The Riddell of Beechey Island


If you think you read this, no you didn’t.

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.

Lost friends

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. They were searching for lost friends and colleagues and, in one case, for a missing brother

And yet the searchers carefully gathered each piece 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.

Scraps and clues

They were just scraps. But sometimes even a scrap can contain clues to guide a theory of what it was – and how it got there.

An Illustrated London News etching of a map of Beechey Island and its environs, showing the discoveries made by William Penny, Erasmus Ommanney and Horatio Austin.
An Illustrated London News etching of a map of Beechey Island and its environs, showing the location of the Franklin Expedition’s Winter Quarters and the two washhouses they constructed.

Searchers found the largest piece of paper in one of two washhouses Franklin’s men had built on Beechey Island in 1845. 

It’s a section of weathered brown wrapping paper, pasted onto a larger, more robust piece of brown paper.

Someone – possibly a searcher – has added a note on the bottom left. It reads “Piece of brown paper found in washhouse Beechey Island”. 

Erebus” is written at the top left. The word “Immediate” is written on the right, and under this, there’s a portion of what looks like an address: “Lieut C.B. oyal till”.

A large piece of brown wrapping paper. "Erebus" is written in the top left. In the bottom right corner, large black letters spell out "Immediate Lieut C.B. oya till".
The largest fragment found in 1850 by searchers in Sir John Franklin’s 1845-46 Winter Quarters on Beechey Island. TNA ADM 7/190

So who was “Lieut. C.B.”? There was nobody with these initials and rank on the muster lists of HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.

First clue

The first clue came after I posted the Beechey Papers in Facebook’s Remembering the Franklin Expedition group back in August 2019. 

There, historian Neil Bettridge was the first to suggest that “oyal till” was most likely “Royal Artillery”. DJ Holzhueter suggested that “C.B.” might be part of the officer’s rank – “Counter-Battery“. And they pointed to an officer called Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy as a possible candidate.

However, we ruled out Lefroy after establishing that he wasn’t in England in 1845 (more on that later). But DJ was very close indeed.

Terrestrial magnetism

Colonel Edward Sabine (1788-1883), an Irish geophysicist, astronomer and explorer, was the link between the Royal Artillery and the Franklin Expedition.

Sir John Franklin’s sailing orders, issued on 5th May 1845, were the “distillation of the collected wisdom of Parry, Franklin, Ross, Beaufort and Sabine”, according to Prof Andrew Lambert in his 2009 book Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (published as The Gates of Hell in the United States).

While they state that the main object was the completion of the North West Passage, the weight of words makes it clear that magnetic science dominated the mission.”

Ross and Parry

Sabine had served as astronomer on the first John Ross Arctic expedition of 1818, and sailed north again with William Edward Parry on Hecla the following year. 

He had started his career with the Royal Artillery at the age of 15, and saw action several times during the War of 1812. And while he stayed with his regiment for decades, it was the study of terrestrial magnetism that dominated his long life.

Sir Edward Sabine by James Scott, published by Henry Graves & Co, after Stephen Pearce. NPG D39977 – © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sabine was in charge of the British Empire’s global investigations into terrestrial magnetism. He had a small group of officers at his disposal – including Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy. But did he also have a Lieut C.B. on his team?

The Army List for 1845 contains details of every Captain, Second Captain, Lieutenant and Second Lieutenant serving in the Royal Artillery that year. But this source didn’t look promising at first. There was a Lieut C.G. and a Lieut C.F.. However, Logan Zachary’s high-resolution photography of the scrap showed a clear C.B..

And then a familiar name jumped out at me when I was on the second sweep. I’d seen it in a letter from then-Commander James Fitzjames of HMS Erebus to Colonel Edward Sabine, sent from the Whale Fish Islands on 11th July 1845.

Detail from a letter from James Fitzjames to Edward Sabine, dated 11th July 1845. TNA BJ/13

I intend writing to Riddell – but should I not have time for I am much hurried pray tell him of my kind remembrances.”

And here was someone of that name in the Army List, among the First Lieutenants of the Royal Artillery.

Lieutenant Charles James Buchanan Riddell. The only Royal Artillery officer in the 1845 Army List with given names beginning with “C” and “B”. (What happened to the “J”? Well, many men favoured one or more of their given names over others in their daily life, as Leopold McClintock and Freddie Des Voeux would no doubt attest.)

