Sir John Franklin
Discover all about this famous British explorer’s most daring expeditions and examine his varied life through his timeline
Sir John Franklin (1786–1847) was an officer in the Royal Navy and an Arctic explorer. He was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, and joined the navy as a teenager. Although he took part in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, he is best remembered for his expeditions to the Arctic. Throughout his career he made maps of over 3000 miles of the coastline of north Canada.
In total, Franklin made four journeys to the Arctic; three of them in search of the North-West Passage, the sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Two of these voyages were on foot and one was with the naval vessels the HMS Erebus and Terror.
1786 | John Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire
1800 | Franklin gained his first Royal Navy appointment on HMS Polyphemus as a teenager.
1805 | Franklin became the signals officer of HMS Bellerophon in the thick of the fighting at the Battle of Trafalgar. He survived without wounds but was left slightly deaf.
1818 | Franklin’s first sea expedition. Alongside Captain Buchan on board the Dorothea, Franklin took charge as lieutenant on the Trent in an attempt to reach the North Pole via the island of Spitsbergen, off northern Norway. By the end of the voyage, Franklin was commended for his enthusiasm and bravery; however his risk-taking approach caused concern. At one point the Trent was letting in water so badly from an unlocated leak that the crew had to spend nearly half their watch at the pump, many becoming sick through exhaustion.
1819-22 | Franklin's first overland expedition
1823 | After returning to England, Franklin married the poet Eleanor Anne Porden, but she died of tuberculosis in 1825. They had one daughter, Eleanor Isabella.
1825-27 | Franklin's second overland expedition
1828 | Franklin married Jane Griffin, a friend of his first wife. Jane, or Lady Franklin as she was later known by, was a strong supporter of her husband. Soon after their marriage, Franklin gained his knighthood. When his final North-West Passage expedition failed to return, Lady Franklin became a prominent public figure, writing letters and campaigning for funds to rescue her husband and his crew.
1829 | Franklin was knighted by George IV and in the same year received the first Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie of France.
1830-33 | Franklin commanded the HMS Rainbow during the final years of the Greek War of Independence.
1836 | Franklin was made lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Despite his efforts for reform and improvement, he suffered from colonial infighting and was replaced in his position after his colonial secretary complained to Lord Stanley about his own dismissal.
1845 | At 59 years old Franklin offered to lead an expedition to the Arctic to search for the North-West Passage. He had been retired from Arctic exploration for 20 years. HMS Erebus and HMS 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 men were ever seen again... alive.
1847Later search parties discovered that during the winter of 1846–47,Erebus andTerror had become trapped in thick ice and even when summer came they were unable to escape. A found document revealed that in June 1847, Franklin died.
The British Admiralty sent Franklin to map the north coast of America, reached by Samuel Hearne in 1771. His mission was to chart the coast east from the mouth of Coppermine River as far as the North-West corner of Hudson Bay. On 21 July 1819, 20 men started eastward in two canoes, tracking the coast and reaching Turnagain Point on Kent peninsula. With supplies running low, Franklin decided to end the voyage. The canoes had not fared well, preventing a return by water, and so the expedition headed inland.
The expedition splits
The journey quickly deteriorated into a horrific ordeal. The expedition split into three sections. One, led by George Back went in search of a group of Native Americans who had previously supplied the party with food. Robert Hood, a mapmaker, was too weak to continue and two other expedition members, John Hepburn and John Richardson, stayed with him. Franklin led a third group on towards Fort Enterprise, where he hoped to find supplies. This forward party soon split up. Four men, finding it too difficult to continue, opted to return and join Hood, Hepburn and Richardson, but only one of them arrived, Michel Teroahauté.
It is reported that Teroahauté arrived bearing fresh meat, which Richardson concluded was the flesh of Teroahauté’s lost companions. One day, when Teroahauté was left alone with Hood, a shot was heard. Hood was found with a bullet in his head. Teroahauté claimed Hood had committed suicide but Richardson, thinking Teroahauté a cannibalistic murderer, did not believe him. With Hood dead, the three remaining men headed for Fort Enterprise, with Richardson ever fearful that Teroahauté would murder them and eat their corpses. To stop this from happening, he shot Teroahauté.
A British hero
Richardson and Hepburn reached Fort Enterprise in late October, finding Franklin and three other members of the expedition on the brink of death. They had found no provisions and were surviving on a broth of old deerskins, bones, and lichen. Franklin’s account of the expedition also famously recounted the party eating their leather shoes. Salvation came when George Back arrived with the Native Americans and the food he had set out to find. Of the 20 men who formed the expedition, 11 had died.
The voyage had been ill planned and poorly executed, but Franklin had shown extraordinary fortitude in the face of adversity. He became a British hero and set about planning a return to the North American arctic. Even the illness of his wife of two years could not prevent him from a return to Arctic in 1825. She died while he was away.
Franklin and Richardson’s second expedition was more successful. This time the party reached the North American coast at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, splitting into two. Franklin was to head west to meet Captain Beechey, in command of HMS Blossom, who had been ordered to reach Icy Cape. Meanwhile Richardson headed east, arriving at the mouth of the Coppermine River.
Poor conditions meant Franklin failed to reach the Blossom. Nevertheless, the expedition was heralded as a tour de force of Arctic exploration. Between them, Franklin and Richardson had not only charted over 1000 miles of the North American coast but also collected information on geology and weather, as well as making notes on 663 plants.
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.
The wrecks of the HMS Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, shedding new light on the much-debated fate of Franklin's final expedition. But will we ever know the full story?
When her husband went missing Jane Franklin studied the Arctic from afar, becoming an armchair expert in its geography and becoming the first woman to be awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal. Dr Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Curator, tells the story of how Lady Franklin influenced both the search for husband and how he is remembered today.