Searching for Henry Foster Collins

So few details of the life of Henry Foster Collins have survived that even the indefatigable Richard J. Cyriax was lost for words about the Second Master of HMS Erebus.

Henry Foster Collins, Second Master, was educated at Greenwich Hospital School. He entered the Merchant Service on July 4th, 1832, and the Royal Navy on September 30th, 1843. Commander Fitzjames found him to be a most pleasant companion. His portrait is in the Royal Naval Museum.”

The portrait, of course is the daguerrotype taken on board HMS Erebus in mid-May 1845, before the ships set out on their historic voyage.

The auction house Sotheby’s will sell the only known complete set of Franklin Expedition daguerrotypes on 21st  September 2023. In the process, they have made high-resolution copies widely available for the first time¹.

The daguerrotype image of Henry Foster Collins, Second Master of HMS Erebus, from a set of photographs released by Sotheby’s in August 2023.

The Illustrated London News published a full-page etching taken from the daguerrotypes in its 13th September 1851 edition. The artist certainly did Henry Foster Collins a lot of favours. He looks like he was appointed to the HMS Dreamboat:

So who was Henry Foster Collins, and what were the forces that had shaped his short life?

On paper, Henry had a great start. He was born into a successful naval family, directly descended from 17th Century Royal Hydrographer Greenville Collins (O’Byrne).

There were some parallels between the two men. Greenville Collins (1643-1694) had been an innovative maritime surveyor and the author of Great Britain’s Coasting Pilot (1693). Henry Foster would spend his first year with the Royal Navy on a surveying mission in Scotland.

A North-East Passage

Most strikingly, though, in 1676, Greenville Collins had taken part in a search for a North-East Passage.

Collins sailed as Master on the HMS Speedwell, captained by John Wood. The ship had a crew of 68 and was accompanied by a smaller support vessel, HMS Prosperous.

In his posthumous book The Land of Silence, Clements Markham noted that “the expedition sailed on the 28th May, 1676; the polar pack between the North Cape and Novaya Zemlya was reached on the 22nd June, and Novaya Zemlya was sighted on the 26th. But there was no one on board with any experience of ice navigation; the Speedwell grounded on the 29th and became a wreck.”

Greenville Collins’ watercolour of “Mount Missery”, where the shipwrecked crew of the Speedwell made camp while waiting for rescue. Image from AbeBooks.

Collins’ account is the only narrative of this voyage, as Captain Woods’ journals and papers went down with his ship. The survivors made camp at a spot dubbed “Mount Missery” and hoped for the best.

They were fortunate. Disaster was averted when the men of the Speedwell were picked up by the Prosperous, and Greenville Collins came back to England safe and sound.

If only his distant great-grandchild had been so lucky.

Henry Foster’s parents: Georgina and Henry

Georgina Foster and Henry Collins were married in St Clements’ Church, Hastings, on 30th June 1817.

Georgina came from a prosperous family. She was born in Lenham in Kent, in January 1798, to John Foster, a landed proprietor, and his wife Elizabeth, née Nowers.  This couple had 13 children, and Georgina would pass some of their names onto her own babies.

Her grandmother Judith was from the Belcher family (Woodson Research Center). Writing in 1890, Georgina’s youngest brother William told his grandson about some of the Foster family connections:

Sir Edward Belcher, the Arctic Navigator …  was a close relative of my Father. I think my Grandmother Foster was a Belcher. My nephew Henry Collins, son of my sister Georgina was sailing master of the Erebus, Sir John Franklin’s ship when she and the Terror were lost near the North Pole.”

Henry Collins Senior was born on 3rd April 1792. He was the son of George Collins, who worked as Clerk of the Cheque at the Priddy’s Hard magazine at Gosport, Hampshire.

Heroism and adventure

Henry Senior’s service record to 1845 is detailed by O’Byrne, and it’s packed with heroism and adventure. The National Archives holds a further record, and this one shows that Henry Senior spent nearly as much time on half-pay as he did at sea.

This was not unusual. Many good mariners spent a lot of their time languishing on half-pay. However, Henry Senior’s life appears to have taken a calamitous turn at the end of his career with the Coast Guard. But this story will have to wait.

