Sir John Franklin (1786–1847)

Sir John FranklinSir John Franklin, 1786–1847, Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer, daguerrotype by Baird, 1845. Repro ID: 9191-A ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Franklin was an officer in the Royal Navy and an Arctic explorer. He was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire and joined the navy at the age of 15. Although he took part in the great sea battle of Trafalgar, he is best remembered for his surveys of the Arctic.

He made maps of over 3000 miles of the coast line of north Canada. He died in 1847, on his last Arctic expedition to find the North-West Passage.

What is the North-West Passage?

This is the sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It lies above the Arctic Circle between Canada and Greenland and the Arctic itself. The sea in this region is frozen over for most of the year and huge icebergs drift through the sea. Temperatures in winter fall to 50° below freezing. For over 300 years explorers had searched for a route through these icy waters. In 1845, trading ships were still having to travel the long sea-route from Europe to the west coast of America via India and China. A lot of money could be saved if a shorter way could be found. Thousands of pounds were offered as a prize for finding the North-West Passage.

What experience did Franklin have of Arctic exploration?

Altogether, Franklin made four journeys to the Arctic. On his second journey (1819–22) the party ran out of food and were forced to eat the leather parts of their clothes. When Franklin returned to England, the public were thrilled by the stories of the terrible journey and he became a national hero. His next expedition was a great success. He not only mapped 1200 miles of coastline, but collected information on geology and weather, as well as making notes on 663 plants.

When did Sir John Franklin make his last expedition?

In 1845, when he was 59 years old, Sir John Franklin offered to lead another expedition to the Arctic to search for the North-West Passage. He had been retired from Arctic exploration for 20 years. Everyone thought that he was the best person for the job and lots of people asked if they could go with him.

How did he prepare for his journey?

Lead soup tin of the sort used on Franklin's last expeditionLead soup can from Sir John Franklin's last expedition, c. 1845. Probably found in an Inuit cache at Cape Maria Louisa by the Schwatka Search Expedition 1878–79. Repro ID: D4678 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonFranklin took two ships the Erebus and the Terror. The front of each ship was covered with sheets of iron to help them push their way through the ice. They were sailing ships but also had small steam engines and a propeller. The engines had been designed for use on the Greenwich railway. The axle and propeller were the only changes made to the engines – even the funnel was a train funnel. The ships had enough coal for 12 days and the engines would only be used for breaking a path through the ice. People believed the power of steam would make Arctic exploration much easier.

Franklin's crew was made up of 129 officers and men from the Royal Navy. Supplies of food, clothing, tobacco and rum and over 2000 books were stowed on the ships. There was enough food to last three years. The expedition took 8000 tins of food. Unfortunately, the tins were sealed with lead which is poisonous. The lead would have got into the food and made the crews ill. They would become weak, bad-tempered and they would have found it hard to make good decisions. Even today people are still discussing how big a part lead poisoning played in the failure of the expedition.

The Erebus and Terror set sail from Greenhithe in Kent on 19 May 1845. On 26 July, the captain of a whaling ship saw them off the coast of Baffin Island. This is the last time the ships or men were ever seen.

Were people in England worried about Franklin's expedition?

In 1847, when people in England still had heard nothing from Franklin and his crew, rescue parties were sent to the Arctic. A total of 39 expeditions went to try to find them. Sir John Franklin's wife, Lady Jane Franklin wanted to know what had happened to her husband. For 13 years Lady Jane encouraged people to search for her husband's expedition. She spent all her own fortune financing search parties. She bought a luxury yacht, the Fox, and had it fitted out for a trip to the Arctic. This expedition was led by Captain Leopold McClintock.

What did McClintock discover about Franklin's expedition?

Snow KnifeSnow knife made in Nunavut, Canada, 1848–59. A relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845–48. Bought from the Inuit by the McClintock Search Expedition, 1859 and made from materials salvaged from discarded material belonging to the Franklin expedition. Repro ID: D5237 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonMcClintock met a party of the local people (Inuit). They told him of two ships being crushed in the ice and they gave him buttons, needles, knives (see right) and part of a gold chain that had belonged to Franklin's crew.

An old Inuit woman told McClintock that she had seen European men who 'fell down and died as they walked along'. McClintock and his men found a boat with two bodies inside. They found a cairn (pile of stones) on the top of a hill and inside it was the first real clue to what had happened to Franklin and his men. On a scrap of paper were two messages one written on 28 May 1847 when the men appeared to be well and untroubled. A second message was added to the margin a year later. It told of the death of Franklin and 24 other men and said that the survivors were starting south.

When McClintock returned to England, Queen Victoria asked to see the objects he had found. The Fox was taken to the Isle of Wight and moored near Osborne House so that Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the children could visit it.

What had happened to Franklin and his crew?

The tragic story of what happened to Franklin and his crew has been slowly discovered by search parties, like McClintock's, and by later expeditions. For the rest of 1845 the Erebus and Terror explored the coast. They spent the winter of 1845–46 on Beechey Island. They continued exploring when summer came and the sea was less frozen. During the winter of 1846–47, the ships became trapped in thick ice and even when summer came they were unable to escape.

In June 1847, Franklin died and, by April 1848, 21 of the men had died. Captain Crozier, who had taken command of the expedition, decided to leave the ships and travel south. Using two boats as sledges, Crozier and the crew set out to find help. By now the men were weak from hunger and very ill. The party split up. Some of the weakest men headed back to the ship to await rescue; some of the fittest went on ahead for help and others followed at their own speed. All of the men died.

Did search parties discover any other useful information?

The search parties discovered more and more about the Arctic and the best way to survive in this frozen wasteland. European explorers learned to copy the local people. For instance, later explorers used sledges to travel over the ice. Also, they hunted wild animals for food rather than relying on supplies brought from Europe. Between 1850 and 1855, Captain Robert McClure led a search party for Franklin. He became the first person to cross the North-West Passage. He made the journey in stages travelling by ship and on foot. He was given a reward of £5000 and a knighthood.

Is the North-West Passage used today?

The Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen was the first to travel the whole of the North-West Passage by ship. Nowadays, modern ice-breakers can make the journey through the North-West Passage during the summer months when the ice is thinner. Ships carrying cargo from one side of the world to the other cannot use this route except in the warmest summers.