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:
He qualified as a Royal Navy clerk in 1844 and this was recorded in the 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.
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.
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.
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The ILN journalist, drawing from a very outdated crew list, actually places Pinhorn on Erebus as she leaves Greenhithe in May and commences her doomed expedition.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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
EDIT: It’s now October 2022, and Robinson has been tracked down by researcher Hyge Burg! You can read the post here.