A guest post by Alison Freebairn
It was a ridiculous dream. “I’m going to the National Archives in London to look for some papers that have been missing for 168 years,” I told friends. “I’ll go through a pile of musty old ledgers line by line and, just when I’m starting to lose hope, I’ll turn over a page and that’s when I’ll see them.”
Of course, nobody believed that this would happen, least of all me. And we were all correct: I didn’t find the specific missing papers I had been looking for. But I found something else.
I’d never visited the National Archives before. But in July 2019, W. Gillies Ross published Hunters on the Track, and I realised that not all of the 1850-51 search expedition journals had been returned to their authors following the conclusion of the Arctic Committee investigation. I weighed up the probability that these papers still lurked in a ledger somewhere in Kew, ordered every record relating to those specific search years, and started to go through them page by page. This is how I spend all my holidays: sitting in silence and reverence with the history that I love.
A few hours into my first day, I turned a page in an unpromising-looking collection of letters and press cuttings and saw two beautiful pieces of paper that I had read about but had never seen before: a colourfully-treated scrap with Captain James Fitzjames’ writing on it, and a far smaller piece marked “Mr M’Donald” in pencil. I took a photo, and sent it to my Franklin research partner Logan Zachary, who was travelling with me via web chat. I told him: “I’m having an emotion”. I turned another page, and then another, and then I started to have ALL the emotions.
I sent all the photos to my research partner and went outside to sit by the pond and try to clear my head. A swan stared at me, balefully. I smiled at it, foolishly.
Remembering the Franklin Expedition group’s rich archive of posts for any reference to papers found on Beechey. Books were consulted. The internet was turned upside down and given a good shake. We brought in Allison Lane and John Wilson, RtFE’s experts on Harry Goodsir and James Fitzjames respectively.
I was hoping that someone – anyone – would say: “Oh, those old things. Obvious hoax. John Bertie Cator got into the rum ration and decided to play a joke on Captain Austin.” But nobody did. And then I got in touch with Russell Potter. Russell was in the Arctic, because of course he was. This caused some initial communication problems:
[Scene: domestic, somewhere on the west coast of Scotland]
My mother: “Why isn’t that man replying to your email? Doesn’t he know how important this is?”
Me: “Mum, he’s on an icebreaker in the Canadian Arctic.”
My mother: “Well, that’s no excuse.”
[Scene ends]Russell replied as soon as he could. I had said: “I wouldn’t be trying to contact you if I didn’t think this was really important.” We spoke, and I had confirmation that, yes, this was really important. And at that moment, everything changed.
|Identified as a page from John Stephens's Incidents of travel
in Egypt, Arabia, Petræa, and the Holy Land (1838)
But now here we all are most unexpectedly, with a little more knowledge than we had three weeks ago, and with a lot more Franklin relics.
At this stage, it’s impossible to know the stories they can tell us, and the full significance of the papers may take years to unpack, analyse, and set in context. But this find, following on from RtFE members’ identification of the Beechey Anvil Block last year, gives continued hope that more traces of the Franklin Expedition are still out there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.
And those specific missing papers I was looking for in Kew? Well, they’re still missing. But I will find them: I just need to keep searching.