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.

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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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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“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.

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Found: Beechey Island relics in historic photograph

Logan followed a lead all the way to London, and made a fantastic breakthrough: https://twitter.com/LoganoZaccaria/status/1199626722204934144

The fingerpost found on Beechey Island was definitely at the former Royal United Services Museum for maybe two-thirds of the 20th Century. Logan thought he could see it in the photograph above, but how to prove it? Well, it involved a lot of hard work in the RUSI Library, which he detailed in a long post for the Remembering the Franklin Expedition history club over on Facebook.

The clincher jumped out at him, magic-eye style, after weeks of studying the photo. That’s the Beechey Island anvil, right next to the post.

Beechey Papers rediscovered in The National Archives

A fragment of paper picked up at Beechey Island in 1850.
A Beechey Papers fragment with “Mr M’Donald” written on it in pencil. Image courtesy of Logan Zachary at Illuminator.blog. For full resolution photographs of the papers, please see: https://www.illuminator.blog/p/beechey-papers.html

At 10am on Thursday 15 August 2019, I walked into The National Archives in Kew, London, to look for some missing journals. I didn’t find them. What I did find was the Beechey Papers, a collection of Franklin relics that were assumed to be lost.

I was astonished to find scraps of journals, newspapers and other fragments of printed and hand-written materials that were clearly marked as having been picked up where the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had spent the winter of 1845-1846.

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