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Franklin relics

Tinted spectacles, relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845-48 Tinted spectacles, a relic of Sir John Franklin's last expedition 1845-48. ©NMM London. Repro ID F4975-3.

The Franklin Expedition is the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration. It occurred with the total loss of two naval vessels Erebus and Terror and all their crews.

The objective of the voyage was to sail through the North-West Passage and carry out magnetic observations. The expedition was led by Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), his second in command Captain Rawdon Moira Crozier (1796-1848) in HMS Terror, and Commander James Fitzjames in HMS Erebus. The expedition sailed from the Thames on 19 May 1845 and it was last sighted off the coast of Greenland at the end of July the same year.

The two ships sailed some way up Wellington Channel before turning south and spending the 1845-46 winter at Beechey Island. In the spring, they sailed south down Peel Sound but were beset off the northernmost point of King William Island, trapped by the ice flow down the McClintock Channel. In the spring of 1847, a party travelled across the ice to Point Victory on shore and deposited a written record of their progress. They probably 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 same year.

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

Following the disappearance of the two ships, a series of search expeditions were sent out. Traces of the missing expedition’s first winter camp on Beechey Island were found in 1850 but its route in the years following remained a mystery. In 1854, Dr John Rae brought back Inuit stories that the expedition had perished somewhere to the west of the Back River. 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 archipelago before McClure. Most of the expedition’s documents remained missing and this encouraged some later searches such as that led by Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka of the US Army in 1878.

The majority of Rae’s finds were handed over to the Admiralty by the Hudson Bay Company. They were then given to Greenwich Hospital for display in the Painted Hall in 1854. Initially, the McClintock material was displayed at the Royal United Services Museum in Whitehall. Lady Franklin thought the catalogue ‘a vulgar catchpenny publication’. The collection was later moved to the Royal Naval Museum, Greenwich and material from the Hall and Schwatka expeditions was added. The relics were transferred to the National Maritime Museum when this opened in 1937. Other material has been added since this date, mainly from the Royal United Services Museum museum after it closed in 1963.