Sir John Franklin’s signature

After the disappearance of Sir John Franklin in 1845 his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, was inundated with requests for copies of his signature. She responded by cutting out his signatures from letters he’d sent and posting these to the grateful collectors.  The damage this did is immediately obvious in this example, a letter Sir John wrote to his sister, Hannah Booth, in 1833:

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The severity of the damage however only becomes apparent when you view the letter on a light box:

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All the sharp cuts show where a knife went through the paper – we can’t be sure these slashes were made when the signature was removed, but as they don’t occur on any of the other letters it’s reasonable to assume the two are linked.

The letter has now been repaired and is ready for one of our volunteers to read.

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Discovering Franklin

We have an exciting new project beginning on Monday 1 October.  Funded by Archives Revealed, our Discovering Franklin project will create a detailed catalogue of the papers of Sir John Franklin (1786-1847); his first wife, Eleanor Porden (1795-1825) and her father William Porden (1750-1822); his second wife, Jane Griffin (1791-1875) – more usually known as Lady Jane Franklin; and his daughter Eleanor (1824-1860).

Barry Lewis looking at Franklin material

Leader of Derbyshire County Council, Councillor Barry Lewis, and some of the Franklin papers

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you will probably have heard these names before: we’ve blogged about them quite a few times!

If you’re not familiar with Sir John Franklin’s story, in 1845 he led two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, up to the Canadian Arctic to discover the Northwest Passage.  The quest to find the Northwest Passage was the Victorian equivalent of the race to put a man on the moon.  Enormous efforts were made to be sure that the British would be the first to find the Northwest Passage and control a potential new trade route to the Americas.

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Photographs taken of the officers, just before the expedition set off in May 1845

The crew wrote home for the last time when they stopped off in Greenland… after which they disappeared.  It wasn’t until the late 1850s that the fate of the 129 crewmen was known – they had all perished, although the exact cause of their deaths remains a mystery.  There were, however, tales of starvation and cannibalism which horrified people back home – and were speedily quashed.  The ships themselves remained lost until very recently, when they were discovered by Canadian archaeologists in 2014 and 2016.  Excavations continue each summer to discover their secrets.

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One of Sir John Franklin’s last letters, written June 1845 from Whale Fish Islands, Greenland

The Franklin papers we have at Derbyshire Record Office have never been properly catalogued but are full of fascinating documents that deserve to be much more accessible to the many people who are interested in Franklin, polar exploration and much more.

Here’s just one example: a little book of hymns that Eleanor sent to her father with Sir James Ross, who led the first expedition to find Franklin in 1848.  By then her father was already dead, although of course no one knew this.  Ross’s expedition was blocked by ice at Somerset Island and so he had to return the book to Eleanor without bringing her the good news she must have been hoping for.  This little package, lovingly prepared by Eleanor and kept safe by Sir James Ross, has been all the way to the Arctic Circle and back.

Package sent to Franklin from Eleanor

Book of hymns sent by Eleanor to her father Sir John Franklin with Sir James Ross’s expedition

There are many more poignant stories captured in these papers.  We will be detailing our discoveries in this blog, of course, but if you use Twitter you can follow more immediate updates there at @FranklinArchive.  And if you’d like to find out more about the Franklin expedition, there are lots of books, TV programmes and films about it… why not start by borrowing a book from your local library?