Lost Arctic heroes located in Kensal Green Cemetery

Photo: Alison Freebairn Editing: Logan Zachary

Picture a Victorian graveyard, and you’re probably picturing something like this. It’s ornate, melodramatic, well-manicured, and photogenic. Large swathes of Kensal Green Cemetery are like this. But important parts of it aren’t.

Logan and I had devoted a couple of days to hunting down Arctic heroes in this graveyard. We’d had a run of good fortune, and then we hit a brick wall.

Or, rather, we hit a wall of earth with a brick on top of it.

At first, we just stared at it. And then Logan said: “At least he’s well-insulated. He would appreciate that.”


Somewhere under that huge mound of overgrown earth lay the mortal remains of the engineer John Sylvester (1798-1852).

He invented the Sylvester Stoves system that heated the Discovery ships.

Without Sylvester, all the famous Polar explorers in Kensal Green Cemetery would have struggled to stay warm in London, let alone Lancaster Sound. And overwintering? Without Sylvester, this would have been an impossibility.


When Sylvester died in 1852, one obituary noted: “He was very successful in the arrangement of the apparatus, for preserving an equable and temperate atmosphere, on board the Arctic Discovery Ships, and Captains Parry, Ross, and others, ascribe the health of the crews, in a great degree, to the excellence of the system he prescribed.”

And now we’re losing him. He is buried twice over, just like Lieutenant Bedford Pim further along the canal wall.  With Pim, we were at least able to find some promising markers, and clear off enough undergrowth to expose a couple of feet of stonework.


But Sylvester is in far worse shape. The mound is taller and much wider. We spent some time trying to find the edges of anything that could have been a headstone, or a sarcophagus, but it was a hopeless task for hands alone.

Sylvester was described as “a man of original views and great determination, which frequently led him to do more than was required, or was calculated for his own interest, and a novel application, or an unforeseen difficulty to be overcome, had charms for him, to which the greatest ordinary success appeared tame.”

With an approach like this in life, maybe he’d appreciate becoming an unforeseen difficulty so many decades after his death.

Maybe he’d appreciate being a problem for curious Franklin researchers to solve.

Leave a note in the cairn