Monday, December 19, 2022

Potential written material found on HMS Erebus

Image from Parks Canada
 It could be the breakthrough we've all been waiting for since the rediscovery of Franklin's ships -- or it could be just a small and tantalizing addition to what we know. In news covered around the world yesterday, we learned of what Ryan Harris, veteran member of the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Team (and the first person to see the shadow of "Erebus" on a sonar screen in 2014), called "the most remarkable find of the summer": a leatherbound folio, containing leaves of paper and a quill pen tucked inside its cover, found in the area of the steward's pantry of HMS Erebus.

The dream of finding additional written materials goes back at least to the 1870's, when Jane Franklin asked Sir Allen Young to return to the Arctic in hopes of finding some; she died before he returned, and his expedition found no new papers. The cry of "papers" once again became the motivating factor for Schwatka's search of 1878-80, and while they made some remarkable finds of human remains and other artifacts, the only sheet of paper they recovered turned out to be -- symbolically enough -- a blank one.

We don't know yet whether this new find bears any legible writing -- it's apparently still in the laboratory where paper conservators are patiently working on it -- and of course, even if it did, there's no telling how informative it might be. Other items found earlier in this area were associated with Edmund Hoar, Sir John Franklin's personal steward, and among these a pencil case was prominent. Might the newfound folio be a sketchbook? Then again, why the quill? The best case scenario might be that it might contain both writing and sketches, and we know of at least one other such journal, that kept by Captain's Steward John Messum aboard HMS "Vesuvius" during the Crimean War (1854-55). 

On the other hand, it might contain what might seem to be relatively trivial matter, perhaps some record-keeping of the contents of the Steward's pantry, or -- like the inscrutable "Peglar" papers, a mixture of doggerel verse and cryptic writings. From my own personal perspective, though, even if such a document were most mundane in its entries, each such entry would have one incredibly precious detail: a date. Right now, the lack of any post-1848 timeline is probably the singular most glaring gap in all we know about what Franklin's men did after the desertion of the ships. Were they re-manned? A simple date would tell us so. Abandoned again? When? And, like enormous goalposts, even a tiny handful of such dates would enable use to organize all kinds of other data with much higher accuracy; we would at last begin to know the "lay of the land" (and the water).

And yet, even if it has no information later than the desertion of the vessel, any kind of journal would be a goldmine, the more so if it were Hoar's own. As Franklin's steward, Hoar would have attended him daily, the more so during whatever illness or injury led to his death on June 11th 1847. Indeed, although Jane Franklin described the volume as a "quarto" rather than a folio, this could even be Sir John's long-lost private diary. It certainly fires the imagination!

Every so often, we come upon a document that literally rewrites history -- this newfound folio could well be just such a one -- only time and patient work on its pages will tell.

Friday, November 25, 2022

A Season of Marvels

L to R: Peter Carney, Mary Williamson, Russell Potter and Regina Koellner
For myself and my fellow editors of May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth, it has been a season of marvels, one for which all of us are enormously grateful. Although not all of us were able to be present at every event, we collectively felt and experienced a tremendous outpouring of interest in and support for our book.

It all began in Ottawa on September 26th, with our launch at 50 Sussex Drive at the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It was a special pleasure here to share the event with Matthew Betts and his extraordinary book on HMS Terror; the audience's interest naturally extended to both volumes, as did their thoughtful, well-informed questions.

Hooks and Crookes
Our next event was thousands of miles distant -- at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the UK. Here, Gina was able to join us (photo above), and our UK friends -- many of whom we'd not seen in two years or more -- were present; curator Jeremy Michell gave us a very fine introduction. Scarcely a day later, three of the four of us were on flights to Dublin, whence we made our way to Athy and this years Shackleton Autumn School. It was a special pleasure to see so many old friends and fellow polar enthusiasts, among them Joe O'Farrell, Bob Headland Rob Stephenson, Geir Kløver, and Medbh Gillard. Our launch there, hosted by our good friends at O'Brien's pub, was also wonderfully enhanced by a resounding version of Lady Franklin's Lament provided by the shantymen of Hooks and Crookes.

Then, in a return to Ottawa, came a further bow for us all. I was deeply honored and gratified to be awarded the Louie Kamookak medal, named after my late friend and Inuit historian, and to welcome Peter, Mary, and Gina as Fellows of the RCGS. As an added bonus, we got to meet Jared Harris, whose wonderful portrayal of Francis Crozier on AMC's The Terror we all admired, along with David Kajganich, the series' writer and showrunner! The gala dinner at the Canadian War Museum was a memorable evening for everyone present.

And so, while we don't have any further events planned at present, we're looking forward to a less far-flung holiday season -- and to those copies of our book that many (including ourselves) will be placing under their Christmas trees this year, lying in wait -- or so we hope! -- to convert more people yet to our wonderful shared obsession.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A look ahead to events for May We Be Spared ...

Finally, the day draws near! We're happy to announce some of the first few events for May We Be Spared -- watch this page for further details as the dates draw closer.

Our big launch will be at the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, on September 26th. We're delighted that this event will also be the launch for Matthew Betts's extraordinary book on HMS Terror -- it's hard to imagine a better pairing. We're also going to be a part of the 2022 Terror Camp online event the weekend before (September 24/25) where I hear we may be joined by several cast members of the show; it will be fascinating, I think, to see these letters paired with some of the actors who portrayed their writers!