George McKinley Collins

Henry Foster Collins came into the world on 3rd May 1818. But he wasn’t alone. He had a twin brother, George McKinley Collins. Both babies were baptised on 29th May, at St Clement’s in Hastings, where Henry Senior and Georgina had been married.

The name is significant, as Henry Senior’s first ever captain – when he joined the Royal Navy as a 3rd Class Boy in 1806 – was George McKinley, in command of HMS Quebec (O’Byrne).

However, George McKinley would only live for six short months. His death was registered in Bexhill, a short distance along the south coast from Hastings, and he was buried there on 23rd November.

Georgina and Henry went on to have seven more children: Charlotte (born in Devon, 1824), Georgina Elizabeth (born in Devon, 1826), William (born c.1828), Margaret Forbes (born in Mayo, Ireland, 1831), Thomasine Underwood (born on the Isle of Man in 1833), Decima Sutton (born in Liverpool in 1836), and Elizabeth Foster (born in Hartlepool, 1840).

Charlotte was baptised privately, which could happen if a baby was not expected to live long enough to take part in a church ceremony (Oxford Family History Society). There is no record of her being accepted into the church later, as would happen following a private baptism if the child had lived, but neither are there any records of her death or burial.

In May 1829, not long after the birth of William, the family applied to have Henry Foster admitted to the Greenwich Hospital School for the children of Royal Navy servicemen (TNA, ADM 73/199/23).

A plaque on the wall of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich commemorating the building’s former life as the Royal Hospital School.

There was a strict set of criteria for admission into the school, with priority given to orphans and children whose fathers had died in service.

Henry Foster Collins was neither of those. In the application, under a section titled “If the Father is in the service and the Mother living”, Henry Senior wrote: “Both, the mother in a bad state of health.”

A page from the application for Henry Foster Collins to attend the Greenwich Hospital School. The National Archives, ADM 73/199/23

As a result of his mother’s illness and his father’s career, young Henry Foster was assessed as “a real object of charity” by his parish. He was admitted to the Royal Naval School at Greenwich on 16th May 1829, aged 11.

A path into a career with the Navy – Mercantile and Royal – was now assured. 

As noted by Cyriax, Henry Foster Collins first signed up in the Merchant Navy in 1832. But he was home with his family on the night of the 1841 census². The Collins family are living at Walker Place in Hartlepool while Henry Senior is employed by the Coast Guard.

Two years later, Henry Foster joined the Royal Navy.

Shearwater, surveying, and a Scottish tragedy

On 13th January 1844, the Naval and Military Gazette announced that Henry Foster had been appointed to HMS Shearwater as Second Master. The Shearwater was a paddle steamer launched in 1837 and employed as a survey ship under Commander Charles Gepp Robinson.

The paddle steamer HMS Shearwater is pictured here second left. Credit: Archibald Day – Scan of original book, Public Domain,

The 2nd Lieutenant on board was Byron Drury – godson of Lord Byron, who had been friends with his father at Harrow. Drury started his career as a Volunteer under Edward Belcher in 1830, and later served under Sir John Franklin for three years on HMS Rainbow (O’Byrne).

Shearwater was assigned the west coast of Scotland, and Henry Foster was with her throughout 1844 (the Navy List). So he would have been on the scene of a terrible accident that befell the crew on 17th May 1844.

Unfortunate midshipmen

Two young midshipmen, Charles Cayley and William Jewell, had taken a small boat for a sail around Largs Bay when the weather started to turn.

The local press reported that “it came on to blow a gale from the north-east, and as they had unfortunately neglected to slacken the sail, the little craft was running under water while she was rounding the north-end of the larger Cumbrae, and went down head-foremost, carrying the unfortunate midshipmen along with her.”

The boat was recovered, but the bodies of Cayley and Jewell were not. In their memory, the crew of HMS Shearwater built a monument on the coast of Great Cumbrae, which still stands today.

An inscription reads:

In memory of Mr Charles D. Cayley aged 17 years and Mr William N. Jewell aged 19 years, midshipmen of HMS Shearwater. Two promising young officers drowned by the upsetting of their boat near this place 17th May 1844. This monument is erected in token of their worth by Captain Robinson and officers of the above vessel.

