It was on this day 175 years ago that Sir John Franklin and the crews of the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror departed from the port of Greenhithe on the coast of Kent in their attempt to complete the fabled North West Passage. They set off in good spirits, in two purpose adapted ships proven to be up to the rigours of polar exploration and now fitted with the most modern equipment, supplied with 3 years’ worth of provisions and led by an experienced captain used to the demands of the harsh Arctic conditions. Although nobody would have taken the undertaking lightly, the general expectation was that it would ultimately prove successful.
The new expedition had come in the wake of James Clark Ross’s largely successful voyages in the southern hemisphere (1839-1843), when the existence of the continent of Antarctica had been confirmed. Calls for a similar success up north were heeded by Sir John Barrow, the indefatigable Second Secretary of the Admiralty, who had revived the mission to find the North West Passage almost 30 years before. Due to retire soon at the tender age of 80, it would be a fitting finale to his career to dispatch the expedition which would make that final breakthrough, when, in his own words, “so little now remains to be done”. He got his wish, as the Admiralty approved the proposal in December 1844.
The next and most important step was to appoint the expedition’s leader. It has to be said that at this stage Sir John Franklin was by no means the obvious choice. This would have been James Clark Ross, a veteran of several Arctic voyages himself, and whose recent Antarctic success had earned him a knighthood. He had, however, recently married and promised his wife that he would not undertake any more perilous journeys. Also citing his own “old age” (he was then 44), he effectively ruled himself out of the game right from the start. There were other, younger candidates, though. Barrow himself had favoured James Fitzjames (32), something of a rising star but unfortunately lacking any experience in Arctic-type conditions.
The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Haddington, had also asked Ross’s second-in-command in the Antarctic expedition, Francis Crozier (48), whether he would be interested in the command. He was now an experienced captain whose career included extensive service in Arctic waters, so it was very logical to ask him, but his lack of confidence in his own leadership abilities made him decline the offer.
So that left Sir John Franklin, and there can be no doubt that he was ever going to turn down any such offer to command. His niece Eliza Jupp, in her short biography of him, “A Brave Man And His Belongings”, published anonymously in 1874, reported that he was heard to say “he considered the post to be his birthright, as the senior Arctic explorer in England”. Like Barrow, it would be a fitting culmination to his career, having commanded one of the ships on the first Arctic expeditions back in 1818. In addition, he must have felt he had something to prove. He had returned home to England in June 1844 after a difficult and draining period as governor of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Unable to navigate the muddy waters of vested interest and political wrangling rife in the colony, he had suffered what he regarded as the humiliation of recall to England before the end of his governorship by the Colonial Secretary, Lord Stanley. For 6 months his life was dominated by attempts to clear the perceived stain on his reputation. He failed to get the apology he wanted from Lord Stanley (who would only grudgingly acknowledge Franklin’s honest intentions), so he set about preparing, writing and publishing a pamphlet defending his actions and his honour, for which he enlisted the help of his wife, Lady Jane and his teenage daughter, Eleanor.
It would still take another couple of months for the higher echelons of the Admiralty to accept the appropriateness of Franklin’s appointment. His age and general physical condition (already characterised for many years as “stout”, he had lately become a good deal rounder) were not to be treated as irrelevancies. It was, however, the support of several of the leading Arctic explorers that helped to sway things his way. Franklin’s great friend, Sir John Richardson, in his capacity as a doctor, ruled him fit on health grounds; Sir Edward Parry agreed on his fitness for command, also adding that Franklin would “die of disappointment” if he did not get it; and most importantly, Sir James Clark Ross, who, when approached to reconsider reversing his own decision not to go, staunchly put forward Franklin’s case, somewhat ironically, given his own age excuse. The interview in February 1845 between Lord Haddington and Franklin went well, which included the celebrated exchange about age recorded by Eliza Jupp (inaccurately, as Franklin really only 58 at the time), and the matter was settled in Franklin’s favour.
There was not long left until the expedition was due to set off, about 10 weeks, and there was much to do – in a letter written to Reverend Philip Gell he mentions “how short a period has been given us for our equipments”. Franklin first made two key appointments, choosing the two younger rival candidates for his post: Francis Crozier was to take command of the ship he knew so well from his time in the Antarctic, H.M.S. Terror, and James Fitzjames, who was to be Franklin’s second-in-command on H.M.S. Erebus. Crews for the two ships were recruited, with Fitzjames being assigned the task of appointing all the junior officers. There was also great activity at the Woolwich dockyards, where hurried preparations were made to fit the state-of-the-art propeller, powered by a steam engine which also helped to provide the added bonus of central heating. Supplies and provisions were procured and loaded, including the controversial tin-canned food, which may, or may not, have contributed to the ultimate failure of the expedition. There was also the usual flurry of officials, dignitaries and visitors that seemed to accompany the preparations for any Arctic expedition. Much of the hullaballoo would, no doubt, have been irksome to Franklin, but there was one special social gathering, organised by his wife, when he got the chance say farewell to his friends and supporters like Parry, Ross and Barrow. It was also a chance for him to apologise to his niece Eliza Jupp for not being able to attend her wedding, which was due to take place just two days later.
On 12 May the ships were towed by tug-boats from Woolwich 9 miles down the river to Greenhithe, where the last of the supplies, including scientific equipment, were to be loaded. Franklin stayed at the White Hart Inn, something which would be later commemorated when the inn was re-named the “Sir John Franklin”. This was a period when there was a more intimate atmosphere, and family members could spend the last few days together before departure. In a letter to his prospective son-in-law, John Philip Gell, he records that his wife Lady Jane, daughter Eleanor and niece Sophy Cracroft had remained with him in Greenhithe for a few days so that they could say the last farewells. They got the chance to see his cabin, and Eleanor and Sophy even helped to arrange his books (the ship as a whole was stocked with a veritable library of books to help stave off the men’s boredom). They also got the chance to meet and get to know his officers and find out that “theirs hearts were in the right place as respects the objects of the Expedition”. He goes on to add that these conversations soothed their minds and “broke the sorrow” they felt at his going, which “they bore … with a very proper spirit”. It was also at Greenhithe that the extraordinary daguerreotype photographs of Franklin and his officers were taken, arranged by Lady Jane Franklin with the photographer William Beard, which would go on to become iconic images of the expedition.
On the day before setting off a service of divine worship was held on board ship. Franklin led the service, speaking eloquently and with feeling, greatly impressing his new young officers in the process. Then, the day of final departure arrived. A good omen was observed, when a dove was seen to land on one of the masts and stay there for a while, a symbol of good news and peace. When it comes to omens, however, a bleaker one had unwittingly been provided by Lady Jane Franklin earlier. Seeing Sir John taking a nap, she had solicitously lain a home-made Union Jack flag over him to keep him warm. Waking up, he was somewhat alarmed to find this had happened, as it was common practice in the Royal Navy to use the Union Jack as a shroud before burial at sea. It is highly likely that he would, indeed, have been lain out in a similar way for real after his death over two years later on 11 June 1847. His final resting place is not known.
To find out more about the fate of the expedition, take a look at our online Google Arts and Culture exhibition, The Last Voyage of Sir John Franklin.