Moving right along, I'll be crossing the proverbial pond (my fellow editors being already on the other side) to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, for a talk and presentation as part of their series of Members events (it will also be open to the public, I believe) on October 27th. I have no doubt there'll be the usual gathering at the Trafalgar Tavern after -- we'd better reserve all the tables! 

From there, it'll be over the Irish Sea to Athy, and the 22nd annual Shackleton Autumn School that weekend. This will be the first time it's been held in person in two years, and it will be fantastic to gather again with such excellent friends -- and of course, then retire to O'Brien's Pub across the way. O'Brien's has gracefully agreed to host the official launch, so I have a feeling pints of Guinness will be involved!

We're hoping for an event or two in the US this fall as well -- plans are still being sorted out -- I'll update this post, and/or share details in a new one, as soon as they're firmed up!

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Our youngest correspondents

Among the many correspondents in our forthcoming book of letters, two of the very youngest stand out from all the rest, both for their sincerity and heartfelt feelings, and also for the sweet, childish humor that still shines forth from their carefully-penned missives.

James Fitzjames was so struck by the letters that he enclosed them with one to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Coningham, with this preamble:

"I leave you these two letters from my little friends – as I am sure any-thing that gave me pleasure will gratify you ... perhaps you will think I am foolish to care for the little children’s letters – but so it is – I am as much pleased with their expressions of regard – exaggerated though they be – as I should be with the more studied, but probably not so genuine, effusions of many grown people."

The children in question were Eliza Francis ("Fanny") and Maria Jane Campbell, the daughters of Fitzjames's friend Henry Dundas Campbell, a decorated soldier and later a colonial governor who had befriended Fitzjames early in his career, helping him secure his appointment as Midshipman in 1831. Fanny would have been around twelve years old,  and Maria a year younger. Writing in her best school hand, Fanny expressed her sentiments as well as any adult:

"I am very sorry indeed to hear you are going to leave England so soon we shall think of you when you are far away in the snow and some times when your poor toes are freezing with cold you must think of us as we shall be longing for your return."

Maria's letter was more chatty, expressing the regret that Fitzjames could not visit them again until his return, adding "I hope you will not forget us when you are in among the snow and when you come home you will pay us a nice long visit." She closed her letter "Your ever affectionately and attached friend, Maria Jane Campbell" and then added a curious postscript: "Missie says just as if you care a fig for our attachment to you."

This annoying "Missie" may well have been their older sister Harriet, who would have been about sixteen at that time, just the age for such a jovially mocking riposte. It must surely have greatly amused Fitzjames, who was always prone to jest in prose, and touched him more deeply than these young writers may have realized. He closed his letter to Elizabeth with this salutation to her and William: 
"I think the love of a child is a thing not to be thrown away lightly. 

There are some grown up people too, whose love I would not exchange for any worldly good. And of these I need not say you & William stand far highest in the heart 
of your affectionate

James Fitzjames"

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Engines and Engineers of Erebus and Terror

A guest post by Peter Carney

Sketch by John Irving
The steam engines Engines fitted to Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror have long been a topic of interest to me. They were the subject of my first ever blog post in July 2010. Much of the meagre information available was gleaned from letters from officers of the expedition from the time when the ships were being fitted out at Woolwich and the engines tested in the river Thames, letters that are transcribed in full in our forthcoming book, May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition:

 “The ships are getting on famously – our engine is down alongside. It came drawn by 10 coal black horses & weighs 15 tons.”

- James Fitzjames to John Barrow Jr, before 4 April 1845

 “ Our engine once ran somewhat faster on the Birmingham line. It is placed athwart ships in our afterhold, and merely has its axle extended aft, so as to become the shaft of the screw. It has a funnel the same size and height as it had on the railway, and makes the same dreadful puffings and screamings, and will astonish the Esquimaux not a little.”

-  John Irving to Catherine Irving [sister-in-law], 16 May 1845

There are, of course, many further questions which I hope the Parks Canada underwater archaeology unit will be one day able to answer: Were they fitted with Stephenson’s link valve gear? This important mechanism allowed the cut-off of steam admitted to the cylinder to be minutely controlled for best efficiency or maximum power. Did they employ Isaac Babbitt’s patent bearings? -- a development which increased by more than tenfold the mileage a locomotive could do before its axle bearings needed overhaul. Was the supporting structure made of wood or cast iron?

The rich trove of new material assembled for May we be spared to meet on Earth, fascinating as it is, doesn't offer any further answers to these questions. They are frankly not the sort of details that departing explorers would put in their last letters to their families and loved ones. However, and perhaps even more interestingly, they do provide an insight into the personalities of the two men charged with the care and operation of the steam engines and they highlight the contrasting attitudes which the two captains held with regard to both the engines and to the engineers.

Franklin was certainly forward looking in his enthusiasm for steam power:

 “I meant to have had the steam up here to see that all was right – but we really could not at present spare either the space or time. We are satisfied however that all is right and kept in order by the Engineer and it is my intention to take the first opportunity of our being beset to get the steam up, and certainly have every thing ready for its immediate use by the time we reach Lancaster Sound. We find our Engineer Mr Gregory a good & valuable man – and willing to do anything required of him.”

- John Franklin to Edward Parry, 10 July 1845

This “good & valuable man” was Engineer, First class, John Gregory.

