Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Goodsir Brooch

It may be one of the most extraordinary relics of the Franklin expedition that's never before been seen: a brooch, containing in its inmost oval a weave of human hair, including that of Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir.

But Harry's hair is not alone; ten other individuals from the Goodsir and Taylor families are represented, the eldest being the Reverend Joseph Taylor (1742-1815), and including both of Harry's parents, his brother Archie and his sister Agnes (both of whom died young, Archie at 23 and Agnes at the tender age of one. The choice of the Goodsir siblings suggests to me that the original impulse of the brooch's being made was memorial, which the black border seems to also indicate. The most likely occasion would seem to be on or after the death of the Reverend Anstruther Taylor in 1863; his name is engraved on the back. Presumably, some locks of hair had been preserved by the families from the others; such brooches were not uncommon (see this example from the Victoria & Albert Museum), though the large number of individuals represented -- confirmed in a handwritten list kept with the brooch -- is certainly unusual.

The brooch was kept in the family, passing from Jane Ross Goodsir (who probably commissioned it) to her cousin Dr. Harry Goodsir Mackid (1858-1916) in Canada (he was the son of Harry's aunt Jean Forbes (Taylor) Mackid). From him, it passed through the generations, ending up in the care of his great-grandson Court Mackid. When Michael Tracy tracked him  down, Court shared images and information about it, and both realized its enormous historical significance. One thought, of course, was to have it tested for DNA, but the difficulty of analyzing rootless hairs -- though one technique now seems capable of managing this -- combined with that of isolating one individual's sequence from among 11 -- made such a prospect daunting. Neither Court nor Michael wished to damage the brooch or its contents, and the only available method of DNA analysis would have destroyed the hair used in it.

So the two cousins decided upon a different course -- they would jointly donate it to the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh; the Museum was pleased to accept it, and -- once these current days of pandemic-reduced services are past -- there it will be preserved, in the very halls where Harry once served as conservator.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Henry Le Vesconte's Explorer Cousin

William John Wills
One of the most exciting things about editing the letters of the men of the Franklin expedition and their families is all the research one has to do on their backgrounds -- everyone who's mentioned in a letter should (ideally) be identified, and every topic explained, from steam-ship races to Chartist meetings, to Church politics in Tasmania. And every so often, one finds a diamond in the coal-chute of mere facts -- so it was with a reference in H.T.D. Le Vesconte's letters. He mentioned that he had gotten a letter from "William," apparently a doctor with a practice in Totnes, Devonshire -- and this William was trying to sell his home and practice. Once I identified him, the reason became clear.

William turned out to be Dr. William Wills, the brother of Les Vesconte's mother Sarah -- and the reason he wanted to sell was because he'd decided he wanted to emigrate to Australia! It seems, however, that his wife was initially unwilling to go, and so their sons headed out ahead of them; the stratagem worked, and the Willeses followed them a few months later. The family ended up in Ballarat in Victoria, where the father set up a new medical practice. 

And it was there that his son William John Wills began a series of pursuits that would soon lead him to become, as had his cousin, an explorer. He'd had medical training with his father, and the younger William showed a gift for natural history reminiscent of Harry Goodsir's. He also became an avid outdoorsman, and learned the art of surveying; it was in this capacity that he was engaged by Robert O'Hara Burke, who had conceived of the almost-unheard-of idea of crossing the entire Australian continent on foot. The expedition departed in August of 1860, and endured almost unimaginable difficulties, primarily with a shortage of rations and the lack of other edible food sources. With the dismissal of the expedition's second-in-command, Wills became Burke's lieutenant. As they neared their final goal, though, Will's health declined steadily. Their only food at this point was the occasional fish and great heaps of nardoo -- a sort of Australian aquatic four-leaf clover. It was far from lucky for them -- instead, it became their "tripe de roche."

Finally, when it was clear he could go on no longer, Williams voluntarily stayed behind in their hut when Burke went to gather more nardoo. Fittingly, he wrote a final letter to his father before he died, and it's there that his thoughts turned to his cousin Henry:

Cooper's Creek, 27 June, 1861.


These are probably the last lines you will ever get from me. We are on the point of starvation, not so much from absolute want of food, but from the want of nutriment in what we can get. Our position, although more provoking, is probably not near so disagreeable as that of poor Harry and his companions.

He died the next day, followed soon after by Burke himself. It was to be William's letters and journals, posthumously edited by his father, that became the best-known account of the journey. You can read them in full here. The expedition has many other similar aspects to Franklin's -- numerous searchers were sent, but mis-read the clues and narrowly missed rendering aid, and the exact cause of Wills and Burke's deaths is disputed even to this day, with some blaming the improper preparation of the nardoo, some blaming scurvy, and some pointing to beri-beri (caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B1) as the main culprit.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Curtain calls ....

You're about to embark on one of the greatest adventures in the history of exploration -- the search for the Northwest Passage under the command of Sir John Franklin. Your room aboard ship, small as it is, is crammed with your books, clothing, and instruments; everything is in order. Your new shipmates are a goodly lot; you feel certain that, with them as your comrades, the long and isolated voyage will be the more bearable. And yet, a few weeks remain before you sail, and near at hand you have London, with all its attractions. What do you do?

Well, if your name is Harry Goodsir, you take yourself -- though money is tight -- and manage one of the cheap seats at Drury Lane. There, as you've read in the papers, the great singer Gilbert Duprez is to appear in the role of Arnold in Rossini's masterpiece Guillaume Tell. Duprez, famed in his time for being the first to sing a "high C" from his chest, was -- apparently in part from the exertion required for this feat -- perhaps a little past his prime, but nevertheless his singing, as the Illustrated London News declared, remained "transcendant." Their review went on to lament, "when will English singers, possessed as they are of fine voices, emulate the foreigners in passion, feeling, and true perception of character?"

It's a small detail, one I stumbled upon in one of Harry's missives that I'm currently working on for a forthcoming volume of all the letters of Franklin's officers and sailors, but a telling one. Goodsir only just had enough money to cover the cost of the required undress uniform; for the required silver table setting, he had to write home to his family. Having secured an appointment as Assistant-Surgeon and naturalist, he was eager to expand human knowledge, and make his name cataloging the sea-fauna, fish, and mollusks of the Arctic regions; he seemed -- both to himself and others -- at the beginning of a brilliant career. And yet, even at that moment, when resources were scarce, he did not neglect the Arts in the name of Science.

