I suppose there are few men past middle age who have not the scenes and incidents of certain days of their lives deeply and vividly impressed on their memories.

It is to such a day in my own mental records that I am now carried back as I read of the recent discoveries of the last sad Franklin relics. It is to the day on which we discovered the first traces of the ill-fated ships and their crews – ere yet we had come to talk of “relics”, ere yet the least sanguine had lost hope. And albeit it is but an old tale re-told, I can tell it with undimmed memory, for as I put down the paper I have just been reading, and with closed eyes sadly allow each clearly cut outline, each unblurred detail to display itself to my mental vision, I forget that I have to bridge over 30 years and three months to do so; I forget that most of the eager faces I see so plainly about me have long been dust; I forget that nearly all of the well known voices I hear so distinctly have long been stilled in the grave.

I write now of what I saw, and what I did and felt on that day with as little stretch of memory as when I sat down the same evening to enter it all in my journal. Much writing in journals and filling-in of log-books was done that night. There are but few who may read these lines that can recollect or realise the intense interest with which everything connected with the name of Franklin at that time excited. Five years and six months had then elapsed since they had sailed from Greenhythe on the 15th of May, 1845. Alas six times five years have now run into the past, and still all we hear of is – relics. Sir John Ross that night, in his close little cabin in the Felix, recorded many marvellous things. Kane, in the Advance, was indicting all that his bright, observant eye had seen. Sherrard Osborne that night must have filled sundry folios of that huge, ponderous bank-ledger-looking tome – an awe-inspiring volume it was, which used to make us wonder at the man who could have the courage to contemplate the idea of ever living to cover its wide-spreading pages with closely, neatly written MS.

The day previous to that of our memorable landing at Beechy Island (which had been appointed a place of rendezvous by the different commanders), we had crossed the mouth of Wellington Channel and stood some ten miles to the westward. Here Captain Penny, of the Lady Franklin brig, examined a bay with the view of making it his winter quarters. Captain Ommany had also before this examined the bay with the same view, and named it Assistance Harbour, though, as it turned out, only Penny’s two brigs and Sir John Ross’s little Felix ultimately wintered in this place. Here a party, of which I was one, was landed to examine the coast thence to Cape Hotham, on the western side of the mouth of Wellington Channel, whilst the vessels put about and ran back under easy sail to Beechy Island, where they made fast for the night to the “land ice”.

During our walk that day, and close examination of the beach, we found various undoubted proofs that parties from the Erebus and Terror had been here before us, but still nothing of any importance. At one place, which I recollect looked as if it had been camped at for some time, I picked up a nondescript sort of apparatus made of hoop iron, something between a long grappling iron and a naturalist’s dredge. Many conjectures were formed at the time as to what this had been used for. During the whole day’s march a bright look-out was kept for cairns, which we expected to find papers left by the Erebus and Terror, but we did not fall across anything of the kind.

I may as well say something here on this subject. All the Arctic ships, from Franklin’s downwards, were supplied by the Admiralty with printed forms in four different languages, with blanks left wherein to insert all the necessary information for assisting search parties to follow them up with relief. The omission of Sir John Franklin to leave any of these papers was always unaccountable.

My own idea was, and is, that at this time they were buoyed up with full confidence in the ultimate quick success of their voyage. Sir James Ross – and I mention it with all to the memory of the great Antarctic voyager – was buoyed up with the same false hope, which may account for his want of success in yielding succour to those he was in search of during his voyage of 1848-9. Sir James always asserted, and believed, during his stay at Port Leopold, that Sir John Franklin was at that time safe in Pall Mall.

If my memory serves me aright on this point, the first of these papers ever found was that got long years afterwards by M’Clintock, in which was mentioned the death of Sir John Franklin, in 1847. The brave and gentle old man, who had already undergone such unparalleled sufferings in the most inhospitable portions of God’s globe – the tender hearted hero, who, as the Indian wonderingly said, was too merciful to kill a mosquito died at last, like Livingstone, in harness and on the field of his labours. But, mercifully, as we know now, spared the harrowing scenes through which the last survivors of his ill-fated crews had to pass.