John Gregory was not a Navy man and nothing suggests he had ever been to sea before he joined the expedition. Instead he had been employed by Maudslays, the firm contracted to supply and fit the engines for Franklin’s ships. No doubt he was supremely competent in his trade and highly thought of by his employer to be entrusted with such an important task.

Gregory’s sole surviving letter to his wife, sent from the Whale Fish Islands, contains a detailed and well written account of the voyage so far with affectionate greetings and thoughts for the children. The elegant yet easily readable handwriting is particularly noteworthy. 

The fraying folds in the paper and the patches of discolouration tell the poignant story of this letter being passed through many pairs of hands across the generations of his family beginning with his wife and the five children he left behind.

In March of 2021 it was announced that a team led by Douglas R. Stenton had matched DNA extracted from human bones found in previous years on King William Island to living descendants of John Gregory in South Africa. This is the first time that the remains of an expedition member have been positively identified.

Crozier’s feelings towards steam stand in contrast with those of his commander:

“how I do wish the Engine was again on the Dover line, & the Engineer sitting on the top of it, he is [a] dead and alive wretch full of difficulties and is now quite dissatisfied because he has not the leading stoker to assist him in doing nothing...”

            - Francis Crozier to Ann, wife of James Clark Ross, 12 July 1845

The “dead and alive wretch” in this case was Engineer, First class (acting), James Thompson

Thompson’s letters to his brother Charles are not as elegantly worded as Gregory’s example but the excellent handwriting shows he was a diligent student, except with regard to punctuation.  His letters are packed with myriad details of the voyage to date from the quantities of foodstuffs provided each day to descriptions of the inhabitants of the Whale Fish islands. Indeed, Thompson comes across as one of the more compassionate observers of the Inuit who were encountered, referring to them as “A harmless set of People and very honest.” Gregory, too, describes them in similar terms so perhaps both engineers’ working class roots gave them a greater affinity for a people who led a precarious struggle for existence.

It seems that Crozier's lack of enthusiasm for the new technology of steam power was shared by many in the Navy.

The tablet from the Greenwich memorial
The Engineers of Erebus and Terror were highly skilled artisans and plausibly had a higher standard of general education than their fellow Warrant Officers the Boatswain and Carpenter in each ship. However, many officers in the Naval hierarchy were cut from an older type of cloth. Enthralled by the sublime beauty of the sailing warship and the glorious memories of Nelson's victories, some viewed steam engines as infernal machines and their operators as uncouth tradesmen. This attitude seems to have prevailed when the monument in the chapel of the Naval College at Greenwich was erected in 1858.

The names of all the commissioned officers are inscribed on this monument, as well as the four other warrant officers. It therefore seems to me unjust to me that it omits the names of John Gregory and James Thompson, the engineers of Erebus and Terror.

Friday, May 6, 2022

James Reid Speaks!

In my last post, I gave some previews of the remarkable letters of James Reid, the Ice Master of HMS Erebus, as they will appear in our forthcoming book. Now, I have something even more exiting to share: thanks to the great generosity of Dundee native Gordon Morris -- who memorably portrayed John Weekes, the ship's carpenter aboard that same vessel in AMC's The Terror -- we can now hear some snippets from Reid's letters in the accents of their original writer! A Dundee accent, Morris explained to me, is not all that different from an Aberdeen one -- it's just "a wee bit further up the northeast coast" -- and, heard here in its original tones, Reid's seemingly irregular spelling now reads as nearly phonetic. And more than that: as with many who have so far listened to these recordings, I had the eerie sense that Reid himself had, as it were, returned from the past, as alive as the day in May of 1845 that he sailed down the Thames with Sir John Franklin and his men.

I've arranged the excerpts in chronological order, mainly so that the context of Reid's words will be clearer; each is linked alongside the original text of the letters.

22 March 1845 -- the "Neptune" was a ship previously captained by Reid; he apparently had already made up his mind to sail with Franklin.

8 Smiths Place High Street Wapping March 22/45

Loving wife,

I hope you have received my yesterdays letter with the one pound chake from William –
There is a Letter come from Quebec from the Owner stating that if Captain Reid can be found to get him if not engaged to take charge of the Neptune and sail for Quebec 1st April – now you see how mean some Scotsmen is to pay a Master off for a few weeks. I called on them to day and told them that i wase engagen with Sir John Franklin R.N. to go with him to the North as ice Captain, but I would give them an answer on Tuesday. During th[at] time i will call on Sir John, at Woolwich, [and] if he puts me on pay just now @ £18 pe[r Month], I fix and I take my chance of the Voyage. I go [as] Master & Pilot, it is sure pay and good company. I dined with all the officers, we can find no servant, we must find one amongst [us]. You will have half pay, if I should never return, then there will be something for you and the family. Mr. Enderby will see after that what I have mentioned all Depends on putting me on pay just now, if not I take command of the old ship.

26 March 1845 "I shipped yesterday"-- "thoughts of your leg" -- Ann Reid had been nursing a sore leg.

so now I Shipped yesterday with Sir John Franklin R.N. to go with him to Daviss Straits, and up Langester sound in search of a passage through, it may be two years and it may be three & four but I am quite willing to go. It is no use lying at home being allwise in measurie the thoughts of your leg and leaving the family is worse than the Voyage. Sir John told me that if I went the voyage with him, and landed safe in England again, i would bee looked after all my life. The ship I go in is the Erebus, and the other is the Terror. just such ships as the Hecla but not Quite so Large. Sir John is a man 60 years old. Quite a Hero he is very fond of me as is the officers, as i answer all the quistences they put to me about the Land and ice about the Quarter we are going to.

