Sir John Franklin made three attempts to find the North-West Passage. His final voyage in 1845 in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended in tragedy for him and all his men, becoming the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration.

In brief

Oil Painting of HMS 'Erebus' in the Ice, 1846 by Francois Etienne Musin

In May 1845 two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror sailed from Britain to what is now Nunavut in Northern Canada. Explorations of the Arctic coastline had led to great optimism that finding and charting the final part of the North-West Passage – the seaway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – was now within reach. Explorer John Franklin, who had made two previous attempts to find it, was keen to claim the prize.

By previous standards the Erebus and Terror were powerful and luxurious, with heating systems and vast supplies of preserved foods. In late July, the two ships were seen by a whaler in Baffin Bay, waiting for ice to clear in Lancaster Sound and to begin their journey to the Bering Strait. It was the last time any of the 129 crewmen were ever seen alive. 

After two years without receiving any communication from Franklin’s mission the Admiralty sent out a search party but without success. A total of 39 missions were sent to the Arctic but it wasn’t until the 1850s that evidence of what befell the men began to emerge. The exact circumstances of their deaths remain a mystery to this day.

Map of Franklin's expedition

Life in the Arctic

The men on board the ships of Franklin's expedition faced bitter conditions (in extreme cold taking a balaclava off can rip the skin and beard from the chin!) The crews therefore prepared as best as they could.

Conditions

 Curator Claire Warrior answers the question: what would life have been like on the expedition?

The short answer is, we don’t know. We don’t have any of the journals or logbooks that would have been written aboard ship (yet… but that’s another story!). But we do have lots of evidence from other sources about what the men might have gone through. Using these, we can come as close as we possibly can to understanding what the crews of Erebus and Terror might have seen and felt.

Expeditions set off in the spring, so that they could get as far as possible before the winter, when their progress was halted. Unfamiliar wildlife might be glimpsed, such as narwhals (which were called ‘sea-unicorns’), and splashes of botanical life, including vivid yellow poppies. The Arctic could be a place of freezing fog and heaving seas, and the expedition crews were sometimes at the mercy of the immense pressure of the sea-ice and the unpredictable behaviour of icebergs. It was also, at times, breathtakingly beautiful, with dazzling colours and glowing skies.

Franklin’s ship was trapped in the ice in a remote and desolate area, which Inuit rarely visited, calling it Tununiq, ‘the back of beyond’. They couldn’t rely on local people for meat, clothing, and oil, as other expeditions had. But they had enough supplies for about three years, and British expeditions were experienced at overwintering in the Arctic...

Painting depicting fate of Sir John Franklin's expedition
'They forged the last links with their lives' by William Smith
  • Temperatures outside could drop as low as  -48°C overnight, -35°C by day. Conditions on board ship were not necessarily much warmer: previous expeditions reported the officers sitting round in their greatcoats below decks in freezing temperatures. But Franklin’s ships were fitted with a heating system that may have made life a bit more pleasant.
  • The men were probably inspected every week for signs of scurvy. Sore gums were an early sign, but scurvy can mean that old wounds reopen, teeth loosen and the skin bruises easily. Expeditions were supplied with lemon or lime juice to prevent it, but it was a constant problem on polar expeditions, as fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t available. Inuit ate their meat raw, which ensured that they got enough vitamin C.
  • Making magnetic and meteorological observations would have been a key part of the expedition’s scientific remit, but the men had to do so carefully. Placing cold metal instruments up to the eye could cause the skin to be damaged or even removed, and the men had to hold their breath to stop condensation forming on the glass parts.
  • Pulling sledges could be difficult, too, if the men were exploring beyond the ship. Even when temperatures outside are -50°C, you sweat heavily; when you stop, the sweat can turn to ice in your underwear.
  • Frostbite can blister fingers, making the skin incredibly tender, and toe damage is common. The skin becomes very cold and painful, before turning red, then numb and pale as the tissue freezes. If the blood supply is lost, gangrene may set in – the tissue is dead. Amputation may be needed if this happens. Sores can form when, for example, ice forms below the chin after a runny nose.
  • Taking a balaclava off can rip the skin and beard from the chin in extreme cold.
  • Hypothermia is always something to be aware of in these kinds of temperatures. It’s particularly important not to get wet. People will shiver uncontrollably, become ‘sleepy’ and slur their speech, get amnesia and become confused, and their heart slows. They may then pass out.

Preparations

  • The ships started out with cattle, sheep, pigs, and hens to be eaten in the early stages.
  • The three pets aboard the Erebus were a monkey that Lady Franklin presented to the ship, an old Newfoundland dog called Neptune, and a cat. The monkey was an amusing, but an annoying thief, Neptune was very popular amongst the crew, and the cat was needed to catch rats.
  • While the marines and the officers had their own quarters, the crew did not have fixed bed places. They slung their hammocks from the deck beams in the open area forward of the main mast.
  • A total of 7,088 pounds of tobacco was supplied to the ships to be either chewed or smoked in pipes.
  • In midwinter, the temperature outside would fall below minus 40 degrees and the mercury in thermometers would solidify. The ship had been loaded with 2,700 pounds of candles to provide light during the long dark winter months. 

