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.

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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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