Charles James Buchanan Riddell (1817-1903) by unknown artist, circa 1877. Object number JRR1063, Toronto Public Library Digital Collection.

Charles James Buchanan Riddell was born in the Scottish village of Lilliesleaf, south-east of Selkirk, on 19th November 1817. 

He went to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1832, when he was 17 years old, and joined the Royal Artillery two years later. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in 1837.

Riddell first became involved with Edward Sabine and the scientific work on terrestrial magnetism in 1839.

Invalided home

He selected the site of the new colonial Magnetical and Meteorological Observatory in Toronto, oversaw its construction, and served as its Superintendent. He fell ill in 1841, however, and was invalided home.

Lieutenant John Henry Lefroy, who had been in charge of a similar observatory on St Helena, took over the management of the Toronto facility.

In late 1841, Sabine brought Riddell into his team as Assistant Superintendent of Ordnance and Magnetic Observations at the Royal Military Repository at Woolwich.

Heavily involved

Riddell was heavily involved in the work to prepare the companies of the Erebus and the Terror for the scientific work ahead.

We know exactly which instruments had been sent to each of Sir John Franklin’s ships, because each one is documented in a letter book now held by The National Archives (TNA BJ3/47). The author of that list was Lieut. C.J.B. Riddell.

The list is organised by the type of instrument and clearly shows what went where: 

[Bridge par]


Some of the politics around the expedition – and the intense pressure on everyone involved – are hinted at in a letter from Sabine to Captain Beaufort dated 13th May 1845 (UKHO, MLP/10/2/1).

Sabine wrote: “I beg to inform you in reply that it was arranged on Saturday the 10th instant that the instruments should remain at this Office until Wednesday the 14th in order that the Officers of the Expedition might have an opportunity of practicing with them until the latest convenient moment; and that on Wednesday they should be conveyed to Greenhithe either in the Ships’ boats or in a small steamer…

I apprehend therefore that there has been some mistake in the supposition that the ships were detained at Woolwich on account of the instruments not being on board.

“I am further led to this belief by the fact that the ships did actually sail to Greenhithe on yesterday the 12th instant, on which day Captain Hamilton’s letter informed me that their Lordships had directed them to leave Woolwich.”

Captain Crozier’s 6″ Dip Circle

The majority of the instruments were indeed transferred to Erebus and Terror at Greenhithe on 15th May 1845, exactly in line with the schedule. Still more packages were taken on board on the 16th – brought there by none other than Colonel Edward Sabine himself.

Friday 16th May was to be an additional training day, as Sabine pointed out to Beaufort in his letter:

“I beg leave also to acquaint you that Sir John Franklin has arranged this morning that Thursday the 15th instead of Wednesday the 14th shall be the day on which the instruments are to be received on board: by which means an additional day will be gained for the practice of the Officers, without risk of the detention of the ships, as they are not to be paid until Friday the 16th.”

The expedition’s departure was delayed – they sailed from Greenhithe on the 19th – but this was due to the late arrival of some provisions, and nothing to do with the delivery of instruments.

Fitzjames given responsibility

Officers from Erebus and Terror had already been given some training on the equipment in the weeks leading up to the expedition’s eventual departure.

Andrew Lambert wrote that “The ships were equipped with the same instruments as the colonial observatories. They were to be used on board ship, and in the portable observatories … Fitzjames was given responsibility for the daily observations and ordered to attend Sabine’s academy for the necessary training.”

Did Riddell lead the training given to James Fitzjames and his fellow officers in Woolwich and Greenhithe in 1845? 

Kind remembrances

It’s very possible. Certainly Fitzjames had built a sufficiently strong relationship with Riddell to have wanted to write to him from Whale Fish Islands, and to ask Sabine to pass on his kind remembrances.

Riddell was an expert in how to set up magnetic observatories from scratch, and in using the delicate instruments on board ship and on unfamiliar ground. In fact, he had literally written the book on it. 

Magnetical Instructions for the use of Portable Instruments was published in 1844. It remained a definitive text until the 1860s, when Riddell turned down an opportunity to revise it due to poor health.

So it would make sense for the individual who devised these processes to pass on his expertise in person. If Riddell were working with the Franklin officers directly, he could demonstrate how to use every piece of equipment, give advice, and answer any of their questions.

