Friday, April 27, 2018

Harry Peglar and his papers

The "roundel" from Peglar's Papers
As imagined by AMC's writers, and vividly brought to life by Kevin Guthrie, Harry Peglar is a pensive, thoughtful, reflective man. Under the mentorship of subordinate officers' steward John Bridgens (John Lynch), who feeds him books from Shakespeare to Herodotus, he evolves into one of the key figures of the story, particularly as it reaches its later stages. It's no accident that the episode titles of two of the last three installments -- "The Terror Camp Clear" and "The C, the C, the open C!" are both lines taken from the mysterious "Peglar Papers," of which he was the presumed author, and which constitute the sole surviving written record -- aside from the "Victory Point Note" -- yet recovered from the expedition. So who was Peglar, in real life? Who was Bridgens? How much did the show's writers draw from his writings, and what can we learn from these cryptic, mostly backwards-written papers?

Peglar's old neighborhood
Thanks to the work of pioneering Franklin scholars Richard Cyriax and A.G.E. Jones, we know a bit more about Peglar than the other regular seamen aboard Franklin's ships. Harry Peglar was born in either 1811 or 1812; his father was a gunsmith with a shop at 12 Buckingham Row, Petty France (later Victoria Street), Westminster. As Jones observes, and as we can see on this detail from Stanford's Library Map of London, the Blue Coat (now Blewcoat) School was quite nearby, and Peglar might possibly have attended (the building still stands, though now used as a fashionware shop. Like other similar charity schools, it would have provided young Harry with the sort of rudimentary education that was, at the time, thought all that poor children needed, or could use.

This modest training was supplemented when Peglar entered the Marine Society, which prepared young men for navy or merchant service; on his entry in 1825, he was noted as being able to both read and write. He was only there a month before being dispatched to the Solebay training station for his final practical training, after which he was issued a set of sea-going clothes, along with needles and thread, a canvas bag, a prayer book, and a copy of the Reverend Sellar's Abridgement of the Bible (one can imagine that his tendency to quote or paraphrase passages from these books must have had its roots here).

His career at sea was an extensive one; before joining the "Terror" he'd served aboard more than a dozen ships, from the Clio in 1825 to the Temeraire in 1844, on voyages to China, Singapore, Bombay, and the West Indies. His conduct was generally noted as satisfactory, though he did earn one indication of unsatisfactory while aboard the Marquis Camden in 1833, where he was cited for drunkenness and mutinous conduct -- for which he was given two dozen lashes and disrated to an ordinary seaman. The lesson apparently took, though, as his conduct was good for the rest of his career, and he re-ascended the ranks, coming aboard Terror as "Captain of the Foretop" -- quite a senior grade.

The wallet that contained the papers
As his papers testify, though, his literacy in writing was somewhat wanting; he tended to spell phonetically (Jamaker for Jamaica, wissel for whistle, and sitty for city). It would seem unlikely that he was very widely read, as one would think that would have influenced his spelling habits, and a volume of Herodotus would seem quite a challenge! But the relationship with Bridgens (who was in fact more than a decade his junior) is the show's way of representing the fact that Peglar's infamous papers were found in the jacket pocket of a corpse on King William Island, that of a man who, when living, tied his neckerchief in a steward's knot, and wore a coat with cloth-covered buttons -- telltale signs of his shipboard status as a steward.

Two candidates have been proposed for this person from among the crew of the Terror: William Armitage, the gun-room steward, and William Gibson, the subordinate officers' steward (the same rank as Bridgens on Erebus). Both had served with Peglar before, giving ground for the presumption that the dead steward was, as a friend, hoping to carry Peglar's papers home (he in this theory being deceased). Recent work by Glenn M. Stein seems to indicate that Armitage was illiterate, whereas Gibson was not -- which could be a key detail. His paper "Scattered Memories and Frozen Bones: Revealing a Sailor of the Franklin Expedition, 1845-48" is available free from my website as a .pdf.

