I remember seeing brand-new blankets being soaked in tar and laid between the double decks and the great baulks of timber with which [the ships] were strengthened. Large plates of sheet iron were fastened on their bows for further protection. Two of my old playmates went as cabin boys in these ships, and didn’t we give them three rousing cheers as they sailed away…”
The boys would never come home.
Nor would the ships, which were sailing to the Arctic under the command of Sir John Franklin. In total, 129 men would die. And HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were lost for many long decades before being rediscovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
The name of our eye-witness is William Lego. In 1845, he was 12 years old, and an apprentice blacksmith at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich.
Sixty-six years later, Lego was living as a settler in Mosman, a suburb of Sydney in Australia that had been the traditional home of the Borogegal people.
There, over several years, he gave a series of interviews with the local press. He shares a wealth of detail about life in Woolwich in the 1830s and 1840s, and of his adventurous life in the Americas, Africa, and Australia.
However, the most striking revelation was that, in 1845, William Lego had been on board Erebus and Terror every day while they were being fitted out at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich.
Franklin’s ships were there from early February 1845 until 12th May, when they sailed down the Thames to Greenhithe.
In 2011, the late William Battersby co-authored a paper with Franklin scholar Peter Carney on the many ways both ships were prepared for their historic expedition. The orders were issued on 5th February 1845, and Erebus and Terror were towed to Woolwich Dockyard for extensive work under the careful eye of Oliver Lang, the site’s Master Shipwright.
Both ships went “into Basin” on 8th February (TNA ADM 12/435 and 440). The refitting included work such as raising Terror‘s bowsprit, and replacing the copper plating on the bows of both ships with iron plating extended to cover the entire bow (Betts, 2022).
The biggest modification was the addition of steam engines. Since 1840, Woolwich had been the Royal Navy’s “first purpose-built ‘steam factory’ … a nexus of engineering greatness as well as the cradle of Queen Victoria’s Steam Navy”. Erebus and Terror would be the first wooden warships to be successfully converted into steamers (Battersby and Carney, 2011).
This had required a special blend of innovation and craftsmanship from Lang, and he was sure to note this in his 1853 book Improvements In Naval Architecture:
“Fitted the two Arctic ships Erebus and Terror, for Sir John Franklin’s expedition, in May 1845, with screw propeller, so as to be taken up through a trunk on deck, and the apertures filled up to the form of their bottoms, when the screws are not in use; this important invention of mine has been generally adopted in Her Majesty’s Service, for steam ships fitted with screw propeller.”
And, thanks to William Lego’s appearances in the Australian press, we know that Lang’s team also ensured sufficient insulation between the upper planks of the ships’ decks.
This type of insulation was a thick waterproofed material called fearnought (sometimes spelled as fearnaught), which was used between upper decks and also to line hulls to keep them watertight.
HMS Terror‘s entire hull had been waterproofed with fearnought at Chatham Dockyard in 1836 as part of extensive work to transform her from warship to Polar exploration vessel (Betts, 2022). Later that year, she would sail to the Arctic under Captain George Back.
“Crazy, broken and leaky”
Terror was almost immediately beset in ice, and stayed so for eight harrowing months, during which time she sustained extensive damage. Back’s vessel was “crazy, broken and leaky” but she somehow made it across the Atlantic before being deliberately beached on the west coast of Ireland.
In 1839, as Sir James Clark Ross was preparing to lead his expedition to Antarctica, HMS Erebus (and one would expect Terror as well) was refitted with fearnought.
This work was mentioned in a 19th September 1839 memorandum from Mr Rice of Chatham Dockyard – the man who had supervised Terror‘s 1836 refit.
This is included as an appendix in vol.1 of Ross’ 1847 expedition narrative A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions in the Years 1839-43, and is reproduced in Matthew Betts’ 2022 book HMS Terror.
Dipped in hot tallow
“The central planks of the weather deck are six inches thick, laid fore and aft; the remainder of the deck is wrought double; the lower planks, three inches thick, are laid fore and aft; the upper planks, three inches thick, diagonally, having fearnaught dipped in hot tallow, laid between the two surfaces.”
Lego remembered watching this process as it happened in 1845, “seeing brand-new blankets being soaked in tar and laid between the double decks”. So this new fearnought was replacing the insulation that had seen Erebus and Terror through their fraught but triumphant four-year journey.
Once the fearnought had been put in place at Woolwich, nobody would lay eyes on this hidden – but vital – part of HMS Erebus for another 173 years.
Enter the Underwater Archaeology Team of Parks Canada, which discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus in 2014 and has been carrying out painstaking and challenging work ever since to map her remains and uncover her many secrets.
