When searchers from Captain William Penny’s ships stumbled across the Franklin Expedition’s Winter Quarters on Beechey Island on 27th August 1850, their first priority was to find official papers that would tell them where to look next.
They did not find any.
But they did find more than a dozen handwritten and printed fragments of paper in and among the remnants of the camp’s structures.
At the time, the searchers may have viewed these scraps of paper as worthless detritus. After all, this expedition was in the Arctic looking for living men.
They were searching for lost friends and colleagues. One man – Robert Anstruther Goodsir – was looking for a missing brother. Another, James Reid Junior, was searching for his missing father – the Ice Master of HMS Erebus.
And yet the searchers carefully gathered each scrap of paper, and brought them back to Britain the following year.
The Lords of the Admiralty examined them. John Barrow Junior took custody of the papers in due course, and he dutifully pasted each one into a record book.
These were early days in the search for the Franklin Expedition. None of the searchers had any idea that another eight years would pass before the only substantive piece of written evidence – the Victory Point Record – would be found on King William Island.
Scraps and clues
These Beechey Papers were just scraps. But sometimes even a scrap can contain clues to guide a theory of what it was – and how it got there.
Searchers found the largest piece of paper in one of two wash houses Franklin’s men had built on Beechey Island in 1845.
It’s a section of weathered brown wrapping paper, pasted onto a larger, more robust piece of brown paper.
Someone – possibly a searcher – has added a note on the bottom left. It reads “Piece of brown paper found in washhouse Beechey Island”.
“Erebus” is written at the top left. The word “Immediate” is written on the right in a different hand – the ink is smudged, as though it left someone’s desk at speed – and, under this, there’s a portion of what looks like an address.
“Lieut C.B. oyal till”.
But there was nobody with these initials and rank on the muster lists of HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.
Speculation was rampant when I posted the Beechey Papers in Facebook’s Remembering the Franklin Expedition group back in August 2019.
Who was “Lieut. C.B.”? Was this a package full of natural history items or more letters home? Could it have been magnetic reports? Journals? Expedition daguerrotypes?
While we worked ourselves into a frenzy of what-ifs, historian Neil Bettridge suggested that “oyal till” was most likely “Royal Artillery”.
DJ Holzhueter suggested that “C.B.” might be part of the officer’s rank – “Counter-Battery“. And they pointed to an officer called Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy as a possible candidate.
However, we ruled out Lefroy after establishing that he wasn’t in England in 1845 (more on that later). But DJ was very close indeed.
One thing was for sure: there was nothing “immediate” for dispatch once the Franklin Expedition had settled into their Winter Quarters. This was a package they had brought with them. So what might it have been? And what did it have to do with the Royal Artillery?
The link between the Franklin Expedition and the Royal Artillery was Colonel Edward Sabine (1788-1883), an Irish geophysicist, astronomer and explorer who had served as astronomer on the first John Ross Arctic expedition of 1818, and sailed with William Edward Parry on Hecla the following year.
He had started his career with the Royal Artillery at the age of 15. And while he stayed with his regiment for decades, it was the study of terrestrial magnetism that dominated his long life.
Naval historian Prof. Andrew Lambert has written that Sabine’s ambitions had meshed with those of Sir John Barrow, Bart – the Second Secretary of the Admiralty – whose heart was set on another attempt at a North West Passage.
“Without a magnetic impulse, there would have been no Arctic mission,” Lambert wrote in his 2009 book Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (published in the US as The Gates of Hell).
Certainly Sabine seized the opportunity to update Arctic magnetic reports that were by now decades out of date, and gather new information.
Lambert describes Sir John Franklin’s sailing orders, issued on 5th May 1845, as the “distillation of the collected wisdom of [William Edward] Parry, [John] Franklin, [James Clark] Ross, [Francis] Beaufort and Sabine”.
Science and natural history are scattered throughout the orders. But Articles 13 and 14 are devoted to magnetic observations, with the latter setting out then-Commander James Fitzjames’ leading role in the work.
