Monday, June 21, 2021

Found! John Gregory

After a considerable amount of diligent searching over several weeks, I'm very happy to be able to say that John Gregory's baptismal record -- as well as the marriage record of his parents -- have been found! The christening record was located first, with the assistance of Juliette Pochelu and Margaret Stanley. Margaret, in particular, did the valuable work of checking through all the records of 1805/1806 to be sure there were no other John Gregorys about. The result of this work was to identify a John Gregory born on 22 September 1806; his parents were listed William and Fanny (the latter a nickname for Frances). Everything matched, but there was one puzzle: the christening took place at St. Michael's, a "chapel of ease" (a place where more convenient church ceremonies could be held for those who lived at some distance from their parish church) -- and it was located in the district of Angel Meadows, the city's most notorious and squalid slum!

It was hard to imagine our John Gregory having grown up in such adverse circumstances, but the answer to the mystery was hinted at when Juliette sent me John Gregory's parents' marriage record; it turned out they had been married at Manchester Cathedral. Then, just recently, local family history expert Gay Oliver found records of William Gregory listed as a grocer on Chapel Street in Salford, a respectable middle-class trade in a respectable mercantile town. Since he signed his own name in the register, he was certainly literate, and doubtless his son learned to read and write as well.

Rev. Joshua Brookes
But why marry in the Cathedral and then have your firstborn baptized in a poorer neighborhood? The answer lies in Manchester's unusual ecclesiastical arrangement: while people could have baptisms at any church, weddings could only be held at the Cathedral -- specifically its Collegiate Church -- since it was the only official parish church of the entire city of Manchester and environs. The Wardens and Fellows of the Collegiate Church jealously guarded their sole right to conduct marriages, along with their fee of three shillings sixpence. This of course meant an extraordinary number of marriages, which were often conducted in "batches," often including as many as a dozen couples; William and Fanny were in a more modest batch of four. Presiding over all these ceremonies was the well-known divine Joshua "Jotty" Brookes, who had the duty from 1790 to his death in 1821; of him it was said that he conducted more marriages than any cleric in the history of England before or since!

All of which explains why William and Fanny were married at the Collegiate Church, but opted to have their son christened at a "chapel of ease," where the fees would be far more modest. Salford in their day was a growing, prosperous town -- it has since been entirely absorbed by the City of Manchester -- and Chapel Street was more or less its main thoroughfare. 

On a whim, recalling that my own ancestor -- James Clarke, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather -- was born in Salford in 1804, two years before John Gregory -- I looked up his and his siblings' records. To my astonishment, I found that their address was also Chapel Street! It's a long street, of course, but it's wonderful to imagine my ancestor and John, only two years apart, passing each other on the pavement and perhaps knowing one another. James Clarke even had a sister, Frances, who was known as "Fanny," and also named after his mother -- and indeed we know that, John Gregory honored his mother's name by giving it to a daughter. And to add icing to the cake, James's parents were married in the same church as the Gregorys, and also by Brookes!

The Arctic shores of King William Island, where John Gregory's skull lay for more than a century and a half, are very far indeed from the streets of Salford -- but back in the early 1800's, my ancestor and he were almost neighbors. It certainly makes his death feel a bit more personal to me.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Who was John Gregory (Part 2 of 2)


While we may never know exactly which of the several candidates for John Gregory's birth is the right one, there's a good deal more we can say about him. Perhaps most significantly, he has a listing in the Royal Navy's earliest volume recording the service of engineers; so far as I know, this entry hasn't been seen or cited by anyone researching his career.

Unfortunately, rather than recording his age, service, and character, the entry simply contains a statement, written across both pages of the ledger: ""This Engineer was recommended by Messrs. Maudslay to serve in the Vessels employed on the Arctic Expedition having been accustomed to locomotive engines his pay to be double of that allowed to 1st class Engineers (Woolwich 6th May 1845) ... Appointed 13th May 1845 Admiralty "Erebus" 1st acting ... Apptd. 1st Class Assistant 6 June 51." So we now know for a fact what we previously only inferred -- that he was recommended by his employers, Maudlay, Sons, and Field; we also know that he was specifically appointed with double wages. I checked the ledger, and a nearly identical statement is written in the record for James Thompson, who served as engineer aboard HMS Terror, but as with Gregory, there are no personal details.