Such small but significant details abound in his letters, and those of all the others who would sail with Franklin; I can't wait to share them with the world. But time -- and editorial labors -- oblige us to wait; watch this space, as over the next months I hope to share a few more of the insights they contain. And, when the volume of them is ready for the press, you'll read about it first here.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Joseph Taylor Goodsir

Largo Kirk (photo by James Denham CC-by-SA)
On the occasion of Harry Goodsir's two hundred and first birthday, it seems fitting to recall some of the other members of his illustrious family. His brother John was certainly the best known; an eminent anatomist and pioneer in cellular theory, he was for many years a Professor at the University of Edinburgh. Those who know Harry will almost certainly know Robert, who participated in two searches for the Franklin Expedition, and wrote a book about one of them; he later emigrated to Australia. The least well-known may be his sister, Jane Ross Goodsir, who kept Harry's memory alive, even saving some of his old laundry receipts!

The Pulpit at Largo Kirk
But perhaps the most enigmatic and tragic figure among the Goodsirs was Joseph Taylor Goodsir (1815-1893). Unlike his more scientifically-minded siblings, Joseph found himself drawn to theology; after attending United College at St. Andrews, he studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh from 1833 to 1837. Although his grandfather John Goodsir (1746-1816), had long preached at the Baptist meeting house in Largo, Joseph aimed for a post in the established Church of Scotland. His father sought out the aid of Admiral Sir Philip Durham -- a man whose influence he would call upon again in 1845 to help Harry get his post with Franklin -- and through him secured an appointment for Joseph as the minster of Largo Kirk in 1843. Given the nature of the post -- it was more or less a lifetime sinecure -- Joseph's future would seem to have been assured. And yet, in 1850, he abruptly resigned his position, offering by way of explanation only his conviction that “the standards of the Church were not consistent with the teaching of the scripture."

Surely one factor may have been the emotional toll of the preceding years, years which saw the deaths of  John Goodsir (1782-1848) as well as the energetic Archie, youngest of the brothers. Harry's fate was yet unknown, though what news had reached home -- such as the discovery of the graves on Beechey Island (by a party that included Robert Goodsir) -- was not encouraging. But there also seems to have been a certain bent of mind among all the Goodsirs: a laser-sharp intellect paired with an almost-obsessive energy, so much so that nervous exhaustion was often the result. For Harry, this became a fascination with natural history, an enthusiasm which - by the account of his shipmates -- was both congenial and contagious. For John, it meant long hours in the laboratory and dissecting-rooms, combined with teaching duties. For Joseph, it seems to have meant an extensive study of scripture, and a series of theological tracts critical of the established church, which eventually led him out of the pulpit entirely. It seems significant that none of the Goodsir brothers ever married -- they all seem to have been too busy for such engagements.

Joseph ended up a man without a real profession; his sister Jane looked after him. Increasingly troubled by fits of melancholy, he was twice admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum (in 1856 and 1858). His closest relationship in these years was with his brother John; the two travelled together to Berlin and later to Rome. John's death in 1867 was a heavy blow, but Joseph managed to fight off the shadows by throwing himself into organizing his brother's scientific papers for publication. For a time, it seemed as though this work had re-invigorated him; in 1868 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Yet it was not to be a lasting thing. As he had with theology, so now with science he threw himself into disputes. When, later that same year, the Royal Society proposed making Rudolph Virchow an honorary Fellow, he fixed upon some passages in Virchow's work that he felt insufficiently acknowledged John Goodsir's research. Indeed, though the passages were only roughly similar, he accused Virchow of plagiarism, and wrote an angry pamphlet as part of a one-man-campaign against Virchow. Needless to say, it did not endear him to his fellow Fellows, who elected Virchow anyway.

The remainder of his life was largely a story of a very gradual decline, punctuated with additional bouts of melancholia; though he purchased a small cottage, attended some lectures, and took up projects such as making scrap-books, none of these activities seemed to lift his spirits. Finally, on 29 April 1881, he was again admitted to the Asylum for melancholia and suicidal thoughts; he would never leave again. He died there on 27 April, 1893.


With my deepest thanks to Mike Tracy, whose research on his Goodsir relations provided the basis for this post.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Harry Goodsir's Kayak

 When Harry Goodsir, serving as Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist aboard  HMS "Erebus" under Sir John Franklin, arrived in Greenland to see a small fleet of hunters in kayaks headed their way, he was not surprised. Indeed, the form and style of these particular kayaks was a familiar one to him, even though he'd never been to sea before. Here is his description:

We have at length got to our anchorage in the Whale Fish Islands It was rather a heavy sea when we were beating off & on about 2 o clock in the morning but notwithstanding we very soon saw several specks just like Ducks upon the surface of the water which we very shortly found to be the Esquimaux in their canoes coming off to the Ships. It was the strangest sight possible to see them rising up and down upon the tops of the waves in shells exactly the same size as that in the Gallery of the College of Surgeons and going through the water at a tremendous rate most of them without any covering for the head & dripping wet all over. 

It may be remembered that Harry had, up until the moment the expedition sailed, been the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh, and thus the curator of the kayak that apparently once resided there. But where was it now? A search of the collections at Surgeon's Hall produced a model kayak -- but no, this was only a few inches long. Further digging disclosed an old record, apparently copied off a paper catalog card, of a kayak with the unusual accession number 1800.0.0.

Since most items are catalogued by date, this number seemed at first to suggest an 1800 acquisition -- but it more likely was just a placeholder for an item acquired at an indefinite date prior to 1800. I then noticed a small note stating that the kayak had been de-accessioned and sent to the National Museum of Scotland! So of course I went there, and searched, and found a kayak -- in fact, I found quite a few of them, none of which was described as ex-Surgeon's Hall. But again, a small note stood out: most of the kayaks in their collection had been examined and catalogued by a man named Harvey Golden. Who was he, I wondered -- a bespectacled Scotsman in a tweed jacket? The name didn't sound Danish. Perhaps if I could track him down, he would know which kayak was the one I sought.

With the estimable aid of my faithful servant Google, I found that he was based in Portland, Oregon, where he operated a kayak museum and website. More significantly, he was the author of the book Kayaks of Greenland, an authoritative (but presently out-of-print) reference on the subject. I e-mailed him and waited, impatiently.

The next day brought a reply -- yes, indeed, he knew exactly which kayak it was -- its previous residence at Surgeon's Hall wasn't on the written records, but the museum staff had told Harvey of the connection when he came to assess -- and sketch! -- their kayaks. The one in question had been transferred in 1995. and bore the accession number 1995.886. And, as it turns out, it is a kayak from West Greenland -- the very place where Harry saw the scene he'd described -- and probably dated to the 18th century. 