We returned on board that night in a hopeful mood, for, although we found nothing of importance, yet we knew that we had struck the trail, that the scent was strong, and that we were in a fair way of soon gaining more explicit tidings of the lost voyagers.

I was the first to start early next morning for the shore, accompanied by John Stuart (the late Dr. John Stuart, of Sandhurst), Petersen, the Esquimaux interpreter, and Alexander Thompson, a seaman. Proceeding across the land ice, we could see on our right front to the eastward the precipitous lime stone cliffs and the flat table-top of Beechy Island; to the left, and stretching westward, the long, gradually sloping and descending gravel spit nearly reaching the opposite cliffs, which there trending northwards, rounded into Wellington Channel.

Our little party made for the lowest or western end of the spit. Where we struck it it rose rather abruptly from the ice, about 10ft, but before we had put foot upon the shingle the quick eye of Petersen had seen something, and his shrill cry in broken English of “Caneesterres! Caneesterres!” made our hearts beat faster with the knowledge that the scent was again breast high. I can hear Petersen’s cry, and his next more stirring exclamation ringing in my ear at this moment. Quickly breasting the loose and shifting shingle, we saw before us a neatly-built pyramidal cairn of canisters or meat tins, about 9ft high, a little broken at the corners by the bears or from other causes, but still evidently carefully constructed. I will have more to say of these meat tins and their contents before I conclude, for I cannot here interrupt the action of my narrative, and for the same reason can only afford to take a quick glance at the land-locked bay before us, ice-covered, and cliff-surrounded on all sides save where the spit ran down to where we stood. 

Our excitement was at fever beat, for scarce a second elapsed between Petersen’s first exclamation and his next more startling cry of “Mans! mans!” his Scandinavian features all aglow, and his blue eyes almost starting from their sockets. Almost at the instant of his utterance I had descried three dark objects about a mile off, where the spit merged into the talus at the foot of the cliffs of the northern side of Beechy Island. God! Can I ever forget the strange feelings of that half-hour of half hope – the deep excitement with which I started off at headlong speed towards these dark objects, all too willing to be cheated by the thought that the Dane’s vision was quicker than mine, and that they were, indeed, men? I recollect dashing down my gun ere I had gone many yards; I recollect tearing madly at the strap of my telescope (a rare Dollond, the gift of ever good and kind Lady Franklin), and of recklessly casting it on the stones. Ammunition belts and pouches were cast aside. I recollect slackening pace for a second or two to get rid of my heavy pea coat and sealskin cap until I could speed more freely along, with the panting Petersen well behind, whose wind had not been improved by years of semi-Esquimaux habits. I recollect noting as I sped along the thousand articles with which the beach was bestrewn, pieces of rope, fragments of timber, scraps of iron, but I did not pause, though I remember me well of gasping out to myself the word – wrecked.

I recollect that soon after starting I became satisfied that the objects towards which we were so anxiously pressing could not be men, I recollect that my next idea was that they were huts, and deluding myself into the fond fancy that a filmy smoke rose from one or all of them. I recollect how soon this idea also proved a mockery, and that as I quickly, stride by stride, drew closer and still closer to the dark objects, the ghastly truth dawned upon me that it was three graves that I at last stood beside. 

Three heavy slabs of wood shaped like humble headstones, painted black, their backs to me, and on the other side the low, oblong-rounded mounds, underneath which three at least of those we were in search of were peacefully lying. How well do I remember the pause I made, when the still, quiet desolation of all around me was unbroken, save by the quickly-advancing steps of Petersen crunching over the gravel, the loud beating of my heart and quick-drawn breathing, ere I could gather courage to advance and read the inscriptions that I rightly guessed would appear on the other side of the headboards. I dreaded seeing the name of one near and dear to me who had sailed in the Erebus. After the names, my next glance was at the dates: from these I could judge that in this bay the Erebus and Terror had lain during the winter of 1845-6.