Sabine was in charge of the British Empire’s global investigations into terrestrial magnetism. He had a small group of officers at his disposal – including Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy. But did he also have a Lieut C.B. on his team?
The Army List for 1845 contains details of every Captain, Second Captain, Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant serving in the Royal Artillery that year. But this source didn’t look promising at first. There were people named CF, CG, CJ, CC, – almost every combination except the one we were looking for.
Because Logan Zachary’s high-resolution photography of the scrap showed a clear C.B..
But then a familiar name jumped out at me when I was on the second sweep.
I’d seen it in a letter from then-Commander James Fitzjames of HMS Erebus to Colonel Edward Sabine, sent from the Whale Fish Islands on 11th July 1845. The letter was concerning Fitzjames’ progress – or lack thereof, because of problems with the instruments – with his magnetic observation duties.
I intend writing to Riddell – but should I not have time for I am much hurried pray tell him of my kind remembrances.”
And here was someone of that name in the Army List, among the First Lieutenants of the Royal Artillery.
Lieutenant Charles James Buchanan Riddell. The only Royal Artillery officer in the 1845 Army List with given names beginning with “C” and “B”.
This theory would require that Riddell sometimes dropped the “J” from his initials. But that is something we have seen with others in this same history, such as (Francis) Leopold McClintock and (Charles) Frederick Des Voeux.
So who was this man, and did he have a connection to Sabine and Fitzjames?
Charles James Buchanan Riddell was born in the Scottish village of Lilliesleaf, south-east of Selkirk, on 19th November 1817. He went to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1832, when he was 17 years old, and joined the Royal Artillery two years later. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in 1837.
Riddell first became involved with Edward Sabine and the scientific work on terrestrial magnetism in 1839.
He selected the site of the new colonial Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory in Toronto, oversaw its construction, and served as its Superintendent. He fell ill in 1841, however, and was invalided home.
Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy, who had been in charge of a similar observatory on St Helena, later took over the management of the Toronto facility¹.
Once Riddell was back in London and fully recovered, Sabine was quick to bring him into his team as Assistant Superintendent of Ordnance and Magnetic Observations at the Royal Military Repository at Woolwich.
Riddell was heavily involved in the work to prepare the companies of the Erebus and the Terror for the scientific work ahead.
We know exactly which instruments had been sent to each of Sir John Franklin’s ships, because each one is documented in a letter book now held by The National Archives (TNA BJ3/47). While these are copies, the author of the original letters was Lieut. C.J.B. Riddell.
The list is organised by the type of instrument and clearly shows what went where:
The Royal Artillery seems to have felt a great deal of pride over their involvement in such a prestigious and high-profile expedition. Indeed, the Corps organised a celebratory dinner in honour of Sir John Franklin and the men of Erebus and Terror on 27th March 1845.
Writing to his wife Jane the following morning, Franklin described “a very handsome dinner”, which was “attended by upwards of 100 persons – every one in fact having been invited from the neighbourhood who were in any way connected with the Navy or scientific research.”
He added: “In my speech returning thanks for the Arctic Expedition I took occasion to allude to the scientific character of the officers of the Royal Artillery & especially to the share several of them were taking in the Magnetic Observations which were now engaging the attention of the world – and in so doing I alluded to Sabine without mentioning his name, for which he desired [Captain] Washington² to thank me very sincerely.”
[See the Appendix for a full transcription of this letter, Af1/16, which is held by the State Library of New South Wales.]
Later in this letter, he tells Lady Franklin that he intends to visit London the following day “to transact business at Somerset House & the Admiralty relative to the provision of the instruments”.
It was a busy time: the ships were being modified and fitted out, HMS Terror‘s captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier would arrive back from leave in Ireland later that day, and Franklin had plans to send his newly-appointed Ice Master James Reid out to find seamen with experience of the whale fishery in Davis Strait.
And it would get much busier as the days ticked down to departure.
Some of the politics around the expedition – and the intense pressure on everyone involved – are hinted at in a letter from Sabine to his good friend and ally Captain Beaufort dated 13th May 1845 (UKHO, MLP/10/2/1).
