At 10am on Thursday 15 August 2019, I walked into The National Archives in Kew, London, to look for some missing journals. I didn’t find them. What I did find was the Beechey Papers, a collection of Franklin relics that were assumed to be lost.
I was astonished to find scraps of journals, newspapers and other fragments of printed and hand-written materials that were clearly marked as having been picked up where the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had spent the winter of 1845-1846.
There are scraps with James Fitzjames’ writing on them: a couple are calculations; one seems to be from a meteorological journal. And there’s a scrap with “Mr M’Donald” written on it in pencil. This completely floored me and I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.
William Penny, Robert Anstruther Goodsir, Carl Petersen, Alexander Stewart, Horatio Austin and others collected these relics on Beechey Island and surrounding areas in August 1850, during a drama-filled Franklin search season.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
I thought these papers were lost. But here they were, sitting in ADM 7/190. They’d been there since John Barrow Junior pasted them into the book, probably in late 1851 or early 1852, after the Arctic Committee hearings were concluded.
Now obviously Stuff Like This is not supposed to happen, particularly not to amateur researchers like me.
So Logan Zachary and I spent days trying to work out if these were legit, and find out why nobody seemed to know they were in Kew. We pulled in some big brains from the Remembering the Franklin Expedition on Facebook, including Goodsir expert Allison Lane, and then I approached Russell Potter.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE BEECHEY PAPERS
I had seen references to these papers before, in Cyriax, Walpole/Potter, in papers related to William Penny, and most recently in Gillies Ross’ Hunters on the Track. But I had never seen a single image of them, and now I understood why.
I took a lot of photos on the day and in subsequent visits, which I shared with the research community. A couple of months later, Logan took some beautiful pro shots that are now hosted in high-resolution on his website, Illuminator.blog.
This was a lucky find, but it’s a reminder of the number one rule of Franklin Expedition research: always check the primary sources yourself. Don’t rely on what you read – or don’t read – in papers and books. Those footnotes are just finger-posts to follow, not the destination you need to reach.