The Riddell of Beechey Island

Detail of a scrap of brown paper with "Lieut. C.B." written on it.

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.

Lost friends

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.

A newspaper etching of a middle-aged man with mutton-chops and a hat with a shiny brim. He has a kind face.
Detail of an etching of Ice Master James Reid of HMS Erebus. (Alison’s collection)

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.

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The Mystery of the Missing Goodsir Organ

It was certainly the most eye-catching lead I’d ever stumbled onto.

Messrs C. and F. Hamilton, Organ Builders, including letter regarding a ‘really fine’ organ, removed ‘from Dr. Goodsir Danube Street’.”

This 1893 sentence sent me off down a dozen rabbit holes until I located Dr. Goodsir’s really fine organ, hiding in plain sight, in one of Edinburgh’s oldest churches – which is also one of its most popular tourist attractions.

The organ belonged to the Goodsirs of Anstruther Easter. Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir (1819-c.1848), a naturalist and surgeon, had sailed with Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to find a North-West Passage. 

Robert Anstruther Goodsir (1823-1895) travelled to the Arctic twice, hoping to find and rescue his brother. Both attempts were unsuccessful.

An image of organ pipes. The focus is on a shiny plaque fixed beneath them.

The plaque reads:

“This organ was presented to the Lodge Dramatic and Arts of Edinburgh No.757, in November 1893, by Robert Anstruther Goodsir MD, Artic (sic) explorer & traveller, who in March 1849 led a search party to the Artic regions in the ship ‘Advice’ in search of the Franklin Expedition”

There are a few problems with the wording on this plaque, but we’ll get to that later. So for now, let’s look at the history of the organ, and how it got to where it is today.

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A Franklin Expedition guide to Edinburgh

Detail of the monument to John Irving in Dean Cemetery

This Edinburgh guide is the fourth in an ongoing series of UK Franklin Expedition touring guides written in partnership with Logan Zachary of Illuminator dot blog.

Many of the men lost on the Franklin Expedition of 1845 – or who went in search of it – were from Scotland. Some had close ties to Edinburgh, the country’s capital city. They had been born there, had qualified in medicine there, lived there. Some of their papers are in archives there.

And Edinburgh boasts the only known burial place of a Franklin Expedition sailor outside the Arctic, and outside London.

Lieutenant John Irving of HMS Terror was born at 106 Princes Street, Edinburgh, in 1815. He died, along with 128 others, somewhere in the Canadian Arctic. But bones believed to be his were returned to Edinburgh in 1880, and reburied in the city in 1881.

Only two of Franklin’s men came home. One of them is in Dean Cemetery.

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“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?

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

Through a land so wild: A Franklin Expedition guide to Kensal Green Cemetery

Cemetery map.
Our new map of the North-West Passage graves in Kensal Green Cemetery. Please click for full resolution. Image: Logan Zachary/illuminator dot blog

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.

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Robert Goodsir and the Franklin graves on Beechey Island

In December 1880, after reading about the discoveries made by Franklin searcher Lt. Frederick Schwatka, Robert Anstruther Goodsir wrote his Beechey Island memories down in an article for The Australasian newspaper.

He did so under a pseudonym – “An Arctic Man of Two Voyages”. He never once mentions the name of the beloved brother he was in search of: Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir, the assistant surgeon and naturalist on HMS Erebus.

Nevertheless, the text of the article matched up with fragments found by Allison Lane and myself, and known to have been part of a manuscript written by Robert.

I made this discovery in 2018, but I’m presenting an illustrated and annotated five-part version of it here for the first time. My notes draw in more details of 1850-51 expedition, put the events into context, and touch on many discoveries made in the years since Robert’s death in 1895. I hope you enjoy it.

Part one: Australia 1880

In his home in Gippsland, 57-year-old Robert Anstruther Goodsir thinks back “30 years and three months” to his second Arctic voyage in search of the Franklin Expedition.

An etching from the Illustrated London News, showing Erebus and Terror as they left England.

Part two: Humble headstones, painted black

In part two, Robert remembers the excitement and fear he felt when shipmate Carl Petersen spots three shapes in the distance. Could these be survivors of the Franklin Expedition?

Part three: Silent for four long winters

Three graves have been found, and now almost all of the 1850-51 search ships are at Beechey Island, desperately looking for clues that will unravel the mystery.

Part four: “Cabined, cribbed, confined

In part four, Robert introduces the reader to the many dashing heroes, old rogues and bright young stars who were on the search with him.