Sabine wrote: “I beg to inform you in reply that it was arranged on Saturday the 10th instant that the instruments should remain at this Office until Wednesday the 14th in order that the Officers of the Expedition might have an opportunity of practicing with them until the latest convenient moment; and that on Wednesday they should be conveyed to Greenhithe either in the Ships’ boats or in a small steamer…
I apprehend therefore that there has been some mistake in the supposition that the ships were detained at Woolwich on account of the instruments not being on board.
“I am further led to this belief by the fact that the ships did actually sail to Greenhithe on yesterday the 12th instant, on which day Captain Hamilton’s³ letter informed me that their Lordships had directed them to leave Woolwich.”
Captain Crozier’s 6″ Dip Circle
The majority of the instruments were indeed transferred to Erebus and Terror at Greenhithe on 15th May 1845, exactly in line with the schedule. Still more packages were taken on board on the 16th. They were brought there by none other than Colonel Edward Sabine himself⁴.
Friday 16th May was to be an additional training day, as Sabine pointed out to Beaufort in his letter:
“I beg leave also to acquaint you that Sir John Franklin has arranged this morning that Thursday the 15th instead of Wednesday the 14th shall be the day on which the instruments are to be received on board: by which means an additional day will be gained for the practice of the Officers, without risk of the detention of the ships, as they are not to be paid until Friday the 16th.”
Fitzjames given responsibility
Officers from Erebus and Terror – including Lieutenants James Walter Fairholme, George Henry Hodgson and Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte – had already been given training on the equipment in the weeks leading up to the expedition’s eventual departure (Levere, 1993).
Andrew Lambert wrote that “The ships were equipped with the same instruments as the colonial observatories. They were to be used on board ship, and in the portable observatories … Fitzjames was given responsibility for the daily observations and ordered to attend Sabine’s academy for the necessary training.”
Did Riddell lead the training given to James Fitzjames in 1845?
It’s very possible. Certainly Fitzjames had built a sufficiently strong relationship with Riddell to have wanted to write to him from the Whale Fish Islands, and to ask Sabine to pass on his kind remembrances.
After all, Riddell was an expert in how to set up magnetic observatories from scratch, and in using the delicate instruments on board ship and on unfamiliar ground. In fact, he had literally written the book on it.
Magnetical Instructions for the use of Portable Instruments was published in 1844. So it would make sense for the individual who devised these processes to pass on his expertise in person. If Riddell were working with the Franklin officers directly, he could demonstrate how to use every piece of equipment, give advice, and answer any of their questions.
Whether this would have helped or not is debatable.
In 2020, historians Edward J. Gillin and Crosbie Smith took an original Fox dipping needle on a voyage from Falmouth to Cape Town – retracing part of the route of James Clark Ross’ 1839-43 Antarctica expedition.
In his 2022 paper about the voyage and its experiments, Gillin wrote that the various written instructions – including Riddell’s – may have been of limited use.
“Inscription provided a valuable medium for forming scientific habits among the Royal Navy’s officer class. However, I would speculate that the number of revised texts on magnetic experimentation reflected the difficulties of describing the practical task of conducting such observations to expeditionary officers. In such cases, there was no substitute for direct experience.”
These sentiments are an echo of those expressed 177 years earlier by Lieutenant Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte.
Writing to his father on 2nd April 1845 from HMS Erebus, then docked at Woolwich, Le Vesconte said that “Several of us are already employed in studying the use of Instruments and making the calculations for Magnetic Observations.
“This is a very tedious affair the more so as being quite new. It is very little understood even by those who have devoted their whole attention to it, and there is at present no practical use to be made of these observations.” (The Rooms, St Johns NL, item VW006101/02)
This, however, would change. Sir John Franklin would speak warmly of the work done by his “magnetic men” during the voyage from Greenhithe to Stromness and later to Greenland (Potter et al, 2022), using the equipment supplied by Riddell and Sabine.
The Riddell list at The National Archives is comprehensive. However, it lacks details that would allow us to identify specific instruments that were used during this time, or to guess which package was marked “Immediate” and rushed to “Lieut C.B.” before being unceremoniously forwarded to HMS Erebus.