13 May 1845 "The Black Ladi" -- this refers to the medical exams for the crew; those that were "casten" were deemed not fit to serve. The "Black Ladi" was likely a young Black seaman of the day.

Mr. Valentin[e] wase casten for the Scurvey in his Leges and the others for several things an the Black Ladi wase casten for his Leg having once Broken. – – I Received a Letter from aunty at Dundee mentioning she had Received the four Pound, I would like to here if you have Received the Money. in all sent £4[...] I will write before I Leave the River.
your Loving Husband

James Reid

16 May 1845 -- Mind yourself -- This letter seems to be an admonition to his wife Ann to be careful in her family dealings -- particularly with their sons -- during his absence.

Loving wife, mind yourself. Dount you trust to one of them for as soon as they can do for themselves they will never mind you nor me, you dount see so much of the world as I see. Let them from Home, then the Chief Part of young men Forgets there Parents and friends. Take all but give nothing, mind this Take care of yourself & the three young Lasess they are not able to mind themselves. –

19 May 1845 -- The day of sailing [full letter] "Finlason" was a tailor in Aberdeen to whom the Rieds apparently owed some money. David Leys did sail with the expedition, but not as Quartermaster.

Green Hithe London River May 19th/45  

Loving wife
we are now all clear for a Start. will sail to day we are to bee towed with steam Down to the orkness – Lady Franklin hase ordered all the officers Likeness to bee taken and mine amongst the Rest, with my uniform on – She keeps them all by herself – Sir John Franklin Gave us prayers yesterday his Lady wase in Company, your order will bee sent to you when due. I got 6 Month’s Pay – I joined the Erebus 27 March, bee sure and Call on Mr. Finlason the Tailor and make arrangement with him, you know more about his account than I do, once you are underway with your half pay, you will bee abale to pay him part Every month, once you get the account below twenty pounds he canat Hurt you – the other Ice Master wase taken out of the ship for £37, but I Rather think he hase got it settled, we paid the Ships Comp[an]y on Saturday last. David Leys is not Quartermaster. I have nothing more in the meen time will write by the steamer if we dount go into the orkness. 

Good Biy keep your hart up we will both meate again, this voyage perhapes will [be] the last that ever I make. I have nothing to doo my work is Coming. I am sorry to say I am badly of[f] for Quarter Masters, and we are the leading ship, it will keep me much on my legs – I think I have Every thing Right but short of White Shirts, and whate I have are Quite gone. This Leave me Quite well. Hopes it will find you and the family the same, by this time you have Received my Chest. –

your Loving Husband

James Reid

3 June 1845 -- "your old Gray Hare" (from Stromness, Orkney) -- Reid had apparently asked his wife for a lock of her hair in an earlier letter.

You mention that your old Gray Hare wase not worth the sending to me, I cane only tell you that your old gray Hare is as good to me as ever, and I would [have] been very Happy if you hade inclosed one Lock of it.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Letters of James Reid

Of all the officers of the Franklin expedition, James Reid was one of the most lively and colorful.  As James Fitzjames remarked of him in the 'journal' he sent to his sister-in-law Elizabeth Coningham, "The most original character of all. rough, intelligent, unpolished, with a broad North Country accent, but not vulgar – good humored, & honest hearted – is Reid – a Greenland whaler – native of Aberdeen – who has commanded whaling vessels & amuses us with his quaint remarks & descriptions of the ice." 

Reid's own letters, however, proved far more elusive than Fitzjames's; although his family in Australia (to which his daughter Ann had emigrated) searched for them for years, they seemed to have gone entirely missing. A few years back, my friend and colleague Andrés Paredes found excerpts from some of them in an Australian newspaper from 1920; until then, they had still been in family hands. The newspaper articles spoke of them having been given to the "National Museum" in Adelaide (now the South Australian Museum), but that entity had no record of them.

Until scarcely two years ago, these excerpts were all we knew; that and all other queries to research libraries in Australia turned up nothing. And then, like a bolt out of the blue, our fellow Franklinite Alexa Price found a listing for them in the online catalog of the State Library of New South Wales! This was a surprise on many levels; Reid's daughter had emigrated to Victoria, not New South Wales, and at the time the letters had been reported in the press in 1920, they were in the hands of one of Ann's nieces. They showed the letters to a certain Dr. W.P. McCormack, a physician with a practice in Tumby Bay; it was he who recommended their donation to the museum. But how then did they end up in New South Wales? Some years previous, I'd checked the online catalogs of all the state libraries, and there no listing was to be found -- so my best explanation is that the record showed up when the SLNSW's old card catalogs were digitized and combined into a new, comprehensive one.

Scarcely a week later, our digital request was processed, and there they were; with help from Reid's great-great-great-grandson Rick Burrows we were able to cover the cost of high-resolution versions a few weeks after that. And what a revelation! Not only was Reid distinctive as a character, but as a writer; his odd spellings in some cases seemed to reflect Scots usage, but were often his own invention: "was" became "wase"; "well" was often "will"; "stop" became "stope"; and "job" "jobe." His ear for names produced interesting results, as when Blanky, his fellow Ice Master over on HMS Terror, became "Brinkly." These oddities aside, his rich personality is everywhere in evidence, from his first letter of 22 March (when he tells his wife of his plan to join the expedition) to his final one on July 11th. In all of them, he asks after his children, particularly his "three Darulins" (the Reids’ youngest children, Ann (1833–1899), Mary (1835–1909), and Alexandrina (1838–1901). At one point, apparently, seven-year-old Ann wrote to him herself, as he thanks his wife for "Anns most welcome Letter" -- alas, that note was lost with the ships.