Yet we do know one other thing about John Gregory, thanks to the envelope containing his lone surviving letter: we know his address was 7 Ely Place, St. George's Road. The location is a fascinating one; scarely a stone's throw to the east of the old Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum (now, perhaps fittingly, the Imperial War Museum), it also had an interesting neighbor for the first few decades of the nineteenth century: a large cylindrical shed used by Henry Aston Barker and his successors to paint new paintings for the Panorama in Leicester Square -- among them depictions of three Arctic expeditions: Franklin and Buchan in 1818, James Ross and James Clark Ross discovery of "Boothia" (1829-33), and James Clark Ross's search for Franklin (1848-49) -- it's the circular structure just to the southwest of Ely Place. This map, made circa 1800, shows that there was, originally, a row of small flats along the eastern side of Ely Place at the time. They seem likely to have been modest, townhouse-style flats; it would have been solidly respectable --- though somewhat cramped -- housing for John's wife Hannah and their six children. It was also within walking distance of John's employers.

These humble homes, alas, didn't stand for long; in the 1880's they were replaced by the West Square School for Boys, Girls, and Infants; its building still stands and is presently the Charlotte Sharman Elementary School. The building reduced Ely Place to more of an alleyway than a street; in 1934, after the land and buildings of the nearby asylum were purchased by Viscount Rothermere (then owner of the Daily Mail), the land on the opposite side of Ely Place was turned into a park named after his mother, Geraldine Mary Harmsworth. At around this time, it seems, the name of the street was changed to match, becoming Geraldine Street -- a name which the UK gazetteer tells me is unique in Britain. This image from Google Earth shows the view looking down Geraldine Street; the school building is on the left and the park is on the other side of the brick wall on the right.

I've already mentioned that John and Hannah's children were accomplished people -- several generations of them worked as engineers, with the exception of grandson Edward John Gregory, who became a noted painter. As to Hannah herself, she seems to have remained in the neighborhood, if not at the same address; in the 1870 census she appears to be living with her in-laws on South Street (modern Greenwich South Street) in Lambeth, but at her her death in 1873 she was apparently resident in the parish of St. Saviour's Southwark, a bit further north and closer to the river. I still hope to locate her grave, and will update this post if I do!

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Who was John Gregory? (Part 1 of 2)

As the news spreads around the world that John Gregory of HMS Erebus has become the first member of the Franklin expedition whose remains have been identified using DNA, many personal details about him have emerged. One them, or so it seems, was the fact that he married Hannah Wilson on the 14th of  April, 1823 at St. Michael's church in Ashton-under-Lyne, part of Manchester. And yet, the original record, now presented here thanks to parish sleuth Margaret Stanley, raises questions. For one, Hannah's name was originally recorded as "Ann," though in the top of the entry this has ben corrected. Second and more puzzling is the fact that neither John nor Hannah signed their name, instead making only a "mark" -- an "x" -- which generally in this context means the named person was illiterate. And yet, as we know from John's letter to Hannah sent back from the ships, he was at that time a literate man, one in fact with particularly neat and fine handwriting, a man who used words such as "circumference" and "jocosely." I find it nearly impossible to imagine that he was illiterate in 1823.

There are other possible reasons for the "x," however. Sometimes, if the minister simply assumed that the parties weren't literate, he may have instructed the bride and groom to simply "make a mark." Gregory, after all, was still a teenager, and since his and Hannah's first child was born a mere two months later, the circumstances of their appearance before the Curate may have not been particularly comfortable. Indeed, our best evidence that this John Gregory is the right one comes from the ages and dates of this children. As compiled by Juliette Pochelu (based on Margaret Stanley's researches), they were:

1. Edward, baptised June 15th 1823. Family resident in 'Town' 
2. Emanuel, baptised on August 21th 1825. Resident Stalybridge.
3. Frances, baptised June 17th 1827. Resident Stalybridge.
4. James, baptised on Decemer 20th 1829. Resident Stalybridge.
5. Rebecca, baptised September 23rd 1832. Resident : Town - so back in Ashton.
6. William, baptised October 12th 1834. Resident Manchester.
7. Eliza, baptised on July 9th 1837
8. John Jr., said to be 7 months old in the census, and the only one born at that address.

A ninth child, Frederick, was born on December 7, 1844 and baptized the following January; by the that time the family were living at Ely Place -- he was doubtless the baby John asked his wife to kiss! From the 1841 census, we can see that not all of these children were still living: Edward (18, though the census rounds this down to 15), Frances (13), James (11), William (6), and Eliza (4); Emmanuel and Rebecca died in childhood; the future fate of John Jr. is less certain.