On 11th May 1845, Henry Foster received a dazzling new appointment. He was to be Second Master of HMS Erebus, Sir John Franklin’s flagship, on a high-profile and high-expectation voyage to find a North-West Passage (TNA, ADM 38/672).

It was just over a week after his 27th birthday.

The Franklin Expedition of 1845

When Henry Foster Collins was appointed to Erebus, he was required to draw up a Last Will and Testament (TNA, PROB 11/2192/332).

Like his Erebus colleague Lieutenant Edward Couch, Henry Foster appointed the naval agents Octavius Ommanney – a brother of future Franklin searcher Captain Erasmus Ommanney – and William Palin to be his executors should he not return from the historic voyage (Rich, 2021).

But unlike Edward Couch, Henry Foster did not leave his estate to his father, as might have been expected.

Instead, he bequeathed everything to one Samuel Dowbiggin Esquire of Bayswater.

The Dowbiggin connection

Nothing has yet come to light to explain how Henry Foster met Major Samuel Dowbiggin (1784-1867) and why he placed such high trust in him, but the two families would stay linked for decades.

Dowbiggin had served in the 38th and latterly 52nd Foot regiments, and what little is traceable of his life seems to place him as far away from Georgina Collins and her children as it’s possible to get. Both regiments travelled all over the world in the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s – seeing action in France, South Africa, India, Burma, and Ireland.

However, Samuel Dowbiggin did not go with them.

The Army Lists show that he went on half-pay in 1814, just after his promotion to captain. Aside from a brief return to service with the 38th Foot in 1817, for a period of just over a year, Dowbiggin would stay on half-pay until his retirement in December 1835 (London Gazette).

And for some reason as yet unknown, when the time came to write possibly the most important document of his life, Henry Foster Collins chose Samuel Dowbiggin over Henry Collins Senior.

Leaving Greenhithe

The Erebus and the Terror sailed from Greenhithe on Monday, 19th May 1845. Richard J. Cyriax wrote that “the British nation viewed the departure with pride and confidence.

“The expedition was the best equipped that the Admiralty had ever sent to the Polar regions; the officers and men, each of whom had been specially selected, were sailing under conditions of unprecedented excellence.”

The Erebus and Terror as pictured in the 24th May 1845 edition of the Illustrated London News. Image courtesy Logan Zachary/@illuminatorblog.

The expedition stopped at Sheerness, at Stromness, and at the Whalefish Islands. The last letters from the crew members were sent home with the transport ship Baretto Junior in mid-July 1845 (Potter et al, 2022, p199). 

On 26th July 1845, Captain Dannet of the Hull whaler Prince of Wales welcomed many of the expedition’s officers on board while all three ships were in Melville Bay (Traill, 1896, p352).

At 8 P.M. received on board ten of the chief officers of the expedition under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, of the Terror and Erebus. Both ships’ crews are all well, and in remarkable spirits, expecting to finish the operation in good time. They are made fast to a large iceberg, with a temporary observatory fixed upon it. They were in latitude 74° 48′, longitude 66° 13′ W.”

And then a long silence descended.

Jane, Lady Franklin, began to ring alarm bells after two years had passed with no sign of her husband and his ships. But the Admiralty remained sanguine: the ships were fitted out for a long voyage. There was no need to worry.

It was not until 1848 that the first official search expedition was sent out under the command of Sir James Clark Ross. It returned the following year with no answers. The Admiralty, under constant pressure from Lady Franklin, again swung into action.

The 1850s

The 1850 search for Franklin was of unprecedented size and complexity (Freebairn, 2020).

HMS Investigator and HMS Enterprise – commanded by Robert McClure and Richard Collinson respectively – were sent to search from west to east, via the Behring Strait.

From east to west, via Lancaster Sound, went a Royal Navy squadron of four ships – HMSs Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer and Intrepid – with Captain Horatio Austin in overall command. Meanwhile, Lady Franklin’s “silver Penny” – whaling captain William Penny – was commanding two ships, the Lady Franklin and the Sophia, under the Admiralty’s orders.

