“Carried for long, or to the last” – Franklin relics and the Goodsir family

I have the strongest impression, that the Student’s Manual spoken of in the Illustrated London News as among the Franklin Relics, had belonged to poor Harry.”
Jane Ross Goodsir, 1854

We know what the Franklin Relics looked like – chronometers, cap bands, cutlery that passed through many hands.

But what was it like for the families of the missing men of the Franklin Expedition, to open a newspaper and read about a relic that had belonged to someone you love?

And what if you couldn’t definitively prove a connection between a particular relic and your missing loved one – because all you had was a strong feeling?

A missing brother

We don’t have to imagine, because there is a letter at the Centre for Research Collections in Edinburgh that captures that sinking, stomach-lurching, desperate experience.

Jane Ross Goodsir, elder sister of Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir, assistant surgeon of HMS Erebus, had just learned that a silver table fork engraved with the initials “HDSG” had been recovered by Dr John Rae.

But this is not what caught her eye. She was certain that a second relic had belonged to her missing brother.

A page from a letter from Jane Ross Goodsir to her elder brother John, dated November 1854, and related to the recovery of Franklin relics.
The first page of Jane Ross Goodsir’s letter to her brother, Professor John Goodsir, following Dr John Rae’s recovery of Franklin relics in 1854. Shelfmark: GB 237 Coll-28 Gen 292 (3), courtesy of the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

‘My dear John,

I have the strongest impression, that the “Student’s Manual” spoken of in the Illustrated London News as among the Franklin Relics, had belonged to poor Harry. Aunt is of the same opinion, and the more I consider the passage, the stronger the impression becomes, that it was his.’

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is the custodian of this particular relic, and has made images of it available online.

Item AAA2055 – a relic of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition 1845-48. Two pages of a book obtained from the Inuit at Repulse Bay in 1854 by the Rae Expedition. © Royal Museums Greenwich

The Illustrated London News of 4th November 1854 did not include these pages in its etching of the Rae relics. But it did refer to them in the text of its article.

And as the ILN’s biographical notes on some of the missing men led seamlessly into its discussion on the Student’s Manual pages, it also – deliberately or not – appeared to link them to Harry Goodsir.

This quote clearly struck a chord with Jane. She wrote:

When I remember [Harry’s] deep grief at Mama’s death, and the tears he shed then, and all the time her body lay in the room of our old house at Anstruther, and that her death was perhaps the one event of his life that would cling to him most, when danger and death must have been meeting him at every turn; I am almost sure that these two pages of the book, of which I remember he had a copy, are his, and may be carried with him for long, or to the last.

… I would value these two pages of the Student’s Manual more than I could express, if it were possible to get possession of them.

Do you think you could apply at least for a sight of them? Perhaps if you or Joseph wrote to Dr Rae he would let us have them, or make the necessary application at the Admiralty for them.”

The Illustrated London News makes the point that the pages were folded. This detail was picked up by James Parsons in his 1857 pamphlet Reflections on the Mysterious Fate of Sir John Franklin.

The pages from the Student’s Manual, he said, were “marked or doubled, which had evidently fixed the attention of its reader; the part most prominent appears to have been studied by one whose worldly position was hopeless…

‘Are you not afraid to die?’
‘No.'”

An etching of Franklin Relics published in the Illustrated London News.
Franklin relics as depicted in the 9th December 1854 edition of Gleason’s Pictorial, featuring the Student’s Manual top left, and the HDSG fork bottom centre right. Image courtesy Logan Zachary/Illuminator dot blog

Dr John Rae had collected these pages – and a large number of other items from the missing men of the Erebus and the Terror – in 1854, from Inuit around Repulse Bay and Pelly Bay.

These relics were “said to have been found with the part of Sir John Franklin’s party who starved to the west of Back’s River in 1850.”

A detail from John Rae’s list of relics he collected from the Inuit and brought back to Britain in 1854. TNA ADM 7/193

How did these pages survive at all? It is vanishingly rare to find any paper associated with the Franklin Expedition. There are a few records that survived in cylinders. A few prayer books that survived buried deep in a boat. A pocketbook in a skeleton’s coat, and a few scraps blowing around a winter camp.

In 1857, many of these fragile relics were still to be recovered. Parsons saw the survival of the Student’s Manual pages as a hopeful indication that other papers may yet be found. 

Detail of a map of King William Island
Detail of the 1880 Royal Geographical Society map of Franklin sites and relics around King William Island. “Rae’s furthest” in 1854 is marked on the right. Pelly Bay and Repulse Bay lie east of Shepherd Bay.

“It is singular that these tribes should preserve this book (sic) that was of no value to them,” he wrote.

“Had they not taken a peculiar interest in its preservation, it would not have been found in ’54.”

Asking the Lords

If John Goodsir or Joseph Taylor Goodsir wrote to the Admiralty on this matter, their letters have not been preserved in the ADMs held by The National Archives. The Goodsirs did not have a lot of luck with the Admiralty. John and Robert Anstruther Goodsir had petitioned the Lords several times over the years, with no results.

And in any case, these relics changed hands faster than the matter could have been resolved by mail.

The Admiralty presented the Student’s Manual pages to Greenwich Hospital on 2nd December 1854, less than a month after Jane wrote to her brother John. 

Kept safe by Inuit

For me, where these relics ended up is somehow less interesting than where they started out.

Regardless of who owned this copy of The Student’s Manual, two carefully folded pages came into the possession of an Inuit community. And the Inuit kept these folded pages safe until such times that another white man marched into their lands, asking questions.

And before that, someone made the decision to cut or tear these specific pages out of a book. They folded them carefully, perhaps to place inside a pocket. This person may have been leaving on a potentially dangerous hunting trip, or a journey of exploration along an Arctic coast.

Or perhaps they were deserting their ship, and marching south into an unknown future.

Sources

Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh - GB 237 Coll-28 Gen 292 (3)
Illustrated London News, 4th November 1854 edition
The National Archives - ADM 7/193
Parsons, James - Reflections on the Mysterious Fate of Sir John Franklin (1857) 
Rae, John - Arctic Correspondence 1844-1855 (1953) Hudson's Bay Record Society
Royal Museums Greenwich - items AAA2055; AAA2381

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