As to the papers themselves, they are their own special enigma; I've been quoted as referring to them as the "Dead Sea Scrolls of the North." Not only are nearly all of them written backwards, but they contain almost nothing relating to the Franklin expedution, with the exception of a blank page headed "lines writ in the Arctic" and the enigmatic "the Terror Camp Clear" (or, I should say, Eht Rerrot Pmac Raelc!) I've spent more than twenty years working to decipher them, with some success, following in the footsteps of Cyriax and Jones. Those who wish to go down the rabbit hole -- you've been warned -- may read my most recent analysis, which appeared a few years ago in the Trafalgar Chronicle. You can also search this blog for earlier posts about Peglar -- no stone has been left unturned -- I've even identified the torn newspaper clipping with which his wallet (see above) was lined -- but the enigma remains.

17 comments:

  1. In the photo of the wallet, there is a red spot. Blood ? From scurvy ? From bleeding hands that had put the wallet in a pocket?

    Twenty lashes! Lucky he even survived that.



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    1. Alas, nothing so dramatic! The red stuff is sealing wax; you can also see bits of it on the individual pages of the papers. Most were folded and sealed as though to be mailed as letters -- a few even have addresses -- for economy, people back then used the folded letter as its own "self envelope." Details are in my article linked above.

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  2. If this articles is correct there are also fragments of other journals so hopefully it will be followed by other discoveries.

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/2141477-the-great-polar-mystery-closing-in-on-the-truth/

    I feel so spoiled by the discovery I'm sure it will take many months and years of careful work to find game-changing artifacts.

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    1. We don't have any other materials from the expedition-- yet! -- what that article refers to as the "journal" of Commander Fitzjames was sent home in a series of letters to his family, the last of which was posted from Greenland in the summer of 1845 before the ships sailed into Lancaster Sound, the first stage of their journey.

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  3. I was fascinated by your Trafalgar Chronicle article, and would definitely recommend it to anybody with an interest in the Peglar Papers (and an hour or two to spare).

    When I read the line “The Dyer was and whare Traffalegar”, my instant interpretation of the “The Dyer” was “He who has died”, so I was rather surprise to see you then speculating that Dyer might be a surname. Have you considered the possibility that “The Dyer” was simply a strange way of writing “He who has died”?

    Are there any high quality images of the Peglar Papers available on the internet? I'd be interested in experimenting with graphics software in an attempt to make the images more readable, although I imagine others have already done something similar without much success.

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    1. You can get pretty good images at the NMM and zoom in on them. I have high-resolution ones, and have tried all sorts of image processing without much improvement. Multi-spectral imaging would be the best option going forward, but this will depend on the NMM's being willing to subject the original to new scans.

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    2. Thank-you for pointing me to the NMM images. I located the page starting with ‘O death where is thy sting’ and spent several hours experimenting with image processing software in an attempt to make it more readable, but without a great deal of success. The only thing I can add to your analysis is that looking at the line spacing, the ‘Nelson took’ (or whatever it is) looks as though it was added after the following line, probably as a correction or insertion of accidentally omitted words. The squiggle between ‘Dyer’ and ‘was/saw’ also looks rather like an insertion arrow. If so, that would give us ‘For who has any douat how the Dyer Nelson took was/saw and whare Traffalegar’. It still doesn't make a great deal of sense!

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  4. There are (at least) 2 different writers of the texts in the Peglar papers; "the narrative of Peglar's sea service, though unsigned, was probably written by Peglar; the handwriting is clear, though the spelling is poor." The other papers are from a different hand, and sometimes spelt backwards.
    Glenn M. Stein makes an excellent case for the corpse being that of Gibson. The presence of a large clothes brush (almost floor scrubbing brush size) with the skeleton would not likely be normal kit for a gun room steward, but could be expected kit for an officers' steward like Gibson. But could Gibson be the 2nd author?
    Some of the writings in the different hand made reference to a visit to Cumanar in Venezuela, which we know was only visited by Peglar and Armitage, not by Gibson. Stein points out that Armitage signed his marriage certificate in 1826 with an "X", but was he still illiterate 20 years later? The book "Sir John Franklins Erebus and Terror Expedition" states on page76 that Armitage signed the 1845 Terror muster rolls with an X (tho the book doesnt show the rolls). So i presume him illiterate, or largely so; certainly not likely to be able to perform the mental gymnastics required to write backwards fluently.