And so, with deepest thanks to Harvey, I present to you Harry Goodsir's kayak!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Jane Franklin and the Westminster Memorial (2 of 2)

 Getting the Monument right in Jane Franklin's eyes had clearly proved something of a headache for Sophy Cracroft, as her journal entry for 29th December 1874 showed:

"I went to Mr Noble and explained the placing of the flag at half-mast would be inconsistent to the circumstances intended to be set forth, namely the discovery of the NW Passage. My Uncle's death having, as we judged by the date, followed the return of Graham Gore's party, which had undoubtedly ascertained the fact of the continuous channel to the coast. He fully accepted and agreed to this and flags will be raised. I pointed out also that the condition of the atmosphere and the temperature as shown by the frozen sails and ropes forbid the possibility of either ensign or pennant being displayed or recognised to be such; they would be mere stiffened ropey masses. Everything proved to him that the fancy was irrational. He has difficulty of finding marble of the right kinds, as it must be uncommonly hard."

(Cracroft Journals 1874, SPRI)

Somehow in the end the pennant was included & lowered, but no wonder Noble had looked "shadowy" to Catherine, the execution of this monument must have been highly stressful for him. He suffered ill health for years & died 23rd June 1876 aged 58 (Wikipedia)

Monument & Inscriptions

The architectural design in alabaster surrounding Matthew Noble's white marble bust & bas-relief was by Sir George Gilbert Scott, RA and carried out by Messrs Farmer and Brindley (Daily Telegraph 2 August 1875) The Dean of Westminster had been responsible for choosing the inscriptions on the Monument. On the base of the bust was simply written: "FRANKLIN." Above & below the bas-relief of Erebus in the ice were verses from the Benedicite:

O ye frost & cold, O ye ice & snow,
Bless ye the Lord; Praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.

Below them the lines from Tennyson:

Not here: the White North has thy bones; And thou, 
Heroic Sailor-Soul,
Art passing on thine happier Voyage now,
Toward no Earthly Pole.

The inscription to the right of the Bust read:

"To the memory of Sir John Franklin, born April 16, 1786, at Spilsby, Lincolnshire: died June 11, 1847, off Point Victory, in the Frozen Ocean, the beloved chief of the crews who perished with him in completing the discovery of the North-West Passage"

and to the left:

"This Monument was erected by Jane, his widow, who, after long waiting and sending many in search of him, herself departed to find him in the realms of Light July 18, 1875, aged 83 years"

After the ceremony Catherine wrote a letter (whereabouts unknown) to her friend Mrs Halliday with an account of the unveiling. Mrs Halliday wrote several pages of notes based on Catherine's letter, & these notes reveal something which isn't mentioned in Catherine's diary or Hardie's funeral letter:

It seems that as Jane Franklin lay in her coffin, before the lid was sealed, the immortal lines composed by Tennyson & written out by him, were placed into her hand to accompany her in death, along with a letter from Bishop Selwyn.

From Mrs Halliday's notes:

"The words of the Benedicite, chosen by the Dean, are so appropriate!

Tennysons too, are remarkable.

A copy of them, written by Himself, were put into her Hand in her Coffin, with the letter of Bishop Selwyn of Lichfield, from which the words of the Inscriptions, (recording her placing that Monument to her Husbands Memory) were taken."

Only death would have prevented Jane Franklin from attending the unveiling of this last Monument to her husband, but at least in death she carried the essence of that memorial in her hand, clutching those papers in her coffin as she descended via hydraulic machinery to the Catacombs of Kensal Green.

Additional Memorials

In 1908 a memorial to Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock was added beneath the monument to Sir John Franklin, of alabaster made by Farmer & Brindley:

"Here also is commemorated Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock 1819-1907, Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin in 1859"

A memorial stone to Dr John Rae was unveiled in September 2014, in red Orkney sandstone with Celtic style lettering by Charles Smith: 

"John Rae 1813-1893 Arctic Explorer"

Friday, August 21, 2020

Jane Franklin and the Westminster Memorial (1 of 2)

This week, we present another guest post by Mary Williamson, who is Sir John Franklin's great-great-grand-niece and a skilled researcher and archivist in her own right. This acount, compiled from letters in her family archive, gives us a fresh look at the final days of Lady Franklin, and the memorial to her husband at Westminster Abbey.


Catherine Rawnsley, John Franklin’s niece who lived at Halton Holgate Rectory in Lincolnshire, visited her Aunt Jane Franklin two or three times a year. On 29th January 1874, she attended “Friday dinner at Aunt Franklins” but a visit the following November had found her ailing:

        “Saturday 21st  Went to see Aunt Franklin whom I found up stairs very feeble but quite herself in mind & memory. She is unable to walk up & down stairs but can go across her room, after a few minutes talk about things in general & the Arctic Expedition in particular I left her feeling it doubtful whether I shall ever see this very remarkable woman again as she is so bent on going abroad to Lisbon for the winter & I can hardly believe she will return. Mrs Grinnell & Mrs Ruxton came in while I was there”

Jane Franklin struggled through the winter, but was too ill to see Catherine when she  visited on 4th June 1875: “went to see Sophy Cracroft & found Aunt F was very ill & unlike herself”

So her death just a month later on 18th July came as no surprise, & Catherine wrote a fitting tribute in her Diary to an Aunt she admired & respected: 

     “The tidings reached us first through the Times of 19th which contain a long & ably written notice of her. She was as it described her a very gifted & remarkable woman. She had seen, done & suffered much in her long life, the suspense as to my Uncles long unknown fate would have worn out a less brave & indomitable spirit. It was singular that two people of such determined & untiring energy as my Uncle & Aunt should come together. Brave, persevering & deeply pious as he was, hers was I always believe the master mind, her intellect so clear to within a few months of her death, her judgement so sound, her breadth & depth of intellect so remarkable, no petty feelings or narrow views. She had been gradually failing for 2 years but only because too feeble to walk up & down stairs the last few months…” 

Catherine’s son Hardie (Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley) attended Jane Franklin’s funeral at Kensal Green on July 23rd 1875. His description of the funeral in a letter to his mother has already been covered (Visions of the North 13 December 2018). He didn’t attend the unveiling of the Monument to Sir John Franklin at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 31st July, possibly because he had already seen the Bust in the Sculptor Matthew Noble’s studio on the morning of the funeral, which he recorded in  a poem:

“Quiet, and cold, and white as frozen snow!
Well has the master’s cunning hand expres’t
The honours on that honourable breast
The speaking eye, the calm command of brow -
Ah! if those eyes could weep, they would weep now!
Today we carry to a well-earned rest
One who hath need, not any more, of quest
Whose love out championed her marriage vow.
She needs no tomb, her monument shall be
The ancient bergs, that mound the Northern Sea,
And when to summer waters melting slip
Those giant crystals that enshrine thy ship
The men that sail where thou & thine do sleep
Shall tell her love more lasting, & as deep.”

