05 Sep 2017

We know a lot about Sir John Franklin. By the time he led the expedition to the Arctic in 1845, he was a household name, a naval hero and one of the Navy’s leading magnetic scientists. But what of the other 128 men who died on this fatal expedition? What do we know about them? Jeremy Michell investigates the life of the ship's cook, John Diggle. 

John Diggle was the cook on board HMS Terror, one of the two ships lost in the Arctic during the expedition of 1845, led by Sir John Franklin and now the topic of the major exhibition Death in the ice, at the National Maritime Museum, until January 2018. 

Dear Son, I write these few lines…

On display in the exhibition is a two-page letter addressed to John Diggle by his parents Phoebe and John, dated 4 January 1848. In the letter his parents express their anxieties about his safety, based on speculation from the papers.

Letter to John Diggle cook on board HMS Terror from his parents

Open the full-size image of this letter

"…but our fears his [is] wee shall never see you again seeing the Account in the Newspaper how you have been situated what with been frozen inn and having that dreadful disorder Schervey [Scurvy]…" (sic)

As cook on board Terror, John’s role was to prepare and cook the food allocated to the men of each mess (a group of men who lived and ate together).  John would have dealt with some unusual foods specific to polar expeditions, such as cranberries, pickled walnuts, cabbage and onions, and preserved meats and vegetables in tins. He had access to carrots stored in sand, horseradish pickle, Normandy pippin apples, cases of preserved potatoes and finally things like mustard, pepper, chocolate, sugar and oatmeal.  Many of these additional items were to try to prevent scurvy.

Soup tin found in the Arctic, a remnant of Franklin's expedition

Picture: soup tin found in the Arctic, a remnant from the Franklin expedition. 

Becoming an explorer... and a father

Prior to the 1845 expedition, John had served on board HMS Confiance and HMS Telavara where he was involved in blockading the Dutch coast during the Dutch-Belgian war. 

On 2 August 1834, two months before he left England for the East Indies on the 18-gun ship sloop HMS Wolf, John Diggle married Mary Ann Johnson at Stoke Damerel in Devon. He didn’t return to England again until 1838.

Home for only a year, in 1839 he signed onto HMS Erebus for its voyage of exploration and science to Antarctica as an Able Seaman – being promoted to quartermaster at some point during the voyage. 

In 1840, while he was away in the Antarctic, his daughter Mary Ann Erebus Diggle was born. The 1841 Census records that mother and daughter remained with her parents in Stoke Damerel. The relationship between John and Mary Ann is unclear because his 1845 Allotment Declaration - where John allotted money from his pay - indicates that £2.4s was assigned to his mother rather than to his wife. 

The fateful voyage

After returning from the Antarctic in 1843 Diggle signed on as cook for HMS Terror for the new Arctic expedition to be led by Sir John Franklin. The Muster Book for Terror indicates that John was born in Westminster around 1809 and that he was 36 years old when he signed on for the Franklin expedition. 

Terror and Erebus set sail from Greenhithe in Kent on 19 May 1845. Neither John Diggle nor any of the other 128 crewmen would ever see their families and loved ones again.

"Your dear mother prays to Almighty God for your safe return..."

"...all join in love to you and hope to congratulate you on your safe return."

Most poignant for the Diggle family was the return of their 1848 letter in the post - eleven years later.  The redirected envelope was dated 5 October 1859 and stamped ‘Returned to the sender there having been no means of forwarding it’. Ten days earlier the search expedition ship Fox had returned with more evidence of the fate of the men and the only record to say what had happened. The Diggle family still had no real answers as to what had happened to John, and what they did hear was of no comfort to them at all.


Returned envelope of letter to John Diggle of the Franklin expedition These items along with others, many recovered from beneath the ice can be seen at the world-first exhibition, Death in the ice, which tells the shocking story of Franklin's final expedition to the Arctic.

Jeremy Michell, Curator, Polar Relics

Death in the ice

Objects from the recently discovered wreck of HMS Erebus together with other artefacts and curiosities will be on display, many for the first time, aiming to uncover the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew. Can the latest discoveries shed light on one of history's most enduring mysteries?

Save 20% when you buy tickets online