But the fact that the wrapping paper ended up on Beechey Island may suggest that the box may have held equipment needed for the observatories that were to be constructed on land, and used for several months rather than days or weeks⁵.
Or there could be a simpler explanation. Perhaps an instrument had been lost or damaged earlier in the voyage, and a replacement was needed.
Fitzjames had been very vocal about the poor condition of his “rotten” Fox dipping needle (TNA, BJ 3/17)⁶. Perhaps other vital instruments had also been substandard?
This brings us back to the central question: how did the paper get onto Beechey Island, and how did it manage to survive four long Arctic winters before being discovered by the 1850-51 search expedition?
From Riddell to Sabine to Erebus?
One possible series of events is that the package was rushed to “Lieut C.B.” in those frantic final days before the Franklin Expedition left Greenhithe. There was no time to wrap it up again and re-address it.
Someone wrote “Erebus” to specify which ship it was destined for, and off it went, possibly transported by Sabine on 16th May.
The package may have stayed on Erebus until both ships were locked into their Winter Quarters at Beechey Island in the autumn of 1845.
Pieces of its rough brown wrapping paper were taken into one of the Beechey Island wash houses.
Maybe they were intended to be used as kindling. But it’s more likely that they were stuffed into cracks between the stones used to build the structure, to add a much-needed defence against the Arctic winds.
Either way, the paper stayed in the remains of the wash house until late August 1850, when the 1850-51 search ships descended on Franklin’s Winter Quarters and tore the site apart looking for clues.
There were no official messages from Sir John Franklin – or at least none were found, not in 1850 nor in the later searches.
But searchers did find dozens of scraps of handwritten and printed fragments. Some of them were in the handwriting of James Fitzjames, and were related to the magnetic observation work Sabine was so keen that he carry out.
The searchers carefully gathered each piece of paper, and brought them back to Britain the following year.
The Lords of the Admiralty examined them. John Barrow Junior took custody of the papers in due course. He dutifully pasted each one into a record book.
Barrow Junior and his search colleagues had no idea that another eight years would pass before Francis Leopold McClintock’s Fox expedition uncovered the Victory Point Record.
They probably wouldn’t imagine that these seemingly mundane scraps would take on much greater significance in the decades to come – that these Beechey Papers would be some of the very, very few traces left by 129 men who travelled to the Arctic in 1845, and died there.
Or that the papers would sit in ADM 7/190 at The National Archives, largely forgotten and overlooked, until August 2019.
Woolwich, 28 March 1845
My dearest Love
I am writing in the house of Capt. Washington where I slept after the dinner given to the Expedition by the Royal Artillery. It was a very handsome dinner and attended by upwards of 100 persons – every one in fact having been invited from the neighbourhood who were in any way connected with the Navy or scientific research. Lord Bloomfield the Commandant of the Corps was prevented by his medical man from attending, but he sent a note just before dinner to express his regret at this circumstance and desired the President to convey this sentiment to me. His son however was there, who is the minister at St Petersburg. He introduced himself to me and immediately began to speak in the most gratifying terms of Hry Elliot whom he had heard often speak of us with the most sincere regard – Mr Bloomfield also spoke of him as a very clever & gentlemanly young man.
I sat at dinner on the left of the President and next to Col Wilde the Equerry to Prince Albert and I was happy to learn from him that the Prince would certainly he thought be visiting the ships when they were ready for his inspection. I had been during the morning engaged with Col Wilde in witnessing the trial of Mr Gamble’s Portable Life Boat, so that we had that knowledge of each other, which led him to have much interesting conversation with me after dinner.
In my speech returning thanks for the Arctic Expedition I took occasion to allude to the scientific character of the officers of the Royal Artillery & especially to the share several of them were taking in the Magnetic Observations which were now engaging the attention of the world – and in so doing I alluded to Sabine without mentioning his name, for which he desired Washington to thank me very sincerely. Col Wilde also expressed his gratification at the high compliment I had paid to the Corps, which he said would be long remembered & appreciated.