Trapped in the ice

Franklin’s two naval vessels sailed up the Wellington Channel before turning south toward Beechey Island, where they would spend the winter. In the spring, they sailed south down Peel Sound but, off the northernmost point of King William Island, were trapped by the ice flow down the McClintock Channel.

In the spring of 1847, a party from the expedition travelled across the ice to Point Victory on shore and deposited a written record of their progress. It is thought they reached Cape Herschel on the south coast of the island, filling in the unexplored part of the North-West Passage. Sir John Franklin died in June that year.

Still trapped in the ice, Erebus and Terror drifted south until Captain Crozier ordered their abandonment in April 1848. Weakened by starvation and scurvy, the 105 surviving men headed south for the Great Fish River. Most died on the march along the west coast of King William Island.

Lady Jane Franklin: A 30 year search

Two years passed and nothing had been heard from the men, prompting the first of a series of expeditions to be sent into the Arctic in an attempt to find them and the reasons why they had not been in touch with their loved ones back home.

The loss of this British hero, and the efforts to find him, captured the public imagination. Between 1847 and 1880, over thirty search expeditions ventured to the Arctic in the hopes of uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition.

Traces of Franklin’s first winter camp on Beechey Island were found in 1850, but his progress and fate remained a mystery for some time. Urged by Lady Jane Franklin, Parliament, and even the British press as public concern grew, the Admiralty dispatched expeditions both overland and by sea. By 1850 there were still no clues to the fate of the crew and the British Government, after much criticism, offered substantial rewards of £20,000 to any parties who could provide news of the expedition or assist its crew.

Image of sledge flag made by Lady Franklin: Hope on Hope Ever

Over the course of the next thirty years, news and relics, such as tin cans, snow goggles and cutlery filtered back to Britain that spoke of what had happened: the deaths of the entire crew through a combination of factors including scurvy and starvation, and speculation of cannibalism and potential madness brought on by lead poisoning.

In 1854, Dr John Rae brought back Inuit stories that the expedition had perished somewhere to the west of the Back River. It appeared some of the men had resorted to cannibalism as many bodies were mutilated and body parts were found in cooking pots.

A privately funded expedition under Captain F.L. McClintock verified the expedition's route and the claim that it had traversed a previously unexplored sea route through the North-West passage before McClure had done so.

It was not until 1859 that the sole piece of paper, often known as the Victory Point Note, was found and revealed anything about what happened. In the margins this standard Admiralty form was a handwritten message, which said the ships were deserted on 22 April 1848, having been stuck on ice since 12 September 1846: 105 officers and crew, under the command of Captain F. R. M. Crozier, had departed on foot for the Back River (or Back's Fish River as it was then called). The note stated that John Franklin had died on 11 June 1847.

Point Victory note from the Franklin expedition

Most of the expedition's documents remained missing, which encouraged further searches such as that led by Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka of the US Army in 1878.

The majority of finds from Rae’s search were handed to the Admiralty by the Hudson Bay Company, and then passed on to Greenwich Hospital in 1854. Items from McClintock’s expedition were initially displayed at the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall, after which they were moved to the Royal Naval Museum, Greenwich when material from the Hall and Schwatka expeditions was added. The full collection was transferred to the National Maritime Museum in 1936.

Bodies from the expedition found

It was over 100 years after the last search expedition returned home that investigation into the fate of the Franklin expedition garnered public attention, when forensic anthropologist, Dr Owen Beattie began the 1845–48 Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project (FEFAP). Relics and human remains, overlooked by earlier searchers, were collected in 1981 by Beattie’s team from sites on King William Island. The human remains were analyzed using modern forensic techniques in an attempt to ascertain what might have caused the death of the crew and to identify which crew members’ remains had been found.

Through Beattie’s research it was found that the amount of lead in the bones of some of the men that had been found was exponentially high, leading to the theory that lead poisoning may have been one of the factors contributing to the Expedition’s demise.

More widely known is Beattie’s later work on Beechey Island, where he and a specialized team exhumed and autopsied three remarkably well-preserved crewmen who had died and were buried during the Expedition’s first winter in the Arctic. Examination of tissues collected from the men’s bodies reaffirmed Beattie’s earlier theory that lead poisoning was one of the factors leading to the Expedition’s destruction. Beattie further supposed that the Expedition’s tinned food, hailed as cutting edge technology and stocked in abundance, had been contaminated by lead solder used to seal the tins and was the most likely culprit.

Enduring mystery of HMS Erebus and Terror

It is believed hunger, scurvy and lead poisoning, from the food cans taken on the voyage, led to the men dying on their journey. It is also believed that some of the men resorted to cannibalism. If any of the crew did make it to Back River, then they have the accolade of discovering the passage west through the Arctic, though this has never been proven.

Death in the Ice: The Shocking story of Franklin’s final expedition

Our major exhibition, open until January 2018, explores the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew. On display for the first time, will be objects from the recently discovered wreck of the HMS Erebus.Can the latest discoveries shed light on one of history's most enduring mysteries?

Franklin death in the ice season promo imaage

Find out more about the exhibition