The Annual EGR Taylor Lecture: Finding Franklin: searching and science in the Canadian Arctic – Royal Geographical Society

When I arrived at this lecture at the Royal Geographical Society it was obviously proving popular. I narrowly escaped having to sit outside the room on strategically angled chairs. It’s not surprising that this was the case given the recent media interest stemming from the discovery of Franklin’s second ship, the Terror, on the floor of the Canadian ocean. I’ve been fascinated by the Franklin expedition for a while, so was glad to get the chance to attend this talk.

Organised by the Society of Naval Research, the talk was delivered by Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History, King’s College London, who has published a book on Franklin (Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber London, 2010)). He argued that the main purpose of Franklin’s expedition was not to find the North-West Passage, as searches for this elusive route over Canada had been taking place since the sixteenth century and by 1845 when the exhibition set sail, it was generally accepted that even if the passage did exist, it was impractical; in addition, the settlement of the Alaska border meant there was no obvious reason to go looking for the passage.

HMS Terror
Crew of the HMS Terror, stuck in the ice and commanded by the British admiral George Back (1796-1878), salvaging lifeboats and provisions east of the Frozen Strait, during the Frozen Strait Expedition, 1836-1837. Yellowknife, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

The large-scale rescue mission to find Franklin found that the crews of both ships had marched south, leaving a pile of equipment behind. There was evidence of cannibalism, which was hastily suppressed. Both wrecks were found further south from where they were originally abandoned in 1848. No logbooks or reports or medical records were found on either ship: the only written evidence is a 263-page note. However, a non-magnetic cannon and a broken sextant were found on Erebus, further evidence of the real purpose of the expedition.

Lambert argued that the real purpose of the exhibition was to explore the new science of magnetism: looking for evidence of the earth’s magnetic field. The search for the passage was inspired by big science, but in order to get funding, going to the high Arctic needed a purpose. It was thought that magnetism could help with navigation: Sir Edward Sabine’s work gave Britain a leading role in big international scientific project and Franklin became a magnetic scientist, building a magnetic station during his time as Governor of Tasmania. He was a scientist, not an explorer: he was 59 and in poor health, he would not have been sent to the Arctic as an adventurer. Fourteen officers were all trained in magnetic science; the aim was to collect magnetic data on or near the magnetic pole, something that explorer James Clark Ross understood as his search for Franklin took him close to the magnetic north, and in fact the Erebus and Terror made it closer to the magnetic north than any ship until Amundsen’s.

The expedition did not go well. Three men died from tuberculosis during the first winter on Beechey Island; in early 1846 an opening was found into Peel Sound, formerly ignored and blocked, but the ships later became locked in the ice. In 1847 and 1848 the weather conditions grew worse: by 1848 the men had decided to try marching over 1000 miles to the nearest Hudson Bay post. Several were abandoned on the way as they grew weaker and died; the last man is believed to have perished at the appropriately-named Starvation Bay.

During the search for the lost expedition, the state and Lady Jane Franklin – who was instrumental in organising rescue missions and preserving her husband’s reputation and memory – created a narrative about the North-West Passage that has endured to this day. His statue stands at Waterloo Place, a reminder of the place he still holds in the history of Arctic exploration.

Read Andrew Lambert’s fascinating article Finding HMS Terror: the Franklin Expedition and making sense of the past online at BBC History Extra

Polar Museum, Cambridge

The Scott Polar Research Institute

Just before Easter I went to Cambridge for work-related reasons. While I was there, I had some spare time so decided to visit the Polar Museum. This is located in the Scott Polar Research Institute, which is a centre for the study of the polar regions and is of international importance. The SPRI was founded in 1920 as a memorial to Scott and his men, who died on their return from the South Pole. It is the oldest international centre for Polar Research within a university.

I originally visited the SPRI several years ago when I was living in Cambridge. In fact, it originally inspired my interest in polar history, as I found the stories of exploration fascinating. I vividly remember viewing the original letters penned by Scott and his companions as they lay in their tent, surrounded by a blizzard, knowing they were going to die. Back then, I was on a work visit and we had a tour of the extensive library, but today I was here as a normal visitor, and stuck to the free Polar Museum.

The Museum contains information about both the Arctic and Antarctic. It encompasses the history of exploration in both regions, including the quests for the North and South Poles. My personal interests have always leaned towards Antarctica, and there is a great deal of interest here, including the history of Scott’s last expedition on the Terra Nova. However, I also enjoyed reading about the search for the North West Passage, including Franklin’s infamous expedition of the mid-nineteenth century in which he and all his crew disappeared; despite several search parties being dispatched to look for him, the mystery was never solved. The Museum also contains information about survival in these cold regions of the earth, and displays about the people who live in the Arctic (the Antarctic does not have an indigenous population).

By Endurance We Conquer

The current temporary exhibition is By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and His Men, and it is the major centenary exhibition commemorating Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17. I’ve written about this expedition on this blog before, including my post about the recent Royal Geographical Society exhibition, so I won’t repeat the same facts. This expedition makes use of diaries and artefacts in the SPRI’s collections, including navigation instruments used on the James Caird on the voyage to South Georgia, the cooking pot used by the three men on the overland crossing of South Georgia, and Ernest Shackleton’s pannikin marked with his initials. There are also archival materials including letters, diaries, and a memory map drawn by Frank Worsley showing the route taken during the South Georgia crossing. What I liked about the exhibition was its focus on the 28 individuals of the Weddell Sea Party (not to mention Mrs Chippy the cat), with written summaries describing each person, whether they went with Shackleton to South Georgia or remained behind awaiting rescue.

