Through a land so wild: tracing the North-West Passage in Kensal Green Cemetery

Cemetery map.
Our new map of the North-West Passage graves in Kensal Green Cemetery. Please click for full resolution. Image: Logan Zachary/illuminator dot blog

If you want to pay your respects to the people who searched for a North-West Passage – or who organised or participated in efforts to find the Franklin Expedition – you should visit Kensal Green Cemetery in West London.

This cemetery guide is a collaboration with Logan Zachary of illuminator dot blog. Alison Freebairn wrote the biographies. The map, grave coordinates, and the vast majority of the original photography are Logan Zachary’s work.

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Robert Goodsir and the Franklin graves on Beechey Island

In December 1880, after reading about the discoveries made by Franklin searcher Lt. Frederick Schwatka, Robert Anstruther Goodsir wrote his Beechey Island memories down in an article for The Australasian newspaper.

He did so under a pseudonym – “An Arctic Man of Two Voyages”. He never once mentions the name of the beloved brother he was in search of: Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir, the assistant surgeon and naturalist on HMS Erebus.

Nevertheless, the text of the article matched up with fragments found by Allison Lane and myself, and known to have been part of a manuscript written by Robert.

I made this discovery in 2018, but I’m presenting an illustrated and annotated five-part version of it here for the first time. My notes draw in more details of 1850-51 expedition, put the events into context, and touch on many discoveries made in the years since Robert’s death in 1895. I hope you enjoy it.

Part one: Australia 1880

In his home in Gippsland, 57-year-old Robert Anstruther Goodsir thinks back “30 years and three months” to his second Arctic voyage in search of the Franklin Expedition.

An etching from the Illustrated London News, showing Erebus and Terror as they left England.

Part two: Humble headstones, painted black

In part two, Robert remembers the excitement and fear he felt when shipmate Carl Petersen spots three shapes in the distance. Could these be survivors of the Franklin Expedition?

Part three: Silent for four long winters

Three graves have been found, and now almost all of the 1850-51 search ships are at Beechey Island, desperately looking for clues that will unravel the mystery.

Part four: “Cabined, cribbed, confined

In part four, Robert introduces the reader to the many dashing heroes, old rogues and bright young stars who were on the search with him.

Part five: Unreliable memories

In the final part, the pain of losing his brother is clear, as is the stress of two very dangerous and ultimately unsuccessful Artic search expeditions. But is he remembering the details correctly?

Empty cans in the shape of a cross.

Hidden traces of Erasmus Ommanney

The first traces were easy enough to find. After all, Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommanney wasn’t lost.

He’s on findagrave.com. There is a photo! However, this photo doesn’t tell the full story of his last resting place.

Ommanney said something important here. And I don’t think anyone has heard it for many years.

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Finding HMS Investigator at the 1891 Royal Naval Exhibition

Investigator

The story of HMS Investigator was very nearly a tragedy on the scale of the Franklin Expedition it had been sent to find.

Were it not for Lieutenant Bedford Pim of HMS Resolute, more than 60 officers and men would probably have died, and the ship herself may never have been found.

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The Pointing Hand of King William Island

An image of two envelopes.
Copyright: The National Archives.

“[Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka had] also found a piece of paper with a pointing finger. When we remember the ‘direction posts’ of Beechey Island, we can see that such a pointing finger is a trademark of sorts for the crews of the Erebus and Terror.” – David C. Woodman, Unravelling The Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony.

The paper is ragged, but there is a faint but clear outline of a hand, with the finger pointing at something that only dead men could see.

It is a relic of the Franklin Expedition that was found by US Navy Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka in 1879, long years after everyone on the Franklin Expedition had died.

It’s not painted on wood and perched at the top of a boarding pike, like the finger-posts of Beechey Island.

It was carefully drawn on paper, with a pencil, and it was placed between the stones of a cairn built between Cape Felix and Wall Bay, on King William Island.

FRANKLIN RELICS

There was speculation that it had never left the Arctic, or that it had disintegrated on the journey south. But Schwatka brought the Pointing Hand safely back with him to the United States. From there, he sent it to the Admiralty in London in March 1881 alongside more than a hundred other Franklin relics.

And it still survives, today, nearly 140 years later.

I’ve seen it.

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The mystery of the missing Erebus clerk

The history of the Franklin Expedition is full of ghosts, but this particular story is a little different. HMS Erebus is being haunted by a man who never sailed on her. The ghost has a name: George Frederick Pinhorn.

You can only see him online, and in certain places, but he’s there: forever linked to a ship he never set foot on.

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