We can see him pondering his fate, and weighing the success of the Franklin expedition against other possibilities; unlike Naval officers, whaling captains were freelancers of a sort, competing for available commands and trading on their experience and connections. Reid had a particularly close relationship with the whaling firm of Samuel Enderby and Sons, and asked them to look after his family in the event he did not return. He was aware of the risks, and of the possible envy some might feel toward him, saying "No doubt there will bee a greate talking about me going this voyage, it will show that I am not frightened for my life, like some men." Most poignantly, he seems to have asked his wife Ann for a lock of her hair, which she declined to send, saying it was too gray. This prompted James to write:

You mention that your old Gray Hare wase not worth the sending to me, I cane only tell you that your old gray Hare is as good to me as ever, and I would [have] been very Happy if you hade inclosed one Lock of it.

As to his shipboard comrades, Reid speaks of them in admiring tones, and particularly seems to have formed a bond with young Harry Goodsir, who was assigned to the neighboring berth. "Him & I is quite chief," he wrote (chief being a Scots word for a close friend) and marveling that Harry had never been to sea before. And throughout his correspondence, his deep love for Ann and his family comes through in every word. His very last letter, sent from the Whalefish Islands, ends thusly:

Respects to Robt., Forbes, and all Friends, may the Lord bee with you and my Dear Family, for three years if not through before that time, keep yourself easy about me. Trust wee will meet Again. Remember me to William Gaudy wife & family Bidding you all Good By.

Remains your loving Husband

James Reid

Monday, April 11, 2022

Uncle Roddy

A guest post by Mary Williamson, co-editor of May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth

Roderic Fenwick-Owen (1921-2011) or “Uncle Roddy” as I knew him, is probably best remembered by Franklin enthusiasts as the author of The Fate of Franklin  (Hutchinson, 1978), an exhaustive biography of his three times great Uncle Sir John Franklin. But his writing career had started thirty years previously with a history of the Desert Air Force (Hutchinson, 1948) and a couple of novels, The Flesh is Willing and Easier for a Camel. The novels are probably best forgotten, but The Desert Air Force fared better and was reprinted in paperback. It led on to a biography of Lord Tedder, who had written a Foreword  to The Desert Air Force. Roddy interviewed him in Washington & then descended on New York. Through a mutual friend from Oxford, he was offered the use of a house in MacDougall Alley, a mews off Washington Square. He just had to be let in and given a spare key by Jackson “something-or-other” (Pollock!) who was living in the studio upstairs. Roddy had no idea how well regarded Jackson Pollock was, so when he was offered one or two paintings to take back to England (“a frightful daub”) he refused! In later years he would admit to regretting this hasty decision.

Roddy had a privileged childhood, being sent to Eton which he always claimed to have hated, but the contacts he made there & later at Oxford would prove invaluable to him on his travels all over the world. It would be wrong, however to imply that money was plentiful. Roddy’s father George Fenwick-Owen had inherited sufficient money to lead a comfortable life, but lost everything in the financial crash of 1929, and to make matters worse, he then ran off with the governess, leaving Roddy & his two sisters to be brought up solely by their mother Bettina. She famously claimed that she had to make do on what was previously her “dress allowance”. 

But travel could be managed on a shoestring, particularly when there were contacts who could secure a passage on a ship to far flung destinations. Through a friend of a friend, Roddy ended up as Assistant Purser on Clan Urquhart, a cargo ship travelling from Liverpool to Sydney, from where another friend used his influence to get him onto a cargo boat for Fiji. Roddy then spent a year beachcombing in the South Seas, during which he was seduced by, and married, a Polynesian princess called Turia. He left her and moved on, publishing his experiences when he returned to England in his first travel book Where the Poor are Happy (Collins, 1954) along with two more novels set in the South Seas, Green Heart of Heaven and Worse than Wanton.

Roddy’s particular interest in John Franklin began in the early 1970’s. His Aunt Susan, widow of Uncle John Rawnsley, who lived at Well Vale, Lincolnshire, expressed a wish to give “her” collection of books on John Franklin to Lincoln County Library. Roddy pointed out that they weren’t hers to give. They had been inherited by his grandfather Walter Rawnsley, then passed to his wife Maud & from her to Roddy’s mother Bettina, but without having been removed from Well Vale. The deed had already been done, but Roddy turned on the charm and managed to extract them from the County Librarian, and on reading through was well & truly hooked. 

“Day and night, the North-West passage haunted me” he wrote in his memoirs. His recent biography on the life of Mavis De Vere Cole, Beautiful and Beloved (Hutchinson, 1974) had been well received, which left him in a good position to ask his agent Ann McDermid, her immediate reply being: 

“John Franklin? – You mean Benjamin Franklin, don’t you?”  

“No, John. Sir John of the Frozen North!”  

“Oh, that one … we know a lot about him in Canada, of course. Well I can always put it up to Hutchinson’s”

And Hutchinson’s reply “Well, I think that’s absolutely splendid Roddy …” made it all plain sailing!

