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