In 2018, the UAT recovered a small sample of fearnought from the wreck. This artifact is part of a much larger expanse of the material that now lies exposed between the damaged planks of the deck.
When the UAT dived on Erebus in 2018, they saw that a large section of the upper deck from the forward starboard side had been flipped over – a sign of the powerful storms and seasonal movement of ice that threaten the wreck.
This trauma had left sheets of fearnought exposed along the damaged upper deck. A photograph of this area (reproduced with permission below) shows the wreck free of the heavy silt and abundant marine life that is present elsewhere on Sir John Franklin’s flagship.
This was not Parks Canada’s first brush with this material. In 2011, while diving the wreck of HMS Investigator (which they had discovered the previous year), they recovered a decent-sized sheet of the stuff.
Writing in Archaeology in 2012, Allan Woods told how the Parks team recovered the fearnought – described as felt in the article – and kept it safe until skilled conservators could take it into their care:
“To protect a fragile rectangle of encrusted felt – a novel addition to Investigator that was intended to keep the ship watertight – [Ryan] Harris fashioned a cover out of absorbent chamois, ripped up an old black T-shirt to place underneath it, and sandwiched the artifact between floorboards taken from the boat that had shuttled them between land and the wreck.”
Investigator, a troubled ship captained by veteran Franklin searcher Robert McClure, was abandoned in 1853 and now lies in 30ft of water in Mercy Bay (Bernier, 2010).
The ship’s 1850-54 crew had had cause to curse the Woolwich dockers more than once. Criticisms were made of insufficient caulking resulting in a series of leaks, and of workers leaving excess oakum around the ship, leading to at least one fire.
However, McClure credited the refit at Woolwich for ensuring that the ship had the strength to survive the two harrowing winters at Mercy Bay (Stein, 2015).
These are not the only pieces of fearnought retrieved from Sir John Franklin’s last expedition, or the ships that searched for him. The material was not only dipped in tar and used for waterproofing ships from top to bottom. Varieties of the textile have been used for centuries in clothing, as a fire retardant, and in many other contexts.
In 1851, after his return from Captain Horatio Austin’s 1850-51 search for Franklin, then-Lieutenant Francis Leopold McClintock advised future expeditions that “fearnought should be sewed on to the cover [of a cooking appartatus] to prevent as much as possible any waste of heat” .
It was also deployed as a screen when taking magnetic observations, and had insulated magnetic observatories in the Arctic as early as 1826 (Foster,1830).
William Penny, the Scottish whaler who carried out several searches for the missing expedition, and commanded the Lady Franklin and Sophia brigs during the 1850-51 effort, brought home two small pieces of fearnought alongside many other relics from Beechey Island (TNA ADM 7/192).
In 1880, Robert Anstruther Goodsir – the first searcher to find the three graves on Beechey Island – noted that all Franklin Expedition news focused on relics, rather than on the men who had left them behind.
With the exception of the three crew members buried on Beechey and a reference to the death of Sir John Franklin in the Victory Point Record retrieved by McClintock’s 1857-1859 expedition, nobody knew how the missing men had died, or where, or when. Robert’s older brother, the naturalist Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir, had served as acting assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus.
Alas six times five years have now run into the past, and still all we hear of is – relics.”
In 1845, William Lego had cheered his young friends and their shipmates as they sailed off to the Arctic. He never saw them again. And their families grew old and died without ever knowing what had happened to them.
Who were William’s two former playmates at the Dockyard? Erebus and Terror each had two Boys (First Class) in their companies.
Erebus‘ Boys were George Chambers, 18, from Woolwich, and David Young, 19, from Sheerness. On Terror, the Boys were Robert Golding, 19, and 18-year-old Thomas Evans, both from Deptford. Another Boy – 18-year-old William Eaton of Hackney – had been recruited alongside Golding, but was discharged three weeks later and replaced by Evans (Battersby, 2011).
Chambers, a Woolwich lad, is a strong candidate. Writing in Polar Record in 2011, Ralph Lloyd-Jones traced Chambers and Evans through parish registers and census returns, and established that their families had links to the Royal Navy. He also speculated that Golding and Young may have been at sea when the 1841 census was taken.
Styx, Vesuvius and Sinbad
The Muster Books for Erebus and Terror in 1845 (Arctonauts dot com) show that while Evans had come to Terror from HMS Styx; Chambers from Vesuvius and Young from the Sinbad dock-lighter, Robert Golding was listed as a first-entry volunteer.
Deptford – where Golding and Evans were born – lies some four miles west of the Woolwich Dockyard area, and Sheerness – home to David Young – is some 40 miles to the south-east.