Old Arctic hand Sir John Ross was there too with the Felix, and Lady Franklin’s first private search ship, the Prince Albert, joined the expedition briefly.

Two US Navy ships, the Advance and the Rescue, had also been sent by Lady Franklin’s ally Henry Grinnell. And the HMS North Star was waiting for them with coal and provisions (Ross, 2019).

The families of the missing men could only wait and hope.

Relics but no answers

In the 1851 census, the Collins family – Henry Senior and Georgina, with Margaret, Thomasine, Decima and Elizabeth – are living at the Coast Guard Station in Catterline, which lies south of Stonehaven on the north-east coast of Scotland.

In September 1851, the search expedition led by Captain Horatio Austin returned with plenty of relics, but no answers for grieving relatives such as the Collins family. In 1852, Georgina’s relative, Captain Edward Belcher, was chosen to lead another search for the Franklin Expedition.

Henry Senior’s employment with the Coast Guard came to an end on 24th August 1852, after four years and nine months of service. This change in circumstances might explain why the family moved north of Stonehaven, to the village of Cookney, between 1852 and 1854.

The first signs of serious trouble within the Foster Collins family emerge at this time.


Henry Senior was on a trip to the Admiralty in early 1853 when he was admitted – he would later claim against his will – to the Victorian mental hospital called Bethnal House in London. No records survive as to the circumstances, although Henry would make some bold claims about them a few years later.

The records show that Henry Collins was admitted on 23rd February, and then released 17 days later on 11th March showing “no improvement”.

In early 1854, the family would have received the devastating news that Henry Foster Collins – and the rest of the Franklin Expedition – had been declared dead and removed from the Admiralty’s books.

A detail from the 1845 Muster Book of HMS Erebus: a later hand has written “Officers and Ships Company to be considered as having died in service & their wages are to be paid to their relatives to 31 March 1854”. The National Archives, ADM 38/672

This must have been a terrible time for the Collins family. Henry Senior appeared to be extremely unwell.

He was admitted to the Royal Asylum in Aberdeen as a private patient on 19th August 1854. In a cruel twist, his admission number was 1813 – the year he made Lieutenant (Scottish Indexes).

Unfortunately, as he was admitted in 1854, no details about the nature of his illness have survived. Three years later, legislation in Scotland would ensure that all potential patients would be assessed by two different doctors, and a case presented for why their symptoms were severe enough for admission. 

No relics, no answers, no ships

Meanwhile, Edward Belcher and his crew were sailing back to England on different vessels than those they’d sailed out on. When Belcher came home, he had no relics, no answers, and no ships. Against all advice, he had abandoned HMSs Assistance, Resolute, Intrepid and Pioneer in the Arctic.

Further misery was heaped on the Collins family – and all other Franklin Expedition relatives – in October 1854, when a private report by Dr John Rae was leaked to the media. In the report, Rae reported Inuit testimony that evidence of cannibalism among Franklin’s men had been found.

While all this drama was playing out, Henry Senior was still in the Aberdeen asylum. He would stay there for nearly five years before being discharged, on 19th July 1859, to the family home at Cannachmore Cottage and into the care of Georgina.

But only seven weeks later, Henry Senior was in London – and he had a wildly dramatic story to tell.

How the 10th September 1859 edition of the West End News reported the story of Henry Collins asking for protection from his family. Image: Public Domain, accessed through the BNA.

[Content warning: the next section contains some offensive language about mental illness in direct quotes from 1859. The full newspaper article is included as Appendix 1 below.]

On Wednesday 8th September 1859 – while Captain Francis Leopold McClintock and the crew of the Fox were exchanging farewell gifts with the Greenlandic Inuit at Godhavn before heading home with proof of the fate of the Franklin Expedition – Commander Henry Collins RN walked into the Southwark police court and asked for protection.

His alleged tormentors were his wife Georgina and a daughter “in service to a nobleman in Brighton” – Margaret Forbes Collins, who was by then working for Major Samuel Dowbiggin as his housekeeper.

