Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guest Blogger: Joe O'Farrell's "On The Search for HM Ships 'Erebus' and 'Terror'"

[Editor's note: Readers of this blog may recall my referring, among other theories as to the whereabouts of Franklin's ships, the work of Joe O'Farrell on the reports that the two ships had been seen, fast-frozen to an iceberg and abandoned, drifting off the coast of Newfoundland. I'm very grateful to Joe for being willing to share his carefully-researched account, originally delivered at the McClintock Winter School in Dundalk in January of 2008. On that occasion, unfortunately, other speakers went well over their allotted time, and as a result the paper had to be severely condensed. I offer here an excerpt from this remarkable presentation, as well as -- for the first time -- an accessible copy of the entire text. I'm certain that readers of Visions of the North will be excited and intrigued to hear of this remarkable and yet still little-known incident in the range of possible solutions to the Franklin mystery.]

"A very strange thing happened in May 1851. An item appeared in (of all places) the May 28th 1851 issue of The Limerick Chronicle, an Irish newspaper. Written by a John Supple Lynch of Limerick, to his uncle in England, it relates the story of his voyage on the “Renovation” from Limerick to Quebec, Canada, and, how, close to Newfoundland on or about April 20th of that year, his ship passed within a few miles of a big ice-flow upon which were stranded two ships. He said that the ships looked to have been abandoned, for, having studied them through the telescope, no sign of life or movement could be detected. Obviously a man reasonably acquainted with maritime affairs, he formed the opinion that they were consorts, and, surprisingly, expressed the view that they must be the missing Franklin ships. He added that the mate of his ship also observed the scene, but not the captain, for he was ill in his bunk below.

For two specific reasons, I find this letter quite fascinating.

Firstly, it shows the widespread knowledge of, and interest in, the Franklin Expedition of 1845. Its quite unbelievable that this man, who described himself to the subsequent Admiralty Enquiry as “an ordinary man”, should, in the Limerick of 1851, and as a post- famine emigrant to Canada to start a new life, even be aware of, or have any interest in, the goings-on of his colonial masters and in the Arctic to boot!

Secondly, it's very strange, but eminently understandable (bearing in mind the rather parochial circulation of a newspaper such as The Limerick Chronicle) that this matter did not come sooner to the attention of the Admiralty in London.

Indeed, it may never have come to any official attention were it not for the fact that the captain of the “Renovation”, on arrival in Quebec, and no doubt at the prompting of his passenger John Lynch, mentioned the episode to his fellow sea-faring colleagues, and, in this way, the matter eventually came to the attention of the Authorities in London. Further interest in the matter was generated by a letter which appeared in The (London) Times of May 8th 1852, almost a year after John Lynch's letter appeared in The Limerick Chronicle. It corroborated exactly what John Lynch's letter said."


Click here to read the entire paper.


  1. Fascinating. Thanks to both Dr. Potter for posting and to Joe O'Farrell for sharing!

  2. After having some time to think about this, I have concluded that it would be extremely improbably for two ships that were not traveling together to get stuck in the same ice floe. Why? There's a lot of area and a lot of ice and relatively few ships ... so I conclude that if we accept this report as factual, then what sailor Lynch saw was two ships that were travelling together, now stuck in the ice.

    So this raises the question: what pairs (or triples, or quads ... ) of ships, travelling together, were both lost in the Canadian arctic on or before 1851?


  3. Interestingly, there were three such sketches published in the Parliamentary papers (; two made by Simpson for different newspapers (including the one in Joe's original post), and one based on an Inuit drawing of two ships beset in the ice off King William Island in 1848. The similarities are striking, and the fact that both ships appear in a similar relationship -- on nearly upright, the other on her beam-ends -- is highly suggestive. I have made a copy of these sketches available here:

    hopefully this link will work ... I wish Blogger would support images in comments!

    And in answer to Paige's question, "Erebus" and "Terror" were certainly the only unaccounted-for *pair* of ships in the Arctic at this date.

  4. Interesting. I read the paper and I'm grateful it dealt with the propblem about howthe two ships could possibly have drifted North! It appears that this may in fact be possible. But I would like to see some more research in this area. Of course if these ships are the Erebus and Terror so much of the Inuit testimiony will have to be tossed out in terms of referring to the Erebus and Terror.

  5. I would like to hear Robert Grenier's opinion on this matter. Specifically, what does he think of the possibility that the ships would have been able to drift North back into the straight where Resolute was left.

    Grenier's search was partially based on estimating the southerly drift of the Erebus and Terror. He had planned to use buoys to measure the ice drift.

    On a separate note, it is said that another vessel, near the Renovation, did site two "water logged" ships.

    To my knowledge no comprehensive search of records has been made to determine if any whaling ships were abandoned in that area around 1850.

  6. I hope those ships spotted on the ice were NOT the Erebus and the Terror since it would mean they would be almost impossible to find today.

