Friday, December 4, 2009

Sad state of Arctic Graves

The day after the Franklin memorial service in Greenwich this past October, a number of us met at Kensal Green Cemetery in London for a walking tour of Polar graves. Among our party were Dr Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert, and Kenn Harper, and on our list of graves to visit were Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John Ross, Admiral Inglefield, and Admiral McClure. None of us had visited the site before, and as the sun was slowly sinking in the west, we hurried against time to locate them using a map of the cemetery and directions from a guidebook. We weren't quite sure what to expect, the more so given the somewhat wild look of Kensal Green itself. Although home to many a famous skellington, the grounds were only barely maintained -- some attempt had been made to trim the grass, with the cuttings blown about this way and that -- and the uneven settling of the ground made many of the monuments lean this way and that. "DANGER: Loose Stonework and Collapsing Graves -- Keep to the Roads and Pathways" warned a sign we passed on our way in, and it was a warning well heeded.
The first of the graves we found was that of Sir John Ross; it was in fairly sound condition, though listing notably to starboard. The carved anchor with chain was largely intact, and the applied metal letters -- a standard of the era, apparently -- were all still in place. We next turned our search toward Lady Franklin, whose marker was of a simpler construction, a stone cross on a tiered pedestal -- precisely, it soon appeared, the same as hundreds of memorials in the vicinity. It was some time before we stumbled upon it, and it was a sad sight; many of the metal letters had come loose, leaving little holes in the limestone base. "ADY FRANKLIV" the stone read, "DIED 18 ULY 9," and underneath "SOPHIA CRACRO" followed by a nearly illegible inscription. The words "Arctic,""search," and "brave companions" could be made out, but not much more. To capture the mood, I sang a stanza of the ballad "Lady Franklin's Lament"

'Twas homeward bound one night on the deep,
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream, and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin, and his gallant crew ...

A man passing by asked for directions, breaking the mood and leaving us all to our own thoughts. Kenn has written about the sad state of this memorial in his Taissumani column in the Nunatsiaq News, and I heartily agree with his comments there: "I was frankly shocked. So this was the fate of the mortal remains of the second most-famous woman in mid-19th century England."

Next, we tracked down Admiral Inglefield, whose career was connected with the Greenwich memorial we had just attended; he was the very one who had brought back the bones supposed to be Le Vesconte's from Washington D.C. to London. His memorial was half-covered over with grass and dirt; after running back to the car for some work gloves, Huw managed to clear off much of the debris, and we found the inscription intact. His epitaph singled out his Polar experience, reading "Commanded three Arctic expeditions 1852.3.4 and discovered 800 miles of new coasts."

Lastly, we located the monument of Robert McClure, which turned out to be very difficult to locate; its low, pink marble stone gave it the look of a far more recent grave. And yet, obscure though it was, the epitaph was, in many way, the most satisfying of the three:

"In Memory of Vice Admiral Sir Robert John le M. McClure C.B. Born 28 January 1807 died 17 October 1873. As Captain of HMS 'Investigator' AD 1850-54 he discovered and accomplished the Northwest Passage "Thus we launch into this formidable frozen sea"', 'SPES MEA IN DEO'"

Afterwards, we also managed to locate the grave of Wilkie Collins, which was quite near McClure's; it too was in a rather shabby condition, despite a small placard informing us that the Wilkie Collins Society was responsible for its maintenance. All in all, it was a strange and somewhat melancholy visit, with our distress felt most deeply over Lady Franklin's marker. Surely the woman that the Times of London once called "Our English Penelope" deserved a better marker, or at least a better maintained one, than this!


  1. That is very sad. I wonder how much it would cost for some basic restoration and maintenance. It would be a very worthy effort but I imagine the fundraising would take a lot of work. I am glad you all had a chance to pay your respects, and thank you for posting your experience there.

  2. There is a group, Friends of the Kensal Green Cemetery, which one could contact. The only thing is, the cemetery is so vast, with more than 65,000 graves to tend, that the effect on any one monument would be slight. Perhaps a group could be formed to maintain or repair Lady Franklin's memorial, as was done for Wilkie Collins (though they seem to have slacked off!).

  3. The grave of Hall's translator, Tookoolito, is located in Groton CT (USA). There is a recent photo showing it to be good shape. If I'm ever down there I might visit it.

    On a similar note, here is an article from 1998. A person from the US took some remains from KWI. He thought they were some of Franklin's crewmen but (not surprisingly) they were Inuit.

    National Post, December 7, 1998, by David Staples

    Human remains stolen from the Canadian Arctic by an amateur American archaeologist will soon be back home at their King William Island grave
    site. The man thought he was making off with an important historical discovery, bones from the famed but ill-fated Franklin expedition of the 1840s. Instead, he'd robbed two Inuit graves.

    "Human remains are expected to be treated with reverence and deference and respect, and this individual, or any other individual who is visiting Nunavut as a tourist, has no right to collect any material, and certainly not to interfere with a human burial," says archaeologist Doug Stenton, director of the Inuit Heritage Trust in Iqaluit on Baffin Island. "If someone is buried, you don't interfere with that. I think most adults would

    Explorers and scientists have long sought to solve the mystery of what went wrong with the Franklin expedition. Sir John Franklin set out in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage. After deserting their ice-locked ships, Erebus and Terror, 105 survivors starved to death in 1848, most on King William Island.