We get a lively picture of this growing family, but some questions still remain. In the 1841 census, Hannah (once again, as she was in the marriage register, mis-recorded as Anna) is listed as 40 years of age and John as 35. Apparently, it was the practice of census takers then to round down to the nearest 5-year interval, which would explain Hannah being listed as 40 when she was probably 41. John, for the same reason, could have been any age shy of 40 and been listed as 35. We have her christening record from 1801, but with John, his name being far more common, we have a crowd of candidates. The most likely seems to be a man born in 1805 and christened at St. Michaels (not the later parish church of St. Michael and All Angels, but a small "chapel of ease" in Manchester); his parents were Ralph and Elizabeth.  According to research by Michael King Macdona, both Ralph and Elizabeth signed their names. There is also a candidate from 1798; his parents were Mary and Joseph, and his father's profession was given as "cordwainer" (shoemaker). 

And there are others: the noted historian of the non-officer classes of Franklin's men, Ralph Lloyd-Jones, has located a candidate born in 1790, although Stenton et., al. say they have a record of the death of that same person from 1791. Mr. Macdona has also located a candidate born in Eccles (on the other side of Manchester), baptized in January of 1802. In order, these candidates would give John Gregory an age in 1841 of 51, 43, 40, or 36; only the last of these matches the census record (and census records could be wrong, of course). 

By any measure, Mr. Gregory, who would have been at least 40 when the ships sailed, was among the older members of the expedition; Franklin was 59, and Crozier (the next oldest) 48; Osmer the Purser was 46; Thomas Blanky and James Reid, the Ice Masters were 45 and 44 respectively. One would think that, having already had a career as an engineer and a family, John Gregory would have left behind some more definite trace -- and in my next installment, I've more to tell! Certainly, though, he was well-remembered by his family, so much so that when his grandson, the artist and Royal Academician Edward John Gregory died in 1909, his grandfather's service in the Franklin expedition nearly as much space as the deceased himself!

UPDATE 5/24/21: Juliette has located a likely grave for the Eccles candidate, who I think we can now eliminate.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The backstory of John Gregory's Skull

The news came this week that one of the skulls found at the site of the Schwatka reburial at Erebus Bay on King William Island has been identified using DNA as that of John Gregory, who served aboard HMS Erebus as an engineer; the story has reverberated around the world, and rightly so. His are the very first human remains to be identified using DNA by a team led by Dr. Doug Stenton, which has been able to extract DNA from dozens of bones in their work over the past decade, but had never found a match -- until now.

And yet one thing that hasn't been widely reported is that this skull, catalogued as "cranium #80," was actually not discovered recently -- indeed, though its wasn't brought back from stony shores of Erebus Bay until 2013,  it had first been spotted by Barry Ranford twenty years earlier. It's the same skull that he showed to the CBC's Carol Off when she was there for a short television documentary in 1995 (you can watch her original story here)

How can I be so sure? Well, Andrew Gregg, who was the cameraman on that occasion, also took a number of still photos, including this one:

Photograph © 1994 Andrew Gregg

As one can see, this skull -- when rotated to an upright position as I've done in the first image above, is an exact match for Keenleyside, Stenton, and Park's "cranium #80," the same now known to be Gregory's. The indentations associated with the missing teeth are identical, and so is the shape of the distinctive injury to the right maxilla. You can even see the small circular dot or indentation just above where the nasal bones meet the frontal bone.

The other skull, the one atop the reburial, had grown quite mossy, as can be seen in another of Gregg's photos, quite a different situation from its bleach-white brother:

© 1994 Andrew Gregg

In 1997, the two crania on the surface, along with a nearby femur, were placed in a metal box for protection and cached on the site in a new cairn, by Ranford's friend John Harrington. Ranford himself had committed suicide the previous autumn, but Harrington was to return on at least six more occasions, continuing the search for Franklin remains that his late colleague had begun. A few years ago, John and I attended a lecture by Diana Trepkov, who did facial reconstructions of this and the other skulls found nearby. "Let's go have a look at an old friend," I'd suggested to him.