  7. An elegant and entertaining article but the ships shown in Robert Simpson's sketch are square rigged on all three masts, while Erebus and Terror were barque-rigged, ie. each having only fore-and-aft sails on their rearmost mast. Material from the (London) Times was reprinted in the New York Times on April 28 1852, and is available from their superb free archive service:
    Simpson's detailed report mentions two ships very different in size. One of about 350 tons, comparable to Erebus or Terror, with black yards. The other ship was larger, about 500 tons with white masts. Both hulls appeared to be painted black. These details contrast starkly with what we know of the appearance of Franklin's ships in 1845. Both near identical in size (Erebus was the longer by 3 ft) with yellow masts and yards and a distinctive broad yellow stripe allong the hull. This strongly suggests to me that the least imaginative answer to the question of the identity of the ships in the iceberg is that they had been part of of the large international whaling fleet which operated in that area and emphatically not Franklin's ships.

  8. As usual I have to backtrack a little on my initial comment because I find that I don't have an authentic source for the colour of the masts and yards of Terror and Erebus. If that information can be found it might shed more light on the story, one way or another.

  9. For a fairly detailed description of the Renovation encounter see: Oddities, A Book of Unexplained Facts, by Rupert T. Gould, 1928.

    The chapter dedicated to this subject is about 20 pages long. Some fairly detailed descriptions of the unknown ships are given.

  10. Thanks to Joe O'Farrell for bringing up this intriguing sighting again. A few comments on the full text of the article:

    [p.4] “The second message … is very precise with the location of the abandoned ships, ie “5 leagues N.N.W. of……69º 37´ 42” N, 98º 41´ W” … In terrestrial magnetic terms, the closer one gets to the Magnetic Pole, the less reliable is the compass, and, being that close to the Magnetic Pole, it would have been practically useless! Any reading, therefore, would have had to be made by dead-reckoning, and dead-reckoning was unlikely to be anywhere near as accurate as a compass reading.”

    Sorry, I don’t understand what the author is getting at here. When fixing latitude and longitude of their ships, neither compasses nor dead reckoning would have come into it. They would have used sextants and chronometers, neither of which are affected by the magnetic pole. Compasses tell you direction, not position.

    [p.7] “Why did the Admiralty not make a determination [on the possible identity of Lynch’s ships with Franklin’s]?” Without needing to invoke a conspiracy or concerns about the £20K reward, surely the most obvious answer was because the information from the sightings, assuming it was accurate, was simply not detailed enough to provide a conclusive answer, which is why we’re still trying to puzzle it out 150 years later.

    [p.9] “It’s a pity, therefore, that a little more enquiry was not made about “Investigator” [to determine if it could have been the source of reports otherwise associated with “Erebus” and “Terror”] which, at that time, was known to have been abandoned and was presumed either sunk or drifting somewhere in the arctic wastes.”

    They may not have known at the time, but we do know now, that the “Investigator” never made it out of Mercy Bay, since it was mined for its wood and metal by local Inuit for years, in fact decades, afterwards, until there was literally nothing left. Indeed the ship and the rare materials it provided have made it an important cultural artefact in the collective memory of local bands. Any oral testimony relating to an abandoned “Investigator”, therefore, would have to originate with people from, or who travelled to, Mercy Bay on the north coast of Banks Island, which Google Earth tells me is 911 km as the crow flies from the place where Erebus and Terror were abandoned. It seems improbable that Inuit interviewed around King William Island about two ships they were told had been lost near there would get confused with a single ship 911 km away. Perhaps even less likely that they would even have heard about the “Investigator”.

    I’ve often wondered about the Lynch report as a possible resolution of the mystery of the ships’ whereabouts. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any way in which we can now add to, or throw new light on, the scanty testimony that already exists (except by detailed comparison with the Inuit testimony). The only possibility of a conclusive answer seems to lie in the Arctic -- and thus only if the ships did sink there -- which is why the search goes on there, the only place where the "light" is.

  11. Jonathan, many thanks for your incisive comments.

    The Investigator -- along with the (to me very unlikely) notion that the Inuit would have mistaken a figurehead for a corpse -- have had a strange persistence in Franklin studies which they really don't merit,

    But the idea that the two ships could possibly have drifted out on their own remains a fascinating one. It remains very hard to prove, either positively (the North Atlantic is far too vast to search for such a thing) and negatively (neither ship has been found in the Arctic yet, but in an instant one could be, and there goes the theory). It is also an issue that, were this hypothesis accepted, we'd have to throw out all the Inuit testimony about a ship anchored near O'Reilly Island, which is actually among the most consistent stories we have. It was told to Hall, Schwatka, and even to Rasmussen!

    So I agree: it's in the Arctic that an answer - at least as to the disposition of one ship, and thence to the larger story -- lies.