The ships have got their Lower Masts and today the seamen will commence rigging them. We can make no further progress as to their equipment until the ship wrights have completed strengthening the parts which are to bear the Propeller.
I am going up to London today to transact business at Somerset House & the Admiralty relative to the provision of the instruments. I shall probably sleep tonight at the Bedford. Eleanor told me she should get the things removed today from Mrs Small’s.
Crozier I hope will return from his leave today. The Ice Master I hope will be appointed today, as soon as he joins. I shall send him to the Northern & Scotch Ports to collect seamen who have been accustomed to the Whale Fishery in Davis Straits.
Your father dined with the family on Wednesday & yesterday & has been each day driving out.
Ever your most affect.
Neil Betteridge Edward J. Gillin DJ Holzhueter Olga Kimmins Andrew Lambert Fabiënne Tetteroo Shaun Williams Sylvia Wright & Logan Zachary
1. After Riddell left for England in 1841, a member of his team took over as acting superintendent while Lefroy tidied up his affairs in St Helena and travelled to Toronto. This was Lieut. Charles Wright Younghusband, uncle of Francis Younghusband, the explorer who would become President of the Royal Geographical Society. Francis Younghusband also chaired the Mount Everest Committee that was behind the 1921, 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions. The 1924 summit attempt ended with the disappearance of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who were last seen “going strong for the top”, and who would spark a mystery to rival that of the Franklin Expedition.
2. Captain John Washington (1800-1863) was one of the original members of the Royal Geographical Society and an eminent hydrographer. Washington Bay, west of Cape Herschel on King William Island, was named after him in 1859 by Leopold McClintock as a mark of respect to “a steadfast supporter of this final search” (McClintock, 1859). Washington took over as Hydrographer of the Royal Navy from Francis Beaufort in 1855, and was succeeded after his death by Franklin searcher George Henry Richards in 1864.
3. Captain Hamilton was William Alexander Baillie Hamilton, who took over as Second Secretary of the Admiralty on 28th April 1845 after the retirement of Sir John Barrow, Bart. Baillie Hamilton would be at the helm not only for most of the preparation for Sir John Franklin’s expedition and its departure, but also for the long years of failed searches between 1848 and 1855.
4. In his 2010 book James Fitzjames: Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition, William Battersby states that Fitzjames “stayed at Woolwich until his magnetic training was finished, when he joined the ships [at Greenhithe] with all the magnetic instruments” (Battersby 2010, p163). However, this detail is not sourced in the book, and it’s not clear to me where it came from. On 10th May, Fitzjames wrote that “On Monday at 3 o’clock the ships go to Green Hythe 12 miles down – and I remain here & go down early on Tuesday morning – the instruments not having yet all arrived” (Potter et al., p60 ebook). So it is possible that Fitzjames may have brought some instruments with him, but in the meantime we have a source clearly stating that Sabine certainly did.
5. In October 1850, Lady Franklin asked Sabine for his professional opinion of the traces found on Cape Riley by Captain Erasmus Ommanney and a team from HMS Assistance and HMS Intrepid on 23rd August. News of this discovery had been brought by Charles Codrington Forsyth of Lady Franklin’s private search ship, the Prince Albert, but he had been in such a rush to get home that he missed news of the discovery of the Franklin winter camp on Beechey Island, and its many scraps of paper.
Sabine told Lady Franklin that the evidence on Cape Riley pointed to the site being a long-term magnetic observatory, “from the quantity of remains of Provisions which I understand to have been found, and which are much more than are likely to have been consumed by an observing party during the very short time that the Instruments would have been put up at a temporary station.” He would expect two such long-term observatories to be set up in Winter Quarters – one for each ship – some distance apart from each other. (TNA ADM 7/189)
6. Fitzjames to John Barrow Junior, 1st June 1845, from Stromness: “… after all our trouble they have given us a rotten old Fox. one of the first that was made – badly marked & of little use – giving the new one intended for us to Kellett to whom it might have been sent.” (Potter et al. 2022, p. 95 ebook) The Riddell letterbook at The National Archives has a list of instruments and textbooks taken by Kellett for his own expedition just a month after Erebus and Terror headed north: it includes a Fox Dip Circle (see image below).