“I ought to visit the Arctic, if I’m going to write about it properly” were Roddy’s thoughts in 1976. He mentioned his predicament to his brother-in-law by marriage, a former Ambassador to the Holy See, who remarked “Why not get someone to send you there? It shouldn’t be beyond your ingenuity!” As it happened, August 1976 was the 150th anniversary of Franklin’s arrival at Prudhoe Bay, on the second land expedition. Roddy contacted BP, who were already interested in celebrating this event and were delighted to involve a descendant of Sir John Franklin. They wanted a monument in Anchorage, Alaska.

Roddy suggested using just the head of the Franklin figure standing on a plinth in Spilsby Town Square. Nobody had ever seen his head at eye level before. (Russell, Gina, Steve & I located Franklin’s head in Anchorage in 2019 & Steve took this photo) A further plaque would be placed at Deadhorse Airport, for which Roddy agreed to compose the words, make a short speech & unveil it. 

Roddy managed to visit various key places, the first being Franklin’s furthest point west at Return Reef. It seemed likely that the reef had been washed away, so the helicopter landed on Stump Island nearby.  Next on the agenda was Winter Lake by seaplane, to locate the site of Fort Enterprise. Roddy remarked in his memoir “The whole settlement had disappeared, almost without trace …. Even when sitting on the site of Fort Enterprise I found it impossible to reconstruct the Franklin party’s experiences realistically. Nothing fitted my preconceptions. Things as I’d thought they would be, had to be replaced by things as they were. I felt a distinct sense of loss.”

Owen with the mast of the Mary
Roddy was taken to Beechey Island with a fishing party of Americans who were going on to Cresswell Bay. He & his Inuit guide Andrew were left on Beechey at 7:30am & remained there until picked up by the twin otter at 4pm. They had plenty of time to explore – Roddy  noted “the spar of John Ross’ ship “Mary” sticking up at an angle.” They attempted to climb to the top of the hill to see the cairn, but it was too much for Roddy & he had to signal to Andrew “who must have thought me a proper softy”

 I remember Roddy being particularly pleased to get the contract for The Fate of Franklin, because, as he explained to us at the time, “I can now write the book that I want to write”  Roddy always acknowledged the help he received from the mystical “Unseen”. He used to tell us that when faced with a huge pile of papers, an unseen presence would guide him to the right folder. He believed this to be the spirit of his great-uncle Willingham Franklin Rawnsley (1845-1927), great nephew and Godson of Sir John, who wrote The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin (1923).

In spite of Willingham’s ghostly presence, Roddy’s methods of research were somewhat haphazard. His desire “not to pepper the text with little stars” led to the main criticism of his book, which was his total lack of sources, either as footnotes or a separate list.  As for filing and maintaining research material afterwards, this was also hit & miss, as he explained in his memoirs: 

“It had always been my habit to jettison the huge quantity of facts involved in writing any biography as quickly as possible; otherwise I might have gone mad”

Exactly how much was jettisoned is impossible to know.

After Roddy’s death I found letters from researchers amongst his papers enquiring about sources post publication, along with copies of Roddy’s replies, most of which supplied absolutely no information, albeit very politely! In spite of this, Roddy was always very accommodating towards Franklin researchers. A young Dave Woodman was given lunch & shown Roddy’s precious Staffordshire figures of Sir John & Jane Franklin, as well as being taken to the Royal Geographical Society Library. 

I think Roddy was disappointed that there was no separate American edition of his book. 

In a letter to author Sten Nadolny (The Discovery of Slowness, Viking Penguin 1987) in 1981, he wrote: 

“The Fate of Franklin … did well but not very well. I wasn’t nearly as successful as Jane Franklin in enlisting American support”

Although he often claimed to have forgotten everything, Roddy’s interest in Franklin remained and he was pleased to be asked to give an address at the Naval Chapel, Greenwich, in 1986 to mark the bicentenary of Sir John Franklin’s birth. 

Gilston Lodge
One of Roddy’s greatest inherited treasures was the last known letter written by John Franklin to his wife from the Whale Fish Islands, and one of the letters in May we be Spared … We failed to locate the letter before Roddy died, he couldn’t remember anything about it, so there was a great hunt for it afterwards. Eventually and very appropriately, it was discovered tucked into the back of Willingham Rawnsley’s draft copy of “The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin”. We found it in the small attic room above the Tower Room at the top of Gilston Lodge. Accessible by ladder only, the room was boiling hot in summer, freezing cold in winter and home to numerous ladybirds who seemed to have chomped through a good deal of photocopied material but left Willingham’s draft undisturbed.

Visiting Roddy at his house in London (Gilston Lodge) was always an experience. Meals were eaten in the kitchen, at a small table with huge winged chairs, all taken from a Victorian railway carriage, complete with brass lamps & polished brass luggage rack above. There was always a dog, the most recent one being a shih tzu called “Lovey” who had been notoriously difficult to house train but was adored nonetheless. 

There was a very particular morning routine. After breakfast, Roddy would help the dog into the back of the car (never the boot!) and we would drive to Chiswick Park for a walk, the route being entirely decided by the dog. Whichever path he chose to go down, we would duly follow. 

In the 1990’s Roddy started writing his autobiography, which ended up as three large volumes. His desire for truth, warts and all, laid bare his pursuit of love for both sexes. It was a life of joyous promiscuity until he met the love of his life in 1967, an Italian man named Gian Carlo Pasqualetto. Roddy preferred London to the countryside, though he did risk the occasional visit to my parents farm. It always amused us that someone who had been stranded in far flung places & coped with all manner of tricky situations was unwilling to subject his smart London car to a ½ mile driveway of potholes, brambles & cowpats. But that was all part of Uncle Roddy’s charm!

