Thursday, December 13, 2018

Lady Franklin's Funeral

Courtesy of Mary Williamson & Rosalind Rawnsley
It was truly the end of an era. Having stepped into the public eye to champion every effort to rescue -- or, failing that, at least to find and recover -- her husband and his Arctic companions, Lady Jane Franklin died on 18 July, 1875 at the age of 83. She was eulogized around the world, perhaps never more poignantly than in the pages of the Chicago Tribune:

Lady Jane Griffith Franklin is dead. Her long waiting and weary watching are ended. Through the darkness of the grave she has passed to that country where the mystery so long hidden in the frozen fastness of the North has already been solved for her ... If there is any truth in the Christian doctrine of immortality beyond the grave, then are Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin now together. She now understands the mystery, and all is clear. She has found him at last, not in that region of endless night, but in that higher region of endless day, where the sun never sets. There seeming becomes being,  hoping becomes enjoying, expecting becomes realizing, the lost is found.

Yet despite such resounding encomiums, the details of Lady Franklin's funeral service -- the small particulars of which any such event is composed -- have for the most part been wanting. It's only just recently that a first-person account has surfaced, and what an account it is! Its writer was Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, Sir John Franklin's nephew, a longtime champion of preserving and protecting the Lake District, and later one of the founders of the National Trust. He'd grown up in a lively literary scene, with Alfred Lord Tennyson (his second cousin) and Robert Browning among its frequent visitors, and the love of language -- and sharp wit -- of his description of the proceedings make it all the more valuable.

Hardwicke cast a stern and yet comical eye on the assembled mourners, Captain Hobson, who had first found the Victory Point note in 1859, was "a bold faced fine John Bull looking man with a determined face & blue eyes," but Admiral George H. Richards was "shabby and uncomfortable," looking like nothing so much as "a shrivelled Ruskin." Matthew Noble, sculptor of the bust of Franklin used in the Westminster cenotaph, told Hardwicke how pleased he'd been with a sonnet he'd written on seeing the bust in his studio. Bishop Francis Russell Nixon, who conducted the service, was an old friend of the Franklins from their days in Tasmania, and a pioneering photographer -- but in Hardwicke's eyes his countenance was out of joint with his manners; while he "talked very nicely about Colonial Church work," he had "an ugly face, dark penetrating eyes & grizzled beard." Although not mentioned in the letter, it's worth noting that John Powles Cheyne -- explorer, photographer of Franklin relics, and would-be polar balloonist -- was present, as were the Arctic artist Walter May, who had retired from the Navy to pursue his watercolors, along with the eccentric voyager Benjamin Leigh Smith.

But when it came to the funeral itself, Hardwicke's darkly comic treatment demands to be quoted in full:
I got there about one o’clock & found men standing in a close darkened room looking like sick cranes on a wet marshland night. Violent hands were laid on one by men who knew your name & all about you apparently. Your hat was robbed, your name shouted & then after spending an hour and ½ in this black company your name was shouted again, much crape was pinned upon you as soon as certain ties of relationship were acknowledged & after another lapse of time black gloves & hats in crape mourning were put into your hands & you were put into a  coach of decent black ... I got an horrid headache from the motion. ... the long procession of 10 coaches & several carriages reached at length Kensal Green. Up we passed thro’ rows of motley monuments, broken pillars, sad angels, tombs with photographs let in and glazed, with sculptured busts & painted faces It was grotesque but horrible.
The proceedings at the chapel -- which was built with an automatic lift for lowering coffins down to the level of the crypts -- received a still more dramatic treatment:
We alit at the doors of what looked like an Egyptian court in the Crystal Palace, & were ushered thro a mob of enquirers into the vaulted room. The coffin was placed on a dais in the middle – the old Admirals retired on either side. It was sad to see how they felt for her who had bade them venture so much & who was now but as the clay in the street - & we sat down in seats opposite the coffin. The Bishop of Tasmania Bishop Nixon mounted to the pulpit & read impressively the service for the dead. Sophy Cracroft bore up wonderfully. Then the meekfaced little burial clerk gave a signal & lo the mechanic grief was to be outdone by hydraulic machinery, for slowly & surely down went dais coffin & all as it were in a play or in a fairy story thro the ground, down down till it reached the vault beneath thence it was taken by strong hands and hauled off thro a dim taper lighted gallery to its niche where as it were in a pigeon hole all that is left of Lady Franklin lies beside her sister. And those of us who cared were then summoned thro a wicket gate down a winding stair and found men with murky lanterns & sad stolid faces waving us thro the dimness to where they had laid her. We passed pigeonholes with their dead occupants & their names engraven on the iron gratings that close them until here with “Barnetts” above her, piled to the roof, resting in the lowest pigeonhole, was the solid light oak coffin head contrasting strangely in its newness with the rusty weather-eaten black coffins beside & above. 
Photo courtesy Wolfgang Opel
And there she lies still, though the light oak of her coffin has darkened and weathered a bit in the past hundred and forty-three years. When, in 2009, in the company other Arctic friends and scholars, I visited Kensal Green, the underground catacomb was closed due to safety concerns, and it appears that it will not be re-opening anytime soon. I'm especially grateful, therefore, to Wolfgang and Mechtild Opel, who some years ago sent me a photo of her Ladyship's pigeonhole as it appeared when they visited it. You can still make out the oak coffin on the right, resting beside the lead-covered one of her sister Mary Simpkinson on the left.  For now, I can think of no better conclusion than that given in the Tribune:  "She has died poor in this world's goods by reason of her love for her husband, but rich in the world's love and memory by virtue of her peerless heroism."


  1. "Rusty weather-eaten black coffins beside & above"...does that mean most coffins there were metal ?

    1. The other coffins were covered with sheets of lead ... their internal frames may have had iron components, so thus the "rusty" element.

  2. In a documentary of the highgate cemetery there are a lot of info about these coffinas (cities of the underworld london city of blood, history channel)