Communication channels: how one little search note found its way home

A detail of a 1850 search note left by Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance. Copyright: The National Archives.
A detail of a 1850 search note left on Cape Warrender by Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance. © The National Archives. Editing: Logan Zachary.

They were cold, they were tired, and they had just torn down a large stone cairn on a freezing Arctic headland and found it empty. This is where Sir John Franklin’s men should have left a written record of where they had gone next. To find Erebus and Terror, the searchers had first to find a note.

But there was something even worse than finding nothing in the cairn.

It was finding a cylinder in the cairn, frantically opening it, unrolling the note with shaking hands and hammering heart, and finding it was a missive from another Franklin searcher – possibly even from someone on your own expedition.


It’s estimated that 39 expeditions went over land and over sea between 1847 and 1859, searching for the Erebus and the Terror, and the 129 men who’d set out in May 1845 to find a North-West Passage.

The searchers were looking for living men – but they were also looking for written records. These would be rolled up into cylinders and dropped overboard while in open sea, or left inside tall stone cairns built on prominent places where they would be easy to spot from a ship sailing past.


The biggest prize would be a Franklin note stating which direction Erebus and Terror had taken into the uncharted ice-choked waters ahead. But none would be found for many long years.

In Hunters on the Track (2019), the late Arctic scholar W Gillies Ross described how the Franklin searchers of 1850 and 1851 would experience “… a familiar sequence: the thrill of sighting a cairn after hours of eye strain and boredom; the excitement of landing on a strange shore; the anticipation and suspense as the men took the cairn apart rock by rock; and finally the disappointment when nothing whatsoever was found within.”


Wherever they went, the searchers built cairns and left notes of their own. There were few other ways for ships to communicate with one another during an Arctic search expedition in the mid-19th Century.

Surviving reports and personal journals are full of accounts of searchers finding notes left by their crewmates, or by people searching months or even days earlier. And the temptation must have been to tear such notes into confetti and let the wind deal with them.

However, a few of these notes have survived, and I’m going to talk about one in particular.


Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield, replica by Stephen Pearce, oil on millboard, late 19thC, based on a work of 1853. NPG 921 © National Portrait Gallery, London

In early 1853, Edward Augustus Inglefield had just returned from an Arctic adventure. Lady Jane Franklin had sent him in a tiny steamer called the Isabel. Now he was going back, but this time he was under orders from the Admiralty.

This was a supply run: he was to take HMS Phoenix and HMS Breadalbane directly to Beechey Island, hand over their cargo to search expedition leader Edward Belcher, and come home immediately. He was to take no risks that might lead to his ships being beset and forced to overwinter. 

He achieved this, but he either stopped to investigate cairns on the way in and out of Lancaster Sound, or was handed a search note found by someone else.

Either way, when he got back to the UK in October 1853, he was carrying a message that Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance had left at Cape Warrender more than three years earlier.


Cape Warrender is a headland on the south coast of Devon Island in what is now Nunavut, Canada, Any ship coming into Lancaster Sound from Baffin Bay – the last verifiable route taken by the Franklin Expedition – would see a cairn on this coast very quickly. 

Cape Warrender, by F.W. Beechey/I. Clark, 1821. © John Carter Brown Library

An old search message of this kind may have been of limited interest even if it had been the only item to come back from the Arctic that year. And in October 1853, Captain Inglefield and HMS Phoenix came home with several pieces of astonishing news.


The worst was that Lieutenant Joseph-René Bellot was dead. The much-loved French crewman had fallen though the ice of Wellington Channel while bringing messages to Sir Edward Belcher on 18 August 1853.

And only three days later, the Breadalbane was lost. The Glasgow-built transport was nipped by ice just south of Beechey Island and had sunk within minutes, her crew rescued by the Phoenix.

Inglefield was also bringing two special guests: Lieutenant Samuel Gurney Cresswell and Robert James Wynniatt of HMS Investigator. Cresswell had an amazing story to tell, but the top line news blew everyone away. His captain, Robert McClure, had completed the North-West Passage.


So it’s easy to see how one little search note might pass without comment amidst clamour and excitement such as this.

But John Barrow Junior had an eye for the small details as well as the headlines. The note was carefully pasted into one of his Admiralty books, and is now part of the ADM collection held at The National Archives.

It’s a beautiful document, written on pale blue paper bordered and decorated by the rust flowers that blossomed after three long years of freeze and thaw. And it wouldn’t be a John Barrow Junior record without the leaky pen of the man himself. The annotation “Brought back by Capt. Inglefield in 1853” dances across the top in bright blue ink.

The writing is neat and clear. It doesn’t say much of substance, but that was a common problem with Ommanney’s search notes.

This is another story altogether. And it can wait for a future post.

The note as it appears in the ADM. Copyright: The National Archives
© The National Archives


HMS Phoenix (1832)

Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track

Ross, W. Gilles – The Type and Number of Expeditions in the Franklin Search 1847-1859, Arctic, Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 57-69

Stein, Glenn M. – Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of HMS Investigator and the McClure Expedition.

Stone, Ian R. – Edward Augustus Inglefield (1820-1894), Arctic, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 80-81

Leave a note in the cairn