The Army List (1845), accessed via the National Library of Scotland
Battersby, William – James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition, The History Press (2010)
Carter, Christopher – Magnetic Fever: Global Imperialism and Empiricism in the Nineteenth Century. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 4 (2009)
HMS Erebus muster book, TNA ADM 38/672, transcribed and edited by Edmund Wuyts on Arctonauts.
Fairholme, Lieutenant James Walter – Manuscript transcriptions of letters sent by J.W. Fairholme to his father while on the voyage of Franklin’s last expedition of 1845, Derbyshire Record Office D8760/F/FEG/3/1/9
Fitzjames, James – letters to Col Edward Sabine, TNA BJ 3/17
Franklin, Sir John – letter to his wife Jane dated 28 March 1845, Af1/16, State Library of New South Wales
Gillin, Edward J. – The instruments of expeditionary science and the reworking of Nineteenth-Century magnetic experiment, Notes Rec, (2022) doi:10.1098/rsnr.2022.0002
Goodman, Matthew – Follow the data: Administering science at Edward Sabine’s Magnetic Department, Woolwich, Notes Rec. 73, 187–202 (2019) doi:10.1098/rsnr.2018.0036
James Fitzjames dot com by Fabiënne Tetteroo – Timeline
Lambert, Andrew – Dangerous History, The RUSI Journal, 154:4, 88-92, doi: 10.1080/03071840903216536 (2009)
Lambert, Andrew – Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation, Faber and Faber (2009)
Le Vesconte, Henry Thomas Dundas – letters to his family, 1845. The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, St Johns NL.
Levere, T.H. – Magnetic instruments in the Canadian Arctic expeditions of Franklin, Lefroy, and Nares, Ann. Sci. 43, 57–76 (1986)
Levere, Trevor H. – Science and the Canadian Arctic: A Century of Exploration 1818-1918, Cambridge University Press (1993)
McClintock, Francis Leopold – The Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas, John Murray (1859)
The National Archives – ADM 7/187, ADM 7/189, ADM 7/190
Osborn, Sherard – Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal (1852)
Potter, Koellner, Carney and Williamson (eds) – May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition, MQUP (2022)
Remembering the Franklin Expedition – a private group on Facebook, but it’s easy to join and nobody bites.
Riddell, Charles James Buchanan – Letterbook, TNA BJ 3/47
Riddell, C.J.B. – The Royal Society, Certificates of election and candidature for Fellowship of the Royal Society, EC/1842/04 (1842)
Riddell, C.J.B. – Magnetical Instructions for the use of Portable Instruments, The Admiralty (1844)
Riddell family history: https://www.electricscotland.com/history/nation/riddell.htm
Ross, M.J. – Polar Pioneers: John Ross and James Clark Ross, McGill-Queens University Press (1994)
Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track: William Penny and the Search for Franklin, McGill-Queens University Press (2019)
Sabine, Edward – Contributions to Terrestrial Magnetism No. VII. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1846, Vol. 136 pp. 237-336 (1846)
Sabine, Edward – Letter to Captain Beaufort, UKHO MLP/10/2/1
Sabine, Edward – Letter to the Admiralty on plans for a North-West Passage expedition in 1845, TNA ADM 7/187
Thompson, Andrew – Major-General C.J.B. Riddell, Monthly Report of the Canadian Meteorological Society – January 1971, Canadian Meteorological Service, pp. 1-4 (1971)
Zachary, Logan – The Beechey Papers, illuminator dot blog
Zeller, Suzanne – Humboldt and the Habitability of Canada’s Great Northwest. Geographical Review, Vol. 96, No. 3, Humboldt in the Americas, pp. 382-398 (2006)
One thought on “The Riddell of Beechey Island”
Thank you so much for such a wonderfully researched and fascinating post – during recent research I’ve learned that sometimes-overlooked ‘outliers’ like Sabine (William Scoresby is another) play a crucial role in what is often seen as a naval/Admiralty story.