Georgina and Margaret had, he claimed, repeatedly kidnapped him, had him committed to asylums for no reason, and had taken all the money due to him over several years.

Lost with the expedition

They … put me in a lunatic asylum, and thus got all my property into their hands. My son was on board Sir John Franklin’s unfortunate vessel the Erebus, as acting-master, and was lost with that expedition. I was entitled to my son’s pay, but they got that when I was in the lunatic asylum.”

Collins begged the court for help. “I have done everything,” he said, “but I cannot get rid of the persecution. They want to kidnap me again, for fear of my calling public attention to the acts of my wife and daughter, who receive all my money. I cannot be insane, as only a short time ago I received the Greenwich pension for my services.”

The magistrate he petitioned, a Mr Combe, bluntly refused to help. And Commander Henry Collins, “the fine-looking elderly gentleman”, left the court in the company of a nephew.  

Devastating impact

The whole story is, in my opinion, absolutely heart-wrenching. Either Henry Senior was an extremely ill man at a point in history where mental illness was not understood – and when any treatment available was brutal and traumatising – or he was the bewildered victim of an abusive family. Either way, the impact on the entire family must have been devastating.

And this tragedy might suggest a theory for why Henry Foster Collins bequeathed his estate to Samuel Dowbiggin in 1845, and not to his father.

Perhaps, if Henry Senior had been suffering from a serious mental illness for some time, this was a way for Henry Foster to safeguard his estate.

By naming Dowbiggin in the will, Henry Foster’s Erebus pay could perhaps be held in trust for Georgina and her children, or transferred to her directly, should the worst happen. As indeed it did.

The 1860s and beyond

In September 1859, the Southwark police court had instructed Henry Senior to “return to your sister, and remain until you can do something better”. In the 1861 census, he was recorded as living with his nephew Frederick Briggs and his family in Lambeth. He is also recorded as being unmarried.

In 1861, Samuel Dowbiggin was living at 16 Portland Place, just off Brighton’s Marine Parade. Margaret F. Collins is living in the residence as “Lady Housekeeper”, with several servants working under her. Her age is given as 29 years old.

15-16 Portland Place in Brighton. The building has since been converted into several eye-wateringly expensive flats.

Georgina Foster Collins was still living with her daughter Decima at Cannachmore Cottage, Cookney, on the north-east coast of Scotland. They appear in the 1861 census – the RN commander’s wife and 23-year-old unmarried daughter – alongside a 15-year-old local servant called Mary G. Marshall.

However, Georgina was running out of time. She would die in the cottage on 3rd December, of tuberculosis, a condition she had lived with for two years (NRS).

Continued to deteriorate

Poor Henry Senior’s condition must have continued to deteriorate, because by 1866 he had once again been admitted to an asylum – this time, a facility called Abingdon Abbey.

Samuel Dowbiggin died at No.5 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater³, on 9th June 1867, at the ripe old age of 83. He had been suffering from bronchitis. In his will, which was proved in London on 23rd July 1867, he left “Margaret Forbes Collins daughter of Commander Collins RN the sum of five hundred pounds”.

The 1871 census shows that Henry Senior, then aged 80, was still living in the asylum, and his condition is described in pejorative terms I won’t repeat. 

Thomasine in charge

The Foster Collins siblings moved around in later life (see Appendix 2 for details of where) but one of Henry Foster’s sisters went on to make her name in a place full of reminders of him.

In 1871, Thomasine Underwood Collins – then aged 38 – became the first Matron of the new Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital. This facility had recently moved from its ship-based location and into the Royal Greenwich Hospital, right across the road from where Henry had gone to school.

Thomasine had an immediate impact on the level of care offered within the hospital.

Franklin memorial

A history of the service published on the Royal Museums Greenwich blog noted that “soon after Collins joined the hospital in 1871, a significant number of the existing nurses were laid off because they didn’t meet the standards that she expected. Collins was later responsible for planning the introduction of trainee nurses known as probationers.”

The Franklin Memorial, with her brother’s name etched upon it, was just a short walk away in the Painted Hall. (The monument was moved to the Chapel in 1938, although it would not be placed in its current prominent position until 2009.)

