The wrecks of the HMS Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, shedding new light on the much-debated fate of Franklin's final expedition. But will we ever know the full story?
HMS Terror was built in Topsham, Devon, and launched in June 1813. She was a bomb vessel, with an extremely strong hull, built to withstand the impact of explosions. She began her career as a ship of war, involved in several battles of the War of 1812 against the United States.
HMS Erebus was built by the Royal Navy in Pembroke Dockyard, Wales in 1826.
When her career as a bomb vessel came to an end, Terror became a ship of exploration. She ventured north to the Arctic in 1836, under the command of George Back, where she suffered heavy ice damage in the aptly-named Frozen Strait.
The Erebus joined the Terror for her next expedition - to the opposite end of the Earth, the Antarctic (1839–43), under the command of James Clark Ross.
The ships were completely refitted with additional strengthening and an internal heating system. Together, they circumnavigated the continent and the expedition did much to map areas of Antarctica, the Ross Ice Shelf and set the scene for future polar exploration in that area. The ships sailed into the Antartic - which was just as perilous as the north - in three succesive years, 1841, 1842 and 1843. In one incident, they were caught in a stormy sea full of fragments of rock-hard ice. The ice smashed against them so violently that their masts shook in a beating that would have destroyed any ordinary vessel.
Even more dangerously, in March 1842 the Erebus and Terror came close to destroying each other. Erebus was suddenly forced to turn across Terror's pass in order to avoid crashing headlong into an iceberg which had just become visible through the snow. Terror couldn't clear both Erebus and the iceberg, so a collision was inevitable. The ships crashed violently together and their rigging became entangled. The impact floored the crew members while masts snapped and were torn away. The ships were locked in a destructive stranglehold at the foot of the iceberg until eventually Terror surged past the iceberg and Erebus broke free.
Preparing for the North-West Passage
On her return with Erebus, Terror was again refitted and prepared for a voyage of scientific and geographical exploration through the North-West Passage under Franklin. In addition to being fitted similar to her 1839 voyage, both ships had additional planking on the upper deck and 20ft of iron sheeting along the sides from the bows. They also had steam engines and propellers added, which can be seen in green ink on the plan and required the stern to be rebuilt.
This was a brave decision, since the experiments with propellers were still underway within the Navy, and an engine with its need for coal would reduce the storage space for equipment and stores.
Finally the ships set sail for the North-West Passage in 1845 and were last seen by the whaler Enterprise on 28 July 1845 secured to an iceberg. The last definite information we have is that the Terror and Erebus were abandoned on 22 April 1848 from a message left by Captains Crozier and Fitzjames.
Finding the wrecks: a timeline
In 2014, the wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada, as part of a multi-faceted partnership that included government, private and non-profit groups. This and the following discovery of HMS Terror in 2016 marked two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history.
1992 | Wrecks of the Erebus and Terror were designated as a National Historic Site of Canada, despite no one at that time knowing where they were.
2008 | Canadian Hydrographic Service surveyed a stretch of seabed 65 kilometres long in its objective to chart the unrecorded areas of the Arctic seabed. This survey confirmed it would be safe for ship to access the area to the west of King William Island where Erebus and Terror had been in 1848.
2010 | Each summer from 2010 onwards, hydrographers were joined in the search for the wrecks by the Canadian Coast Guard, the Canadian Ice Service and the Canadian Navy, the Government of Nanavut and Parks Canada – the Canadian government’s archaeological agency. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the Arctic Research Foundation also took part.
Parks Canada archaeologists located HMS Investigator, the ship that had gone searching for the Franklin expedition in 1850 and had been abandoned in 1853 after getting stuck in the ice.
2011 | The archaeology team returned to the Investigator site to dive on the wreck for 16 hours over nine days. They saw a large quantity of artefacts including muskets, shoes, and copper sheathing.
2012 and 2013 | The search for Erebus and Terror continued in Victoria Strait – the ship’s last recorded position. Areas of the seabed were increasingly eliminated from the search.
2014 | The expedition couldn’t focus its efforts on Victoria Strait as planned because the sea ice there was slow to thaw. The search therefore stayed further south. A Government of Nunavut archaeology team then made a breakthrough discovery of a large iron object: part of the boat-lifting gear from a British naval ship. Parks Canada began using their sonar equipment and quickly saw the image of a largely intact shipwreck appear on their screen. By the end of the 2014 season, the hydrographers had created a three-dimensional image of the entire wreck.
2015 | Parks Canada wanted to return to the Erebus site as soon as possible – before the following summer – so they drilled a hole so the divers could access the wreck in April 2015 before the ice had fully melted. Throughout the season, archaeologists brought up artefacts from the upper deck and part of the lower, including guns, part of the wheel, fittings from the ship, dinner plates, clothing, and personal items. The search for the Terror continued without success.
2016 | The HMS Terror was found lying on the seabed under 48 metres of water in Terror Bay, far from the planned search area. The discovery was made when the Arctic Research Foundation’s ship made a detour to Terror Bay to follow up on a recollection made by one of the crew.
The marine archaeologist and conservation groups now have three major shipwrecks (including HMS Investigator) to investigate. This would be a challenge anywhere in the world, but will be especially difficult in the Arctic. The Canadian Government is establishing a research and conservation facility in collaboration with Inuit of Kitikmeot Region at a small town on King William Island.
The Background information was provided by our curators, Claire Warrior and Jeremy Mitchell. Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found by Gillian Hutchinson informed the timeline of the ships’ discovery.