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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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.

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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“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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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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