Franklin's last expedition

Fatal attraction

Franklin's last expedition | Coping with the Arctic: then and now

Sailing Today logo In the first of an occasional series highlighting the treasures contained at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Carol Fowler has trawled the archives and recounts the mysterious disappearance of the Franklin expedition to the Arctic in the 1840s.

Franklin's last expedition

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

The European trading nations had been searching for a safe route to the Orient for centuries. Countless men, ships and their valuable cargoes had been lost in the southern ocean rounding Cape Horn. Men had died and fortunes had been lost in the search for a north-west passage to the north of the American continent and the country that made the discovery, and could claim it, would have a huge commercial advantage. Britain was in the forefront of the hunt.

In 1744, Parliament offered £20,000 (over £1.6 million today) to anyone discovering a north-west passage. The search even defeated the legendary James Cook. On his final, fatal voyage, he sailed Endeavour north through the Bering Strait before being turned back by ice. The route remained elusive and the search continued. By 1819, Captain William Edward Parry was making headway into the inland Arctic, mapping unexplored estuaries along Barrow’s Straits in preparation for subsequent naval expeditions to seek out the one that would prove to be the way through. John Franklin had headed two expeditions to survey the Arctic shoreline, the second so successfully that he was knighted and promoted to governor of Van Diemen's Land (modern-day Tasmania).

In 1845, another expedition set out with Franklin, now 64, as the leader. He was still a popular hero and a successful Arctic explorer with a knighthood to prove it. His crew knew, however, that they were going to a fearful place. The land was empty and unexplored, water was navigable for only a few weeks each year, and once frozen in the ice, ships and men were trapped there until the next year's thaw released them or crushed and sank them. Thomas James, leader of one 17th century expedition, had described the cold as 'so extreme that no clothes were proof against it. It would so freeze the hair on our eyelids that we could not see'.

But Queen Victoria's Britain was hugely inventive and supremely confident. It had led the industrial revolution and felt itself to be undisputed leader in the technology race, so this was to be the best-equipped polar expedition ever. Erebus and Terror, both barque-rigged sailing ships, carried five year’s supply of food for the complement of 128 men. Stores included 35 tons of flour, 24 tons of meat, 2000 gallons of liquor, one and three quarter tons of tobacco and a ton of candles. They also carried a camera to take daguerreotypes, a barrel organ and scientific instruments to study the Arctic’s magnetic field, geology, botany and zoology.

A full-size railway locomotive was built into the hold supplying power to a 7ft propeller which could be removed if ice threatened damage. The galley stove included a desalination plant and a huge boiler sent hot water through a network of pipes to heat the ship. The bows were reinforced with iron plates to break through the ice. Equipment was at the cutting edge of technology and there was huge public interest in the expedition.

Sir John Franklin dying by his boatSir John Franklin (1786–1847) dying by his boat during the North-West Passage by W. Thomas Smith, 1895. Repro ID: BHC1273 ©2004 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London and Roger McIntyreBut three years passed and it became clear that Franklin and his men had disappeared more thoroughly than would be possible anywhere on the planet today. Two well-found ships, with the most modern equipment, and 128 men had vanished. It was inconceivable that things had simply gone wrong; that planning or leadership might be at fault. It became one of the great Victorian mysteries and a source of great public fascination on both sides of the Atlantic.

The British Government offered a reward of £10,000 (£420,000 today) for information. Over the next few years more than 40 expeditions were to set out in search of the party. The first dozen found only three graves and a heap of empty meat tins at the site where the expedition had wintered in 1845–46.

In 1854, Dr John Rae, a surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company, heard the first real intelligence of Franklin. He always asked the Inuit he met on his travels if they had heard any stories of white men and ships. One day he met a hunter, with an unusual cap-band made of gold cloth, that appeared to have come from a naval officer's uniform. The hunter told him that

a party Kabloonans [white men] had died of starvation a long distance to the west, and beyond a large river. In the spring four winters past [1850], while some Esquimaux families were killing seals near the shores of King William's land, about 40 white men were seen travelling south, dragging a boat and sledges. By signs the natives were led to believe that the ship or ships had been crushed by the ice.

