Lady Jane Franklin has been described as “probably the most travelled woman of her time” by her biographer Alison Alexander. Saying anybody is the “most” anything is fraught with danger, as there is always the possibility that some alternative, better qualified candidate appears. It is wise, therefore, to add the word “probably” to such a statement. In this particular case, however, I do wonder whether such caution may be necessary, as Jane Franklin travelled often and extensively, even well into her seventies, going to every continent except Antarctica.
I think it was a combination of a keen, enquiring mind, a “tom-boy” spirit of independence and the encouragement of the men in her life that helped to contribute to her wanderlust. Her father, John Griffin, who made his fortune in silk weaving, loved to travel, and took the opportunity to go with the family to the European continent for a couple of years, once it became safe to do so following the initial overthrow of Napoleon in 1814. Her uncle John Guillemard also encouraged her to think beyond the limitations imposed on a girl’s education at that time, and she cultivated interest in many subjects, such as science (like Franklin’s first wife, Eleanor, she attended Royal Society lectures) and languages (she learned French, Spanish and German).
It was, however, her marriage in 1828 to the Arctic explorer John Franklin that allowed her to really extend her horizons. Once he was given command of H.M.S. Rainbow, which undertook a tour of duty in the Mediterranean in the early 1830s, Lady Franklin took the opportunity to travel all around it. In one of his letters to his daughter Eleanor, he explains that he had not heard from “Mama” for a couple of months but that he expected she would have arrived in Smyrna or Constantinople (both in present day Turkey). She also travelled to Spain, northern Africa (including Morocco and Egypt), Palestine, Syria and Greece. Franklin never seemed to mind that she was often away when she could have been with him, accepting it as totally natural and indeed rather taking pride in her adventurous spirit.
The appointment of Franklin as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, later known as Tasmania, added another dimension to her travels. She accompanied him on his exploratory tours of the island, through often extremely difficult terrain. In some ways she seemed to revel in having to overcome obstacles and problems; the harder the challenge, the more she enjoyed it. Getting lost in the Bush or losing a wheel on a carriage did not faze her a bit. In 1840-1841, she took an extended trip to the southern part of Australia and then over to New Zealand, totally independent of her husband.
After Franklin’s recall to England, he managed to get himself appointed as commander of another Arctic expedition, which set off in 1845. Not long afterwards Jane set off on an expedition of her own, first taking her step-daughter Eleanor to visit France and then on to the West Indies and the United States of America. It might seem odd in light of what happened to Franklin’s expedition that she went on her travels, but there really was no need for her to stay. He and his crews were expected to be away for at least a winter or even two, and there was no expectation that anything untoward would happen to them in the meantime. It was only in 1847 that she and other people started to worry at the lack of news from the Arctic. She began publicly to urge the Admiralty to undertake search expeditions, and over the next few years her profile rose to such a degree that she became one of the most famous women in the 19th century world.
The image of her as a British Penelope waiting patiently for the return of her Odysseus-like husband does her something of a disservice, as she was not in any way patient and did rather more than just weave a tapestry during the day and unpick it all during the night. She campaigned vociferously and successfully for the Admiralty to send out ships to look for Franklin, his crews and their ships, which they did, albeit somewhat begrudgingly at times. She was also prepared to put up money herself to fund expeditions of her own (4 of them between 1850 and 1853) and got a wealthy American, Henry Grinnell, to fund another one as well.
The final confirmation of Franklin’s death (the discovery by Captain McClintock of the Victory Point note in 1859) did mean that Lady Jane stayed at home to grieve. In 1860 she sailed to America to stay with her benefactor, Henry Grinnell, in New York. She moved on to Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, up to California, then over to the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii, moving from there on to Japan, China and India, before returning home to England after two years away. During these travels she had celebrity status wherever she went, an example of which was that hoteliers would often waive payment for her staying with them.
By this time she was now aged 70, but it did not prevent her from travelling again, first to Spain in 1864-1865, and then onto India before returning via the Suez Canal, 3 years before it was officially opened! After being in London for the unveiling of a statue to Sir John, off she went again, first on a rather more prosaic sight-seeing trip to France, Switzerland and Italy, then off more adventurously to India, before travelling on to Spain the Canary Islands and north west Africa, all between 1867 and 1869. The early 1870s saw more journeys to America (including Alaska), Spain, France and Portugal. Once she had reached the grand old age of 80, her globe trotting days came to an end. She died on 18 July 1875, aged 83.