Gilston was always full of people. There was a lodger on the top floor for many years, a couple in the basement, and of course Gian Carlo. No-one in the family ever commented on their relationship and we were left to work it out for ourselves. When his three autobiographical volumes were printed privately, Roddy was most disappointed that we weren’t more shocked by his many revelations!

Roddy appointed two Literary Executors to administer his literary estate, with the express wish that his autobiography be published after his death. “I would be most unhappy to think that any parts of this long memoir should be cut on grounds of “decency”, for those bits are essential”

The length of the combined volumes meant that inevitably, some bits were cut, but two paperback volumes Travels of Delight and Tours of Delight edited by Nigel Hart were published by Langney Press in 2016. A more recent version which included more of the “essential” bits was edited by Emily Barrett of Little, Brown Book Group & published by Sphere in 2021 under the title Oh, What a Lovely Century

When our own book, May we be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition required funding, I approached the nearest Literary Executor, my brother Charles. Both he and his co-executor agreed that Roddy would have been delighted to help out, so a cheque was duly handed over to me, with a bust of Sir John Franklin in the background looking on approvingly!

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Hurrah for the Dredge!

Of all the many portraits of Franklin's men that emerge from our volume of letters, that of Harry Goodsir, the expedition's naturalist, is perhaps the most vivid. Only twenty-five years old when he sailed, he was already a fast-rising star in the firmament of natural history, serving as the Conservator of the Surgeons' Hall Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, and engaged in correspondence and collaboration with many of the leading lights of the field.

Among his closest friends in this endeavor was Edward Forbes, who emerges early in the correspondence, helping his friend secure the post as Naturalist that he'd sought with all his energy. Forbes had mentored Harry for some years, and taken him on a number of outings to dredge for marine specimens along the coasts of Scotland and Shetland. Indeed, the dredge, for Forbes and Goodsir alike, was the principal tool they used in obtaining specimens and discovering new species, a number of which still bear their names. The common marine dredge -- an example is at the left -- could be dragged along the sea-floor, whether by hand off the side of a boat, or at the end of a lengthy cable from a larger vessel. 

The dredge was so potent a symbol of the naturalist's trade that Forbes even wrote a song to celebrate its powers, the first stanza of which is as follows:

Hurrah for the dredge, with its iron edge,
And its mystical triangle.
And its hided net with meshes set
Odd fishes to entangle!

The triangle indeed, became a special symbol for Forbes; one of his letters to Harry contains two of them -- a large one at the top of the letter, and a smaller one by his signature. Forbes also made use of the triangle as a symbol of a fraternal group he organized at the University of Edinburgh, the grandly-named Universal Brotherhood of Friends of Truth. On its edges were inscribed the Greek words for wine (in moderation), love (of a brotherly kind), and learning "of a high order." Of course Harry and his brothers John and Joseph were all members.

But this was all preamble, of course -- what mattered to Harry, and what will fascinate the readers of these letters, was the work of natural history itself. In the early months of the expedition Harry proved a man of enormous energy in this regard, and his enthusiasm was contagious among his brother officers. James Fitzjames described one such scene -- "Goodsir is catching the most extraordinary animals in a net, & is in ecstacies. Gore & Des Voeux are over the side poking with nets & long poles, with cigars in their mouths & Osmer laughing," and Harry himself expressed his delight in their shared labor: 
The Officers who were taking great interest in the collecting of specimens now became very active & during the whole day a range of them might be seen sitting in the main chains each with a net in hand dabbing away for Acalephæ. In this way my time has been fully occupied drawing and taking notes, night & day.
Goodsir quickly earned the respect and praise of Franklin, who gave over most of the space in his "Great Cabin" for Goodsir's work. In a letter to his friend the naturalist Robert Brown, Franklin noted that:
You will be glad to hear that Goodsir has collected very assiduously on the waters and from Depths, and that he has procured many things which are rare & some of them unknown. I must not however attempt to give you their unwriteable names, but trust to your learning what they are from Professor Forbes or some other of his Correspondents.
Not only was Goodsir collecting, he was examining his finds with great assiduousness. Le Vesconte, in a letter to his mother, declared that  they were dredging up enormous varieties of "small blubbers and other marine animals and animaliculae ... strange creatures of whose habits and structure very little is known. Mr Goodsir, provided with powerful microscopes, is making collections of them accompanied by drawings and descriptions." Indeed, Harry was hard at work on a number of scientific papers, two of which he dispatched from the ship's last anchorage in Greenland in a box sent to his brother John.

All this in was only the first eight weeks of the expedition, while the ships were just making their passage to Greenland -- how much more Harry must have accomplished after, we may never fully know. There are a couple of possible hints -- an Inuk named Koo-nik showed Charles Francis Hall a fragment of a jar, from a "large cask filled with glass jars" that had washed up near the shipwreck at Oot-joo-lik -- the Erebus. These may well have been specimen jars, carefully packed by Harry before the ships were deserted. There is also a curious implement (right) that was recovered from near the ships' first wintering, at Cape Riley -- it's an item of unknown function, likely fabricated on board ship -- but it's struck many who have examined it as possibly the handle of a smaller "rake" made for dragging shallow waters. If so, I think we can be fairly certain that Harry's were the hands the dragged it.