Whether this would have [details from Gillin paper]


[Pars on what we know about the magnetic work]

There was nothing “immediate” for dispatch once the Franklin Expedition had settled at Beechey Island, or when they were preparing to sail into areas unknown to Europeans.

This was not a package prepared for delivery. They brought this package with them.

The box may have been opened earlier had it contained instruments needed for magnetic observations on board ship or on shore.

A rough sketch of a structure built on a shore, with the points of a compass shown near the bottom. There is a three masted ship in the distance.
Rough sketch by James Fitzjames on one page of a letter to Edward Sabine, written after HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had left Stromness.

So it may have held equipment needed for the observatories that were to be constructed on land.

From Riddell to Fitzjames

One possible series of events is that the package was rushed to “Lieut C.B.” in the frantic days before the Franklin Expedition left Greenhithe. 

There, it might have been among the final pieces of magnetic equipment that were loaded onto Erebus and Terror on 18th May. 

And there it may have stayed until both ships were locked into their Winter Quarters at Beechey Island in the autumn of 1845.

Beechey Island

After the package was ripped open, pieces of its rough brown wrapping paper were taken into one of the Beechey Island wash houses.

Maybe they were intended to be used as kindling. But it’s more likely that they were stuffed into cracks between the stones used to build the structure, to add a much-needed defence against the Arctic winds.

Torn apart

Either way, the paper stayed in the wash house until August 1850, when the 1850-51 search ships descended on Franklin’s Winter Quarters and tore it apart looking for clues.

Dozens of scraps of handwritten and printed fragments were found.

The searchers carefully gathered each piece 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.

And there they sat, largely forgotten and overlooked, until August 2019.


Appendix: Relics and the equipment on Terror

List of the pieces of magnetic equipment recovered to date – type, where found, who by, where it is now.

Reference to the tripod photographed in Crozier’s cabin and the racks of instruments; ref to dive season imminent. IMMINENT!!!!


Thank you:

Logan Zachary
Olga Kimmins
Neil Bettridge
DJ Holzhueter


The Army List (1845), accessed via the National Library of Scotland

Battersby, William – James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition, The History Press (2010)

Carter, Christopher – Magnetic Fever: Global Imperialism and Empiricism in the Nineteenth Century. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 4 (2009)

Fairholme, Lieutenant James Walter – Manuscript transcriptions of letters sent by J.W. Fairholme to his father while on the voyage of Franklin’s last expedition of 1845, Derbyshire Record Office D8760/F/FEG/3/1/9

Fitzjames, James – letters to Sabine TNA BJ 3/17

Gillin, Edward J. – The instruments of expeditionary science and the reworking of Nineteenth-Century magnetic experiment, Notes Rec, (2022) doi:10.1098/rsnr.2022.0002

Goodman, Matthew – Follow the data: Administering science at Edward Sabine’s Magnetic Department, Woolwich, Notes Rec. 73, 187–202 (2019) doi:10.1098/rsnr.2018.0036

James Fitzjames dot com – Timeline 

Lambert, Andrew – Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation, Faber and Faber (2010)

The National Archives – ADM 7/190, ADM 

Osborn, Sherard – Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal (1852)

Riddell, Charles James Buchanan – Letterbook TNA BJ 3/47

Riddell, C.J.B. – The Royal Society Certificates of election and candidature for Fellowship of the Royal Society,  EC/1842/04 (1842)

Riddell, C.J.B. – Magnetical Instructions for the use of Portable InstrumentsThe Admiralty (1844)

Riddell family history:

About the Riddell Estate

Ross, M.J. – Polar Pioneers: John Ross and James Clark Ross, McGill-Queens University Press (1994)

Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track: William Penny and the Search for Franklin, McGill-Queens University Press (2019)

Sabine, Edward – Contributions to Terrestrial Magnetism No. VII. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1846, Vol. 136 pp. 237-336 (1846)

Sabine, Edward – Letter to Captain Beaufort, UKHO

Thompson, Andrew – Major-General C.J.B. Riddell, Monthly Report of the Canadian Meteorological Society – January 1971, Canadian Meteorological Service, pp. 1-4 (1971)

Zeller, Suzanne – Humboldt and the Habitability of Canada’s Great Northwest. Geographical Review, Vol. 96, No. 3, Humboldt in the Americas, pp. 382-398 (2006)