In Praise Of… Frances J. Woodward

No.1 in an occasional series where love is bestowed upon a Franklin searcher – or a Franklin researcher – who doesn’t get enough of it. Today: Frances J. Woodward.

As usual, I was looking for something else when I found it: a story about the sale at auction of an item once belonging to Lady Jane Franklin, found among the effects of the late Frances J. Woodward, her first biographer.

Woodward’s Portrait of Jane: A Life of Lady Franklin is one of my favourite Franklin-related books. I consult it regularly, and often have to tear myself away from it when I’ve found the reference I need. To my shame, I’d never given the author much thought. The book was published way back in 1951 and I’d assumed she was long dead.

wartime codebreaker

But this story told me that not only had Frances J Woodward died relatively recently, in 2014, but also that she had served as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

This nearly knocked me off my chair. How did I not know this? So I went looking for her.

She’s left a very understated first-person account on the BBC’s People’s War site, which is worth quoting. She was 18 years old when the war broke out and eligible for call-up the following year, but she was allowed to take up a place at Cambridge’s Girton College to read History.

top secret

Frances said that she reported for duty at a top secret site outside Milton Keynes in the summer of 1943:

“I did not have any training for this work, though I had to sign the Official Secrets Act and if anyone ‘outside’ asked what I did I would just refuse to answer.

I sat at a desk, in a room with several other girls, looking at a screen across which jumbles of words were passing. If I saw anything that looked like a German word I had to stop the machine; someone would come and note the position where I had stopped and transfer the section of script to their machines for further investigation.

I did this work from July 1943 to May 1945 and earned £3 a week. I heard people say that they thought it must be very interesting work but in fact I found it extremely boring. We were lucky as we worked a 24 hour cycle and changed every fortnight, but other girls had to change every couple of days, we worked three shifts, from 9am-4pm, 4pm-midnight and midnight-9am.

I lived at Wolverton and we had a special bus to take us in and out of Bletchley Park; we also had Passes that we had to show every time we entered or left the place. If we were lucky with our billets we got one good meal a day, subject to rationing. We used to get very hungry.”

When the war was over, Frances left Bletchley Park and returned to her parents’ home in Cambridge. She must have suffered in the way that all codebreakers did: they were unable to speak of anything they’d done, or where they’d been, even to their closest family members.

rescuing lady franklin

But Frances had a project in mind. At the age of 24, she put an advert in The Times asking for people with information about Lady Jane Franklin to get in touch with her. At the same time, she started to build a relationship with the Scott Polar Research Institute. She would be the first person to explore the papers of Lady Jane Franklin – some 200 journals and around 2,000 letters – as catalogued by the late Sophia Cracroft.

Frances felt keenly that Lady Franklin was in danger of being remembered only in the context of the man she married, and this simply would not do. “What of Jane Franklin herself”, she asked. “a strong, lively personality … a traveller … the driving force behind 12 years’ search for the Erebus and Terror?”.

Her biography refocused attention onto the Jane Franklin of The Battery, of The Search, of The Narrative that remade Sir John Franklin into the conqueror of the North-West Passage: the Jane Franklin who was a fierce, determined force of nature. A woman who would not sit down or shut up.

FRANKLIN SCHOLARSHIP

The indomitable Jane Franklin was not the only aspect of the story to grab Frances’ attention. During her time at SPRI she wrote three articles for Polar Record: profiles of Joseph-René Bellot and William Penny in 1950 and 1953 respectively, and an overview of the 1850-1851 search expedition adapted from a speech she gave at SPRI in February 1950.

This is one of my favourite pieces of writing about the Franklin Expedition, not just for the level of detail and the clarity of her analysis, but for the seemingly effortless way she keeps control of the most sprawling and confusing chapter in the entire history.

Nobody has done this better than Frances Joyce Woodward. She had far greater command of the 1850-1851 search than Horatio Austin ever did.

to gell and back

Ms Woodward wrote a second book, about the influence of English headmaster Thomas Arnold – The Doctor’s Disciples: A Study of Four Pupils of Arnold of Rugby – and this was published by Oxford University Press in 1954. One of the four pupils was John Philip Gell, “who tried to transplant Rugby ideals to Van Diemen’s Land” and, more pertinently, married Sir John Franklin’s only daughter Eleanor.

She stayed in the Cambridge area and worked as a teacher of History, the Classics and Religion until her retirement. She moved to the wonderfully-named Puddletown in Dorset and, after some years, moved into a care home.

Frances J. Woodward on her 91st birthday in 2012. Photo: Dorset Echo.

goodnight frances

Frances Joyce Woodward died on 17 April 2014, shortly after her 93rd birthday. She had requested a natural burial, and left instructions for her estate to be divided between ten charities, including Freedom From Torture, Save The Children, Christian Aid and the Iona Community.

She lived to an extremely good age, and I hope that her final years were safe and happy ones. I treasure her book and feel privileged to have found out a little bit about the woman she was and the great things she did.

It’s greedy of me to even wish for such a thing. But if Frances Joyce Woodward had stayed with us just a few months longer, she could have been watching television when the news broke that Parks Canada had found the wreck of HMS Erebus.

a strong legacy

It’s amazing to think that this woman – who was born in 1921, who helped to crack codes at Bletchley Park, who walked into the Scott Polar Research Institute aged 24 and wrestled Jane Franklin’s diaries and letters into submission, and who was still only 29 when she published a book that’s still being cited everywhere in 2020 – could have sat in the dappled sunlight of a Dorset morning and watched footage of the lost ship that Lady Jane Franklin spent decades of her life trying to locate.

Oh: and the item that was up for auction, the one that sent me down this rabbit-hole? Well, it almost deserves a post of its own, but I’ll be brief.

It was a lei hula presented to Lady Franklin on her travels to Hawaii in 1861, and it was bought by a US collector for a hammer price of £30,000.

Lady Franklin’s lei hula. Image: Antiques and Trade Gazette

The money raised from this, and other items Frances left behind, would have been gratefully received by the charities she supported. Beyond that, we Franklinites have her lovely book, and future generations of researchers will continue to benefit from that.

Her name is on the Bletchley Park virtual roll of honour, and I’ve sponsored a brick for her in the Codebreakers’ Wall. Once it’s safe to travel, and the park opens up again, I’ll have a great excuse to go back and pay my respects.

Sources

Woodward, F. J. – The Franklin Search in 1850, Polar Record 5(40), pp. 532–542, 1950.

Woodward, F. J. – Joseph René Bellot, 1826–53, Polar Record, 5(39), pp. 398–407, 1950.

Woodward, Frances J. – A Portrait of Jane: A Life of Lady Franklin, Hodder & Staunton, 1951

Woodward, F. J. – William Penny, 1809–92, Polar Record, 6(46), pp. 809–811, 1953.

Woodward, Frances J. – The Doctor’s Disciples: A Study of Four Pupils of Arnold of Rugby, Oxford University Press 1953

WW2 People’s War, an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. 

Bletchley Park Roll of Honour

Hut 6 at Historic England

Thomas Hardy fan and author celebrates her 90th birthday, Dorset Echo, 17 April 2012

Fine Feathers for Faithful Lady Franklin, Antiques and Trade Gazette, 2014

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