Part three: Silent for four long winters

Franklin search ships at Union Bay, Beechey Island. Art by George Frederick McDougall, from the Illustrated Artic News.
Franklin search ships at Union Bay, Beechey Island. Art by George Frederick McDougall, from the Illustrated Artic News.

On 27th August 1850, Robert Anstruther Goodsir of the Lady Franklin was the first person to discover the three Franklin Expedition graves on Beechey Island. Having endured the stress of checking the graves and seeing that his missing brother Harry Goodsir was not among the casualties, Robert now describes the first few hours after this incredible find…

Meanwhile my friend Stuart, more cool and less impulsive than myself and the Dane, had paused beside the cairn of tins, and, after looking about him, had sent off Thompson to the ships with the news that important traces had been found.

He hurried on board, big with the intelligence he bore, and strange, I believe, were the yarns he had to tell of what had been found on shore.

Various parties had been forming to land at different places of the adjacent coast that day, but soon all interest was centred about Beechey Island.


At this time only the Assistance, Captain Ommanney, and her steam tender, Captain Penny’s two brigs, and Sir John Ross’s little Felix, were lying at the land ice¹

Lieutenants Du Haven and Griffiths, with the American brigs the Advance and the Rescue, were working in from the offing; and Captain Austin, with the Resolute and her tender, were coming down from the westward from Griffith’s Island².

Soon after mid-day all nine sail were at Beechey Island³.

It was early in the morning of a grey and murky day of late autumn, with the shadows of quickly-coming winter overhanging it, that I and my companions first broke upon the solitude which had been undisturbed since their shipmates had left the occupants of the three graves lying there in the summer of 1846.

Until my own had rested on them, no sympathising eye had looked upon or read those simple, touching inscriptions so deeply carved in the wood.

The echoes from the grey cliffs overhanging them had been silent for four long winters and short summers; nor had the impress of any human foot been left on the long grey beach selvedging the blue-white of the ice in the bay.


By the time the excitement raised by our too fleeting hopes had calmed down, many other eager comrades had trooped ashore and hurried over the spit to view the spot where those we were all in search of had spent the first winter of their voyage.

Allow me, gentle reader, to introduce some of these to you, and believe me, I pray you, when I say that there are few indeed, from the commanders down to the youngest and humblest among them, who are unworthy of your notice.

And judge me not guilty of self-praise if I write thus.  Think me not egotistical because the first person singular so often meets your eye in this, my present narration. 

Looking back through the long-intervening past, I feel as if I have only been an outside spectator of all I narrate.

It is with the most unalloyed pleasure that I can now think of the many noble traits I could then discern in those around me – the utter abnegation of self shown by all; the generous emulation of each to do his best to lighten the tedium of the long winter; the steady march forward of officer and man, shoulder to shoulder, in the path of duty; the praiseworthy conduct of the latter, when the wise judiciousness of the former quietly relaxed the usual strict discipline of the service; the gentle charity with which the foibles of some were received or the little failings of others were cloaked; the determination to make light of all risks and all hardships; the feeling of genuine camaraderie which actuated everyone – was not all this daily to be seen, hourly to be witnessed?

But I must restrain myself and do as I promised a short while back – introduce the reader to some of the groups who are now examining with such evident interest every nook and cranny of Beechey Island, and every bend of the shores of Erebus and Terror Bay.

An image of Beechey Island.

Part one: Australia 1880 – Part two: Humble headstones, painted black – Part three: Silent for four long winters – Part four: “Cabined, cribbed, confined – Part five: Unreliable memories


¹ Robert isn’t remembering this correctly. The only ships near Beechey Island at the time of the discovery were the Lady Franklin and Sophia, Old John RossFelix, and the two US Navy brigs USS Advance and USS Rescue. HMS Assistance and HMS Intrepid were still pushing for Cape Hotham at this point, and had become beset in ice off Cornwallis Island. 

John Stuart of the Lady Franklin made a difficult journey over sea and ice to bring the news of the discoveries to Captain Erasmus Ommanney.

This did not go down well. Ommanney had found the first traces of the Franklin Expedition at Cape Riley, but had made only a cursory examination of Beechey before racing for the next headland. And now a bunch of whalers had found Erebus and Terror‘s first Winter Quarters.

Stuart wrote: “Captain Ommanney was of course much astonished at learning of traces of such a nature having been found at such a trifling distance of the spot at which his people had landed and from which he had made such a precipitous departure.” 

Lieutenant John Bertie Cator, in charge of the steam tender HMS Intrepid, later wrote to Captain Hamilton of the Admiralty that “had Captain Ommanney taken my advice and sent a party to search [Beechey Island], while I went to examine the coast up to Cape Hotham, he would have had the honour of finding the whole of the traces, instead of only the first traces.” 

² Alexander Stewart, captain of the Sophia, had travelled to give the news to squadron leader Horatio Austin and urge him to come to Beechey Island as soon as possible. HMS Resolute duly arrived on 29th August, towed by her steam tender HMS Pioneer.

Sherard Osborn.

Stewart also warned Captain Horatio Austin about a number of hazards to avoid on approach to Union Bay.

But these warnings did not seem to have been passed on to poor Sherard Osborn on Pioneer, as he steamed straight into a sandbank and was stuck fast. The crew of Resolute narrowly avoided a collision by dropping tow rope and anchor in quick succession.

In Hunters on the Track (2019), W. Gillies Ross speculates that Austin’s arrogance caused this emergency – “officers of the Royal Navy did not need to take advice from lowly whaling masters [like Alexander Stewart]”.

In any case, Austin’s log entry for this incident is a masterclass in indifference: it appears that as far as Resolute was concerned, Osborn could stay stuck.

William Penny.

In the end, it was William Penny who rescued Pioneer and her crew, by taking Old John Ross’s yacht Mary over to lighten the steamer’s load sufficiently for the tide to lift her off the bank.

Osborn wrote that the morning after Pioneer ran aground:

I was awoke by a hearty shake, and Captain Penny’s warm ‘Good-morning;’ he had come out to me towing the ‘Mary,’ a launch belonging to Sir John Ross, in order that I might lighten the ‘Pioneer,’ and offered me the ‘Sophia’ brig, to receive a portion of my stores, if I would only say it was necessary.”

Osborn never forgot this act of kindness: the two men became friends for life. 

³ All nine sail were not at Beechey Island, Robert. But this was 30 years ago and we forgive you.