Hardie’s mother did attend the Unveiling & wrote about the trip to London: 

     “29th  Left Skegness by the 3.30 train to go to London to stay till Monday with Sophy Cracroft & be present at the unveiling of the Monument to my Uncle John Franklins memory at Westminster Abbey on Saturday… Found Sophy as well as I expected after her illness & terrible over fatigue & anxiety, in watching her Aunt.

Friday 30th  … In the evening heard many details of Aunt F’s last days on earth, painful but interesting to me.

Saturday 31st  … Returned to 45 Phillimore Gardens to luncheon where I found Harriet Wright & Emma Lefroy arrived with Franklin & Bella, soon after Capt. Hobson the finder of the record arrived with his wife, met Bishop Nixon whom I had not seen since 1848 at Hartley, kind & courteous.  We all went at 4 to the Abbey, were joined in the Nave by Mrs Osmer the widow of the Purser of the Erebus & her daughter. Found the Dean (Stanley) waiting for us in the Nightingale Chapel & several friends assemble & amongst them the Ice Masters widow Mrs Blanky, an aged woman. Noble the Sculptor met us at the gate of the Chapel looking shadowy to the last degree. Margaret was there. The Dean asked if all Miss Cracrofts party were there. 

On the answer yes! being given Sir George Back stepped forward & in silence drew off the white cloth that had covered the Monument & reveal a most beautifully executed Bust & bas relief. The Bust is a very fair likeness, even to me who remember him so perfectly that I could point out the 2 or 3 failing points, as Sir George B said it is a fine Historic bust but not a perfect likeness. He is the last left of my Uncles brave companions in both his land Expeditions beside having served with him in the Trent. The bas relief representing the Erebus in the ice & the pennant lowered to show the death of the beloved Captain, is singularly beautiful, the dazzling whiteness of the marble gives so much effect to the representation of bergs & shrouds & hung with icicles”

The ceremony was clearly a very moving occasion. Catherine noticed that: “The poor Ice Masters widow was quite overcome” 

Monday, August 17, 2020

New Franklin Discovery from the Air

Photo by Joseph Monteith
Photo by Joseph Monteith
Sometimes even the most significant discoveries happen by happy accident. Such was the case with a series of aerial photographs of Beechey Island taken by Joseph Monteith of Iqaluit. It's a storied location, and since there are no expedition cruise ships or other visitors this season, it's one of the few ways any Franklin buff was going to be able to catch a glimpse of its graves and monuments. Joseph shared his photos with fellow aficionados on Facebook, and I was glad to see them, surprised as their clarity and detail. The second photo of the series, though, caught my eye at once: there was a structure, some sort of earthwork, with a curious shape -- a shape I felt certain I had seen before.

And I had. In the pages of my late friend Garth Walpole's Relics of the Franklin Expedition, which I edited after his death, there was a reproduction of a sketch made by Sherard Osborn, who arrived with the very first ships that reached Beechey and discovered the iconic Franklin expedition graves. There were other features in the vicinity of these memorials, though -- a place where a forge or smithy had been erected, an attempt at a garden (by means a transplanted chunk of muskeg from the adjoining flats), and a structure -- apparently a storehouse. Osborn described the structure in some detail:
It consisted of an exterior and interior embankment, into which, from the remnants left, we saw that oak and elm scantling had been struck as props to the roofing; in one part of the enclosed space some coal-sacks were found, and in another part numerous wood-shavings proved the ship's artificers to have been working here. The generally received opinion as to the object of this storehouse was, that Franklin had constructed it to shelter a portion of his superabundant provisions and stores, with which it was well known his decks were lumbered on leaving Whale-Fish Islands.
Even better, he provided a sketch, which indicated the extraordinary scale of this establishment: it was nearly 70 feet long on its longest edge, and 60 feet wide, along with an L-shaped interior embankment -- all described as "four feet through at the base, and five feet high, in which posts had been sunk." Within what must have been a sturdy enclosure, an area thick with wood shavings suggested a carpenter's workshop. Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, in his own account, also mentioned finding "a stocking without a foot, sewed up at its edge, and a mitten not so much the worse for use as to have been without value by its owner" -- and amazingly, this very stocking is preserved in the collections of the National Maritime Museum!

It must have been quite a solid structure -- but Osborn's idea of it as a storehouse for "superabundant provisions" seems unlikely -- for no provisions were left in it. Quite beyond that, the timbers which supported its structure, possibly of canvas, had themselves been removed -- so its use was more likely as a shelter for activities in the winter. That there was time to take it down so thoroughly also argues against the usual assumption that the ships left their anchorage there in a hurry.  So thorough was their work that the remaining earthworks were almost completely forgotten, and never -- so far as I know -- studied by archaeologists. And yet we can see, in Monteith's photo, the entire structure survives intact, its outline an exact match for Osborn's sketch. What a fortunate accident indeed -- the light was just right to throw it into relief!

The observant viewer will also note a second structure, almost perfectly circular, nearby; from Osborn's scale I'd guess its diameter at around twenty feet. My friend Andrés Paredes suggests that it may have been an observatory, noting that the Ross Arctic expedition constructed one that was similarly circular (left). It's certainly a possibility; what we'd want to do would be to have a proper site excavation by modern archaeologists; assuming that some material still lies at or near the surface, the use of each structure might have been. As the one trace of a building actually erected by Franklin's men, there's no underestimating the significance of what might be found.

With thanks to Joseph Monteith for permission to use his photograph!

Saturday, June 27, 2020

A lost season

Coronation Gulf, 2019 (author photo)
Since Parks Canada first became involved with the search for Franklin's ship's in 2008, there's been only one summer without either a search for, or dives on, the wrecks of Franklin's ships (that was in 2009). And this year, sadly, the reason is not the lack of funding or resources from the government, but rather the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the world; given the inevitability of individual interaction -- and the fact that, as of today, there are still no known cases of the coronavirus in Nunavut -- the risks of a dive season outweighed its possible benefits. The dead, as they should, must wait on the living.

There's a silver lining of sorts -- the time, and some of the resources, that would have been devoted to this year's dives will now be focused on the study of the enormous trove of objects -- more than 350 -- recovered last year. According to a statement released by the Ministry of the Environment, "Parks Canada will temporarily shift its focus for exploration of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to advancing research, in collaboration with Inuit, on the many artifacts recovered during the 2019 research season." The statement goes on to say:
"While Parks Canada will not conduct field research at the Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 2020, the Agency will advance plans in collaboration with Inuit for the 2021 research season. Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team may also move forward in 2020 with other projects aboard the RV David Thompson - Parks Canada's newest research vessel. These potential activities in southern Canada may include projects that support Parks Canada's archaeological, climate change and biological research, new protected area establishment and outreach initiatives."
So it's good to know that, not only will work on the recovered artifacts get added resources, those that can't be repurposed that way -- such as the RV David Thompson -- will not be wasted. It's a little hard for us "Franklinites" to bear in mind, but the wrecks of Erebus and Terror aren't the only significant underwater archaeological sites in Canada.