Back in 1993, when Ranford first came upon the skull, he was nearing the end of a long trek down the western coast of King William Island. His travelling companion had become so sick that he'd had to haul him along in the wheeled garden cart they'd brought for supplies, and time was growing short. At first, he'd thought it was a plastic bleach bottle, it was so white, but on coming closer he realized his error. It was to be a fateful discovery.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

John Torrington, Intriguing Person

I'd heard about it for years, how John Torrington -- the unfortunate leading stoke on HMS "Erebus" -- had found himself in the pages of People® Magazine. What I hadn't realized what that he'd been chosen -- along with Bill Murray, Michael Jackson, and Vanessa Williams as one of the "Most Intriguing People of 1984." With a little bit of rummaging around on eBay, it wasn't too hard to get a copy of the original magazine, and have a look at Torrington's pop-cultural debut

The accompanying article, written by Jack Friedman, gives us a fascinating snapshot in time -- not just at Torrington, but at Owen Beattie's perspective on his work. It's not often recalled, but in the 1984 field season, permits came so late that Beattie only had time to exhume one of the three Franklin expedition members buried on Beechey Island, and -- perhaps because his was nearest the shore -- he picked Torrington. So his remarks, as quoted by Friedman, predate the exhumation of Hartnell and Braine, and the later book written in collaboration with John Geiger. 

Interestingly, Beattie characterizes the Franklin expedition as "successful in an unsuccessful way," saying that he believed that they had achieved their goal of the Northwest Passage (this must be based, I'd assume, on the presence of expedition remains near Cape Herschel, a point previously surveyed from the west by Dease and Simpson). Beattie calls his team "simply and extension" of the earlier searches, from the late 1840's to the present day. In response to what must have been a question about how respectful it was to dig up such a long-frozen man, Beattie declared "I work with the bones of dead people all the time. I'm sensitive to the fact that they were people. None of us felt we were violating a privacy."

The condition of Torrington's lungs had already led them to the conclusion that his most proximate cause of death was pneumonia. And yet, according to Beattie, they were still waiting for full lab results: "In the coming months," Beattie said, "we'll be analyzing hair and nail samples to see if other health problems can be identified." Lead, however, had apparently already been detected, and the hypothesis that it came from the food tins is mentioned. The article says that "this may help explain some of the seemingly irrational decisions made by Franklin and his men."

There's one other fascinating detail: 

"Before the coffin was re-sealed, the scientists at the grave site placed a note in it that was written by a woman on Beattie's team, Geraldine Ruszala, and signed by all of them. 'We had some serious thoughts,' says Beattie. 'I don't want to get too schmaltzy about it. It's simply a private note about our feelings as human beings.'"

Torrington's grave has been undisturbed since, but his presence -- as conveyed by Beattie's work and the photographs taken at the time -- lingers on. He's been the inspiration for a number of songs, most notably James Taylor's "The Frozen Man," along with Iron Maiden's "Stranger in a Strange Land," not to mention a range of poems and novels, including Mordecai Richler's wry Solomon Gursky Was Here. His was, as James Dzieszynski has remarked, an "unintentional journal to immortality" -- no one would be more surprised than he to know how long his story has persisted.

NB: You can download a .pdf of the entire article here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

"The Terror" comes to the BBC

Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier
Back in March of 2018, when viewers in North America turned on their televisions to see what "The Terror" was all about, there was a lot of explaining to do. Not so much in Canada, where Sir John Franklin has remained a cultural touchstone, but certainly in the United States, where "Franklin" usually means "Benjamin." And now, three years later, Franklin and his officers and crew are, as it were, returning home thanks to the BBC. Franklin may need a little dusting off even there, though the ground has been admirably prepared by Michael Palin's wonderful book Erebus: The Story of a Ship, but in chatting with Paul Franks on BBC radio's West Midlands service yesterday, I still needed to go over the basics -- what was the Northwest Passage, why was it do damned important, and who was this Franklin chap anyway?

As they say, it's a long story. But the basics are simple: the Northwest Passage, originally envisioned as the "sea route to the Orient," was by the mid-nineteenth century a more abstract prize: numerous expeditions had been launched and failed, enough for Arctic veteran Sir John Ross to declare to a Parliamentary Committee that, even if found, the Passage would be "utterly useless" for commercial ships. Still, for a maritime nation, the lack of having managed it was a perceptible failing, one which Franklin's expedition was widely expected to resolve. Under the command of Franklin -- who had mapped much of the mid-section of the Passage already --  with two ice-strengthened ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror," fresh from a successful Antarctic voyage, the expedition seemed destined to succeed. Until it disappeared with scarcely a trace, defeating every effort to find more than a skeleton or a scrap of paper for decades, even as disturbing accounts, collected from the native Inuit people, told of starvation, cannibalism, and exhausted men who "fell down as they walked."

Like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, the show builds a tissue of horrific fiction around this armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.

I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though the curious can read the episode-by-episode recap and commentary I wrote for Canadian Geographic on their website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror that awaits.