There is something endearingly Romantic about the fact that the Arctic explorer John Franklin came to meet his first wife, the poet Eleanor Anne Porden, through the medium of poetry. It was not the traditional Valentine poem that either of them caught the other’s attention. In some senses it would not have been unexpected if Eleanor had written one as a way of introducing herself to him, as she was an inveterate writer of Valentines, usually for safe consumption within the circles of her own family and literary friends. No, the poem which brought them together was the poem Eleanor wrote with the rather prosaic title “The Arctic Expeditions”.
Following the announcement early in January 1818 by the Admiralty that ships were being sent to find the legendary North West Passage, it became quite the fashionable thing to do to take a trip out to Deptford to visit the ships and to be shown around by accommodating naval officers. It was certainly something that Eleanor Porden and her friends did. On 30 March 1818, to be precise they were shown around the H.M.S. Isabella and H.M.S. Alexander, which were commanded by John Ross and William Edward Parry, respectively. She did not actually go on board the H.M.S. Trent, the ship due to be captained by Franklin. Coincidentally enough, Jane Griffin, the woman who would go on to be Franklin’s formidable second wife, better known as Lady Jane Franklin, had also undertaken a similar outing to Deptford the week before without actually meeting him either.
Her visit to the ships inspired Eleanor so much that on returning home to London she immediately wrote a poem expressing her own personal interest in the Arctic regions and her hopes for the success of the expeditions. Just as she had done in the poem which first brought her to public attention in 1815, “The Veils”, which displayed her extensive knowledge of scientific matters, she added extra information in the form of foot-notes, on various related topics such as the existence of a Christian colony on Greenland, icebergs and the Magnetic North Pole. Although Eleanor states in her preface, somewhat disingenuously I think, that it was “not originally intended for the public eye”, the work was soon published by John Murray, who later went on to publish Franklin’s own accounts of his two Arctic land expeditions.
We know that the couple first got to know each other through a mutual acquaintance, Dr Thomson. There are two letters which show that they would have dined with Dr Thomson on Tuesday 5 January 1819 had a note from him setting up such a dinner not arrived late with Franklin. In the first letter sent on the 6th (document reference D8760/F/FSJ/1/14/1) Franklin makes it clear he would have much rather have spent his time making the acquaintance of a lady who expressed such an interest in the expeditions instead of being at the party he had actually ended up going to. The lady is not named there, but it is definitely Eleanor he is writing about, referring to her as “arranging and preparing her Poem”, being with the voyagers in spirit.
Confirmation is provided by the second letter, which gives the other side of the story. The letter (reference D8760/F/FEP/1/8/14) is written by Louisa Thomson to Eleanor Porden on the Thursday, enclosing Franklin’s letter as proof that it was not the fault of Doctor T. that Franklin was deprived of the pleasure of her company; she goes on to add that he is certain to make another voyage to the Polar regions and will be happy to “facilitate an interview” with her.
Franklin had also added in his letter that he would be pleased to provide her with “any information respecting the circumstances or incidents of the voyage which may assist her views”. He did actually get round to doing this in writing, as he set down his “observations” on the poem, making comments on particular topics directly referencing the numbered lines as they appeared in print. This particular paper is held under reference number D8760/F/FSJ/2/1/2. In addition we also have the “observations” made on the “observations”, written by Eleanor’s father, William Porden (D8760/F/FSJ/2/1/3).
We have been able to find out a little bit about this Dr Thomson. We know from letters in the collection that Dr Thomson was the physician who regularly attended on Eleanor, who had never been in particularly good health since her childhood. His name also crops up on a number of occasions in the correspondence between Eleanor and Franklin. When she dying of tuberculosis in February 1825, Dr Thomson was one of the doctors present to help her through her final days, and his name makes its way into more family letters later on. We were able to find more information on him in our research once we had found the inscription on his grave memorial in Tunbridge Wells churchyard in Kent, which had originally been set up for his wife Louisa, who had died on 26 April 1844. The inscription names him as Thomas Thomson.
Thomas (1775-1853) enjoyed a distinguished career as a doctor in the army during most of the Napoleonic Wars. Details of his career can be found in “Wellington’s Men Remembered Volume 2” by Janet and David Bromley, which records the memorial inscriptions of soldiers who served in the Peninsular War and Waterloo and which is available to see online. One intriguing piece of information recorded in it was that he had been present at New Orleans during the war in North America (1814-1815). New Orleans was where John Franklin had gallantly fought during a diversionary raid and been wounded in the shoulder. This led me to think somewhat fancifully that Thomson may have been the one to actually tend to Franklin’s wound, and this was how a friendship began. Unfortunately, I suspect that the truth is likely to be more prosaic: Thomson was by then a deputy inspector of hospitals and might not have been so closely involved with the actual treatment of patients.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars Thomson decided to pursue a medical career outside the army. Ironically enough, he graduated as a doctor in February 1816 in Paris, capital of the country which he had been fighting for almost twenty years. Back in England he was admitted to the College of Physicians in 1817, in which year he also married his cousin Louisa. He then sought to set up a practice in the fashionable Hanover Square area of London, where he soon made the acquaintance of the Porden family of Berners Street. He would go on to be appointed Inspector of Hospitals and retired to Tunbridge Wells, where he died on 4 August 1853.
After that initial set back for the proposed meeting of Eleanor Porden and John Franklin, it obviously take place not too long afterwards, although exactly when is not known – it would be nice to think it was actually Valentine’s Day! It seems they formed an instant liking for each other: a friend of hers is said to have seen at that first meeting which way the wind was blowing. However mutual the attraction, nothing was done to put their relationship on more than a “just good friends” footing before Franklin set off on his first and somewhat infamous Arctic expedition on May 1819.
It would be three years and more before he returned home to England in October 1822. Franklin wasted little time in renewing their acquaintance. On the ship home he had written a letter informing her he had named a group of small islands off the north Canadian coast after the Porden family. She had to write back telling him that her father, William Porden, had died only a few weeks before. I do wonder whether her father’s death did play a part in the marriage eventually taking place. He had been her constant support as she grew up, encouraging her in her education and literary pursuits in a way very few fathers would have done at that period in history. Perhaps the re-appearance so soon after his death of a kind, considerate and good natured older man offered hope of a reassuring future for her.
As it happened, it might have been easier for Franklin if the father had still been alive, as Porden had approved of the naval officer and might have been a valuable ally in his courtship, helping him to avoid the mistakes he made in his courtship. As far as we are aware, Franklin had never had any experience in matters of the heart before, and he seems to have been particularly maladroit in his attentions to her during the next few anxious months. Behaving awkwardly in her presence at times and thoughtlessly saying things that really upset her almost ruined his chances. There was indeed much mutual misunderstanding on a number of issues, such as his apparent resistance to Eleanor’s literary ambitions and their views on religious observance and practice. These misunderstandings, however, were largely overcome, mainly because Franklin was prepared to back down. They got engaged in the spring and were married on 19 August 1823.
Unfortunately, there was no happy-ever-after ending, as we know. The marriage itself seems to have been a happy one, made complete by the birth of a daughter, Eleanor Isabella. In June 1824. The letters are affectionate and show no sign of tension between them. The only blight on their relationship was the ever increasing signs of ill health caused by her tuberculosis. Franklin famously was not there on the day she died, 22 February 1825, as he was on his way to North America to lead his second Arctic land expedition. He had vacillated about whether he should stay or not, but she was the one who really took the decision, telling him he needed to go and set in motion everything he had been preparing for during the last year. It is tempting to wonder how different things might have been had she not died.