Sir John Franklin, Lincolnshire hero

Last week I got the sack! At my time of life too.  For the last five years I have been running a blog for a well known hotel in Woodhall Spa, England, now suddenly a victim of the Covid-19 crisis. So I have got my cards and the blog has been taken offline. Of the 381 posts published, one or two stories I think are worth re-publishing and updating here. Here’s an one such, originally posted in October 2014, slightly edited and updated today:

 

If you head out East from Lincoln toward the Lincolnshire coast and you get fed up with the main road, you might take the old road through Spilsby. And if you decide to take a break there, you may, as I did sometime after we settled in mid-Lincolnshire in 2001, come across the memorial in the main square commemorating the life and death of Spilsby born and Louth educated Sir John Franklin. On May 19 1845, Franklin’s exploration ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sailed out from the River Thames, with 128 officers and men, in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage.

Interesting enough in itself perhaps, but suddenly in the international news in 2014, when Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, announced that one of the two ships used for Sir John Franklin’s fatal attempt to find the Northwest Passage had been discovered, over 160 years since it was abandoned in the frozen wastes of the Canadian Arctic.

The motivation behind the search for the Northwest Passage was that, if it existed, it might provide a shortcut for trading ships between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. It cost Sir John and his crew their lives, as they were never seen again alive.

 

 

Search parties hunted for the crew until 1859, but no sign of either ship was discovered until now. A few clues have emerged over the years, including the alleged discovery in the 1980’s of the bodies of three crewmen.

In the absence of facts, the disappearance of the Naval expeditionary force has attracted plenty of speculation, including the inevitable claim that the sailors resorted to cannibalism after the ships became ice-bound in the Victoria Strait in the Arctic territory of Nunavut.

The 2014 discovery was the first outcome of a determined attempt to solve the mystery, started in 2008. On August 1st Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris described that year’s Franklin Expedition search, including the tools and technology that would be used, the extent of the search and what finding the lost ships could mean for Canada:

 

Franklin’s wife Lady Franklin is remembered above all for the search she organized from 1850 to 1857 for Sir John’s lost Arctic expedition, in which relics were found suggesting that Franklin had indeed achieved his aim of discovering a Northwest Passage. The efforts that had been made as a result of her own anxiety added enormously to geographical knowledge. It was said: ‘What the nation would not do, a woman did’. She died in England on 18 July 1875. There were no children.

The Franklin legend has also inspired musicians, notably in the many performances of the English traditional song Lady Franklin’s Lament, whose lyrics celebrate the ill-fated expedition. Here is a classic version from Pentangle:

 

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2020 update

Since the 2014 discovery, the search for the remains of the ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest passage has continued:

“Two years later, another team found the almost-pristine wreck of Terror, in deeper water to its companion’s northwest. And three years after that, the wreck sites’ first-ever visitors, passengers from the Adventure Canada-chartered ship Ocean Endeavour, watched as archeologists probed the Erebus for secrets. The immediate and ongoing hope was that the discovery of the wrecks would fill in the missing pieces and shine a light on what happened to the Franklin Expedition. But at first, it only deepened the mystery—the wrecks were in the wrong place.

In August 2019, remarkable video of HMS Terror showed a wreck that appeared to be frozen in time: intact cabins, an array of neatly-stowed artifacts, and closed drawers and cabinets. Perhaps behind those doors or in those drawers lies a crucial clue: a map, a letter, a journal. For almost 200 years, the fate of the Erebus and Terror has been a mystery; now, finally, maybe the ships themselves will help solve it. ” [Kieran Mulvaney, History]

 

Books:

Michael Palin: Erebus: The Story of a Ship 2018 [Amazon]

Gillian Hutchinson: Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found [Amazon]

Owen Beattie and John Geiger: Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition [Amazon]

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