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.

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