The first traces were easy enough to find. After all, Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommanney wasn’t lost.
He’s on findagrave.com. There is a photo! However, this photo doesn’t tell the full story of his last resting place.
Ommanney said something important here. And I don’t think anyone has heard it for many years.
So who was Erasmus Ommanney, and why was I in a Victorian graveyard with him?
Well, he was born in London in 1814 and joined the Navy when he was 12 years old. Just one year later, he saw action at the Battle of Navarino.
He was promoted to lieutenant in 1835 and served on James Clark Ross’s Arctic relief ship Cove.
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, later to be captain of Terror and be lost with the Franklin Expedition, was lieutenant alongside him.
Ommanney was one of many friends and colleagues who would go into the Arctic in search of the Erebus and the Terror in the years that followed.
Franklinites know him as the Captain of HMS Assistance during the 1850-51 search expedition. In his later years, he became known as “The Father of the Navy”.
When he died in 1904, aged 90, he was buried in London’s Old Mortlake Burial Ground – a beautifully dilapidated little place full of toppled tombstones and half-eaten limestone.
The Ommanney grave has some visible damage (see Appendix 1) but the inscriptions on the front are still clear. They read:
In memory of/Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommanney, KCB, FRS, FRGS/Born 22nd May 1814 Died 12th Dec 1904/So he bringeth them into the haven where they would be.
Also of MARY widow of the above/Died 1st September 1906 aged 81 years/R.I.P.
The biblical quote appears to be from The Book of Common Prayer.
These are good inscriptions, but I wanted to be sure there weren’t any others.
Earlier this year, I’d found an inscription proving that John Barrow Junior was buried with his mother in Kensal Green Cemetery. The grave had subsided so badly that I essentially had to hand-dig my way down to his marker.
Since then, I check every tomb and every stone very carefully, just in case. There might be something interesting happening.
I walked around the structure, occasionally poking it with a stick. I gave some weak smiles to the man who was standing in his garden, arms folded, watching me do this.
And then I saw something. I’d very foolishly left my brushes at home. So – once again – I had to use my hands to very gently pull large clumps of weeds, earth, bugs and gunk away from the stone.
There was a second inscription on the base at the back of Ommanney’s cross.
“He discovered the first traces ever found of the Franklin Expedition”
And indeed he did. Logan Zachary has recently published an authoritative account of how Ommanney found the first ever Franklin relic. It’s a fantastic piece of research that cuts through the narrative confusion that has followed these first traces ever since.
Ommanney’s youngest crewman that day in August 1850, a 20-year-old midshipman, would grow up to be the most powerful man in the Royal Geographical Society.
His name was Clements Markham. He would later become the father of British Antarctic exploration, and the mentor of Robert Falcon Scott.
In 1905, Markham wrote an obituary for his old captain. “Sir Erasmus, it is to be feared, was a disappointed man … he felt that his services had not been duly recognised.”
THE ONLY CLUES WE HAVE
Logan notes that Ommanney “couldn’t have known that his first discoveries would be his last discoveries – some of the only clues we have over a century and a half later.”
They were his first and they were his last. He chose this moment, that expedition, these discoveries, over everything else.
It’s written in stone in Old Mortlake, and nobody can take it away from him.
APPENDIX 1: A final mystery
This inscription has been buried for a long time. How did this happen?
The answer is in the apparent damage to Lady Ommanney’s section of the grave marker. At first I thought Mary Ommanney had once had her own cross – and I was half-right. Logan figured it out: the Erasmus plinth and cross were originally on top of the Mary Ommanney base.
This makes sense. Mary’s inscription confirms it: “Also of MARY widow of the above”.
Erasmus’s relics inscription was once elevated and clearly visible to passers-by. It was only after the plinth and cross were removed and relocated that it sank into the earth and was lost.
Indeed, Old Mortlake has many examples of grave markers with the same design. There’s one visible in this shot, right beside the Ommanneys.
APPENDIX 2: Top tips for Franklin tourists
Future visitors are invited to learn from my fail. There are two Mortlake cemeteries in this small corner of London.
Mortlake Cemetery is a large, active graveyard and crematorium just a short walk along the Thames from The National Archives.
But you need to go to the Old Mortlake Burial Ground if you’re looking for Ommanney.
I got hopelessly lost on my walk back to Kew. But I did find a historic riverside pub in the process, and there was a dog in it, so it wasn’t all bad.
Army & Navy Illustrated, April 1898
findagrave.com – Erasmus Ommanney
The Victorian Royal Navy – Erasmus Ommanney
The National Archives – ADM 196/1/361 and ADM 196/37/368
Markham, Clements – Two Arctic Veterans: Sir Erasmus Ommanney and Sir James Donnet, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2 (1905)
Zachary, Logan – The Cape Riley Rake, illuminator dot blog (2020)