Robert Anstruther Goodsir is writing this article in his home in Gippsland, Australia, in December 1880 (part one). He has talked of the the drama and the fear he felt when he discovered the three lonely graves on Beechey Island thirty years earlier (part two). He has remembered the excitement as the news spread through the many ships of the 1850-51 search expedition (part three). And now he introduces some of his colleagues…
Here, coming towards us, is the father of modern Arctic explorers. His step is heavy and dragging, for he bears the heavy burden of seventy and odd years, and Trafalgar wounds, which are to trouble him not a little this coming winter.
It is Captain Sir John Ross, but two months hence we will hail him Admiral by seniority.
He is accompanied and assisted by his trusty henchman and ice master, Tom Abernethy. It is not the first time they have together looked upon such scenes as this, for four long years of their lives have ere this been spent within the Arctic circle in their memorable voyage in the Victory, when the younger Ross (Sir James C.) discovered the Magnetic Pole.
I am sorely tempted to give some of the many memories floating before me of Sir John and his racy yarns of old, old times – sorely tempted to take the reader with me into winter quarters, and on board the little Felix, where he could listen to them for hours unwearied, notwithstanding the rather uncomfortable feeling that he was only then realising the meaning of the oft-used words “cabined, cribbed, confined”.
Inseparably connected with this scene are my pleasant memories of Sir John’s only messmate and companion of his voyage, Commander Phillips, a true specimen of the British naval officer of the days prior to steam.
Ah! here are a couple of youngsters approaching.
Mark the tallest of the two, with just the first signs of a coming beard on his face, to be known in after years in his manhood’s prime in every post-town of Victoria as well as in Melbourne. I know that hundreds will join with me in the most kindly remembrances of my late friend Captain Bance, of the Victorian Post-office.
His companion, younger, slighter, and still more boyish-looking, has in that well-formed head of his strange stores of out-of-the-way knowledge – historical, philological, ethnological. Eighteen months hence a very clever and graphically-written brochure entitled Franklin’s Footsteps will be published by Clements Markham.
The two coming next are Browne and M’Dougall, good fellows both; deft draughtsmen cunning of hand with brush and pencil, as the Illustrated Arctic News will prove when they begin to issue it in winter quarters.
Ackerman’s window in the Strand will yet show specimens of their talent, and the Diorama of the Arctic Regions in Leicester square will owe its success to their handiwork.
BIG, BLUFF, BURLY BERTIE
Tall and handsome, of most winning Saxon aspect, next comes Mecham, followed by big, bluff, burly John Bertie Cator, loud of voice, free and frank, with features more apt to smile than frown.
This tall man, with marked features, can you not fancy him heading a party of boarders – if you have been a student of Marryat in your younger days, can you not at once say he is a first lieutenant? Quick, I hope, were thy steps up the ladder of promotion, as they well deserved to be, Robert Aldrich.
WHALEBONE AND STEEL
Another of the same rank appears – a smaller man, almost verging on under-size, yet his frame is one of whalebone and steel; a determined face, yet wearing a kindly smile as you greet him.
He has already made a name in Arctic annals, but he is destined hereafter to stand in the very front rank of the roll of Arctic heroes.
I need only write his name – Leopold M’Clintock.
The last kindly pressure of his hand in Sackville-street, as well as our first meeting, when he so thoughtfully brought me some news that he knew would be gratifying, have they not both a fragrant freshness in my memory.
My fast-accumulating slips of copy warn me that I am transgressing all bounds.
I am, therefore, perforce obliged to omit many others, all of whom have such pleasant places in my memory.
Captain Horatio Austin (Nelson’s godson), with all his estimable, loveable characteristics; his second in command, Captain Erasmus Ommanney, no less so; Penny, sailor staunch and whaler bold, few could handle ship among ice like him; old Donald Manson; and all the other fine fellows who were with him, full of whaling yarns and Melville Bay perils – all with tongues smacking of Aberdeen and Peterhead.
Beechey Island had been traversed from end to end, every nook and corner examined by many keen and anxious searchers, but not a scrap of writing or despatch from Franklin had been found.
The trail was lost, the searchers utterly at fault.
Or, rather, I should say, we were like a band of travellers who had come to cross roads where there stood no friendly finger-post to guide us on our way.
General notes: I had to correct almost all the names in this section. However, as mentioned earlier, Robert was not able to check his original notes from 1850-51, and can be forgiven for not having all the details after 30 years. In any case, there are so many people mentioned here that I think it’s best to skip straight to the personnel section, don’t you?