For myself, I'll just express the hope that, as part of this shift of focus, that information about the many objects recovered in 2019 which have not yet been publicly disclosed will be shared more extensively. Around the world, Franklin buffs both amateur and professional are keenly interested in what's been found, and eager to do anything they can to aid in their understanding. Many, though not all of us, have a bit more time on their hands than before -- and there's nothing we're more eager to devote this time to than to expand our understanding of the significance of these extraordinary archaeological finds.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Fair Augusta

"The Fair Augusta" as she looks today
Few have looked upon such extraordinary voyages as has she, and none of her contemporaries remain to tell their tale. Once proudly looking forth from the brig "Advance," she's been further north than any of her peers, and survived the wreck of her ship by more than a century and a half. The expedition's leader, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, took something of a risk in bringing her back when they began their difficult retreat to the south -- but, as his men observed, she was made of wood -- "if we cannot carry her far, we can burn her." And carry her far they did, aboard the tiny boat they christened the "Hope," and she saw them find their way back to safety in Upernavik. Kane was celebrated as a hero, although the parades of welcome were followed in only a few months by his funeral. The Kane Lodge, a Masonic establishment that had sponsored Elisha's entry into that ancient fraternity, changed its name to honor him, and its members still meet regularly at their Manhattan location. And it's there, in a glass case in the corner, that the Fair Augusta turns her eyes upon you, and poses her Sphinx-like riddle: who is it that goes forth proudly, and returns humbly, minus a nose, yet survives to return home?

In her day, she was widely known and celebrated; she even had her own song, the "Fair Augusta Schottisch," with her portrait on its cover; in 1893 she was put on display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1910, she was hailed thusly in a speech given at the Lodge:
The fair Augusta was the figurehead of Kane's ship, and with a devotion to the noble hero, worthy of all praise and exhibiting what the sex can do, who kept her position in ceaseless battles with the surging ice until she lost her nose, and no woman could be expected to head an expedition after her nose was gone ... Kane Lodge keeps her as its presiding angel; she knows all our secrets and has never given one away.
One other question is who was the model for her -- or was she, indeed, modeled after any one person? A leading candidate, of course, would be Dr. Kane's paramour Margaret Fox, one of the well-known "Fox Sisters" whose "spirit rappings" captivated a nation until they were revealed (by the sisters themselves) as a fraud.

Margaret Fox
By some accounts, Kane was aware of the deception, and tried to persuade Margaret to break away from her sisters. According to others, including Margaret herself, they were secretly married. Whatever marital bliss might have awaited was foreclosed in February of 1857, when Kane died of heart disease in Havana. Margaret and her sisters, after a disastrous "revelation" tour in which they exposed their methods, drifted in and out of spiritualist circles. Margaret stayed for a time in England with her sister Kate, who had married  a London barrister; at some point after his death Margaret returned to New York, where she died in March of 1893. Most of the notices were critical of her career, though a writer for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle struck a more sombre and sympathetic tone: "She lived for several years on what [Kane] had left, but this soon gave out, and she was left to the care of her friends. Her mediumistic power decreased, and she lived a life of solitude and retirement, until death found her in absolute destitution." 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A seldom-seen image of Mathinna

©Trustees of the British Museum
The sad lot of Mathinna, an indigenous Australian girl who was adopted and later abandoned by Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane, haunts the edges of their historical legacy, posing uncomfortable questions and standing as a symbol of the colonial presence in Tasmania -- one which led to the near-genocide of the indigenous population.

For many years, most people's image Mathinna has shaped by Thomas Bock's well-known watercolor portrait, showing an almost-smiling girl wearing a red dress that had been given her by Lady Franklin. And yet now, from the archives of the British Museum, another, much less well-known portrait has emerged. A drawing by John Skinner Prout, it's monochromatic except for Mathinna's face, arms, and feet -- this may yet be the red dress, but its color has gone. It was among a series of portraits made in February and March of 1845 on Flinders Island; by that time, Mathinna's erstwhile adopted parents were long gone back to England, and Sir John was getting ready for what would be his final, fatal voyage. There is no smile on this girl's face, but there does seem to be a kind of clear-eyed reflection on her circumstances, and those of her people.

The portrait was among a series that Prout brought back to England, which he sold to Joseph Barnard Davis; when Davis died in 1881, he willed the collection to the British Museum. Davis, who himself has served as a surgeon aboard an Arctic voyage, may have been interested in the Franklin connection, but more pertinently it fit with his collector's interest in ethnographic portraiture; a special interest was early skulls from the British Isles. It was not published or widely known, and although several of Prout's portraits were exhibited in Tasmania in 2019 as part of an exhibition, "The National Picture: The Art of Tasmania's Black War," it's not clear whether his sketch of Mathinna was included. I reached out to Booker-Prize-winning Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan -- whose 2009 novel Wanting took up Mathinna's story -- he told me that he had "never seen the image, nor heard of it," calling it "beautiful and enigmatic." It's a small example of how sometimes, even work that has been consigned to the careful care of a national museum can lie hidden in plain sight.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Eric Harvie and the Franklin relics

Eric Harvie
Back in 2018, I revealed the re-discovery of the wooden anvil block recovered from the Franklin Expedition campsite at Beechey Island -- a wonderful and welcome return to the public eye, as the centerpiece of an exhibit that had just opened then at the Glenbow, "The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century."

Many since have wondered, though, how this storied object came to return to Canada at the point when most of the Franklin materials in the disbanded Museum of the Royal United Services Museum went instead to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The answer comes with the name of one man: Eric Harvie, the millionaire oilman responsible for the founding of Glenbow, and still at the time of the anvil base's acquisition continuing a very ambitious program to expand the Museum's holdings.

When Harvie got word that the RUSI Museum's holdings were to be de-accessioned, his first impulse was to  attempt to acquire the entire collection of Franklin materials! That certainly would have been a magnificent addition, but there was considerable resistance to the Franklin relics' leaving the United Kingdom. Not to be discouraged, Harvie persisted, peppering the RUSI board, the High Commissioner for Canada, and the Canadian Ministry of Defense with more missives than Lady Franklin dispatched to the Admiralty in her husband's cause. At one point, exasperated, he declared to the Defense minister, “Canada is a member of the Commonwealth; has been for many years in joining in defense and maintenance of the Empire and, in fact, has very little by way of museum material to show for it."