Part five: Unreliable memories

In the final part, the pain of losing his brother is clear, as is the stress of two very dangerous and ultimately unsuccessful Artic search expeditions. But is he remembering the details correctly?

Empty cans in the shape of a cross.

Hidden traces of Erasmus Ommanney

A page from The Book of Common Prayer

The first traces were easy enough to find. After all, Admiral Sir Erasmus Ommanney wasn’t lost.

He’s on findagrave.com. There is a photo! However, this photo doesn’t tell the full story of his last resting place.

Ommanney said something important here. And I don’t think anyone has heard it for many years.

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Finding HMS Investigator at the 1891 Royal Naval Exhibition

Investigator

The story of HMS Investigator was very nearly a tragedy on the scale of the Franklin Expedition it had been sent to find.

Were it not for Lieutenant Bedford Pim of HMS Resolute, more than 60 officers and men would probably have died, and the ship herself may never have been found.

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The Pointing Hand of King William Island

An image of two envelopes.
Copyright: The National Archives.

“[Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka had] also found a piece of paper with a pointing finger. When we remember the ‘direction posts’ of Beechey Island, we can see that such a pointing finger is a trademark of sorts for the crews of the Erebus and Terror.” – David C. Woodman, Unravelling The Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony.

The paper is ragged, but there is a faint but clear outline of a hand, with the finger pointing at something that only dead men could see.

It is a relic of the Franklin Expedition that was found by United States Army Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka in 1879, long years after everyone on the Franklin Expedition had died.

It’s not painted on wood and perched at the top of a boarding pike, like the finger-posts of Beechey Island.

It was carefully drawn on paper, with a pencil, and it was placed between the stones of a cairn built between Cape Felix and Wall Bay, on King William Island.

FRANKLIN RELICS

There was speculation that it had never left the Arctic, or that it had disintegrated on the journey south. But Schwatka brought the Pointing Hand safely back with him to the United States. From there, he sent it to the Admiralty in London in March 1881 alongside more than a hundred other Franklin relics.

And it still survives, today, nearly 140 years later.

I’ve seen it.

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The mystery of the missing Erebus clerk

The history of the Franklin Expedition is full of ghosts, but this particular story is a little different. HMS Erebus is being haunted by a man who never sailed on her. The ghost has a name: George Frederick Pinhorn.

You can only see him online, and in certain places, but he’s there: forever linked to a ship he never set foot on.

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Immortal beloved: the grave of Sophia Cracroft

Time and the equally relentless British weather had obliterated almost every letter on Sophia Cracroft’s gravestone, which stands in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.

While the “IN MEMORY OF LADY FRANKLIN/DIED 18 JULY 1875” memorial stone* was still mostly legible,  all that was left of Miss Cracroft’s was a few partial letters clinging to a blackened base.

Such was Sophy’s monument, and perhaps it would not have displeased her. But it certainly didn’t please the Franklinites who have visited to pay their respects to this remarkable woman. So last year, Logan Zachary photographed the site and carefully reconstructed the inscription on illuminator.blog:

“SOPHIA CRACROFT
THE DEVOTED AND ATTACHED NIECE OF SIR JOHN FRANKLIN
AND CONSTANT AID IN ALL LADY FRANKLIN’S EFFORTS IN
THE FURTHERANCE OF ARCTIC SEARCH FOR TRACES
OF HER HUSBAND AND HIS BRAVE COMPANIONS
DIED 20th JUNE 1892 AGED 76″

 

Right at the end of this project, when Logan had already done all the hard work, I found a partial reference to the inscription online. I spoke to the museum, paid the fee, and they sent me a copy of the item. I nearly fell off my chair when I opened the file.

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The Beechey Island Memorial Board at the Science Museum

A wooden board with a piece of metal secured to it.
“Memorial board relic from Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition.” Courtesy Science Museum Group Collection Online. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The moment I saw the Memorial Board, I said: “That’s a hunting trophy.”

Some hunter on the track of the Franklin Expedition – perhaps an officer from any one of the 1850-54 search expeditions – found a relic on Beechey Island, brought it home, secured it to a board, and hung it on a wall. Whoever he was, and wherever he displayed it, I’ll bet he told some capital stories about it.

We can only guess, because none of them have accompanied the relic. There’s very little information about it, and what little we have isn’t accessible right now. But now, for the first time, we have a photograph of it.

