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

Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley – Royal Geographical Society

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I only found out about this exhibition a couple of weeks ago, after reading an article in Londonist. Luckily I was in time to visit, though as it was the final weekend the display was pretty crowded. I braved the hordes anyway, as I am a bit obsessed by Antarctica and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which this exhibition commemorates, is one of the most important and memorable expeditions in history. Enduring Eye: The Antarctic Legacy of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Frank Hurley marks the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of the expedition: it did not achieve its stated aims, but it is deservedly admired nevertheless.

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The Royal Geographical Society has a collection of original glass plate and celluloid negatives created by Frank Hurley, the official photographer and cinematographer on the expedition. This collection has been ditigised as part of the centenary celebrations, and much of it is presented here.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was established by Ernest Shackleton, who aimed to be the first to cross Antarctica. On the ship Endurance, which left Britain on 1 August 1914, he and his crew headed south. After stops in Buenos Aires and South Georgia, the ship made it to the Weddell Sea, where it was trapped in the pack ice.

Despite the best efforts of the entire crew, and after several months of entrapment, the Endurance was eventually crushed by the ice and destroyed. What followed was one of the greatest feats in the history of Antarctic exploration. I’ve read a great deal about the expedition, I’ve seen more than one exhibition about it, but I never tire of hearing more. The crew sailed in the lifeboats to Elephant Island, from where Shackleton, Worsley and four others departed in one of the lifeboats, the James Caird, to fetch help. In a hugely impressive feat of navigation, they safely reached South Georgia, only to be faced with a further trek over mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling station on the other side.

A rescue ship finally arrived at Elephant Island on 30 August. Every single one of the men from the Endurance survived (the men on the other ship, the Aurora, which had the job of laying supplies for the expected trans-Antarctic party on the other side of the continent, did not fare so well, losing three of the ten men left on the ice over the winter). Some of the artefacts from the expedition survived, and are on display here, including the Union flag presented to Shackleton by King George V, a knife carved from a tent peg by ship’s carpenter Harry McNish, and sketches and notes made by Reginald James, one of the men marooned on Elephant Island.

The exhibition covers the history of the exhibition from the first departure of the Endurance, following everyday life on board the ship as the crew get used to their routine. As the ship became trapped in the pack ice, photographer Frank Hurley took the opportunity to take detailed shots of the ship and of the region, by all accounts completely dedicated to getting the perfect shot, even willing to risk his own life by climbing up to the top of the ship’s rigging to take pictures from up high. Hurley was able to develop the photographs despite the incredibly cold temperatures and less than perfect conditions, so it is extremely impressive that his pictures are as wonderful as they are. In particular, I love his shots of the ship Endurance, trapped in the ice; the famous night-time shot with the ship looming out of the dark, the rigging glowing in a ghostly manner, is a masterpiece by any standards.

When the decision was made to abandon ship, Hurley had to leave behind many of his beloved negatives, selecting only the best to take with him to Elephant Island. On the way he managed to take more photographs, capturing the dramatic journey as well as life on the island as the crew waited for Shackleton’s return.

Hurley’s pictures helped to popularise the expedition both immediately after it took place and well into the future. These pictures are magnificent: even a century later they still have incredible power. The achievements of Shackleton, leading the expedition, and Hurley, capturing it on film, are still awe inspiring today.

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Statue of Shackleton on the side of the RGS building

Maggie’s Culture Crawl 2013

I had such a good time on Maggie’s Culture Crawl a couple of weeks ago. Originally known as the London Night Hike, the crawl is a sponsored 15-mile night-time walk around London, with all proceeds going to Maggie’s Centres. These are located in hospital grounds across the country and are designed as places where those affected by cancer can rest, talk and get support – both sufferers themselves and their friends and family. It’s a fantastic cause, although I have to admit it was the walk itself that got me interested – the charity part was a bonus!

I’d received my T-shirt in the post beforehand, with instructions to ‘charge up’ the glow-in-the-dark pattern under a light beforehand. On the night itself, I headed to Victoria Embankment Gardens to register and warm up. There were bottles of water and snacks available, talks from various people and even a little warm up session with music!

Victoria Embankment Gardens
Victoria Embankment Gardens
Getting ready for the warm up
Getting ready for the warm up

We set off at eight o’clock, heading across the river to the first stop which was the London Eye. As part of the walk we were permitted to have a go. I’d not been on it since I was sixteen, and that was during the day, so I thought it would be rather exciting to go on at night I was not disappointed.

London Eye
London Eye
View from the London Eye
View from the London Eye
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

After this bit of fun, it was time to walk to the next stop which was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Being in here felt like a huge privilege and the building was certainly beautiful. I also enjoyed the tea tasting, courtesy of Fortnum & Mason!

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The next stop, which was quite a way away, was the Roca London Gallery in Chelsea (near Imperial Wharf Overground station). I was rather bewildered by the inclusion of this stop as it seemed to specialise in toilets (well, bathrooms)! Still, it was decorated pretty well and the dancers performing for our entertainment were really talented.

Roca London Gallery
Roca London Gallery
Inside the Gallery
Inside the Gallery

Maggie’s West London Centre in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital was another stop. I enjoyed the opportunity to relax in a deckchair, nibble on a cupcake and take a look around the centre, which seems like a really warm, inviting place. Following this, the Royal Geographical Society building near the Royal Albert Hall was another stop – as well as a tea room, this stop had, rather bizarrely, a silent disco! Some people were actually dancing – personally I was glad of the opportunity to have a rest!

Royal Geographical Society
Royal Geographical Society
Inside the RGS
Inside the RGS
Silent disco
Silent disco

After this, there was an incredibly long stretch of walking. The route took us past Hyde Park Corner and parallel to Oxford Street (it was around 2 am at this point and seeing all the drunk people stumbling out of the clubs was an eye-opener). I was exhausted by this point (I’d totally underestimated how far 15 miles was) but I soldiered on and was hugely pleased to reach the next stop – Bart’s Hospital, the oldest hospital in London and site for a forthcoming Maggie’s Centre.

Bart
Bart’s Hospital

Bart

Bart

Bart

There wasn’t much of the route to go by this point – I struggled on past the Royal Exchange:

The Royal Exchange
The Royal Exchange

…until I could finally see the end in sight!

30 St Mary Axe - a.k.a.
30 St Mary Axe – a.k.a. ‘The Gherkin’

I was sooo happy when I finally reached the finish. Food chain Leon had kindly provided breakfast, but alas, the veggie option was yogurt – not so great when the meat-eaters got a bacon sandwich. Oh well, I suppose you can’t complain about free food!

At the finish
At the finish

Inside the Gherkin (official name: 30 St Mary Axe) I signed in and was proud to receive my medal. I saw several participants heading home at this point (it was around 4 am after all), but I decided to make the most of the opportunity I had and head up to the top of the building.

The top of the Gerkhin
The top of the Gerkhin

The space set aside for us, right at the top, was oddly calming. Lights were kept low, and cushions had been spread across the floor for us to collapse on to (several people were already asleep). I put my name down for a free massage, and settled down to wait.

Inside the Gerkhin
Inside the Gerkhin

Inside the Gerkhin

A big advantage of hanging around up here was that I got brilliant views over London, and was able to watch the sun rise.

Looking south towards the Shard
Looking south towards the Shard
Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge
Looking west towards St Paul
Looking west towards St Paul’s
The sun rising
The sun rising

After my massage, it was late enough for the tube to have reopened, so I left – not before admiring these guys:

Dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs!
Raarr!
The Gerkhin in all its glory
The Gerkhin in all its glory

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