This free exhibition runs until 18 June, and will be followed by a display on the Ross Sea party, commemorating the centenary of Shackleton’s arrival at Cape Evans to rescue the survivors in January 1917. It’s well worth a visit, especially as it’s free, and the museum as a whole is a superb resource for the study of polar history.


Address: Lensfield Road, Cambridge, CB2 1EP


Opening Hours: 10-4 Tues-Sat

Prices: Free

Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage – British Library

I finally got around to seeing the free Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage exhibition at the British Library, after attending a talk last year about the finding of HMS Erebus near Canada. The exhibition was recently extended to 19 April, so you still have a few weeks to see it.

It tells the story of humanity’s interest in and travel to the Arctic from the earliest times onward, with a wealth of written and printed material relating to the subject including Inuit woodcuts, early printed books, Russian maps and, later, photographs. Interestingly, there is also information about Santa Claus and how his place of residence was “moved” from Finland to the North Pole as interest in the Pole grew.

Fiction, factual accounts, and evocative pictures combine to bring the story to life. Definitely worth popping in to see.

The Search for Franklin’s Lost Ships – British Library

‘HMS Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters’ [Shelfmark: 1781.a.23] – See more at:

Recently I attended a talk at the British Library, The Search for Franklin’s Lost Ships, an event designed to coincide with the current exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage which runs until 29 March 2015. The talk involved Ryan Harris, a marine archaeologist, in conversation with Robin McKie from The Observer: the original subject of the talk was the search itself, but after the talk was scheduled, it emerged that one of the ships had actually been found – tremendously exciting news. Harris actually introduced his presentation by apologising for the slight change in tack – though I don’t suppose for a minute that anyone actually minded!

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of explorer and Royal Navy officer Captain Sir John Franklin, left Greenhithe on 19 May 1845, setting sail for Canada in a bid to find the last stretch of the fabled Northwest Passage. Both ships became trapped in ice in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic. The entire crew was lost, and their ultimate fate became one of the Victorian age’s greatest mysteries. Franklin’s wife, Jane, and others launched numerous expeditions to try and find out what had happened to them, but none were successful, though rumours of cannibalism, poisoning and scurvy abounded. Oral history and Inuit testimony was collected during the nineteenth century, suggesting that at least one ship had sunk, but their testimony was distrusted.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, as they appeared in Illustrated London News. Source: Getty Images via BBC News

Earlier this year, the Canadian Government initiated the biggest search yet to find the lost ships. As Canada has the largest coastline in the world, this would be no light undertaking. A previous “Project Franklin” run by the Department of National Defence ended in failure in 1967 when the divers performing the search had to be evacuated owing to hypothermia. However, modern technology has enabled new methods of searching.

Marine archeologist Ryan Harris, who took part in the search, explained how the ship – later determined to be HMS Erebus – was found. On 1 September, a piece of iron and a piece of wood were found: cross-section plans of Erebus provided by the National Maritime Museum proved that these artefacts came from that ship. Erebus itself was discovered with sonar imaging, relatively intact on the sea floor: it was possible to match up the plan of the ship with the undersea image to prove it was what they were looking for. Exciting as the discovery was, it was kept under wraps for a while so the “right” people could be informed first – the Canadian and British governments, for instance. The find was formally announced on 9 September.

The most exciting part of Harris’s talk was hearing about, and seeing pictures of, dives to the near-intact ship. Despite the covering of kelp, archaeologists were able to find cannons, anchors, decking and beams, and a table leg that, judging by a picture of Franklin’s cabin published in the Illustrated London News, came from a table belonging to Franklin himself. Particularly exciting was the discovery of the ship’s bell, still with the year ‘1845’ embossed on it. The plan is for the bell, probably made at the Whitechapel foundry, to be conserved and displayed publicly while further archaeological work continues at the site.

Further examination of the ship could lead to some important questions being answered. For instance, who were the last survivors of the crew, and when did discipline break down? How was the ship rigged – for sail, or for steam propulsion? The discovery should prompt a re-examination of the Inuit testimony which was distrusted at the time, and could shed new light on the technology of nineteenth-century British polar exploration.

A question and answer session at the end of the talk offered further insight into what might happen with the ship in the future. It seems certain that the project will go on for years, uncovering further details about the ship and the expedition as a whole. In reply to one question, Harris said that they are “optimistic” about finding some documents on board – linen-based paper can survive for centuries underwater, and it is possible that records may be found inside. The aim is to get into the middle of the ship: it is possible that it could be raised, as although it is generally preferred to leave things in situ, the significance of this one could mean that it is removed from the water at some point. Artefacts will be removed from the wreck so that they can be conserved and learned from, and in the meantime, the search for the other ship, HMS Terror, will continue.

I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating talk and intend to keep an eye out for more news relating to the search and the Franklin expedition. I also intend to visit the exhibition at the British Library early next year.