I hope she found it comforting.

Pieces of Henry Foster Collins

There are so few pieces of Henry Foster Collins left for us to hold on to.

Of the many relics brought back during the Franklin Search era and beyond, none have been definitively linked to Henry. He did not leave his name on any of the scraps collected on Beechey Island in 1850.

And, if any of his bones have been found, they have not yet been DNA-matched to a living relative.


The 2022 publication of May We Be Spared To Meet On Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition caused a flurry of excitement at the wealth of new details in the many letters from – and to – the crews of Erebus and Terror.

But Henry Foster’s only appearance in the letters book is in James Fitzjames’ jocular description of him, (Potter et al, p.186). This was republished in August 2023 by Sotheby’s, although they omitted the emphasis from Fitzjames’ original.

“The second master Collins is the very essence of good nature, and I may say good humour – but he is mad, I am sure – for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking – (or thinking of nothing) and I can get no work out of him, though ever so willing he may be – yet he is not a bore or a nuisance – but a nonentity. We might as well be without him.”

And until any of his own letters emerge, or a contemporary account from a sibling or shipmate is discovered, this is all that remains of him.


Appendix 1: “Extraordinary application by a Commander in the Royal Navy”, from the Morning Post, Thursday 8 September 1859

In the course of yesterday, at the Southwark Police-office on Wednesday, a fine-looking elderly gentleman, who stated himself to be Commander Henry Collins, of the Royal Navy, waited upon Mr Combe for his advice and protection under the following singular and extraordinary circumstances: he stated that he had been 53 years in the Royal Navy, and had served his country faithfully; but latterly he had been cruelly persecuted, and now he came for his worship’s protection.

Mr Combe – What for?

Applicant – Up to 1853 I was in the Coast-Guard Service in Scotland, and living there pretty comfortable with my wife, when I was suddenly kidnapped and put into an insane asylum in Aberdeen. I was as sane as any person, but, unfortunately, had been labouring under excruciating pain for some weeks, and at last underwent an operation, which relieved me. 

They took advantage of my sufferings to put me in a lunatic asylum, and thus got all my property into their hands. My son was on board Sir John Franklin’s unfortunate vessel the Erebus, as acting-master, and was lost with that expedition. 

Mr Combe: I cannot help you.

Applicant – I think you can, Sir. I have a daughter in the service of a nobleman at Brighton, and she, with her mother, deprives me of my property. I was entitled to my son’s pay, but they got that when I was in the lunatic asylum. 

When they first incarcerated me I protested against it, and, after three months’ confinement, was released, and then returned to the service. I obtained leave to come to London to transact business at the Admiralty as well as at the Coast-Guard Office, respecting my being deprived of my situation and emoluments. 

I was again persecuted by my wife and daughter, seized, and put into Bethnal Green Lunatic Asylum, but I only remained there seventeen days, when I was sent to Haslar, and after stopping there five months was released, as there was nothing the matter with me. 

Mr Combe – I cannot see what authority I have in the matter. You had better petition the Lunacy Commissioners. 

Applicant – I have done everything, but I cannot get rid of the persecution. They want to kidnap me again, for fear of my calling public attention to the acts of my wife and daughter, who receive all my money. I cannot be insane, as only a short time ago I received the Greenwich pension for my services. 

Mr Combe – Then you are not in the service now?

Applicant – No, Sir, I am a retired commander, and had a pension granted to me as such, but I am deprived of it, and kept in poverty.

Mr Combe – With whom are you now living? 

Applicant – My sister, at 36, Union Street, Borough Road, who is not in very affluent circumstances; but still I am now in fear of being kidnapped, therefore I ask your Worship’s protection.

Mr Combe – I cannot assist you. You had better return to your sister, and remain until you can do something better. 

Commander Collins thanked his Worship for his kind attention, and left the Court in the company of his nephew.


Appendix 2: The end of the Foster Collins family?


Margaret Forbes Collins was bequeathed the hefty sum of £500 in Samuel Dowbiggin’s 1867 will, which presumably meant that she didn’t have to worry about finding another job after his death. She appears in the 1871 and 1881 census as a visitor in different parts of the country, and by 1891 she is living in her sister Thomasine’s house in Northumberland. Both are described as “living on own means”. 