    Gibson apparently signed the muster with his name, not an X. Can anyone check his writing on the muster roll? Can someone also check those rolls to see if anyone in the crews signed their name backwards? chuckle..

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    1. I have scans of the muster rolls. Although the senior officers did sign their names, the rest of the crew did not -- all their entries are in the same hand, presumably that of Mr. Helpman, the clerk-in-charge.

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    2. Ah ha, so maybe the book "Sir John Franklins Erebus and Terror Expedition" is mistaken? The transcribed crew list in this book lists 5 of Terror's crew as signing "X", and 9 of Erebus's crew. Plus Erebus's caulker James W. Brown signed "JA X". I wonder where the author Gillian Hutchinson got this info? It seems an odd thing to make up? And the JA X detail suggests she saw an original somewhere.
      In fairness, the crew lists and Xs in her book say they're compiled from the Muster tables AND the Allotment lists, so maybe that's where.

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  5. It must be the allotment lists. I'll have to check for these the next time I'm at Kew.

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  6. Gillian Hutchinson, the book's author, used to be the Maps curator at Greenwich National Maritime Museum, so she's in the right place to have good access to the right archives.
    I couldn't find an email contact for her online, so I'm posting a physical letter (remember them? ) and emailing the museum hoping it can reach her.
    If she's right, there are 1845 examples of the crews handwriting available.

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  7. Gillian is retired -- don't believe she uses e-mail. Let me know if you don't hear back and I'll write to my contact there.

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  8. Sad to think of this poor soul; at the end of his strength & hopelessly far from home...

    Has his skeleton been re-discovered since 1859?

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    1. An excellent question. There's some possibiity that his may have been the skeleton retrieved by the 1RCR exercise "Northern Quest" in 1973 -- see this older post on my blog, but the location is not quite the same. It's equally possible that the skeleton still remains, or has been washed away by the tide.

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    2. Author Gillian Hutchinson has replied (very promptly) to my letter asking about crew signatures. She has sent 4 A4 photocopies that assemble to make an A2 copy of 2 adjacent pages of the Allotment list. She hasn't written anything herself, no covering note, but the envelope had unsealed so I hope nothing fell out.
      The copies show pages 321/22 of the list, which covers 10 of Erebus's crew. There is a specific column in the Allotment list for "Man's signature or mark" and this column has 7 signatures, 2 Xs, and a "JA X" from James W. Brown. The styles of the Xs are different, they look like they're from different hands. The 7 signatures are definitely from different hands and differ from the clerk's style of writing that wrote the name of the Man in the "Men's names" column.
      If a crewman made an allotment, then there's a record of their signature or mark in these lists.
      I am writing back to see if I can get copies of the complete Allotment list of both crews,and a chance to see if Gibson made an allotment and therefore left a signature.
      We should now assume that Hutchinson's claim that Armitage signed X in 1845 is true, as she has the lists. She gives their archive code as "ADM 27/90 Pages 316-325". Armitage is very unlikely to be the author of any of the Peglar papers.

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  9. Is there a newer transcript of the Peglar Papers than that from the year 2000 (on ric.edu)? Because there seem to be a couple of words I can make out that aren't in the transcript..... go figure, the only two or three words I actually can read, and can't place them anywhere inside the full text! :)


    Also, I'm confused as to his first name. Was Harry the nickname? Because the crew list I can see on http://collections.rmg.co.uk/archive clearly states him as Henry?

    Thank you so much.

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