got a catalogue made out of all the books, public and private there are on board (and the Terror is doing the same) and we find there is scarcely a book that we can think of as being required that is not in the list. We shall supply each other with these lists, and thus, when a book is wanted, the Librarian (Goodsir) will at once know which ship and what cabin it is in”. Fairholme was an inveterate reader and on the early stages of the voyage he was reading ‘Indications of the Creator’, by William Whewell, ‘Physical description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land’ by Count de Strzelecki and ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’ by Rev. George B. Cheever. Fitzjames (presumably out of duty) read Franklin’s book about the injustices he claimed to have suffered in Van Diemen’s Land - possibly in proof. There are several indications that officers had read about the Ross and Crozier voyage to the Antarctic, too.

    Leslie Neatby in his book ‘In Quest Of The North West Passage’ (1958), says that the book “A Manual of Private Devotion”, which was found by McClintock at the ‘boat place’, was inscribed by Sir George Back to Graham Gore and was returned to Back, who ‘kept it in his drawing-room under glass to the day of his death’.

  3. Peter, thanks so very much for your insightful comments, and the additional Google Books links! I'm delighted to see that the right edition of the Vicar of Wakefield is available after all. The edition of Christian Melodies, alas, seems to me a different one from Graham Gore's; if you go to the NMM archive site you'll see it has a pictorial frontispiece.

    I would not be at all surprised to see Barrow's account of the HMS Bounty aboard either ship -- Fitzjames was close to Barrow's son, and Crozier had in fact once visited Pitcairn Island as a young man, and met with some of the descendants of the mutineers.

    And lastly, many thanks for the anecdote about Back's having kept Graham Gore's book -- it's most touching! I wonder where that volume is now?

  4. William, just saw your comment as I was writing my earlier reply -- I'd also heard of these Admiralty lists, but so far as I've been able to search, they don't seem to have been preserved. There is also an anecdote, in Cyriax as I recall, of a great quantity of donated books, mostly religious tracts, prayerbooks, etc. which had to be turned away.

    But best of all is your Fairholme reference, of which I hadn't known. Where were his letters published, or is this from manuscript? One of my back-burner projects over the years has been to publish a volume of all the surviving letters posted from Greenland; it would take some doing, but I wouldn't be surprised if other references to particular volumes were to turn up!

    Thanks for a fabulous follow-up ...

  5. p.s. apologies for the confusion about the Back anecdote -- my browser was acting up, and inbetween restarts, I saw the bottom paragraph of your new comment and thought it was Peter's ...

  6. Hi Russell,

    Fairholme's letters have never been published, which is a shame. I imagine there were several copies of Barrow's history of the mutiny on the Bounty on board - Osmer had visited Pitcairn Island too. There must have been a copy too of Barrow's history of Arctic voyages, which I have not read, as Fitzjames was indignant when he found it was missing from the 'Library'.


  7. Thanks. As a young midshipman Franklin served under, and was shipwrecked with, Mathew Flinders who had been a midshipman on William Bligh's successful second breadfruit voyage. So each of the three had unique material on the subject for the after dinner conversation.
    I heartily agree it would be great to see more of that unpublished material brought to light.


  8. The cold helped to preserve the paper in the Titanic, but it was never cold enough to freeze it. Because the hold of Erebus had the equivalent of buoyancy tanks, even if it took on water after being abandoned, it might have floated for a long time. Summer was short. When autumn came, and the dry upper areas of the ship where documents were stored cooled below the temperature of the water in the lower part of the ship, condensation and then frost would have formed on anything cold, including paper. The damp paper would have frozen when winter came. We can see what this did to the Victory Pt document, where wet spots stained and weakened the paper.