The Collins sisters began to gravitate towards the coastal village of Alnmouth, Northumberland towards the end of the century.


In 1881, Thomasine is living at no.4 Lovaine Terrace, one of a row of famously pretty painted houses in Alnmouth. She is described as “Lady superintendent of nursing (unemployed)” and is sharing the house with a servant.

The painted cottages of Lovaine Terrace, Alnmouth, where Elizabeth Foster and Margaret Forbes spent some of their final years.

Thomasine was living alone in Newton-on-Sea at time of the 1901 census. She would die in Alnmouth on 6th February 1908, at the age of 75, and was buried at the town’s St John the Baptist Church on 8 February. She left her estate to her youngest sister, Elizabeth Foster.


Decima Sutton Collins stayed in Scotland following the death of her mother Georgina in 1861. Ten years later, Decima – her name is variously transcribed as Devina, Despina, Decinia or Deania in search results – appears in the census as a 32-year-old living alone on Aberdeen’s Huntly Street.

In the 1881 census, she is a visitor at the house of another, and in 1891 is working as a bookseller. Decima describes herself as a stationer in the 1901 and 1911 census; she is still living in Huntly Street.

However, things were about to go badly wrong for poor Decima, just as they had gone wrong for her father, Henry Senior.

Because the next trace of Decima Sutton Collins is in the 1921 census – and she is living in Aberdeen’s Royal Mental Hospital. This is the same facility – albeit with a different name – that her father had been incarcerated in back in the 1850s. She died there on 24th February 1925, aged 86 years.


Elizabeth Foster Collins appears as a visitor in the 1861 census, at the home of a lady scholar called Sarah Harrison on the outskirts of Liverpool. Elizabeth is living in Edinburgh at the time of the 1881 census, and is working as a governess for a prominent family. She is then 40 years old.

In the 1901 and 1911 census, Elizabeth is living at Thomasine’s old address, no.4 Lovaine Terrace. Margaret Forbes is living with her. Both sisters are living on “private means”. Margaret Forbes died in October 1913, aged 82 years old. She was buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Alnmouth on 31st October 1913..

Elizabeth was the last of the siblings to die, on 7th November 1930, at the age of 90. She would have been just four when Henry Foster sailed off on the Erebus. Maybe she had been with her siblings and parents among the crowds lining the shore at Greenhithe, a tiny tot waving goodbye to a big brother. 


None of the Collins sisters married. But what about the elusive William, last seen in the 1841 census? Well, William Collins was an extremely common name in the early 19th Century.

Friends, I cannot find him, and I have been silently cursing his parents for neglecting to give him an outlandish middle name. By the time of the 1851 census – when the family was at the Coast Guard station in Catterline – he would have been in his early 20s, if he had survived his childhood. He would not be expected to still be living at home.

Did William survive? Did he marry and have children?

Final traces

The signs are not good. In 1924, Elizabeth Foster Collins made a will in which she asked her Executor to use her estate to support her only surviving sister – Decima.

Poor Decima was already in the Royal Mental Hospital in Aberdeen at this point, and would die there the following year. Any other resources were to be given to the Governesses’ Benevolent Fund (Scotland), a nod to Elizabeth’s profession.

Had William survived and had some little Collinses – or even grand-Collinses – one might expect them to be included in the will of the last Foster Collins sibling.

Hope on

So this may be where the Foster Collins family ends. But for all the tragedy surrounding the Erebus and the Terror, it’s hard not to hold onto some hope – even in 2023.

Because if William survived, there might be someone out there, somewhere in the world, who could help forensic pathologists to find Henry Foster Collins among the scattered bones of the Franklin Expedition.



¹ A second, incomplete set of Franklin Expedition daguerrotypes is held by the Scott Polar Research Institute. This set is missing the images of HMS Terror‘s Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, and HMS Erebus‘ mate Robert Orme Sargent. SPRI also holds very high-resolution digital copies of the images but does not allow access to them, even to researchers visiting in person.