Personnel: Get a cup of tea for this one. It’s going to be looong. I won’t cover everybody, as Robert’s portraits are generally lovely, but there are a few things I’ll highlight about some of the less famous individuals named here.
Tom Abernethy (1803-1860) was the baddest badass on any given Polar expedition – and he was on almost all the Polar expeditions. It’s an astonishing record. He was in the Arctic on Hecla with Sir William Edward Parry in 1824 and 1827 and with John Ross on Victory in 1829-33; he was under James Clark Ross on Erebus for the 1839-43 Antarctica expedition; with JCR again on HMS Enterprise for the first Franklin search in 1848-49, with Old John Ross on the Felix in the 1850-51 search, and under Edward Inglefield on the Isabel for the 1852 search.
He’s described as being around six foot tall, and strong. John Ross, in his narrative of the 1829-33 expedition, said that Abernethy was “decidedly the best looking man of the ship“, an opinion that has been enraging James Clark Ross fans ever since.
Abernethy and JCR also had a long association – it was said that James was the only captain who could manage Abernethy’s drinking and the disciplinary issues that went along with it. Old John Ross was certainly less able to do this on the notoriously undisciplined Felix in 1850-51. Abernethy’s alcohol problems place him at the top of my list of suspects for the Felix crew member who fell asleep on the ice in temperatures of -30° degrees (this person’s life was saved by Sultan the sled dog).
He’s buried in the Peterhead Old Kirkyard, although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s a fake grave: I’m not convinced that even death could have killed Tom Abernethy. You can read all about him on Andrés Paredes’ Kabloonas blog, and he’s also the subject of a book called “A Grand Polar Veteran”.
Commander Charles Gerrans Phillips (1804-1871) was one of several Franklin searchers down the years who had a strong personal interest in finding the missing men: he had served as a Lieutenant under Captain Francis Crozier on the Terror during James Clark Ross’s famous Antarctic expedition of 1839-43.
The experience of serving under Old John Ross on the chaotically drunken Felix in 1850-51 must have been markedly different, and may have taken years off Phillips’s life.
But on 6 September 1856, a week after John Ross’s death, Phillips was among the mourners gathered at Kensal Green Cemetery to lay the old rogue to his eternal rest.
Captain Henry Prescott Bance (1831-1879) emigrated to Australia, where he was a senior figure in the Post Office and also served as a magistrate in Melbourne. At this point, you might be thinking how lovely it is that Robert had a good Arctic friend in Australia.
However, this is a Franklin-adjacent story, and so there’s a tragedy in it: Captain Bance met a horrible end in 1879, aged only 48. He had been suffering from an unspecified “disease of the brain and the heart” and needed support from a live-in nurse, Frederick Paul. Poor Bance died two days after Paul drugged him with a heavy dose of opiates in order to carry out a robbery in the house.
Commander George Frederick Mecham (1828-1858) was born in Ireland and entered the Navy in 1841. He served on two Franklin search expeditions, first as 3rd Lieutenant on HMS Assistance under Captain Ommanney, and then as 1st Lieutenant on HMS Resolute under Captain Henry Kellett.
Mecham played a vital role in the rescue of HMS Investigator. In September 1852, during a sledge journey to lay depots, Mecham found a dispatch that Investigator‘s captain Robert McClure had left the previous year. This message gave details of where the Investigator lay trapped in ice off Banks island. This allowed Lieutenant Bedford Pim and his party to locate the lost ship and rescue the survivors.
On his return in 1854, Mecham was promoted to commander. He was in charge of Salamander off the coast of Africa, and later sent to the Pacific with HMS Vixen. He contracted bronchitis in Honolulu with HMS Vixen and died on 17th February 1858, aged 30.
Lieutenant John Bertie Cator (1820-1887) is one of my favourite people on this expedition, and I’m mostly writing this note to remind myself to write a Bumper Big Bluff Burly Bertie post in the new year. His letters home from the 1850-51 expedition are a delight and he was a great friend to both Sherard Osborn and William Penny.
Robert Dawes Aldrich (1808-1891) did find his steps up the ladder of promotion to be swift: he was promoted to commander upon his return from the Arctic. He didn’t take part in another Franklin search after 50-51, but he worked with the Coastguard in Banff and Sheerness and served on several ships before retiring as a Captain on half-pay in 1860. Retirement was good to him: he got all the way up to Admiral in 1887.
Captain Frederick Marryat appears in a couple of places in Robert’s writing and papers, and I suspect he was a big fan. If you want to learn about the man or his books, the best place to go is Reading Captain Marryat, where @tapedekk will talk you through Marryat’s life and work.