Later in the same season the Inuit found about 30 corpses; some of the bodies were in tents, others under an overturned boat, some scattered about. It seemed clear that the survivors had resorted to cannibalism.

When Rae astutely offered the Repulse Bay Inuit a reward for artefacts they produced a hoard of items including the officers' silver plate, broken chronometers and astronomical instruments, and even one of Sir John Franklin's medals.

Incensed that Rae had received the government reward when he had no real information of her husband, Lady Franklin decided to fund another expedition to visit the area. Captain McClintock and his men reached King William Island in 1858 and found the remains of Franklin’s crew and their possessions scattered along the west coast. It was a melancholy sight, bodies face down in the snow among abandoned belongings. Their search uncovered a few personal papers and just two official records – Standard Admiralty forms. One gave a progress report followed by the words, 'All's well'. The other was almost identical except that in the margins was scrawled the following message:

25th April 1848. HM Ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues NNW of this, having been beset since 12th Sept 1846. The officers and crew consisting of 105 souls under the command of Capt Crozier landed here in Lat 69°37'42'' Long 98°41' … Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the Expedition has been to date 9 officers & 15 men. Start on tomorrow 26th for Back's Fish River.

It was signed by Captains James Fitzjames and FRM Crozier who had taken command after Franklin’s death. This enigmatic message posed more questions than answers. Why was there a far higher proportion of deaths among officers than the men? If 105 were alive at this stage, why were only 40 seen by the Inuit? Perhaps the strangest question of all concerned the boat which McClintock found at one of the sites – a sizeable ship's whaleboat lashed to a sledge of solid oak planks. It was filled with oddments, silver teaspoons, carpet slippers and even a copy of the Vicar of Wakefield. The Fish River was a 1200 mile trek across rapids and waterfalls – hauling such a load would have been almost impossible for men in full health. The Franklin party was far from that, for men suffering not only the effects of Arctic cold but, it's suspected, scurvy and lead poisoning, it would have been a death sentence.

Inconclusive though the discoveries were, McClintock was hailed as the man who had solved the Franklin mystery. It was years before others revisited the sites and spoke to the Inuit again. All the stories tallied and Charles Hall, a newspaperman, learned that one of the ships, probably Erebus, had sunk close to the point where it had been abandoned while the other had drifted or been piloted some distance south. There were reports of three or four survivors from the second ship wintering with the Inuit before departing for the south. Despite these reports, it gradually came to be accepted that both ships had been abandoned at the same time and they had struck out for the Fish River, the party dying off along the way.

Forty search parties found not a single survivor and, despite the fact that duplicate records, one for each ship, were ordered to be kept, no documentation has ever come to light. Nearly 150 years of searching has only disclosed the two Admiralty records. But permafrost has preserved a perfectly legible note, recovered from Cornwallis Island 120 years after it was written, and a letter written by William Barents in 1595 was recovered intact, 276 years later. Maybe one day that elusive cache will be found as the answer to a great Victorian mystery.

Coping with the Arctic: then and now


Although the stores shipped included four tons of lemon juice, current thinking is that scurvy may have been a contributory factor in the failure of Franklin's expedition.

Caused by a lack of vitamin C, this terrible condition had long been a killer, but in the mid-18th century James Lind, a Royal Navy doctor, experimented by adding limes to the diet of a group of sailors and allowing a control group to consume the normal ship's rations. The incidence of scurvy among those men being fed limes was noticeably lower than those in the control group. Limes or lemons were henceforth added to ship's stores and 'limey' became a common nickname for British sailors.

Scurvy causes a failure in the production of collagen, the connective tissue in skin and muscle. The first symptom is often bleeding gums, followed by teeth becoming loose, gums swelling and secondary infections occurring. Small blood vessels become fragile and haemorrhages occur throughout the body. Later, injuries long since healed, begin to break down, burns, cuts, even broken bones and old bullet wounds begin to disintegrate. Most sailors of the time would have had more than their fair share of such injuries. Terminal events include convulsions and shock often preceded by jaundice, swelling of the tissues and fever.