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Sultan: A Franklin sled dog in London

Sled dogs, Ilulissat. Copyright: Carsten Egevang. You can see more of his beautiful images here: https://www.carstenegevang.com

“Sultan was a splendid Esquimaux dog: King of the Pack. He saved the life of one of Ross’ seamen by his sagacity. He was not suited for London!! & got me into trouble – so I sent him back.”

I’ve mentioned before that I love how John Barrow Junior annotated the Franklin search expedition paperwork that he catalogued for the Admiralty and his own Arctic papers, but this addition caught my eye like no other.

I knew about Sultan: he was the strongest and the bravest dog on Captain William Penny’s 1850-51 search for the Franklin Expedition. He was also the clumsiest and the most opinionated.

So what could have happened when this furry agent of chaos was catapulted headlong into the genteel London life of John Barrow Junior? I had to try to find out.

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Jane and Amélie: a portrait of two ladies

A composite image of two young women with soft curls. Both were drawn by Swiss artist Amelie Romilly in the early 19th Century. One is a portrait of Jane Griffin, the other a self-portrait.
Portrait of Jane Griffin by Amélie Romilly (1816), and a contemporary self-portrait by Amélie.

It was the scene of 24-year-old Jane Griffin’s first romance, and the occasion of her first extended trip outside England. It was exhilarating and stressful, not least because all of these new experiences had to be navigated in a second language. All she wanted to do was be left alone to read Byron and Goethe.

But then she met someone new.

This wasn’t a romance: it would prove to be much more important than that.

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Communication channels: how one little search note found its way home

A detail of a 1850 search note left by Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance. Copyright: The National Archives.
A detail of a 1850 search note left on Cape Warrender by Captain Erasmus Ommanney of HMS Assistance. © The National Archives. Editing: Logan Zachary.

They were cold, they were tired, and they had just torn down a large stone cairn on a freezing Arctic headland and found it empty. This is where Sir John Franklin’s men should have left a written record of where they had gone next. To find Erebus and Terror, the searchers had first to find a note.

But there was something even worse than finding nothing in the cairn.

It was finding a cylinder in the cairn, frantically opening it, unrolling the note with shaking hands and hammering heart, and finding it was a missive from another Franklin searcher – possibly even from someone on your own expedition.

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In Praise Of… Frances J. Woodward

No.1 in an occasional series where love is bestowed upon a Franklin searcher – or a Franklin researcher – who doesn’t get enough of it. Today: Frances J. Woodward.

As usual, I was looking for something else when I found it: a story about the sale at auction of an item once belonging to Lady Jane Franklin, found among the effects of the late Frances J. Woodward, her first biographer.

Woodward’s Portrait of Jane: A Life of Lady Franklin is one of my favourite Franklin-related books. I consult it regularly, and often have to tear myself away from it when I’ve found the reference I need. To my shame, I’d never given the author much thought. The book was published way back in 1951 and I’d assumed she was long dead.

But this story told me that not only had Frances J Woodward died relatively recently, in 2014, but also that she had served as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

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Easy money: the theft of Franklin relics in 1878

Nobody noticed the break-in at first. But when the cleaners came in to dust the room and they realised that some priceless relics were no longer in their display case, the museum staff went into a frenzy.

It was 23rd October 1878 at the Royal Naval Museum in Greenwich, and some of the Franklin relics were missing.

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John Barrow Junior, the quiet hero of the search for Franklin

The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin, by Stephen Pearce, oil on canvas,
1851, 46 1/4 in. x 72 1/8 in. (1175 mm x 1833 mm). Bequeathed by one of the sitters, John Barrow, 1899, Primary Collection, NPG 120
(John Barrow Junior is standing fifth from left, between James Clark Ross and Edward Sabine.)

He was “the father confessor for so many officers in Arctic service”, the person they poured their hearts out to in confidential letters before, during and after their expeditions in search of the Franklin Expedition.

He was the man who protected their interests and checked in on their families while the searchers were risking their lives in the Arctic, acts of kindness that were never forgotten.

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“The ghastly truth dawned upon me that it was three graves that I at last stood beside”

One of the most annoying things in my life as a Robert Anstruther Goodsir researcher is the man’s infuriating reluctance to put his real name on many of the articles he wrote. But he’s out there if you know where and how to look.

Continue reading ““The ghastly truth dawned upon me that it was three graves that I at last stood beside””