² The 1841 census does not include Charlotte or Georgina Elizabeth, who would be around 15 and 13 years old respectively at this time. As noted, Charlotte’s private baptism raises some fears around her survival after her birth. It’s possible that both children died between 1829 – when Henry Senior stated that the family was responsible for four children – and the time of the census. I have not been able to locate any death or burial records for either girl, and would welcome any information about them.

³ No.5 Porchester Terrace is still standing, and is Grade 2 listed for its architectural significance. The unusual history of the house – actually two houses cleverly designed to look like one massive stately pile – is outlined in this article published by The Guardian.

 James Fitzjames most likely never expected this to be shared outside his close circle. After the Franklin Expedition had been lost, his best friend William Coningham rewrote some of the less kind descriptions while preparing the publication of The Last Journals of Captain Fitzjames RN of the Lost Polar Expedition.

The edited description of Henry Foster Collins from The Last Journals of Captain Fitzjames RN. This copy – Jock Wordie’s – is in the National Library of Scotland.


Thank you

Jonathan Dore
Olga Kimmins
Graham Maxwell
Russell Potter
Frank Michael Schuster
& Logan Zachary



Aberdeen Mental Hospitals, Doric Columns: The History and Heritage of the City of Aberdeen

Aberdeen Royal Asylum records from the General Register of Lunatics in Asylums, accessed through Scottish Indexes

Barrow, John – A Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions. John Murray (1818)

Coningham, William (ed) – The Last Journals of Captain Fitzjames RN of the Lost Polar Expedition (accessed at the National Library of Scotland.)

Cyriax, Richard J. – Sir John Franklin’s Last Arctic Expedition, Methuen & Co. (1939)

Dyer, Florence E. – The Journal of Grenvill Collins. Mariner’s Mirror, 14:3, pp197-219 (1928)

HMS Erebus muster book of 1845, transcribed by Edmund Wuyts at arctonauts dot com.

Freebairn, Alison – Hunters on the Track: William Penny and the Search for Franklin, by W. Gillies Ross, book review. Arctic, vol 73 no.3 (2020)

Genealogical information regarding the Foster and Cramp families of New York (1740s-1890s), MS 518, Box 5 folder 1 item 7, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.

Hickman, Clare – Cheerfulness and tranquility: gardens in the Victorian asylum. The Vol 1 December 2014 

Imperial War Museum war memorials register: HMS Shearwater

The London Gazette

Macleod, Norman – History of the Royal Hospital School, Mariner’s Mirror, 35:3, pp 182-202 (1949)

Markham, Clements – The Lands of Silence: a History of Arctic and Antarctic Exploration. Cambridge University Press (1921)

The Morning Post, 8th September 1859, “Extraordinary application by a Commander in the Royal Navy”. Accessed through the British Newspaper Archive.

Mountfield, Stuart – Captain Greenvile Collins and Mr Pepys. Mariner’s Mirror, 56:1, pp85-96 (1968)

The National Archives: ADM 7/187, ADM 7/188, ADM 7/190, ADM 38/672, PROB 11/2192/332, ADM 73/199/23

National Records of Scotland, accessed via

O’Byrne, William Richard – A Naval Biographical Dictionary, Henry Collins (1813),  Byron Drury (1845)

Oxford Family History Society – Baptisms FAQ (2020)

Petermann, Augustus – Sir John Franklin, the Sea of Spitzbergen, and Whale Fisheries in the Arctic Regions. The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 23 pp.129-136 (1853)

Potter, Koellner, Carney and Williamson (eds) – May We Be Spared to Meet On Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Expedition. MQUP (2022)

Rich, Barbara – Out of the Frozen Deep I-IV, Medium (2020)

Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track: William Penny and the Search for Franklin. MQUP (2019)

Royal Museums Greenwich blog – The Dreadnought Moves from Ship to Shore (2023)

Sotheby’s – Franklin Expedition, Richard Beard Studio. A set of 14 daguerreotypes of the officers of the Franklin expedition. (2023)

Traill, H.D. – The Life of Sir John Franklin, RN. John Murray (1896)

Zachary, Logan – A Franklin Expedition Guide to London, illuminator dot blog

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