Meanwhile my friend Stuart, more cool and less impulsive than myself and the Dane, had paused beside the cairn of tins, and, after looking about him, had sent off Thompson to the ships with the news that important traces had been found. He hurried on board, big with the intelligence he bore, and strange, I believe, were the yarns he had to tell of what had been found on shore. Various parties had been forming to land at different places of the adjacent coast that day, but soon all interest was centred about Beechy Island. At this time only the Assistance, Captain Ommany, and her steam tender. Captain Penny’s two brigs, and Sir John Ross’s little Felix, were lying at the land ice. Lieutenants Du Haven and Griffiths, with the American brigs the Advance and the Rescue, were working in from the offing; and Captain Austin, with the Resolute and her tender, were coming down from the westward from Griffith’s Island. Soon after mid-day all nine sail were at Beechy Island.

It was early in the morning of a grey and murky day of late autumn, with the shadows of quickly-coming winter overhanging it, that I and my companions first broke upon the solitude which had been undisturbed since their shipmates had left the occupants of the three graves lying there in the summer of 1846. Until my own had rested on them, no sympathising eye had looked upon or read those simple, touching inscriptions so deeply carved in the wood. The echoes from the grey cliffs overhanging them had been silent for four long winters and short summers; nor had the impress of any human foot been left on the long grey beach selvedging the blue-white of the ice in the bay.

By the time the excitement raised by our too fleeting hopes had calmed down, many other eager comrades had trooped ashore and hurried over the spit to view the spot where those we were all in search of had spent the first winter of their voyage. Allow me, gentle reader, to introduce some of these to you, and believe me, I pray you, when I say that there are few indeed, from the commanders down to the youngest and humblest among them, who are unworthy of your notice. And judge me not guilty of self-praise if I write thus. Think me not egotistical because the first person singular so often meets your eye in this, my present narration. Looking back through the long-intervening past, I feel as if I have only been an outside spectator of all I narrate. It is with the most unalloyed pleasure that I can now think of the many noble traits I could then discern in those around me – the utter abnegation of self shown by all; the generous emulation of each to do his best to lighten the tedium of the long winter; the steady march forward of officer and man, shoulder to shoulder, in the path of duty; the praiseworthy conduct of the latter, when the wise judiciousness of the former quietly relaxed the usual strict discipline of the service; the gentle charity with which the foibles of some were received or the little failings of others were cloaked; the determination to make light of all risks and all hardships; the feeling of genuine camaraderie which actuated everyone – was not all this daily to be seen, hourly to be witnessed ? But I must restrain myself and do as I promised a short while back – introduce the reader to some of the groups who are now examining with such evident interest every nook and cranny of Beechy Island, and every bend of the shores of Erebus and Terror Bay.

Here, coming towards us, is the father of modern Arctic explorers. His step is heavy and dragging, for he bears the heavy burden of seventy and odd years, and Trafalgar wounds, which are to trouble him not a little this coming winter. It is Captain Sir John Ross, but two months hence we will hail him admiral by seniority. He is accompanied and assisted by his trusty henchman and ice master, Tom Abernethy. It is not the first time they have together looked upon such scenes as this, for four long years of their lives have ere this been spent within the Arctic circle in their memorable voyage in the Victory, when the younger Ross (Sir James C.) discovered the magnetic pole. I am sorely tempted to give some of the many memories floating before me of Sir John and his racy yarns of old, old times – sorely tempted to take the reader with me into winter quarters, and on board the little Felix, where he could listen to them for hours unwearied, notwithstanding the rather uncomfortable feeling that he was only then realising the meaning of the oft-used words “cabined, cribbed, confined.” 