(With thanks to Logan Zachary and Alison Freebairn for their research on the Cape Riley Rake, and Peter Carney for reminding me of the Inuit testimony about the glass jars)

Monday, January 31, 2022

The humor of James Fitzjames

Among James Fitzjames's many gifts and proclivities, a weakness for what in Britain are called "puns," and in America "bad jokes" is among the most notable. And, in the world of such puns, the star of them all -- illustrated with a characteristic doodle (at left), goes thusly:

Q: "Why is Prince Albert’s kiss like this ship?"

A: "‘Cause its a hairy bus!"

Aside from the execrable homophony of the pun, it's curious that Fitzjames settled upon Prince Albert as its embodiment; in an age of famous whiskers, the Prince's were relatively moderate. Apparently, though, the jest hit home; in her copies of Fitzjames's correspondence with John Barrow Jr., Lady Franklin made her own copy of the cartoon!

His weakness for such puns is exemplified in many passages in his letters from HMS Erebus, mixed in with his jocular observations about others, as in this interchange with Osmer:

Osmar has just come from on deck (midnight) and is dancing with an imaginary skipping-rope. I said to him “What a happy chap you are Osmar you are always in a good humour.” His answer is, ‘Well, sir, if I am not happy here, I d’ont know where else I could be.”  – This will show you that we are really like a man shaving: So-appy!

Of course, some of the best instances of Fitzjames's jovial spirit are already well known -- his verbal portraits of his fellow officers in the "bundle of yarns" he sent to his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Coningham. These, though all meant in a light-hearted way (and meant only for private eyes), did occasionally veer into more pointed observations, using language that was omitted from the printed versions. Collins, the Second Master, he described as 

... the very essence of good nature, and I may say good humour - but he is mad, I am sure - for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking - (or thinking of nothing) and I can get no work out of him, though ever so willing he may be - yet he is not a bore nor a nuisance - but a nonentity.

He added, though, that "we intend however to make something of him." Edward Couch got a similar mix of caricature and praise; Fitzjames calls him

a little bullet-headed - blackhaired - smooth-faced lump of inanity - good humored however in his own way - writes, reads, works, draws - all quietly - is never in the way of anybody - and always ready when wanted.

But doubtless the best among these portraits is his description of James Reid, complete with an imitation of his particular brogue:

The most original character of all— rough, intelligent, unpolished, with a broad North Country accent, but not vulgar - good humored & honest hearted is  Reid - a Greenland whaler - native of Aberdeen - who has commanded whaling vessels. & amuses us with his quaint remarks & descriptions of the ice - catching whales &c. - For instance - he just said to me, on my saying we should soon be off Cape Farewell at this rate, & asking if one might not generally expect a gale off it (Cape Farewell being the south Point of Greenland). “Ah! Now, Mister Gems, we’ll be having the weather fine Sir! Fine! - No ice at arl about it Sir, unless it be the bergs – arl the ice’ll be gone Sir only the bergs which I like to see. Let it come on to blow look out for a big’un. Get under his lee. and hold on to him fast Sir, fast. if he drifts – too near the land - why he grounds afore you do!” I think the idea of all the ice being gone except the icebergs, is rich beyond description.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Our Friend and Pitcher

(National Library of Australia)
In the process of writing the notes for our volume of Franklin expedition letters, we learned a lot of seemingly random things: the name of a builder of cabinets for entomologists in St. Ives (John James Jarman), the fact that Franklin's friend Charles Beverly was then the head of the Bethlem Lunatic Asylum, and that a "treacle posset" might be good for you if you had a cold (recipe here). But among the more surprising discoveries began with the phrase "Our friend and Pitcher." Owen Stanley, a gifted draughtsman, was in command of HMS Blazer, one of two steam vessels (the other being HMS Rattler) that towed Erebus and Terror up the eastern coast of Britain to Stromness. Stanley made a number of sketches of the ships under tow, and gave one of them this title; in a letter, James Fitzjames mentions that "Stanley calls the Terror his friend and pitcher. This turned out not simply to be a pun (on account of the towed ships "pitching" about in the rough seas), but also a reference to a song, now lost in the mists of obscurity but then well-known enough that Fitzjames at once got the reference.

It was said to be George Washington's favorite play -- "The Poor Soldier" debuted in 1783, with music by William Shield and text by John O'Keefe. It was revived on numerous occasions, but by the 1840's one of its more popular songs had become a common feature of musical revues -- it was "My Friend and Pitcher":

My friend so rare, my girl so fair!
With such, what mortal can be richer?
Give me but these, a fig for care!
With my sweet girl, my friend and pitcher.

Of course, along with my fellow editors, I was enormously curious to hear this song -- but nary a recording of it seemed to exist. And then, to our great good fortune, we tracked down and got in touch with Dr. Sarah McCleave of Queen's University, Belfast. She had, we found, directed a student performance of "The Poor Soldier," and had recorded it on video. Making sure that she first obtained permission from the performers, she's generously agreed that we can share it here, so that everyone can hear the tune that was somewhere in the back of Stanley's and Fitzjames's mind -- so here it is! 

With our deepest thanks to Dr. McCleave, and to the performers: Laoise  Ní Cearnaigh (voice), Amy Wright (piano), and Vanessa Ní Gaoithín (violin). The complete lyrics can be found here.