Eventually, those handling the collection relented, and small but deeply symbolic group of items -- including the anvil base -- was shipped to Calgary. I had held out hope that, just possibly, other Franklin relics that have gone missing -- particularly the board that Schwatka believed came from within one of the ships with the initials "I.F" in copper tacks -- but alas, no. Now, thanks to Logan Zachary, I know that the board was not apparently among the RUSI items dispersed at its closure, though the anvil block was -- see his guest post at Alison Freebairn's wonderful blog, "There Stood No Friendly Finger-Post to Guide Us." The search goes on.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Le Vesconte's Will

Courtesy the LeVesconte/Wills families
As they prepared for their voyage of exploration, most of the officers of Sir John Franklin's ships "Erebus" and "Terror" took one final precaution -- they made their wills. This shouldn't be taken as an instance of some sort of fatalism; many who left on less hazardous journeys took a similar precaution -- after all, any lengthy voyage at sea in those days was an uncertain proposition; many such wills (including those of Franklin's officers) can still be had from the National Archives at Kew.

Yet the last will and testament of Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte had one singular difference: it was actually written, witnessed, and signed aboard HMS "Erebus" on May 15th, 1845, very shortly before the ships sailed. Perhaps Henry was a bit of a procrastinator; perhaps some communication from his family reminded him at the last moment that he ought to attend to this business. After all, as Barbara Rich has aptly chronicled in her series of articles about Le Vesconte's fellow officer Edward Couch, even when a will existed, it was no guarantee that one's estate would not end up in the dreaded Court of Chancery. It was best to err on the side of caution.

There's nothing else too unusual about Le Vesconte's will -- like many of the officers, his own personal estate was not particularly vast or valuable -- aside from his cousin Henrietta, to whom he specially bequeathed £100 of his wages, his primary legatees were his parents -- but it lends a great sense of immediacy to the feeling aboard ship just prior to sailing:
"I, Henry Thos. Dundas Le Vesconte, Lt. in the Royal Navy, being about to proceed on a Voyage of Discovery in the Polar Seas, and desirous to dispose of what property I may be possessed of, in the event of my death, do make this solemn Will and Testament.
What is still more striking are the witnesses listed at the bottom of the second leaf: "Mr. [James] Fairholme, Lt. R.N., and J[ohn] Weekes, Carpenter." It would make sense that Fairholme would be at hand, as he was next in rank to Le Vesconte, but the attestation of the ship's carpenter adds a touching instance of trust between the ship's officers and the ordinary sailors. I've shared this find with Gordon Morris, who played Weekes in the AMC production "The Terror," and he was struck by this as well. This was no ordinary camaraderie among a ship's crew -- many of them had only just met -- but a deeper, shared sense of risks undertaken, of destiny. Today, in this strange and uncertain voyage on which everyone on Earth is now embarked, may it stand as a small, clear beacon of light for us all.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Captains Courageous

Captain Francis Crozier (L) and Captain Brett Crozier (R)
It's more than just a coincidence of names -- it's a coincidence of character. Though born 174 years apart, both men were both drawn to the sea at an early age, though in the case of Captain Brett Elliott Crozier, it was as a naval aviator that he first distinguished himself. Born in Santa Rosa, California in 1970, he started out as a helicopter pilot, flying SH-60B Seahawks, before making the unusual switch to fixed-wing craft and leading a squadron of F18 Hornets. But it was that first assignment that stuck with him, and was the source of his nickname, "Chopper." After flying off of carriers, he eventually came to command them, first as captain of the USS Blue Ridge, an amphibious vessel, and then -- just this past November -- of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), a nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with a crew of over five thousand sailors.

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland in 1796. Like many of his generation, his naval service started early, when at the age of thirteen he volunteered for the Royal Navy. His early service brought him into many far-distant places, among them Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of HMS Bounty had settled, as well as the Cape of Good Hope, which he visited while serving aboard HMS Doterel. His career soon brought him into what was informally known as the "Discovery Service," when he signed up with William Edward Parry for his second expedition to the Arctic in 1821. This voyage included a wintering-over near the seasonal settlement of Igloolik, where Crozier had a great deal of contact with Inuit, and was said to have acquired a fair speaking knowledge of Inuktitut. His first significant command was that of HMS Terror, serving under James Clark Ross aboard HMS Erebus on an Antarctic expedition that stretched from 1839 to 1843. He didn't acquire (so far as we know) any nicknames, but his close friends always knew him as "Frank."

Neither man sought out controversy, nor could have anticipated the challenges that fate would place in their way. For Francis Crozier, it came in the form of his second voyage in command of Terror, this time under Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845. Being second-in-command was a more comfortable place for Frank than being the overall commander, and though he was never as close to Franklin as he had been to Ross, he was happy to serve in that capacity. For Captain Brett Crozier, one might imagine that he enjoyed a mightier perch -- and yet, just as with Francis, he was obliged to work in close quarters with his immediate supervisor, Rear Admiral Stuart P. Baker. Since the Theodore Roosevelt is the flagship of her squadron, Admiral Baker's headquarters was immediately adjacent to Crozier's, and they would have eaten in the same mess, seeing each other on a fairly frequent basis.

Then came the crisis. For Francis Crozier, it was the death of his commanding officer, which took place at a time when both ships were icebound, and had been for more than a year. The crisis he inherited only grew more grim, as it began to appear that neither ship was going to be freed from the ice, even in this, their second summer. We can't know exactly what went through his mind, but eventually the decision had to be made, and Crozier ordered both ships abandoned, with an effort made for his men to survive on land, and for some of them (at least) to find help and rescue. Similarly, the crisis that struck Captain Brett Crozier's ship -- an outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19 -- threatened the lives of all of his men, and similarly he sought to save them by moving them ashore. His efforts to do so apparently having met with resistance, he wrote a letter and sent it to his superiors, reportedly including some not in the chain of command. One has to assume that he wasn't able to get Admiral Baker's full support, or the letter makes no sense -- but bad news that leaks out, by whatever means, is often cause for reprimand. In this case, it was the severest kind: Captain Crozier was relieved of his command. We don't know the all details as of why that happened, but we do know one thing: as Captain Brett Crozier walked down the gangway to the dock, his sailors -- both aboard ship and on shore -- raised a hearty cheer of admiration and appreciation.

We may never know whether the men of Erebus and Terror raised a similar cheer -- though well they may have -- but we do know that, in their peril and disorientation following the abandonment of the ships, they followed their Captain's orders faithfully and well. In Francis Crozier's case, the peril that endangered his men eventually claimed his life. Let us hope that this won't be the case for Captain Brett Crozier, who has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.  His courage and dedication to his men's safety was very much in the mold of Francis Crozier's, and deserves our thanks and admiration. They are both heroes for their times.