Inseparably connected with this scene are my pleasant memories of Sir John’s only messmate and companion of his voyage, Commander Philip, a true specimen of the British naval officer of the days prior to steam. Ah! here are a couple of youngsters approaching. Mark the tallest of the two, with just the first signs of a coming beard on his face, to be known in after years in his, manhood’s prime in every post-town of Victoria as well as in Melbourne. I know that hundreds will join with me in the most I kindly remembrances of my late friend Captain Bance, of the Victorian Post-office. His companion, younger, slighter, and still more boyish-looking, has in that well-formed head of his strange stores of out-of-the-way knowledge-historical, philological, ethnological. Eighteen months hence a very clever and graphically-written brochure entitled Franklin’s Footsteps will be published by Clement Markham. The two coming next are Brown and M’Dougall, good fellows both; deft draughtsmen cunning of hand with brush and pencil, as the Illustrated Arctic News will prove when they begin to issue it in winter quarters. Ackerman’s window in the Strand will yet show specimens of their talent, and the Diorama of the Arctic Regions in Leicester square will owe its success to their handiwork.

Tall and handsome, of most winning Saxon aspect, next comes Meacham, followed by big, bluff, burly John Bertie Cator, loud of voice, free and frank, with features more apt to smile than frown. This tall man, with marked features, can you not fancy him heading a party of boarders – if you have been a student of Marryat in your younger days, can you not at once say he is a first lieutenant? Quick, I hope, were thy steps up the ladder of promotion, as they well deserved to be, Robert Aldridge. Another of the same rank appears – a smaller man, almost verging on under-size, yet his frame is one of whalebone and steel; a determined face, yet wearing a kindly smile as you greet him. He has already made a name in Arctic annals, but he is destined hereafter to stand in the very front rank of the roll of Arctic heroes. I need only write his name – Leopold M’Clintock. The last kindly pressure of his hand in Sackville-street, as well as our first meeting, when he so thoughtfully brought me some news that he knew would be gratifying, have they not both a fragrant freshness in my memory. My fast-accumulating slips of copy warn me that I am transgressing all bounds. I am, therefore, perforce obliged to omit many others, all of whom have such pleasant places in my memory. Captain Horatio Austin (Nelson’s godson), with all his estimable, loveable characteristics; his second in command, Captain Erasmus Ommany, no less so; Penny, sailor staunch and whaler bold, few could handle ship among ice like him; old Donald Manson; and all the other fine fellows who were with him, full of whaling yarns and Melville Bay perils – all with tongues smacking of Aberdeen and Peterhead.

Beechy Island had been traversed from end to end, every nook and corner examined by many keen and anxious searchers, but not a scrap of writing or despatch from Franklin had been found. The trail was lost, the searchers utterly at fault. Or, rather, I should say, we were like a band of travellers who had come to cross roads where there stood no friendly finger-post to guide us on our way.

By the last San Francisco mail, there came a telegram dated London, 23rd October, in which is stated that Commander Cheyne has stated “his belief that Sir John Franklin and the members of his expedition were murdered by the contractor who filled the tins labelled ‘beef’ with bone and offal.” I can corroborate this statement of Commander Cheyne’s with the most perfect confidence; though I cannot help thinking that his denunciation of the contractor comes rather late in the day.

I have mentioned above a certain pyramidical cairn of meat tins or canisters that I and my party found on first landing in Beechy Island, and as then promised I now return to it with special reference to Commander Cheyne’s statement. This cairn or pile of meat tins was carefully taken down, in the expectation of finding in it or under it despatches from Sir John Franklin, but unfortunately without success: but what was found augured most dismally for the welfare of the missing ships. Two-thirds of these tins had evidently been condemned as unfit for human food. They contained not only great junks of bone, but the most disgusting offal. This discovery had a most depressing effect on even the most sanguine members of the different search parties. On our return in 1851, I knew the matter had begun to be inquired into. The contract was annulled, and the contractor, I believe, absconded, forfeiting a heavy sum of bond money. This most unmitigated scoundrel was said to be a Polish Jew. Though his name long lingered in my memory, I cannot now recall it. He had his meat-preserving establishment at Galatz, at the mouth of the Danube. When the preserved meat in store at the different dockyards came to be examined, only a very small proportion of it was found to be at all fit for human food. This was given to the poor, the remainder was taken out to sea and sunk.

We may judge from all this of what the state of matters must have been in the Erebus and Terror even in 1847, at the date of Sir John’s death.

Originally published in The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.: 1864 – 1946), Saturday 25 December 1880, page 7.