However, the friendships need not have been long-standing ones. It’s easy to imagine that close proximity and the intensity of the excitement around Franklin’s expedition would result in strong bonds being formed at the Dockyard.
Bones and fragments
Nearly a century and a half later, in the Arctic summer of 1992, an amateur Franklin searcher named Barry Ranford (1941-1996) was surveying King William Island when he discovered nails, percussion caps, buttons and other fragments.
The artifacts were scattered across a small island very close to the Boat Place discovered by Francis Leopold McClintock’s Fox expedition in 1859.
The site, now classified as NgLj-2, was also strewn with human remains.
Nearly 400 bones, or bone fragments, were later catalogued by a team led by the late forensic anthropologist Anne Keenleyside and archaeologist Margaret Bertulli, who accompanied Ranford to the site in subsequent seasons. These bones were estimated to be the remains of at least 11 men (Bertulli, 1995; Keenleyside et al, 1997).
Eight of the bones recovered and analysed later were mandibles – lower jaws. One of these – Mandible NgLj-2:93 – is believed to have belonged to one of the boys, based on estimated age at death.
Writing in Equinox in 1992, Ranford noted that “with the exception of one, all [the jawbones] were upside down and deeply embedded in the moss, leading me to imagine the men dying in their sleeping bags, face down. The exception lay next to a small, half-buried boulder, which became in my mind’s eye a pillow for a dying man.”
The isotopic analysis carried out on this lower jaw corresponds with the region of origin of all four boys on the expedition. However, a 2021 paper co-authored by Keenleyside, Douglas Stenton and Karla Newman noted that DNA testing had ruled out Robert Golding – “thus this mandible belongs to one of the three remaining boys.”
While all of the human remains were later re-interred in a memorial cairn at the site, work is still being carried out to identify the individuals who died there.
I very much hope that, one day, this young man – and his crewmates – can be identified and remembered as someone who left on a grand adventure in May 1845, and who never made it home.
Appendix 1: Building a Lego story
William Lego was born in Woolwich on 2nd October 1832. He was the youngest of eight siblings and did not have an easy start in life.
His mother Ann died when William was just a baby. Three years later, his shipwright father Joel was killed in an accident at the Dockyard. As death certificates are not available before 1837, we can’t know what ended their short lives.
Joel and Ann were both buried at St Mary Magdalene Church in Woolwich. The churchyard was split off from the church in the 1960s and is now a popular public park. Many of the historic headstones line its walls. However, it is unlikely that Joel and Ann’s grave had a marker.
William was brought up by his older siblings. His three older brothers had followed Joel into jobs at the Royal Dockyard, where they worked as shipwright, carpenter, and cooper. And by 1845 William had joined them as an apprentice blacksmith.
In 1851, William is living with his brother John, two years his senior, in a home on Richmond Street in Woolwich. Their professions are given as apprentice blacksmith and engineer respectively, and both are employed at HM Dockyard.
William and Ann
Eight years later, after returning from a few years working in the United States (see Appendix 2), William married Ann, a milliner from Wandsworth. They appear in the 1861 census, living in Woolwich’s George Place. The couple had moved to Chelsea by the time of the 1871 census and were living at Queens Road West.
Ann Lego died at this address on 22nd June 1878, of an abdominal abscess. She was 47 years old. Her blacksmith husband was with her at the end.
William remarried in the fourth quarter of 1878, to Harriet Amelia Hayes (b. 1846), a tailor’s daughter from Chelsea. In 1884, now parents to a baby named William, the family emigrated to Australia as Unassisted Passengers on the SS Texan, which docked in Sydney in May of that year.
The trail goes cold after this, but when William first appears in the local newspapers – in August 1904 – he was living on Shadforth Street in Mosman. He would stay at this address with Harriet until at least 1911, when his most extensive interview was published by the Sydney Sun.
In 1913, he, Harriet and their son William Edwin Lego are living at 77 Avenue Road in Mosman, and it was here that William senior died, aged 82, on 28th May 1915. He was buried in the South Head Cemetery in Vaucluse, a suburb of Sydney. Harriet died in 1941, and rests alongside him.
Appendix 2: William Lego in the news
Excerpt from an interview in The Sun (Sydney), Wednesday 8th February 1911, page 6:
Memory’s Treasure Store: Recollections of Mr W. Lego
A memory that can cast back and illumine past experiences and incidents over a period of nearly three-score years and ten, like a powerful searchlight revealing every bubble in the wake of a ship, is a rare possession. But Mr William Lego, an octogenarian, living in Shadforth-street, Mosman, chats easily and with a wealth of detail about his personal recollections of matters that most people faintly remember having learned in their history books.