NB: I've been asked whether the two Captains might be related. Brett Crozier's branch of the family seems to have been in California and Arizona for some generations; Francis Crozier had no children, but I don't know of any of his relations having emigrated to America -- so my guess would be that their relationship -- in family terms -- is a distant one.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Two "Resolute" ships

The Resolute, showing her slightly-dented bow
It's a storied name. The original HMS "Resolute," one of the ships of Belcher's ill-fated Franklin search squadron, was abandoned in the Arctic, and none of her officers and crew expected to see her again -- and yet, against all odds, she found her own way free, drifted down to the Davis Strait, where she was retrieved by an American whaler. Refurbished by an Act of Congress, she was sailed back across the sea by the gallant Captain Hartstene and presented to Queen Victoria. Years later, when she was retired and broken up, her Majesty caused several desks to be made from her timbers, the best-known of which was presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes, and sits now in the Oval Office of the White House.

Fast forward a hundred and forty years. Once again we have a doughty ship,  the Resolute, and once more she's stranded far from home. Most recently the flagship of the now-defunct One Ocean Expeditions, she'd cruised both the Arctic and Antarctic, parting those icy waters with her reinforced bow -- but now she lay at the port of Buenos Aires, arrested for unpaid debts. Word of her ultimate destiny remains uncertain; apparently she was purchased or leased by a German ship management company, Columbia Cruise Services GmbH, and shifted to Portuguese registry before being sailed north. It seems she was on her way to a port call in the Caribbean when -- in international waters off the island of Tortuga -- she was suddenly challenged by a patrol boat from the Venezuelan navy, the Naiguatá.

The Naiguatá
Although far outside Venezuela's territorial waters, the captain of the Naiguatá apparently challenged the Resolute and attempted to order it into a Venezuelan port. The captain of the Resolute refused this order, at which point shots were fired from the Naiguatá, and she attempted to ram the bow of the Resolute to force her to turn shoreward. Doubtless the captain of the Naiguatá was unaware that this was an ice-strengthened vessel, originally built in 1991 as the Society Adventurer and later the Hanseatic; her bow was more than a match for such efforts. Instead, after repeated, deliberate collisions, the Naiguatá suffered severe damage to her bow, and began taking on water.  The Resolute alerted the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Curaçao, who initiated a rescue operation; not long after, the Naiguatá sank, but all hands were saved. It may be the only known engagement in which a naval war vessel was sunk by a polar cruise ship -- and the Resolute once again proved that she was aptly named. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Orkney Telescope, Part 2: William Simpson

The Ocean Nymph
William Simpson’s career can be traced through the Hudson Bay Company Archives online, via the Servants contracts (employees of HBC were termed “servants” of the company). He first signed up in 1845, the exact same year that saw Erebus and Terror at Stromness on their way to the Arctic.  He was nineteen or twenty years old when he signed his contract for five years at £20 per annum. His occupation was “slooper” and his work location York Factory.  The next few contracts show a steady rise from Assistant Schooner Master Boatbuilder in 1853 to Slooper Master Carpenter in 1857 on £45 pa with free passage for his wife to York Factory and a grant of 50 acres at the Red River Settlement.

His final contract with HBC, dated 1866, was slightly different. His work location was Chesterfield Inlet (previously it had always been York Factory) and he was assigned to the ship Ocean Nymph on a salary of £75 per annum.  Unusually for servants' contracts, there was an additional hand-written paragraph which was not available to view online, but the HBC archivist kindly transcribed it for me:
“To conduct the trade with Esquimaux and other natives during the voyage of the said Company’s ship Ocean Nymph to Chesterfield Inlet and during the wintering at that place or elsewhere in the said Company’s territories of Hudson’s Bay … the said William Simpson hereby binds himself to obey all orders that he may receive during the said voyage to Chesterfield Inlet, or elsewhere the said wintering grounds of the said ship, from the Captain of the Ocean Nymph” 
A microfilm copy of Captain James Taylor’s log of the Ocean Nymph for 1866-1867 is available to view at the National Archives.  The barque Ocean Nymph set out from London’s West India Dock on 8th June 1866 and journeyed via Stromness to Churchill, Hudson’s Bay.  William Simpson joined the ship as Trading Master, along with Norman the Interpreter and Whaling Master Alexander Hay. The main aim was to establish demand for a new trading post midway up Hudson’s Bay, but also whaling whenever the opportunity arose.

By mid-September they reached Marble Island where they wintered, but it was by no means a happy ship. From the beginning there was tension between the Captain and the Whaling Master, & James Taylor’s log entry for Monday 19 November was just one example of numerous complaints:
“Mr Alex Hay still continues as disagreeable as he possibly can be, he uses very irritating language, I am provoked by him so much sometimes that I find it very hard to keep my hands off him” 
The feeling was mutual. Alexander Hay’s log book is littered with complaints about the Captain, calling him proud, ignorant, silly, and a disgrace to the company.

By January 1867 the situation was becoming worse. William Simpson was suffering from scurvy  “very bad, his right leg all Blue about the knee”. Fortunately Captain Parker of the Orray, an American whaling ship in the vicinity, came to the rescue with a gift of pickled turnips, believed to be a grand cure for the scurvy. Simpson recovered, but then suffered the loss of 10 bottles of Port Wine which mysteriously disappeared from his cabin. At least he fared better than his shipmate Thomas Saunders, who lost all the toes off one foot and part of his little finger.

After months trapped in the ice with  no ice saw, five canisters of powder on 20th June failed to release the ship but a further twenty-one blasts the following day set her free & they were able to progress north.

Trading took place whenever there was an opportunity.  A trading shop was set up on deck & on 20th September 1866 Simpson, Norman, the Mate & 4 men set off by boat for the Main Land “to go a trading with the Natives …” returning four days later with deer & salmon.
All visits to the ship were recorded in the log. On 3rd February 1867:
“About noon two Natives came across on the Drift Ice, their feet were wet through … they are out of ammunition, tobacco etc. We have had them in the Cabin all the evening, gathering all the information we could concerning the trade …”
These particular individuals were stranded on the ship for about five days due to bad weather, “devouring bread and molasses at no small rate”.