Tinned food was a new item on board ship in the 1840s and another suspicion was that poor sealing of cans had allowed lead to leach into the foodstuffs. Lead poisoning is characterised by abdominal pain, anaemia, renal disease, headache, peripheral nervous disease and memory loss.

Thanks to Dr Simon Chapman for advice on scurvy and lead poisoning.

Modern explorers

The North-West Passage still exerts a strong attraction today. Since Roald Amundson's first transit in 1906, dozens of craft from a US nuclear submarine to a 13m ketch have completed the trip. Simon Layton made part of the transit last year and plans to continue this summer aboard Aslan his 28-foot steel yacht.

Global warming might have been expected to make the trip easier but according to Simon, although the ice is thinner and breaks up more quickly, the resulting 'trash' is wind-blown into great drifts, which block the narrow channels and make navigation more harder.


Franklin's mittenMitten belonging to Sir John Franklin during the search for the North-West Passage, 1845–48. Mitten made out of a course piece of white blanket with blade stripes as made for the Hudson Bay Co. It has a black baize cuff with red silk edging. Left hand mitt, hand sewn. Repro ID: D9482 ©Hopton Hall, Derbyshire CollectionThe Franklin expedition's only means of communication were pen and paper with which to record events. They had no means of alerting anyone to the fact that they needed help and no way of indicating their position to a rescue party. Today, it is virtually impossible to be as isolated as the Franklin expedition, amply demonstrated last January when two men, whose helicopter downed in the Antarctic, used their satellite phone to call for help.

In addition to a sat-phone, one would expect a modern boat venturing into the Arctic to be equipped with SSB radio, an HF transceiver and EPIRB which, in an emergency, will transmit an exact position to search and rescue services via satellite.

Iridium and Nasa Target HF3-M provide up-to-date weather forecasts and Canadian Ice Experts will assist passage planning and routing. Safety Progress reports call once each fine day and more often as weather deteriorates.

Where are you?

Knowing exactly where you are is still a problem as charts contain many blank areas and pilot books are not comprehensive. Simon Layton found W Tilman’s accounts extremely useful.

A magnetic compass soon becomes useless and the low altitude of the sun, low cloud, ice mounds and fog make astro-navigation inaccurate and GPS is inconsistent above 70° north.

Clothing and equipment

Snow gogglesA pair of snow goggles, a relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845–48, found in an abandoned boat at Erebus Bay, King William Island, May 1859 by the McClintock Search Expedition 1857–58. Repro ID: D5228 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonAccording to an expert at the British Antarctic Survey, the genesis of modern, bad-weather protective clothing occurred as early as 1875 when the George Strong Nares expedition wore layered clothing topped off with a strong cotton outer which was breathable and windproof. Below are Captain Franklin's mitten and some leather snow goggles.

Modern thermals and layering systems now provide excellent protection from the elements while allowing freedom of movement.

The Museum

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is the largest and finest of its kind in the world, a celebration of Britain's maritime past and present. The Museum offers a huge range of talks, tours, performances, workshops, study days, events and exhibitions for which a charge is made. A third of a million children visit the NMM each year. One very popular attraction is the Planet Ocean Gallery Trail.

The building houses the Caird Library – the largest and most significant reference library of its kind in the world – containing collections of over 100,000 printed books covering all aspects of maritime affairs and rare books dating from 1474. Among the manuscripts are personal papers of the famous and powerful, Admiralty and dockyard records, papers from shipping companies, crew lists and Lloyds survey reports. Also available is a magnificent collection of charts and atlases dating back to 1456, Admiralty charts from 1801 to the present day, pilot books from 1420 to today and a large number of maritime journals. This unique material is freely available for consultation to anyone over 18.

Professional librarians are available. If you can't visit the library in person, they will provide a list of independent professional researchers who can carry out the work for you. The library and manuscripts catalogue is available online or you can e-mail Contact them first to make sure the material you want is available. Entry to the main museum is free and opening hours are 10.00–17.00 daily. More details are available from the information line +44 (0)20 8858 4422 or on our 'Planning a visit' webpages. 

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Issue 73, May 2003.

The National Maritime Museum gratefully acknowledges the commitment and cooperation of the Sailing Today editorial team and the author of the articles, Carol Fowler.