John Franklin: Death in the Archives

We delve into the Archives to look at material from the doomed Arctic Expedition led by John Franklin and ask, what really happened to Franklin and his men...

In May 1845 two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror sailed from Britain to what is now Nunavut in Northern Canada. The ships were under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin and he with 23 officers and 105 men were on a mission to find the North West passage, a sea route that would link  the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Sir John Franklin - Expedition - National Maritime Museum Sir John Franklin by Daniel Pound.ID: PAD3559


Both ships were spotted entering Baffin Bay in August 1845 but that was the last that was seen of them.  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.

'They forged the last links with their lives' by William Smith, 1895.ID: BHC1273


In 1859 Francis L. McClintock successfully recovered bodies and artefacts related to Franklin expedition. 135 miles from the last-known location of the ships, McClintock found a skeleton face-down in the ice. Beside the remains of this ill-starred man was found was a sixpence dated 1831, a half sovereign dated 1844, a pocket comb containing light brown hairs a small clothes brush and more significantly a pocket book containing loose papers.  The pose of the skeleton supported what an Inuit woman had told McClintock about the fate of the men - "they fell down and died as they walked along".

John Franklin - National Maritime Museum Clothes brush discovered by McClintock's expedition 1857-59ID: AAA2113


Before the discovery of HMS Erebus in 2014, these papers were to be the only personal papers recovered from the Franklin Expedition. What do they tell us, and who did they belong to?  You can find out more at our new exhibition: Death in the ice: the shocking story of Franklin's final expedition. Details below.

John Franklin Expedition - Papers - National Maritime Museum Papers recovered from the Franklin ExpeditionID: AAA2114

Death in the ice - Franklin exhibition opens 14 July 2017

Franklin death in the ice season promo imaage

Discover the shocking story of Franklin’s final expedition at the National Maritime Museum’s major new exhibition exploring this unsolved mystery.

In 2014, the wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered off the coast of Canada, followed by the discovery of HMS Terror in 2016.

As Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team starts to bring to light the ships and their contents, Death in the ice will see some of their discoveries – including personal items, clothing and components of the ships – displayed in Britain for the first time.