Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition – National Maritime Museum

National Maritime MuseumIn 1845, a Royal Navy expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin to discover and chart the North West Passage set off on its journey. None of the 129 men on the expedition were ever seen alive again. Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition has been developed by the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Canada), in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

The fate of Franklin’s expedition has been a mystery for over a century: despite numerous searches, many instigated by Franklin’s wife Jane, few traces were ever found. A handful of artefacts and some human remains have been discovered, but it is only in the last couple of years that the wrecks of the flagship, Erebus, and its companion vessel, Terror, have been discovered. The ultimate reason why the expedition ended in tragedy has never been established. Approaching the National Maritime Museum, you are confronted by a sea of flags; each one represents a man lost on the expedition.

The exhibition starts with an exploration of the Arctic environment and how Inuit peoples live and thrive in such harsh conditions. Centring the Inuit experience is important for two reasons – firstly because their way of life could have – but didn’t – inspire the various British expeditions that tried to survive in the Arctic in the nineteenth century, and secondly because Inuit testimony was frequently ignored when searchers were trying to find out what had happened to the crews of Erebus and Terror.

The exhibition continues with a look at life on board ship, the role of the different crew members, and brief biographies of key figures on the expedition. It explores the route the expedition took, past Beechey Island and round to King William Island, before the trail grew cold. The expedition spent several winters on the ice, in the dark and cold, with little food other than what they had brought with them from England.

Later the focus turns to the many search parties sent out by Lady Franklin and others, before the ships were finally given up for lost. I must say that to someone like me who knows this topic quite well, much of the exhibition up until now was already known to me, and I didn’t really learn anything new. The exciting part comes towards the end, when I got to view several artefacts, recently recovered from the wrecks, including the bell from Erebus, cast at the Whitechapel Foundry specially for the voyage. It’s still possible to read the date stamp on the side. Videos allow you to watch the divers at work underwater, exploring the wreckage of the ships.

No one really knows exactly why the crew all perished, but various theories are put forward: scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, disease and more. Two crew members who died fairly early on in the journey have been exhumed, and the evidence in their case points to tuberculosis, but this probably did not infect the others on board. Evidence of cannibalism has been found, but it’s impossible to say for certain whether starving crew members killed and ate their fellows out of desperation, or only ate the flesh of those who had already died.

The exhibition is a fantastic introduction to the Franklin expedition for those who don’t know a great deal about it, and for those already fascinated by the topic it allows you to see some incredible artefacts. What will stick in my memory is the single shoe, preserved in the ice, from an unknown crew member – a poignant reminder of the expedition’s human cost.

Death in the Ice runs until 7 January at the National Maritime Museum

Flags marking the dead

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