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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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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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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