    In 1995, the tourist, who has not been named by authorities, went hunting for remains of the Franklin expedition on the rock-strewn island. There, he came upon the human bones, says Kathy Zedde, program officer at Canadian Heritage. He scooped up the bones and took them back to the United States. To confirm his discovery, the tourist later sent off the bones to forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta, a noted Franklin
    researcher. In the '80s, Dr. Beattie discovered lead in the remains of Franklin crew members and concluded lead poisoning undermined the health of the expedition crews. But U of A scientists found no elevated lead levels in the American tourist's find. Instead, they concluded the bones came from
    two Inuk individuals, one possibly prehistoric, the other more recent.
    Animal bones were also found. The U of A scientists also notified the RCMP, who began to investigate, before turning the matter over to Canada Heritage officials. They investigated the American tourist for the illegal export of cultural property.

    For such an offence, it's unlikely the American tourist would be extradited, so it's up to American custom authorities to pursue the matter, says David Walden, director of Moveable Cultural Property at Canadian
    Heritage. "We got the remains back and that is our primary concern," Mr. Walden says.

    The FBI agent who investigated the case failed to respond to calls, so it's not known if any charges will be laid in the United States.

    The grave-robbing doesn't sit well with Michael Angottitauruq Sr., mayor of Gjoa Haven, the main Inuk community on King William Island. "That's not acceptable," Mr. Angottitauruq says. "It's not a good feeling, not a good feeling at all."

    In the high Arctic, bodies were traditionally wrapped in skins, then left out on the land, Mr. Angottitauruq says. "We try to leave them exactly the way they are. We don't touch them. They're not just dumped out there."

    The bones are in storage at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. They might still be shipped to the United States if they're needed as evidence. If not, Dr. Charles Arnold, the director of the centre,
    says the RCMP has offered to return the bones to King William and plans to do so this winter or spring.


  4. I've been to visit Tookoolito's grave in Groton on several occasions -- the photo on Wikipedia is one taken by me. Her granite stone is in fine shape, but the limestone marker for her daughter Punny is in terrible shape. Not too much one can do to conserve limestone once it has reached that point, alas.

    Thanks for the news story -- a cautionary tale if there ever was one for Franklin amateurs -- I'm glad these bones will be returned, though I can't help but be curious as to who this bloke was!

  5. I too have visited Tookoolito's grave and that of her daughter Punny (Punna, Panik, Sylvia Grinnell Ebierbing) many times over a period of 35 years. In the mid-1970s the inscription on Punny's grave was still quite legible. Pushing the grass away from the base, one could quite clearly read and photograph the final line, "Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." On my most recent visit, two years ago, that line was almost unreadable. Had I not known what it was supposed to say, I would probably not have deciphered it. The main inscription itself is much weathered since my first visit.

    Hannah's grave stands in good condition, with her inscription conspicuous by the absence of any details of Joe's burial. Joe died and was buried in the Arctic. Hannah's grave stands down the hill from the impressive monument to the much-maligned Sidney O. Budington, which prominently bears near its top the unfortunate initials SOB.

  6. Thank you for paying your respects. As someone who is interested in history and in the lives of those who did great things in their time it makes me sad to hear of this. I wish our culture did a better job of remembering and honoring those who came before us.

  7. To clarify: the monument in Square 125 of Kensal Green Cemetery is that of Lady Franklin's niece, Sophia Cracroft. Lady Franklin's remains are deposited beside those of her sister, Lady Mary Simpkinson, behind a distinctive grille in Vault 61 of Catacomb B, beneath the Anglican Chapel. Tours led by the Friends of Kensal Green visit Catacomb B on the first and third Sunday of every month, starting at 14:00 on the steps of the Anglican Chapel.

    Kensal Green Cemetery is run by the privately-owned General Cemetery Company, under an Act of Parliament passed in 1832. As plots were generally sold freehold, most of the 65,000 graves, and the monuments above them, belong to the heirs-at-law of the original owners (usually, relations or executors of the deceased), who are legally responsible for their maintenance; conversely, neither the GCC nor any other body can restore a monument without making every effort to secure the permission of the current heirs-at-law, whose private property it remains.

    That said, a number of monuments have been restored through the agency of The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery, an independent registered charity, usually working with other not-for-profit organisations with a particular interest in the individual(s) there commemorated. It should be possible to restore the Cracroft and/or conserve other monuments of notable persons associated with the search for the North West Passage, if interested parties could assist with fund-raising or help in kind.

  8. Arcadia, many thanks for your clarifying comments! The materials we were given at the gate of Kensal Green listed both a memorial in the Anglican chapel and the monument on Square 125, without clarifying who was buried where, so we had, initially, assumed that the interior listing was simply for a memorial. Have you any means of ascertaining who is, at present, the heirs or assigns of Sophia Cracroft? The language of the memorial certainly seems to memorialize both Lady Franklin and Miss Cracroft, so in a broad sense it would be, I think, greatly to the credit of both to see the memorial restored.

    I did mention the Friends of Kensal Green, and would be grateful to learn how one begins the process of identifying who is presently responsible for these memorials; I am sure that, if it could be arranged, there would be great interest in contributing to their restoration!

  9. If anyone were interested, two critical tasks could be undertaken anywhere, geographically: helping to identify the present descendents of the original grave-holders (for which, those who know about the explorers' private lives have a distinct advantage), and identifying individuals and organisations that might contribute to the restoration of monuments, as it is likely that every penny will have to be raised through appeals. In the case of British explorers -- who, at Kensal Green, also include Sir John Ross, Sir George Back, John Sylvester, Robert McCormick, Sir Horatio Thomas Austin, Sir Robert McClure and Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield -- this would typically include geographical and historical societies, travellers' clubs, army and navy connections, even one-name family history groups = any organisation with a connection to the individual. Raising awareness is also useful, not least to attract individual donors; however, this is essentially a PR campaign, so it is important to plan rather than plunge in and risk losing valuable opportunities and momentum. To restore even one monument is a significant job, but if one or two committed individuals were interested in helping to co-ordinate the effort, much could be achieved. An e-mail to the Friends of Kensal Green could set the ball rolling (check their Web site: