If you want to pay your respects to the people who searched for a North-West Passage – or who organised or participated in efforts to find the Franklin Expedition – you should visit Kensal Green Cemetery in West London.
This cemetery guide is a collaboration with Logan Zachary of illuminator dot blog. Alison Freebairn wrote the biographies. The map, grave coordinates, and the vast majority of the original photography are Logan Zachary’s work.
How to get to Kensal Green Cemetery
Full details of the various transport links are available on the cemetery’s website. The nearest station with step-free access is Kensal Rise Station. This is part of the London Overground network. Kensal Green Station is served by the Bakerloo Line. It is closer to the cemetery, but it has a lot of stairs and no lift.
Things to know before you visit
The General Cemetery of All Souls (as it was founded) is a busy working cemetery. Funerals may be taking place during your visit. Families and friends will be visiting the graves of their loved ones. Be respectful, and be kind.
Safety notes appear throughout this post: please heed them. Kensal Green Cemetery is one of the most beautiful places in the UK, but the land is undeniably wild. Please treat it with respect and caution.
There are yellow flags on many of the grave markers, denoting that visitors should keep their distance. The ground is subsiding across the cemetery. Wear sturdy shoes/boots. Watch where you’re putting your feet. If the grass is long, it could be hiding random dips or broken pieces of masonry.
1. Lady Jane Franklin
“Even in that tenebrous place her name evokes a brightness.”
The “tenebrous place” is the catacombs under Kensal Green Cemetery’s Anglican Chapel. The brightness is evoked by the memory of Jane, Lady Franklin (1791-1875), who is buried there.
There are far too many aspects of Jane Franklin to do justice to her long life here. She organised and funded search expeditions, and hounded the Admiralty into action. And she shaped a narrative around the North-West Passage that endures to this day.
She was fiercely loyal to her allies, and to the men who risked their lives in the Arctic to find her husband and his ships, or answers as to their fate. And after she died, on 18th July 1875, six Franklin Search survivors reunited for one final mission.
“Six Arctic men, old and young, were her pall-bearers,” Frances J. Woodward wrote in her 1851 biography, Portrait of Jane.
“[Francis Leopold] McClintock, [Richard] Collinson, [George Henry] Richards, [Erasmus] Ommanney, [John] Barrow, [Benjamin] Leigh-Smith.”
After Lady Franklin’s death, Sophia Cracroft edited her papers – some 200 journals and 2,000 letters – and these were in time bequeathed to the Scott Polar Research Institute.
Frances Woodward’s Jane is but one interpretation of Lady Franklin. Others are available. And hopefully many more will be researched and published in the years to come, as her life is examined from different perspectives.
Notes: Visitors are not currently able to visit the catacombs and the Chapel. Repairs are being carried out at both sites.
Researchers Mechtild and Wolfgang Opel documented their visit to Lady Franklin’s resting place under Kensal Green on their blog Trimaris (in German with an English summary). Unfortunately, it may be some time before visitors are able to follow in their footsteps.
In the meantime, you can pay your respects at the grave marker of Sophia Cracroft, where Lady Franklin is remembered with a memorial stone.
2. Sophia Cracroft
This highly accomplished woman was many things. She was a world traveller, Franklin search advocate and organiser, niece, friend, and lifelong supporter of Lady Franklin and defender of her legacy.
Her journals – which are held by the Scott Polar Research Institute, for those lucky enough to have access to it – detail the huge amount of work that went into organising each search for the missing Franklin Expedition.
Sophia also spent a lot of her time writing letters. She charmed, cajoled or outright pushed many main players into funding, participating in, or lobbying for more support for the searches.
Lady Franklin’s last throw of the dice – sending Francis Leopold McClintock and the Fox expedition to the Arctic in 1857 – was successful. McClintock returned in September 1859 with definitive proof of her husband’s death in June 1847.
After this, Sophia deployed her tenacity and eye for detail in support of the campaign to immortalise Sir John Franklin as the man who discovered the North-West Passage.
Sophia’s personal life remains opaque, as no purely personal writings appear to have survived. However, it is known that she had more than one opportunity to marry someone, and that she chose not to.
Relics and portraits
This remarkable woman was 76 years old when she died at her home at 45 Phillimore Gardens, London, on 20th June 1892. Much of the Franklin-related archive material, relics and portraits we enjoy today were all bequeathed by her.
3. John Ross
Tilting, damaged, dangerous to be around. Rear Admiral Sir John Ross (1777-1856) was all of these things. So it’s fitting that his gravestone has adopted the same characteristics after 165 years in the unsteady soil of Kensal Green Cemetery.
Old John Ross is easy to hype up as a hate figure. But he went at everything in life with huge conviction and energy. And it’s just a shame that he was often wrong and obnoxious with it.
That same passion and stubbornness propelled him back into an Arctic overwinter in 1850 – aged 73, with his Trafalgar wounds aching in the cold – to keep a promise to his friend John Franklin.
Elisha Kent Kane, serving on the first Grinnell Franklin search expedition in 1850, described what happened when the USS Advance and USS Rescue first met Old John Ross’ ship Felix in Lancaster Sound:
Scarred from head to foot
“Presently an old fellow, with a cloak tossed over his night gear, appeared in the lee gangway, and saluted with a voice that rose above the winds… He has been wounded in four several [sic] engagements – twice desperately – and is scarred from head to foot. He has conducted two Polar expeditions already, and performed in one of them the unparalleled feat of wintering four years in Arctic snows.
“And here he is again, in a flimsy cockle-shell, after contributing his purse and his influence, embarked himself in the crusade of search for a lost comrade.”
After this, his final adventure, John Ross retired to his North-West Castle in Stranraer on the south-west coast of Scotland.
He entertained friends in a room built to match his old cabin on the Victory. And he entertained himself by firing missiles at the likes of William Penny in the letter columns of various newspapers.
Sir John Ross died on a trip to London. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery on 6th September 1856.
Safety note: Old John Ross’ gravestone is leaning like a drunken sailor and it might not stay up for much longer. Be very, very careful around it. Don’t get so close that you can’t jump out of the way if it starts to move.
4. Edward Augustus Inglefield
Admiral Sir Edward Augustus Inglefield (1820-1894) is notable for a few things.
His commitment to the search for the Franklin Expedition was absolute. He created some beautiful art and photography. He looked great in hats. And he took poor John Hartnell’s coffin plate as a souvenir of Beechey Island.
Inglefield enters the story in 1852, when he volunteered his services to Lady Jane Franklin. She gave him the command of her screw yacht Isabel to search for traces of the lost expedition.
He didn’t find any new ones. But he took an uncomfortably close look at the Franklin graves found on Beechey Island the previous summer.
Owen Beattie and John Geiger, in their book Frozen in Time, quote a private letter dated 14th September 1852 from Inglefield to Sir Francis Beaufort. In this, Inglefield describes how he and Isabel surgeon Peter C. Sutherland tried to exhume the bodies of John Hartnell, John Torrington and William Braine.
“I have had my hand on the arm and face of poor Hartnell,” he writes. “I carefully restored everything to its place and only brought away with me the plate that was nailed on the coffin lid and a scrap of the cloth with which the coffin was covered.”
History does not record where the coffin plate ended up, or if Inglefield won a prize for the amount of heavy lifting the word “only” is forced to do in his letter to Beaufort.
He returned to the Arctic in 1853, after the Admiralty put him in charge of HMS Phoenix and HMS Breadalbane to resupply the Edward Belcher Expedition.
Breadalbane was lost in the ice off Beechey Island, but the Phoenix returned safely. She was carrying Lt Samuel Gurney Cresswell of HMS Investigator. He brought with him the shattering news that the North-West Passage had been completed.
Inglefield and Phoenix returned again in 1854. On this occasion, he arrived to find that Belcher had ordered all four of his beautiful ships to be abandoned for spurious reasons. The Phoenix had to help ferry most of their crews home.
Inglefield went on to have a glittering career as an officer and artist. His art provides a vital contemporary record of life on a Franklin search expedition, but his greatest contribution to Arctic history may well be his photography.
5. Robert McCormick
Charles Darwin described him as “an ass”. He irritated Franklin searcher TC Pullen so much that he referred to him only as “that Precious Beauty”. But Robert McCormick (1800-1890) never wavered in his high opinion of himself, and it’s hard not to warm to him.
The career of this Royal Navy surgeon/naturalist was remarkable for the number of high-profile expeditions he was part of. It was also remarkable for the number of times he asked to be invalided home because he felt unappreciated.
His three Polar expeditions, however, were completed successfully.
His first was under Parry as medical officer on HMS Hecla’s 1827 expedition to Spitsbergen. He served as surgeon on HMS Erebus under James Clark Ross on the 1839-43 Antarctica expedition.
And from 1851-53 he was surgeon on the North Star as part of the Belcher search for the Franklin Expedition.
The Forlorn Hope
In 1852 he took command of a small search boat he named the Forlorn Hope, and searched some 240 miles of the Wellington Channel looking for traces of the Erebus and Terror.
McCormick has since emerged as a vivid bird-bothering character in Michael Palin’s popular history book Erebus: The Story of a Ship. And his 1884 autobiography Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas and around the World is well worth a read.
The McCormick family tomb is directly across from that of the Barrow family. Both are chest tombs and are very similar in design. And I like to think that Kensal Green’s birds target one but not the other.
6. John Barrow Junior
He was at the centre of all of the official efforts to search for the Franklin Expedition from 1848 onwards. And he stayed heavily involved in the search even after he retired from the Admiralty in 1855.
But the influence of John Barrow Junior (1808-1898) extended well beyond the logistics of organising expeditions. He was loved by the men who took part in the search, not only for the steadfast support he gave them, but also for the kindness he showed to their families while they were away.
Life of adventure
He was 90 when he died on 9th December 1898, having outlived almost all of the close friends he made over a life of adventure. He is buried with his mother Anna Maria, the Dowager Lady Barrow, in a chest tomb that is subsiding quite badly.
John’s inscription is on the base of the structure on the opposite side from his mother’s inscription. It was last dug out in early March 2020 and was very much overgrown when visited in April 2021. This story – and a longer biography – is available elsewhere on fingerpost dot blog.
The Barrow family tomb, and that of bird-botherer Robert McCormick, are both just a very short hop away from the grave of Sir Robert McClure.
7. Robert McClure
Vice-Admiral Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (1807-1873) first went to the Arctic in 1836 as a mate on HMS Terror under George Back. He returned in 1848 as 1st Lieutenant on HMS Enterprise as part of James Clark Ross’ Franklin search expedition.
The following year, he was given command of HMS Investigator, and was sent to tackle the North-West Passage – and search for Franklin, of course – from west to east, via the Bering Strait.
Investigator initially made some progress but was beset after her first winter.
McClure and his crew then spent another two harrowing, scurvy-ridden years in Mercy Bay, Banks Island.
Their situation was dire. But they were found by Lt Bedford Pim of HMS Resolute, acting on a clue discovered by his crewmate Lt George Frederick Mecham in September 1852. The surviving Investigators were saved.
Knighted and celebrated
McClure was hailed as the discoverer of the North-West Passage when he returned to England in 1854. He was rewarded, knighted, and celebrated.
Lady Franklin was disgusted by this development, seeing it as an insult to her missing husband and his men. She had opposed it, but was unable to prevent it.
However, one cold and rainy day in late October 1873, the carriage of Lady Franklin – by now in poor health – came to Kensal Green Cemetery to pay her last respects to Sir Robert McClure.
It was a sad funeral. Lady McClure was too ill to attend. The couple did not have children. The only family member present was a nephew.
But the Franklin searchers were there. Francis Leopold McClintock and Sherard Osborn. George Henry Richards and Richard Collinson. John Barrow, Allen Young, John Powles Cheyne.
Clements Markham was there, as was his old captain Erasmus Ommanney. HMS Investigator‘s ship surgeon Alexander Armstrong, Royal Marines sergeant John Woon, and the Ship’s Boy, James Nelson, were there.
And so, of course, was Bedford Pim.
8. Clements Markham
Sir Clements Robert Markham (1830-1916) is perhaps best known for his decades of work and influence within the Royal Geographical Society.
He was a tireless champion of British Antarctic and Arctic exploration, and an early supporter of Captain Robert Randolph Scott.
But he started his Polar career in the Arctic, on a search for the Franklin Expedition.
Clements was only 19 when he volunteered as an able seaman on HMS Assistance, one of four Royal Navy ships in the 1850-51 Franklin search under the leadership of Captain Horatio Austin.
Crowded search season
This was a crowded search season. It included William Penny’s two ships, Old John Ross on the Felix, two US Navy brigs, and the supply ship North Star. It also included a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him visit from Charles Codrington Forsyth on Lady Franklin’s ship the Prince Albert.
Clements wrote many books, including Franklin’s Footsteps, about his voyage on Assistance, and a sometimes breathless appreciation of Francis Leopold McClintock.
Andrés Paredes guided Finger-Post & Iluminator to this grave, and we are grateful for his support.
9. Horatio Thomas Austin
The North-West Passage story is punctuated by feuds and the occasional character assassination.
So it’s not a surprise to find that Vice-Admiral Sir Horatio Thomas Austin (1801-1865) is largely remembered for a heated argument he had with Captain William Penny in 1851, at the end of their shared search for the Franklin Expedition.
But there was much more to Austin than his clash with a charismatic but undeniably difficult whaling captain.
His naval career began in 1813, as a 2nd Class Volunteer. In 1824, he joined Captain William Edward Parry’s third attempt at forcing the North-West Passage.
Accusations and counter-accusations
The Royal Navy picked Austin to lead its high-profile search for Franklin in 1850-51. He was in charge of a squadron consisting of HMS Resolute (his flagship), HMS Assistance (commanded by Captain Erasmus Ommanney), and their steam tenders HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid.
It ended in acrimony, accusations and counter-accusations. And all of this played out in an Arctic Committee hearing when the ships returned in 1851 carrying relics but no answers.
The late Clive Holland notes that while Austin made many enemies during this expedition and its aftermath, he also had his cheerleaders.
Clements Markham – then a lowly AB on HMS Assistance, one of four vessels under Austin’s command – said that: “there never was so good an organizer, as regards the work and the internal economy of the ships.
“He was not without faults, perhaps a little inclined to fuss. But he was kindhearted and full of sympathy for those under his command.”
10. George Back
Here lies Admiral Sir George Back (1796-1878), but you’d never know it.
It took a lot of work with flashlights and tinfoil to tease so much as his name from this hopelessly weather-damaged chest tomb. It’s an obscure end for one of the most vivid and unforgettable people in the history of Arctic exploration.
Back served under John Franklin on the Coppermine and Mackenzie River expeditions. He led an 1833 search for the missing John Ross expedition up the river that now bears Back’s name. And he was captain of HMS Terror during her Arctic exploration in 1836-37.
Back was an exceptional artist, but the people who knew him well did not always paint a flattering picture of him.
Sophia Cracroft was not a fan. In 1856, in a letter to Franklin search ally Henry Grinnell, she described Back thus:
A handsome act
“[He is] never the man to originate a handsome act, but if he finds it popular, and that it will be successful, he steps in to take as much of the credit as he can secure.
“You must not think it harshness or severity when I describe him as intensely selfish, sly, and sycophantic.”
Safety note: be very careful. George Back is dead, but that doesn’t mean you can relax around him. His grave is under trees and is therefore caked in birdshit. Also, the entire section is subsiding badly, with some lairs breaking open at ground level. Treat every stone and stretch of grass around this grave with caution.
“Admiral Sir George Back”. This line of his inscription is perfectly impossible to read without either sunlight or a flashlight at just the right angle. The lower lines are worse.
11. Charles Codrington Forsyth
Lady Franklin picked Royal Navy Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth (1810-1873) to command the Prince Albert in 1850. This was her first attempt at funding a private search operation and it was also her least successful.
Forsyth struggled with the ship, the equipment, and – most painfully – with the crew.
Out of his depth
Arctic scholar Ian Stone noted that the naval captain, faced with his first civilian command, was “completely out of his depth and could not cope with the novel situation on board… The mates were incompetent, the crew independent-minded, and [William Parker] Snow was insufferable.”
The Prince Albert spent just a few weeks in the search that year. But Forsyth was present for long enough to land a party at Cape Riley.
There, his crew picked up some minor relics overlooked by Captain Erasmus Ommanney during his discovery, on 23rd August 1850, of the first traces of Sir John Franklin.
With these in hand, Forsyth made the decision to head for home immediately. He arrived in England with no breakthroughs of his own, but bearing news of the success of others. Lady Franklin was not impressed.
The Prince Albert would return to the Arctic in 1851, but she did so without Charles Codrington Forsyth at the helm.
12. Bedford Pim
Captain Robert McClure of HMS Investigator couldn’t believe his eyes. A strange and manic figure, its face blackened by soot, appeared seemingly from nowhere just when their situation was at its most dire.
He remembered, “Really at the moment we might be pardoned for wondering whether he was a denizen of this or the other world, and had he but given us a glimpse of a tail or a cloven hoof, we should assuredly have taken to our legs.”
But then the bizarre apparition spoke.
“I am Lieutenant Pim, late of the Herald and now of the Resolute!”
Rear Admiral Bedford Clapperton Trevelyan Pim (1826-1886) was buried in the same cemetery as McClure, the man he saved from certain death in 1853.
But this time, McClure is not the one who’s missing and in need of rescue.
Many people have tried and failed to find Pim along the overgrown canalside stretch of Kensal Green Cemetery. And we can’t yet say that we succeeded. We found a buried tomb in exactly the right place, but were unable to uncover a name or a date on the stone.
Pim’s contributions to the search for the Franklin Expedition and the North-West Passage are beyond reproach.
However, many of his views were repugnant even by 19th Century standards. And his writings from middle-age onward included some appallingly racist screeds. These are truly awful to read. And they are also disappointing coming from a man whose father died of yellow fever while trying to stamp out the Slave Trade.
Safety note: Don’t try to climb the embankment. Because if the ground gives way, you may become a permanent addition to this archaeological find. Sadly, this mystery is beyond the efforts of people with strong backs and gardening gloves (we tried). Professional intervention is needed.
13. John Lander
If you’ve read Barrow’s Boys by Fergus Fleming, you’ll be familiar with the story of the Lander brothers.
Sir John Barrow sent Richard Lander and his younger brother John (1806-1839) to map the course of the Niger River in January 1830.
They were belittled, exploited and cheerfully thrown into harm’s way by Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, who launched several such mini-disasters while warming up for the 1845 assault on the North-West Passage.
Richard Lander was given only a paltry amount of money for the expedition. And John Lander took part for free. Barrow had agreed to John’s involvement on the condition that no salary would be considered.
Captured by pirates
The brothers had all manner of drama, adventures and near-misses on their journey – including being captured by pirates. But they completed their mission. When they returned in November 1831, they were hailed as having made “perhaps the most important discovery of the modern age”.
Richard Lander returned to Africa and died there in 1834. John died in England aged 32, apparently from a lung complaint.
The inscription on his chest tomb has weathered better than many in Kensal Green Cemetery. His grave is almost directly across the path from where engineer John Sylvester is buried twice over.
14. John Sylvester
John Sylvester (1798-1852), the engineer who developed the Sylvester Stoves system that heated the Discovery ships, is in a similar situation as his very near neighbour Bedford Pim.
Every North-West Passage luminary in Kensal Green Cemetery – whether they helped to look for Franklin in the Arctic or organised the expeditions in comfortable homes far further south – owes John Sylvester a debt of gratitude.
A 1853 obituary noted that Sylvester “was very successful in the arrangement of the apparatus, for preserving an equable and temperate atmosphere, on board the Arctic Discovery Ships. Captains Parry, Ross, and others, ascribe the health of the crews, in a great degree, to the excellence of the system he prescribed.”
He now appears to be insulated under a very large hill of earth and ivy and other vegetation. Nothing of his grave marker can be seen. But we think he’s in there…. somewhere.
Also buried in Kensal Green Cemetery:
There are three other graves in Kensal Green Cemetery that have tangential links to the story of the search for the North-West Passage – George Cruikshank, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Wilkie Collins. So we’re including short bios and directions so that visitors won’t walk past them without realising it.
George Cruikshank (1792-1878) was a prolific satirist and illustrator. And he’s indelibly linked to the story for the search for the North-West Passage.
Cruikshank took a dim view of Arctic exploration, as evidenced by his January 1819 cartoon “Landing The Treasures”. This lampooned John Ross and his first North-West Passage expedition. Yes, Cruikshank was hating Old John Ross before it was cool.
And if you haven’t seen these caricatures, consider yourself lucky. They are undeniably important as a contemporary snapshot of early 19th Century conservative and Imperialist – i.e. racist and xenophobic – attitudes. And they should stay on the record as such. But modern researchers should prepare to have their stomachs turned by them.
Any visitors should note that Cruikshank’s gravestone is merely a marker of where his bones used to lie. Less than a year after his February 1878 burial, Cruikshank was exhumed and reinterred in St Paul’s Cathedral. This demonstrates the high esteem in which he was held at the time.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
If you attended the Death In The Ice exhibitions, you would have seen a medal for the launch of one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s ships.
Franklin search hero Joe Ebierbing found this relic at Starvation Cove in the summer of 1879.
A team of Inuit searchers were deployed by expedition leader Frederick Schwatka to hunt and to check out a story of a boat and skeletons being found on the northern coast of Adelaide Peninsula. During this trip, Joe explored the peninsula and Starvation Cove.
His search colleague Heinrich Klutschak said Joe discovered “shoes, boots, pieces of uniform and button were still lying around… he also found a small silver [sic] medal commemorating the launch of a large English steamer”.
The large English steamer was the SS Great Britain, a revolutionary ship and one of many triumphs Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was responsible for in his relatively short life. He also created the Great Western Railway, designed dockyards, and built several bridges and tunnels. His innovative designs and techniques solved many previously intractable engineering problems.
The Brunel family grave is a pristine white monument in a well-maintained plot. It’s a great landmark for anyone walking over to see John Lander and the presumed graves of Bedford Pim and John Sylvester.
Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) is broadly remembered for novels such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone. But it’s his 1857 melodrama The Frozen Deep that will forever link his name to the story of the Franklin Expedition.
Collins had met Charles Dickens in 1851 and the two became lifelong friends and collaborators. While Collins wrote The Frozen Deep, the play was very much a joint project.
It was a natural progression from the highly critical articles Dickens wrote following John Rae’s 1854 discovery of Franklin relics and Inuit oral testimony of the evidence of cannibalism at Franklin sites.
Dickens was amplifying the widely-held – and wrong – view that “clean, Christian and genteel” explorers such as Sir John Franklin and his gallant men would never stoop to cannibalism, no matter the circumstances.
This message is front and centre in The Frozen Deep. Indeed, the play revolves around two men having their limits tested during a disastrous Arctic expedition. (Spoilers: they decide not to eat one another.)
Inuit communities and the Franklin Expedition are (thankfully) not mentioned. But one character – “a suspicious, power-hungry nursemaid” – is believed to be based on poor John Rae.
Kensal Green Cemetery: further information
We have only focused on North-West Passage graves here. But Kensal Green Cemetery is full of wonders. The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery can help you explore further. They offer general and specialised tours. And their website is full of information.
Biographies by Alison Freebairn/@fingerpostblog
Photography and Kensal Green Cemetery map design by Logan Zachary/@illuminatorblog
Please tag us in your photographs!
This guide was developed from a Kensal Green Cemetery overview published by Logan Zachary on illuminator dot blog in May 2020.