Mr Lego is the youngest of a family of eight, and was born in October, 1833¹. His father was a shipwright at Woolwich, and met with an accident that caused his death when young Lego was only three years old. The mother had died when he was only 15 months old. A brother was one of the crew of the Berg brig with Darwin. Another brother was a carpenter’s mate on the Fury, a six-gun paddle sloop of war, which was used as a despatch boat in the war with Russia². She carried the declaration of war to Admiral Dundas, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet. Afterwards she went into Sebastopol harbor, flying the Austrian flag, in order to take soundings. Coming out again she attempted to take with her two merchantmen loaded with salt-petre, as prizes. But she was spotted, and had to cut them adrift.
[Section missing from print copy] his apprenticeship at Woolwich, went to America, and there took a billet in a blacksmith’s shop. His comment upon the work was brief. “We had no eight hours a day then,” he said. “We worked from 6am until 6pm every day in the week except Sundays. Some fellows nowadays think they are hard done by. But there was no Saturday half-holiday for us in those days.”
An illustration of the grit of the youngster of the forties of last century is provided by the fact that he landed in America knowing not a soul, and with only twopence in his pocket. And those coins were no good to him in the land of dollars and cents. From New York he went to Virginia, just when there was an outbreak of yellow fever in the latter place. Vessels were sent down to load whole cargoes of coffined corpses and consign them to the sea. Thence he went to Baltimore to work in the locomotive shops, and later returned to Woolwich.
Among the famous old dogs of war in whose construction he helped was the Achilles, the Bellerophon, the Monarch and the Sultan. His next trip was to South Africa, and he was in this country at the time of the first Boer war. His recollections of the gallant defence of Rorke’s Drift were referred to in last Sunday’s “Sun”. After another return to England he went out to Natal, and from there came to Australia.
Not only does Mr Lego remember the British vessel Agamemnon and the United States vessel Magara meeting in mid-Atlantic to splice the first cable from England to America, but he was at Woolwich dockyard when, in May 1845 – 61 years ago – Franklin in the Terror and Erebus sailed away from Woolwich for the Arctic regions.
Apprentice Lego was daily on each ship, and watched the preparations being made to protect them from the stresses they would experience.
“I remember,” he said, “seeing brand-new blankets being soaked in tar and laid between the double decks and the great baulks of timber with which they were strengthened. Large plates of sheet iron were fastened on their bows for further protection.
“Two of my old playmates went as cabin boys in these ships, and didn’t we give them three rousing cheers as they sailed away on the ill-fated expedition.
“Four years passed and no news was heard of them, and then Lady Franklin and the public took the matter up, and the Enterprise and the Investigator were the two ships despatched for this purpose. After about 18 months they returned, to report their lack of success in getting any clue, and then two propeller steamers, the Pioneer and the Intrepid, were sent out. Each of them had a buffalo for a figurehead but later a polar bear was substituted. They made two unsuccessful cruises, and on the second occasion the Intrepid got badly damaged in an ice pack³.
“Other attempts were made to find the lost Arctic explorers, but with no result. The only relic of the expedition that was ever discovered was an open boat with a sailor and a marine in it. The latter had a prayer book in his hand, and was in a bending position over the dead body of his comrade when they were found. But the marine was stone dead, too. They had perished from exhaustion, and it seemed evident that the one had died as he was attempting to fulfil the last sad rites for his companion.”
¹ William Lego’s birth certificate shows that he was born on 2nd October 1832.
² The journalist has misheard William here – this should of course be HMS Beagle, not Berg. However, William’s brother Joel (b. 1813) did not sail with Darwin – he was appointed as a cooper on the ship in May 1837, after the famous voyage of discovery had ended (TNA ADM 27/53/63, folios 213-214). Joseph Lego (b. 1827) did serve on HMS Fury, signing on as carpenter’s mate on 29th December 1851, and being paid off on 18th October 1855 with his conduct rated as “very good” (TNA ADM 29/087). Fury did indeed take part in the Crimean War. Her last commander, in 1861, was Franklin searcher Bedford Pim.
³ William has forgotten about HMS Resolute and HMS Assistance! Admittedly, Captain Edward Belcher, their last commander, forgot to bring Resolute, Assistance, Pioneer and Intrepid back from the Arctic in 1854, and that’s worse. William has also mixed up when HMS Intrepid was brought into dry dock at Woolwich for repairs. This was in 1851, after her first Franklin search, when she did indeed sustain damage after getting up close and personal with an iceberg.
Jonathan Moore Peter Carney Glenn Marty Stein Gary Jenkins Olga Kimmins & Logan Zachary
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