Charles Francis Hall meets with Inuit witnesses
Another tale was told of this visit, but it wasn’t written in the log until months later, in August, when the Ocean Nymph was in Repulse Bay. A meeting with Charles Francis Hall, who was also in Repulse Bay, prompted the extra story:
“The first two natives that visited us in winter came from far up Chesterfield Inlet they came on 3rd Feb. When we were asking them concerning Mr Hall if they had seen him they said no, but said they had seen two white once before long ago, I asked a good deal about it but could get little satisfaction and not knowing of any expedition with two men on it, I thought it was we did not understand them properly or some such thing and paid no much attention to it yet thinking it rather strange. When we asked what got the white men at last they said they went away and got capsized and drowned in a boat or canoe I can not remember which and Norman our Interpreter says they said the two men were looking for, or trying to get to other white men or “Cabloonacks”  There is several men in the ship who remember it as well as me among whom is Mr Simpson …”
Before the Ocean Nymph reached Repulse Bay, they were given information on Charles Hall by a couple of whaling boats, so they knew all about his trip to Pelly Bay, his wintering at Repulse Bay & his resolve to return to King William Island the following year. They also learned of his collection of Franklin relics,  “silver spoons “Captain Crozier” names on etc” And even better, when they arrived at Repulse Bay, Charles Hall was eager to trade:
 “4pm Mr Hall the American explorer came on board and stopped till 8pm. He’d had a crew of Natives Males and females belonging to Repulse Bay, all but one who belonged to Cumberland Gulf, he brought us part of a deer, and tried to persuade me if we were here he would get the natives to bring us some more. He wanted to get many supplies from us saying he would give an order on Mr Grinnell … I told that I would supply him only by way of exchange for whalebone or oil. He said he would exchange (but I am doubtful) he wanted an Almanack for next year. I left him one …exchanged 1000 lbs of bread (1 cart of 2nd), 1 Cask of lager, 1 bag of Coffee, 1 Cask of Pork, remainder of Can of Pipes, and several smaller articles as per Mr Simpsons Account from the trading goods, for 248 Ibs of whalebone with Mr Hall. I have consulted with Mr Simpson about the goods and as we are of opinions that he is not trading any thing whatever in opposition to the Company we let him have the little he wanted”
They also gave Hall an old sledge “which is all broken and out of order.”

Interestingly, trade with an English ship, for hatchets, knives, saws, powder-horns, daggers, and smaller articles, was noted by Hall & included by Nourse in his Narrative of the Second Arctic Expedition made by CF Hall 1864-69, and the mention of a Nautical Almanac confirms this as the Ocean Nymph.

News of the Franklin Expedition was clearly of great interest & James Taylor’s log included further details gleaned from Hall:
 “Mr Hall had a long story about having traced “Captain Crozier” as far as the head of Chesterfield Inlet with one attendant trying to reach Churchill, and said he had got some relics of the Franklin expedition from the natives, some thing about a boat being found bottom upwards & buried in mud, full of dead bodies and stores and much interesting news if it be true … learned from the natives of some Cache, or some thing the natives say is built of stones tied together, which is understood to be cemented, as the natives have tried to break into it but cannot. Some are of opinion it may be Records, or it may be Sir John Franklins Grave others say …”
After a few days of trading, the Ocean Nymph left Repulse Bay on 8th August. No whales had been caught during the voyage & this had caused huge vexation between the Captain & the Whaling Master. The Captain’s final report on reaching Gravesend on 30th September summed up his own experience:

                           “So this very miserable and unsuccessful Voyage has ended”

And what of the Telescope?  William Simpson, Master Trader, in his final year with the Hudson Bay Company having signed up the year the Franklin Expedition sailed, was in a prime position to purchase a decent Franklin relic when the opportunity arose, and who could possibly resist a telescope?  As a private transaction it would never have been noted down in the official log, and any sensible person would have squirrelled it away in a cabin well out of sight of both his shipmates and Charles Hall. William Simpson certainly believed it to be a genuine Franklin Expedition relic, even if the proof remains elusive.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Orkney Telescope (part 1 of 2)

This week, we present a guest post by Mary Williamson, who is Sir John Franklin's great-great-grand-niece and a skilled researcher and archivist in her own right. I can think of no one better suited to relate this singular story of a possible Franklin relic, and the man who brought it back to Orkney.

During a visit to Orkney in May 2019, my husband and I came across a man with a particular interest in John Franklin. A friend of his owned a telescope that was reputed to be a relic of the 1845 expedition.  It was known in the family as “Franklin’s Telescope”, and the tale passed down was that William Simpson (1825-1879) from St Margaret’s Hope, Orkney, had traded it for a box of buttons while working for the Hudson Bay Company in the late 1860’s.

The family had no hand written record to confirm the story told by William Simpson, but they did have a couple of newspaper articles that had appeared in The Orkney Herald in 1881, headed  “Supposed relic of the Franklin Expedition." It was the discovery by Frederick Schwatka and subsequent removal of (the supposed) Lieutenant Irving’s bones from King William Island to Edinburgh that focused attention on the telescope. The first report was on 2nd March:       
 “Among the articles found in the grave of Lt. Irving, third officer of the ‘Terror’, was a lens, apparently the object glass of a marine telescope”
This, according to the reporter, was excellent news, because the Orkney Telescope was missing a lens, and by chance Lt Irving’s grave had produced one. If this lens belonged to the Orkney Telescope, whose owner had died three years previously without being able to prove beyond doubt that it was a Franklin Expedition relic, the problem was conveniently solved. However, a report two weeks later revealed Irving’s lens as a red herring. The reporter had visited Mr Thompson, the present owner & brother-in-law of William Simpson, & discovered that the telescope had never been missing a lens but had merely had a new one inserted. Thompson was able to fill in a few extra details from memories of conversations with Simpson:
“bought it from a native when on a trading voyage up Cumberland Gulf, and that on questioning the native as to how he got it, he (the native) said he found it in an upright position in a crevice of rock near the sea” 
A slightly different version is reported in the same article, from the reporter’s notes that he made before calling on Mr Thompson:
 “Simpson being able to speak the Esquimaux language made inquiry of the Esquimaux as to how he got it, and was told that it was found by the disposer at a place from the description of which Simpson concluded was a hut erected by some of the Franklin party”.
The telescope had no identifying marks on it as regards ownership, but the makers name, W & T Gilbert London, are clearly visible as well as  “Improv’d Day or Night”.

Dr Richard Dunn, telescope expert at the Science Museum, examined my photographs and gave a date from the 1820’s with a fair bit of leeway as designs didn’t change much, so this date would fit the 1845 expedition.

Officers had their own telescopes, but it seems most likely that Sir John would have owned a Dollond.  In the history of telescope design it was John Dollond who emerged head & shoulders above other manufacturers by using a particular combination of lenses that worked better than any other. Jane Franklin herself had chosen to present a Dollond telescope to Robert Goodsir for one of the search expeditions.

As to William Simpson, his career presents its own points of interest, which overlapped once more with the Franklin search, via no less a figure than Charles Francis Hall himself -- but we'll save that story for the next post!