In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin and his two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without trace in the Arctic waters of Northern Canada. The search to find the ships lasted over 160 years and the mystery has inspired books, plays, film and television. This exhibition tells Franklin's story through the letters, diaries and papers of his wife and daughter.
Sir John Franklin was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, in 1786. As a young midshipman, he served at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where according to his senior officer "he performed his duties as signal midshipman with very conspicuous zeal and ability". He later made two overland expeditions to map the Arctic regions of Northern Canada. In 1825, during the second of these, his wife, the poet Eleanor Porden, died. They had been married for less than two years and had one daughter, also called Eleanor.
Jane, Lady Franklin was Sir John's second wife. Born Jane Griffin, she married Franklin in 1828 when she was 36. Lady Franklin became one of the most travelled ladies in Victorian England and had a strong, independent personality. Her grandson, Philip Lyttelton Gell, described her as an intelligent woman who had "an incessant restlessness and Spartan indifference to hardship and discomfort" and who "possessed the explorer's talent, she knew where she wanted to get to and she got there."
Eleanor Isabella Franklin was just a few months old when her mother died in 1825. Lady Franklin, who became her stepmother three years later, was, according to Eleanor’s son, not keen on young children and Eleanor spent much of her early life with her father's sister, Isabella Cracroft, and her family. Franklin was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) when Eleanor was 13, and the family travelled to Tasmania together. There she met her future husband the Reverend John Philip Gell. No known pictures survive of Eleanor.
Sir John's first Canadian arctic expedition in 1819 was overland and he mapped about 550 miles of coastland. It ended in disaster with the death of eleven men, mostly through starvation. Despite this, he returned to England to great acclaim, wrote a best-selling book Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea and became known as ‘the man who ate his boots'. He was 59 when he embarked on his last voyage to the Arctic in 1845. Many thought him too old for such a command but in a letter dated July 1845, his second-in-command on the Erebus, Captain Fitzjames, describes Franklin as "full of life and energy - with good judgement and capital memory - one of the best I know."
Lady Franklin commissioned daguerreotype photographs of the twelve senior officers of HMS Erebus and Captain Crozier of HMS Terror.
They were taken on board the Erebus at the dockside in Greenhithe on 16 May 1845, just before the ships sailed. Franklin was fascinated by this new technology and included photographic apparatus as part of the expedition's equipment.
This last portrait of Sir John Franklin was taken whilst he was unwell with a heavy cold.
Lieutenant James Fairholme, an officer on Erebus, wrote about their departure:
"All well with the expedition + very comfortable. Lady Franklin has given us amongst other presents, a capital monkey, which with old Neptune, a Newfoundland dog and one cat is all the pets allowed. At present Saturday night seems to be kept up in true nautical form around my cabin, a fiddle going as hard as it can + 2 or 3 different songs from the forecastle. In short all seems quite happy..."
The last letters sent by the crew were written on Whale Fish Islands off Greenland in July 1845. In a letter to his friend Dr Richardson, a fellow arctic explorer, Franklin describes life aboard ship, the ‘Esquimaux’ (Inuit) they meet and their final preparations for departure.
"My dear Richardson, You will be glad to know that we made our passage to this place in good time. We anchored early on the morning of the 4th and have got the transport alongside and begin very soon to unload her... however there is some doubt as to whether the ships, the Terror in particular, will take all she has brought for us without being too deep in the water...Crozier and I are resolved to carry all the provisions we feel we can."
In one of Sir John's last letters to his wife he entreated her not to be anxious if they didn't return quickly.
"I begin the month in your service:...Let me entreat you and Eleanor not to be too anxious, for it is very possible our prospects of success and the health of the officers and crew might justify our passing a second winter in these regions."
As it was a well provisioned expedition, people were sure that the ships and men would be found safely. Sir George Back who had accompanied John Franklin on both his 1820s expeditions and had captained the Terror on a previous Arctic expedition, responded to what turned out to be a false sighting of the ships in a calling card he left for Lady Franklin.
"I have waited 1/2 an hour and only brought the chart to shew you where I think the ships are. It is joyful news and if the ice break up about Augt or even Sept we may expect the ship home this season. GB"
Lady Franklin threw herself into petitioning for search expeditions to be sent out. After a wave of publicity, the Admiralty finally commissioned search expeditions, one of which included Antarctic explorer James Clark Ross, who had originally turned down the opportunity to command the expedition taken on by Franklin. The government also issued reward notices offering a sum of £20,000 to anyone finding the ships and £10,000 for information.
Along with Ross's expedition, Eleanor sent her father a long letter and a hymn book with the inscription "To my dear father from your very affectionate daughter Eleanor Isabella Franklin".
Ross' ships were frozen in at Port Leopold in what is now Nunavut, Canada. When Ross returned after his unsuccessful search, he brought back the letter and gift in its original wrapper. It is marked "returned from Arctic regions".
Knowing that the whaling ships were reluctant to lose profits by searching for the expedition, Lady Franklin offered them first £2000 and then later £3000 from her own funds if they would help with the search.
Lady Franklin also consulted several clairvoyants in the hope of getting news of her husband. Eleanor wrote an account of one clairvoyant’s vision.
"I went on again and came to a very cold place. He is not dead as you think. There are three more men with him. They have not been there long. They are trying to get out the way they came… They are working their way out and want to get to England - and they will get out too.… He has a skin all over him, which they made themselves before they got there. And no shoes. He looks to me as tho he had been a good looking man but much worn out."
(Reading by Frances Newbury)
Eleanor continued to write to her father. In a letter from 1849, she told him about Lady Franklin's efforts to search for the lost ships.
Mama has been very active in stirring up people to consider the necessity to search everywhere at once. It was mainly her actions and Sir Thomas Acland’s that a Reward was offered about the end of March of £20,000 to any ship or land party who find you.
