Sunday, November 1, 2009

Memorable service for Franklin sailors

This past Thursday, on the 29th October, I was the guest of Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert of Polarworld, joining over 200 of their other guests for a special Service of Thanksgiving and rededication of the Franklin Memorial at the Chapel of Saints Peter and Paul at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Having attended a number of Franklin memorials and commemorative events over the years, I can say that this was, by far, the most solemn and moving service of all such memorials, and the most beautifully conceived and presented. Of course it had one distinction that all other such services lacked: the bones of one of Franklin's men -- Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte -- brought back in 1869 from King William Island by Charles Francis Hall, and sent to England in 1873. For many years, the monument in which these bones lay was subject to benign neglect in a dusty stairwell behind the altar, out of public view and access. This special service celebrated the move and restoration of this memorial to a place of honor and prominence inside the vestibule of the main entrance, where everyone from this moment forward will readily be able to see it. Dr Lewis-Jones conceived and directed the event with the support of the Greenwich Foundation and the Canadian High Commission, acting in unique partnership with his company Polarworld.

The service, presided over by the Rev. Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Woolwich, along with the Rev. Jeremy Frost, Chaplain to the Greenwich Foundation, opened with Beethoven's Funeral March on the Death of a Hero, beautifully played on the Chapel organ. The clergy and choir then entered, and took their places about the altar. Throughout the service, the choir was magnificent, singing both traditional hymns and more complex modern choral works with a rare combination of verve and purity of tone. The service was opened by the Rev. Frost, who welcomed all present with these words:
We gather on this solemn occasion to give renewed thanks for the life of Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, and to re-inter his mortal remains in the vestibule of this Chapel In this the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary year of the discovery of Sir John Franklin's death, we pray that peoples from across the world who visit this holy and historic place may hereafter pause, and remember all those who lost their lives alongside Franklin ..
The reading, appropriately enough, was from the Book of Job. Afterwards, Bishop Chessun ascended to the pulpit and delivered quite a lovely address, in which he extolled the merits of the urge to explore, to risk life and limb in the pursuit of expanding geographical and scientific knowledge. The Canadian High Commissioner, James R. Wright, offered a poignant excerpt from Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetic cycle "Terror and Erebus."

The congregation then turned, en masse, to face the rear of the chapel, and the clerics and descendants of Franklin's men processed to witness the monument's re-dedication. Holy water was sprinkled upon the marble, and a lovely, hymn, "Take him, earth for cherishing" (Herbert Howells), was intoned by the choir. It was a deeply moving moment, and I could not help but think how much easier Le Vesconte's bones would rest, now that they were ensconced in a far more visible and honored location, re-interred with all the rich ceremony omitted on earlier such occasions.

Of course, although we all were there to honor Le Vecsonte and all of Franklin's officers and men, we were also present out of a strong shared interest in finally determining what happened to make the Expedition collapse so utterly, and what might have been the actions and thoughts of its men in their last moments of hope and despair. And, in a modest way, the re-interment gave us insight into the disposition of his bones, and the interest which attended them when they were first brought back to England in 1873. During the renovation and relocation of the Monument, under the direction of the Greenwich Foundation, Dr Huw Lewis-Jones and English Heritage, the sarcophagus was opened, and a wooden coffin found with a plaque identifying its origins. Inside, along with the skeleton (which was wrapped, curiously, in a large Admiralty chart of New Guinea) was a pasteboard cross adorned with flowers, a map of the Arctic, and a note from the Hydrographer Royal. These, and other aspects of the remains, along with a summa of Le Vesconte's career and some quite remarkable never-before-seen images, are the subject of a forthcoming article by Dr Huw Lewis-Jones in the 2009 issue of the Trafalgar Chronicle, an annual international journal devoted to sailing navy history and maritime memorials. I am delighted that Huw has offered to make this special paper available to readers of this blog here.

After the memorial service, we walked across to the Painted Hall for a gala reception featuring remarks by Robert Grenier, Chief Underwater Archaeologist for Parks Canada, whose recent search efforts were of so much interest to us all. In my next post, I'll recount the highlights of his address, along with an account of those present.

(Photo credit: Mike Almond)


  1. Thanks so much for this post, Russell!

  2. Wonderful post! I wish I could have been there. The men of the Franklin Expedition deserve this.

  3. I just got back from a trip to England, and I was happy to know of the memorial. The chapel was closed to prepare for a concert, but after telling a kind man at the door that I was interested in the memorial for Le Vesconte and the Franklin expedition, he opened the door and led me to it, and we had an amiable chat.

  4. I'm so pleased to hear that the staff there let you in, and that you were able to see the memorial!