Sir John Franklin’s last expedition

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.

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin, portrait by Negelen, 1836         (DRO ref. D8760/F/LIB/8/1/4)

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.

Commander James Fitzjames

Lieutenant James Fitzjames, 16 May 1845    (DRO ref. D8760/F/LIB/8/1/5)

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.

Captain Crozier

Captain Francis Crozier, 16 May 1845            (DRO ref. D8760/F/LIB/8/1/5)

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.

Eliza Jupp's 1845 memories

Eliza Jupp’s account of Franklin’s interview for the expedition and her memory of her last encounter with him    (DRO ref. D8760/F/LIB/5/10)

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.

White Hart Greenhithe

The White Hart Inn – Postcard sent by Richard Cyriax to Dr Henry Willingham Gell, 1935 (DRO ref. D8760/F/GHW/1/4)

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.

D3311 32 3_00001

First page of letter from Sir John Franklin to prospective son-in-law John Philip Gell,                     23 May 1845         (DRO ref. D8760/F/GJP/1/1/1)

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.


Sir John Franklin, 16 May 1845, suffering from influenza before leaving for the Arctic (DRO ref. D8760/F/LIB/8/1/5)

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.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

A treat from our Franklin collection: the Valentine poem Eleanor Porden wrote in 1823 for her fiancé, John Franklin. We’re very lucky to have two versions – here’s the original draft:

draft frontdraft recto

And here is the letter she sent him on 14 February 1823, with her handwriting ‘disguised’:

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The symbols on the letter (presumably purporting to be Inuit) tie in with the mention of Coppermine River, the river in North Canada John Franklin had traveled down during his Coppermine Expedition of 1819 to 1822.  Eleanor seems to be writing as if she is an Inuit woman – see the post about Miss Green Stockings to find out more!




Repairing the Richardson letters

In our Franklin collection is an album containing about a hundred letters, mainly written by Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) to his good friend and fellow arctic explorer, Sir John Richardson (1787-1865). The letters had been stuck into the album with a shiny, translucent tape, which had also been used to carry out repairs. In order to ensure the long-term survival of these letters we decided to remove them from the album: many were loose already and at risk of falling out, and the tape was causing further damage to the paper.

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We carried out a few tests on the repair tape and found that the adhesive was water soluble. The inks used were stable in water, so we were able to wash the letters and remove all remnants of the tape this way. An additional benefit to having washed the letters is that it has flushed out all kinds of dirt and degradation that had become ingrained in the paper, and it has re-invigorated the paper fibres, making the letters feel stronger again.

All the letters have now been repaired with handmade conservation repair paper and wheat starch paste. Here are some examples of letters before, during and after the process:

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In case you were wondering, if in a few hundred years’ time one of our successors wants to remove these repairs in order to treat the letters with whatever amazing technique that may be available then, all they will need to do is wash them again and all our repairs will simply float off.

We have of course saved the original album as part of the collection – if you would like to see it and the letters, just pop in and ask for D8760/F/FJR/1/1/1-92. Or have a look on our catalogue for a description of their contents, as they are full of fascinating information about Franklin’s expeditions, his time in Tasmania, and his home life. But as we are in Matlock, my favourite snippet has to be this from 13 June 1823:

D8760 F FJR 1 1 5 Matlock

‘I went up today to Matlock, and was much delighted with the scenery. I think it equals in richness and the picturesque anything I have seen – though it is not so grand as some we have beheld in America. Mrs Richardson will be gratified to learn that its prettiest parts reminded me of different spots in Scotland.’ (D8760/F/FJR/1/1/5)

Looking out of my window as I type this, with the tops of the hills shrouded in mist, I can only agree!


Inspired by Franklin…

The hidden talents of the Record Office team have been stirred… inspired by the Sir John Franklin story some of our staff members have specially recorded some traditional music to accompany our new online exhibition for Google Arts and Culture.

The tradition of singing, or chanting, of sea shanties and ballads aboard ships flourished during the 19th century. Long journeys at sea and repetitive hard work were alleviated by the singing of hauling and working songs, alongside tales of tragedy and loves lost documented in tunes and laments. ‘Handsome Molly’ is an old-time banjo and fiddle tune with a maritime theme, and this fantastic version has been recorded for us by ukulele player and singer Mark Psmith (our records manager!).

‘I wish I was in Londond3311drawing03-copy
Or some other seaport town
I’d set my foot on a steamboat
And sail the ocean round

While sailing around the ocean
While sailing around the sea
I think of Handsome Molly
Wherever she may be’



Folk music has long taken inspiration from historical tales, and what better than a story that meets such a haunting end as that of Franklin and his crew. ‘Lady Franklin’s lament’ is a traditional folk ballad, which first appeared as a broadside ballad around 1850. It speaks from the perspective of a sailor on board a ship, who dreams about Lady Franklin and her plight to find her lost husband.


‘We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go’


This version was recorded by folk singer and musician Ewan D Rodgers and features vocals and whistle playing by Clare (our assistant conservator!).




Discovering Franklin catalogue online

Three cheers!  The brand new catalogue of our material relating to Sir John Franklin, his family and friends, can now be viewed on our online catalogue in collection D8760.

discovering franklin

Archives Revealed funding and the help of volunteers has enabled us to catalogue in much greater detail than we normally would.  This means there are now four times more catalogue entries than there were before!    That’s a lot to browse through, so if you’d like to search the Franklin material instead, click on ‘Search our catalogue’, put ‘D8760*’ (don’t forget the asterisk at the end) into the ‘Reference number’ box, and then add your keywords into the ‘Any Text’ box at the top.  You can also add a date range to narrow down your search.