Eleanor herself went to petition the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Francis Baring,
"though he listened very kindly and patiently, I fear the board will not consent - they say it is not the money that they grudge but the risk of life."
Lady Franklin was inexhaustible in her lobbying and fundraising, writing to the Czar of Russia and the American President. With American support, her mission became something of an international crusade.
In Hobart, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), where Sir John had been a popular Lieutenant Governor, they too responded to the rallying cry, raising over £1000 with a ‘dramatic performance at the theatre’.
Not everyone approved of Lady Franklin’s behaviour. Marianne Simpkinson, Eleanor's cousin, feared that her aunt’s tactics would hinder the search efforts.
"I am afraid my aunt will do a great deal of mischief, her violence and... her strange way of viewing everything make it very likely to frustrate any attempt that may be made to send another ship."
She went further in a letter dated 1850 complaining to Eleanor that Lady Franklin and her companion Sophy "are making great fools of themselves in the eyes of the world."
This photograph was probably taken in the early 1850s and shows the three wooden grave markers.
When Captain Austin’s expedition returned to England they were unable to go back to Greenland to return their Inuit guide Qalasirssuaq, so he came back to England with them. Eleanor befriended him and was his godmother when he was christened Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua. He sent her this drawing of polar bears.
By 1852 Eleanor had lost hope. She wrote to some of the families of the crew and received this reply from Eliza Peddie, wife of HMS Terror’s surgeon, John Smart Peddie.
"I quite agree with you that none of the officers are now living...They must have undergone such as we cannot contemplate without a shudder… I think like you that there is little chance of further intelligence of the missing ships...I intend to put on mourning."
Of Sir John she said: "he was more like a father than a supreme commanding officer to those who were serving under him. He was consequently mighty beloved by them all."
In 1854, experienced arctic explorer John Rae led an expedition to find Franklin. He came back with definite but unwelcome news: the Inuit had sighted groups of 'kabloonas' (white men), travelling southwards and had found the bodies of about thirty men. There was evidence that some of the party had resorted to cannibalism for survival.
As proof, the Inuit had shown Rae silverware, plates, watches and even a medal belonging to Sir John Franklin, all of which Rae brought back with him.
The public were horrified at the news, particularly the suggestion of cannibalism. Many refused to believe that men of the Royal Navy would resort to that “dread alternative”. Lady Franklin was particularly outraged and fiercely rejected the idea that the men were anything other than heroes. Charles Dickens wrote articles in his magazine 'Household Words' suggesting that the party had instead been murdered by the Inuit themselves.
In 1854, the Admiralty made the painful announcement that, since no further information about the missing ships had been forthcoming, the expedition must be regarded as lost. The men would no longer considered as part of the Royal Navy from 31 March 1854.
Lady Franklin protested strenuously and publicly over the decision, refused to wear mourning and continued funding private search expeditions.
(Reading by Frances Newbury)
In 1857, Lady Franklin raised subscriptions for her 'final search'. The subscription list included many notable people such as Charles Babbage, 'father of the programmable computer' and Sir Francis Beaufort, inventory of the Beaufort scale.
She asked Captain McClintock to undertake the 1857 expedition on the ‘Fox’, a yacht that she bought for the purpose. Over the ten years between 1847 and 1857 there were twenty-three official expeditions to search for the missing ships.
When McClintock returned in 1859, Lady Franklin had to finally accept that her husband was dead. His expedition found more relics and a boat containing two skeletons. On King William Island they discovered the ‘Victory Point note’. Originally left in May 1847, the note said: "HMS Ships Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice...Having wintered in 1846-1847 at Beechey Island... Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well."
A later addition, however, stated: "HM Ships Terror and Erebus were deserted on 22 April 1847,…having been beset since 12 September 1846....Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to date 9 officers and 15 men... start tomorrow 26th for Backs Fish River."
Captain McClintock was deeply respectful towards Sir John Franklin. He credited Franklin with completing the Northwest Passage, although it was Robert M'Clure who claimed to be the first to do so in the early 1850s.
Lady Franklin jealously guarded his reputation. Even after her husband's death had been confirmed she continued to fund expeditions to try to find the records of the expedition which she expected would confirm his status as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage.
When the obituary of Robert M'Clure in 1873 stated that he had first navigated the Northwest Passage, Lady Franklin immediately contradicted the claim.
Eleanor's son, Henry Willingham Gell, wrote of an encounter with Lady Franklin over Robert M'Clure's obituary.
"My Dear Philip, I have been most frightfully and horridly sold... Grandmama was greatly indignant. She told me the whole story weeping away like any fountain, telling me that I ought to write, and that you ought to write and everybody else ought to write to the Times and correct them...I was immediately presented with a piece of paper on which she had completed a letter that I was to write. I had nothing for it but to write the letter...Imagine my disgust when on opening the Times when I came home this afternoon the first thing I saw was my name in large print. I never seemed such a fool in my life before."
Eleanor died in 1860 at the age of 36, a year after the news of her father's death.
Lady Franklin's search for her husband was commemorated at the time in the ballad 'Lord Franklin' or 'Lady Franklin's Lament'. She has since inspired authors and dramatists with her story.
The geographical discoveries that resulted from the expeditions she funded led to the Royal Geographical Society awarding her the Founders Gold Medal for exploration. She continued to campaign and travel widely until her own death in 1875 at the age of 83.
Story and Audio
'Handsome Molly' (trad) instrumental and vocals by Mark Psmith
'Lady Franklin's Lament' (trad) instrumental and vocals by Ewan D. Rodgers and Clare Mosley
This exhibition was created with the help of Archives Revealed, who funded the cataloguing of the Franklin material at Derbyshire Record Office, and the University of Derby Public History and Heritage MA programme.