The mystery of the missing Erebus clerk

The history of the Franklin Expedition is full of ghosts, but this particular story is a little different. HMS Erebus is being haunted by a man who never sailed on her. The ghost has a name: George Frederick Pinhorn.

You can only see him online, and in certain places, but he’s there: forever linked to a ship he never set foot on.

George Frederick Pinhorn was born in Woolwich, Kent, in 1821, one of at least nine children born to Joseph and Mary, and their oldest surviving boy. The 1841 census shows a full house:

A table showing the names and ages of the Pinhorn family as listed in the 1841 census.

He qualified as a Royal Navy clerk in 1844 and this was recorded in the Navy List.

Detail of qualified Naval clerks and pursers from the 1844 Navy List.

His first and only service with the Royal Navy after qualifying was with a 4th rate ship of the line called Isis. His service record (below) shows that he was with her just a few short months.

Detail of a Naval Service record
Copyright: The National Archives

While he was serving on the Isis, he would have met and maybe become acquainted with one of its sailmakers: a 40-something Glaswegian craftsman called John Murray.

We next encounter Pinhorn in March 1845. He’s got a new position, and it’s on the most prestigious expedition possible: the search for a North-West Passage, led by Sir John Franklin.

Detail of GF Pinhorn's appointment to Erebus in March 1845

John Murray was also appointed to the Erebus in March 1845. Unlike Pinhorn, Murray was actually on board the ship when it sailed out of Greenhithe. He would die in the Arctic some time after the Franklin Expedition left Beechey Island in 1846.

However, if you read some contemporary accounts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Murray’s old shipmate Pinhorn was right there with him on Erebus when she sailed.

DOOMED EXPEDITION

Pinhorn is mentioned as an Erebus crew member in the 8th March 1845 edition of The Athenaeum. But his appearance in  the Illustrated London News of Saturday, 24th May 1845 is perhaps the most damning one.

The ILN journalist, drawing from a very outdated crew list, actually places Pinhorn on Erebus as she leaves Greenhithe in May and commences her doomed expedition.

HMS Terror sailed with a Clerk-in-Charge,  22-year-old Edwin James Helpman of Plymouth, but he had no opposite number on HMS Erebus.

When Pinhorn declined the appointment, he was not replaced. The Purser, Charles Hamilton Osmer, may have distributed the Clerk-in-Charge workload across more junior members of the crew.

So why did Pinhorn pull out?

A marriage record for GF Pinhorn and Henrietta Hodgson.

It would appear that, given a choice between an unknown number of years in ice and peril or the love of a good woman, he chose the latter.

In 1851, when Franklin searchers Horatio Austin and William Penny were racing each other home with news of graves on Beechey Island, George Frederick and Henrietta Pinhorn were living in Lambeth. George is now working as a surveyor.

There’s no sign of them in the 1861 census, but Pinhorn pops back up again in January 1863, when he applies to the Admiralty for a Naval pension.

A detail from a Royal Navy ledger showing that GF Pinhorn had applied for a Naval pension.
Copyright: The National Archives

I can’t see any indication of whether he was successful or not.  But at least he was still standing proud and fighting for his rights. Indeed, at this point, I was still hoping that the Pinhorn story would remain untouched by tragedy.

George Frederick Pinhorn died some time between 1863 – when he asked for his pension – and 1881, when another census was carried out across England. He and Henrietta do not appear in the 1871 census, and I can find no death certificate or burial details for him.

In 1881 Henrietta is described as a widow, and she is working as a governess. The sting in the tale reveals itself in the census document:

Detail from the 1881 census

In the right-hand column, someone has written “Lunacy”.

Things start to go quickly downhill for poor Henrietta at this point. In the 1891 census, she is a patient in the Middlesex Lunatic Asylum in Hanwell. At some point after 1891, she was moved to an asylum in Tooting Bec.

She is registered there during the 1901 census, but I refuse to post the relevant record because the language used to describe the patients is, frankly, appalling.

A SAD END

The Tooting Bec asylum was designed for people living with what we would now recognise as dementia and other age-related illnesses. She died there on 19th April 1905, aged 84.

It’s a terribly sad end for a woman who seems to have brought so much joy into the life of a man that he walked away from a promising Naval career – and by doing so, very narrowly missed a horrible death in the ice.

THE LOSS OF THE FRANKLIN EXPEDITION

We will probably never know how George Frederick Pinhorn reacted to the loss of the Franklin Expedition.

We can only imagine how he felt about the distressing details that would emerge from 1851 – with the return of Horatio Austin’s expedition – through John Rae‘s 1854 revelations, and the seemingly final words brought home by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859.

Pinhorn may have suffered from survivor’s guilt, or he may have hugged his wife and child closely every day and considered how lucky he was.

SAVED HIS OWN LIFE

When Pinhorn walked away from HMS Erebus and married Henrietta, he saved his own life and allowed two others to be created.

His son Frederick Joseph was born in 1852. He served in the Army and later worked as a clerk. Henrietta and George’s grandson, Angus William Russell Pinhorn, was born in 1891. He worked with the Post Office, married Jessie Eliza, and they lived in north-west London. They do not appear to have had children. Angus died in 1950.

I hope they were all happy. But as Dorothy Parker once said, “in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending”.

Acknowledgements

Image of a tweet

This post is built on the question asked by Franklin researcher Allegra Rosenberg – @areyougonnabe – on Twitter earlier this month (pictured above). The various sources quoted or pictured here were found in response to tweets from her, @druluci6 and @illuminatorblog, or found afterwards to satisfy my own curiosity – particularly about Henrietta Pinhorn, and what sort of life she had.

I’m consolidating everything here so that the next time someone asks, “Who tf is Pinhorn?”, there will be some answers available for them online.

We have not yet answered the equally important question “Who tf is Robinson?”: that one’s still open. If anyone finds out, please let me know, either here or on Twitter.

4 thoughts on “The mystery of the missing Erebus clerk

  1. There was a passage in Ralph Lloyd Jone’s paper “The Men Who Sailed With Franklin” that briefly mentioned Robinson. His name was Joseph Robinson and was 42 years old when they sailed and was married. He served on nine earlier ships (One of which was the HMS Rainbow, which Sir John had previously served on between 1830 and 1834) He signed onto the Terrot on March 9, and left April 7 going instead to the HMS Vernon.

  2. Conner! It’s lovely to see you here. Thank you so much for this: I had messed around on various sites looking for Robinson with no joy.

  3. On page 328 of Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, Woodman lists William Fowler as the Paymaster and Purser’s Clerk on HMS Erebus. By coincidence, I had a reason to look that up just this morning, September 13, 2020.

  4. Thank you, Randall. That’s really interesting and maybe there’s a lot more to be found here. When Pinhorn was announced as Erebus’ Clerk, we can see Osmer in the same appointments list: but appointed as Purser to Terror, not Erebus. So some reshuffling obviously took place. I’m away from my books but will check my Woodman when I get home.

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