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” 


  1. Interesting to read of the unveiling in such personal and emotional terms. Those present all had direct connections to the subject. We view it in historical terms, they viewed it in terms of personal loss.

  2. Extraordinary details. Thank you for sharing these, Mary.

  3. I wonder if the widows Osmer and Blanky left any written records, detailing their individual personal loss of loved ones.

  4. This is wonderful! I can almost picture these people. Somehow it is not surprising that Sir George was the one to point out that the bust was not a "perfect likeness." On the occasion, that seems a little ... tactless.

  5. Thanks very much for letting us have a little look into the marvellous letters you have. Extraordinary details, indeed. Very vivid.