Over 1000 letters have also been exported into a spreadsheet.  If you are interested in Franklin, or just 19th century letters in general, the spreadsheet enables you to keyword search all the letters at once, or sort and filter them as you like.  You can download this as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet here: Derbyshire Record Office D8760 letters with transcriptions.

Many thanks go to Neil Bettridge, our project archivist, and the volunteers who put so much hard work into this project.  Although the cataloguing project has now technically finished, we still have volunteers transcribing the letters and will continue adding to and improving the catalogue with more transcriptions and indexing as we have the time.

There are lots more stories to tell from the collection so this won’t be the last you hear about Franklin from us!  And don’t forget that you can also view some of the Franklin items and a couple of online exhibitions about them on Google Arts and Culture.

Flowers of remembrance

We’ve just archivally packaged a very touching group of items: dried flowers collected from the grave of Eleonar Gell (Sir John Franklin’s daughter) in Tredunnoc, Monmouthshire. They were mounted on black-edged card by her husband John Philip Gell for their seven children – Eleanor, Franklin, Philip, Mary, Henry, Alice and Lucy – and stored together in a blue cover.

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The date on the cards is that of Eleanor’s funeral, a few days after her death on 30 August 1860 – she was 36.

The flowers are still in remarkable condition and to keep them that way we’ve placed each card in an archival polyester sleeve and then made a folder to store them in so we keep them out of light.  We’ve then made another folder so we can keep the dried flowers together with the cover.

This memorial to a lost parent’s love should now be safe for at least another 160 years.


Take a tour of H.M.S. Terror

Our  Discovering Franklin project to catalogue and preserve the archives relating to Sir John Franklin is nearly finished.  Within the next couple of months we will be publishing the brand new and very detailed catalogue of the collection.  We will also be launching online exhibitions and images for people to explore through an exciting new venture which we are tantalisingly keeping under wraps until we have a definite launch date.

Whilst you’ll have to wait a little longer for our Franklin material, do take a look at an amazing video which Parks Canada have just released giving an underwater tour of H.M.S. Terror, one of Franklin’s ships which disappeared in the Canadian Arctic nearly 175 years ago and was rediscovered in 2016.

Excitingly, their latest exploration shows that records of the expedition are likely to be sitting in the ships, waiting to be recovered.  Just imagine being the archivist who gets to catalogue that material!





a lucky letter repair

Here is a nice repair job I carried out on one of our Franklin letters, written by John Richardson to John Franklin in July 1823. It was a particularly satisfying one, as this letter originally had a missing corner piece, which amazingly our project archivist Neil had managed to find! After it had been matched up to its rightful home, I re-attached the piece using a wheat starch paste and spider tissue, and filled a hole with handmade repair paper. See the results below – it just goes to show how easy it is to lose information when paper becomes damaged, but luckily this time we could help!


Letter to Franklin from John Richardson


Missing piece of the letter


Letter before repair


Letter after repair


Missing piece re-attached


Letter after repair – infill

Arctic scraps

In our Franklin collection we’ve come across this scrapbook:

D3311 87 001

It was most likely put together by Lady Jane Franklin herself, although we don’t know whether she gave it the rather fabulous title of ‘Arctic scraps’. It is full of newspaper cuttings, prints, and other material related to the efforts to find the missing expedition.

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It also includes posters offering rewards for helping in the search: Lady Jane herself offered £3000 to whaling ships willing to take part and the UK government even offered £20,000. The National Archives has a handy currency converter, which tells us that this equates to approximately £240,500 and £1,6 million in today’s money!


We don’t have a £20,000 reward on offer, but we do have a selection of rewards for you to choose from if you donate to our crowdfunding campaign. And if  you choose the Behind the Scenes Tour, we’ll even add in a cup of tea and some nice biscuits…

Three fans

Within the collection of objects that we’ve called ‘Lady Jane’s Museum’ there are three beautiful fans which may have belonged to Lady Jane Franklin or to the Gell family from Hopton Hall. According to an expert at The Fan Museum in Greenwich, the oldest one dates from the seventeenth century:

D3311 OBJ 02 3 unfolded ruler

In the earlier part of the seventeenth century the most commonly used fans were ‘fixed’ and consisted of feathers set into a handle. Later on in the century folded, hand-painted fans, such as the one above, gained in popularity; by the end of the century the folded fans had completely superseded the fixed ones.

Next is an early eighteenth century fan; by this time folding fans were very popular and were being made all over Europe and imported from the Far East:


The third fan dates from around 1805-1810 and is a brisé ivory fan. This type of fan consists only of decorative sticks, with no pleated fabric attached:

D3311 OBJ 02 1 unfolded ruler

The sticks of brisé fans are usually intricately carved and held together with a ribbon which is either glued to each stick, or – as in this case- threaded through pierced openings. The carvings were meant to give the illusion of filigree or lace.

Our fabulous fans are in great condition considering their age and we’ll heed the Fan Museum’s advice by storing them closed in museum boxes. If you’d like to help us look after them, as well as the other objects in Lady Jane’s Museum, you can donate on our crowdfunding page  or call our reception on 01629 538347.

A week and a half into our crowdfunding campaign we’ve already raised £565! Every little nudge that will get us closer to our £1000 goal is much appreciated.