Easy money: the theft of Franklin relics in 1878

Nobody noticed the break-in at first. But when the cleaners came in to dust the room and they realised that some priceless relics were no longer in their display case, the museum staff went into a frenzy.

It was 23rd October 1878 at the Royal Naval Museum in Greenwich, and some of the Franklin relics were missing.

For Vice Admiral Charles F.A. Shadwell KCB, who had only just taken over as President of the Royal Naval College and its associated treasures, this was a nightmare.

Sir Charles had until very recently served as Commander in Chief of the China Station, a post he had inherited on the retirement of Franklin searcher Sir Henry Kellett in 1871.


And now he had to tell the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that there had been a break-in on his watch.

On 24th October, he wrote: “I regret to have to report that a case of theft has occurred in the Royal Naval Museum, the case containing the Franklin relics having been broken open, and two sovereigns, two half crowns and four shilling pieces having been abstracted.”

The matter, he said, had been placed in the hands of the police and a full investigation was underway.

But Sir Charles was back in touch with bad news only four days later. His internal inquiry had gone nowhere, and the police couldn’t help, “owing, as the Inspector informed me, to the difficulty, amounting almost to impossibility, of tracing current coin bearing no particular mark of identification”.


The blame for the debacle was quickly placed on museum attendant James Pollard, who Sir Charles determined been “guilty of disobedience of orders, and great negligence in the performance of his duty”.

Something had previously been amiss in the museum, and Pollard had either not noticed it, or hadn’t reported it. A case containing a Franklin Expedition sextant had been moved.

Sir Charles told the Admiralty: “This sextant was kept under a glass cover very near to the principal case which contained the relics, which could not be got at without moving it. Although Pollard was aware of its having been tampered with, he made no report. Had he done so at that time, it is possible that immediate enquiry might have led to the discovery of the culprit, which chance was lost by his neglecting to do so til after the abstraction of the coins had been discovered.”


The fact that only the coins were taken, and not the sextant as well, suggests that this was an opportunistic crime by someone desperate for cash.

To the person who stole them, these weren’t relics: they were two sovereigns, a half-crown, and four shillings. Easy money. The thief lifted the coins and then melted away into the foggy October air, as anonymous as a shilling piece in a city awash with them.

On 10th December 1878, Robert Hall of the Admiralty wrote back on behalf of the Lords Commissioners. Sir Charles was ordered to “cause such arrangements to be made as you deem most desirable to prevent a repetition of the offence”.

And he ended the letter by saying: “I am to add that my Lords approve of the steps taken with regard to Pollard the Attendant.”

This sounds a lot more sinister than it really was: Pollard had been given one week’s notice and dismissed.

So what was lost that day in October? Thankfully, John Barrow Junior preserved all the relevant paperwork in the ADM papers now held by The National Archives.


The coins were part of a large collection of relics that had been collected by Dr John Rae in 1854, from Inuit groups around Repulse Bay and Pelly Bay. They were “said to have been found with the part of Sir John Franklin’s party who starved to the west of Back’s River in 1850.”

Thankfully, the majority of the items on Rae’s list are safely at what is now the National Maritime Museum and the Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre in Greenwich.

But the coins are long gone.

For many years, maybe decades, countless people across London – and probably across the UK – would have been walking around with a Franklin relic in their pocket. Household staff would have been paid with a relic. Relics would have been used to buy newspapers containing stories about relics.

But it’s likely that the stolen relics would have been used to get food or some other commodity needed to keep body and soul together.

And that’s probably how they at last left the palms of the men of the Franklin Expedition many years before the same coins were pressed into the palm of John Rae on the shores of Repulse Bay and Pelly Bay.


ADM 169/101 – https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C6538421

2 thoughts on “Easy money: the theft of Franklin relics in 1878

  1. There is, it seems to me, some melancholy aptness in the fact that the coins in the pockets of men who would certainly have been dreaming of their old lives back in the UK did in fact make it back home and – albeit via a less than honest path – end up circulating as in their normal ‘lives’. This, rather than them being in a museum (which I’m not arguing for a moment isn’t their rightful place), does somewhat strike a chord with me.

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