Monday, 8 December 2014

Sponsorship Opportunity

This is a request for funding.

I am privy to a very exciting programme of scientific research into an important aspect of the Franklin Expedition.  It will be carried out by a team of highly respected academics and scientists and will fill in an important gap in the story of the Expedition. Indeed it has the potential to deliver a truly remarkable new insight.  I should make it clear that this project is completely unrelated to the recent finding of HMS Erebus and will take place in the UK.

My company Asset Dynamics Ltd. is supporting this research but we need additional funding to complete it.  I'm therefore posting this notice to ask anyone who wants to support this research, or who can put me in touch with a suitable sponsor, to contact me. The funding shortfall at present is in the region of £20,000.  The company or individual which provides this support will be prominently credited, including on the television programme planned to cover this project.

Could anyone interested in further information on this please contact me here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

"That's it!"

Yesterday Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris came to speak at the British Library about the finding of HMS Erebus, just off the coast of Adelaide Peninsular.  The lecture was organised by the Eccles Centre for American Studies and supported with characteristic generosity by the Canadian High Commission.  Ryan’s discussion was moderated by Robin McKee, Science Editor of The Observer.

Ryan Harris and Robin McKee.  Photo: Ralph Lloyd-Jones.
The auditorium was packed and, in a sign of the growing interest in the UK in anything Franklin, many people had had to be turned away. 

Ryan explained that the Inuit people of Nunavut have always maintained that, while one of Franklin’s ship was wrecked off the west coast of King William Island, the other sank close to an island just off Adelaide Peninsular.  The question has always been: exactly where is that ship? Ryan paid generous tribute to the people who have already searched in these areas yet found almost nothing that could be associated with the Franklin Expedition.  Parks Canada have shown great commitment in pursuing a systematic long-term plan designed to locate the two ships, working with an increasing number of other parties, both Canadian public sector and private sector.  But despite collecting a wealth of information about the region over the past six years, they had not been blessed with tremendously glamorous finds either – the drama of the 2012 search, for example, being the recovery of a toothbrush.

Until this summer.
This year treacherous ice in Victoria Strait forced Parks Canada to search further south than they had planned. Ryan described the mounting anticipation as the team gradually homed in on the Erebus.  First Captain Andrew Sterling, one of the team’s helicopter pilots, found two artefacts on the shore. Examination on board ship that evening convinced the team that these two artefacts likely came from a Franklin ship, probably nearby.  The following day – with ideal conditions - the team put their state-of-the art underwater scanners to use and started surveying the nearly sea-bed.  Ryan showed us pictures of the equipment they use.  A small metal ‘fish’ towed behind their vessel relays back up to a computer monitor on board a detailed image of the seabed below the ‘fish’.  And anything lying on the seabed… Ryan and his colleagues have spent many, many hours staring at these screen watching as mile after featureless mile of sterile seabed passes before their eyes on these screens.

Ryan Harris' presentation.  Photo: Ralph Lloyd-Jones.
You could have heard a pin drop in the Hall as Ryan described how that morning, with Jonathan Moore at the screen and Ryan looking over his shoulder, the unmistakable image of a nineteenth century bomb vessel suddenly started to scroll across their screen.  Ryan says he jabbed his finger at the screen and exclaimed, with what to me seems commendable restraint: “that’s it!”  Ryan and Jon were the first people from outside the Arctic to see one of the Franklin ships since July 1845.  It was clear immediately that the ship was in a remarkable state of preservation.  Conditions are very good for preservation.  Melting ice keeps the salinity of the water low and the temperature is extremely cold.  Also, for nearly ten months of the year the ship is deep gloomy darkness, the result not just of the long dark Arctic winter but also the shroud of surface ice shielding it from what little sunlight there is.  So, although there is a mantle of kelp over the ship, its timbers retain their sharp edges and some parts look almost as if they have just recently been immersed in the sea.
The temptation to explore immediately must have been strong.  But geopolitics and the weather intervened.  The team had to ensure that news of their sensational discovery did not leak out before Canada’s political leadership could announce it, and at the same time the weather closed in – never an unusual event in Nunavut.
It was not until 17th September that divers were able to descend on the Erebus, and it is fitting that Jonathan Moore and Ryan Harris were the first pair to descend.  Altogether the teams, always of two divers, made seven descents on the Erebus over a period of two days. They have been able to bring back, and showed us, remarkable pictures from the ship.  For example, the stern has been almost sheared off by ice and through this gap the divers were able to peer into the Great Cabin of the Erebus.  Let us remember that it was here, in Franklin’s cabin, where Lt. Fairholme reported that “Sir John … receive(s) three of us at dinner every day... and instead of the formal parties these are in most ships, one really looks forward with the greatest pleasure to meeting him”.  Visible in one of the photos was the leg and part of the stretcher of a table.  Very likely this was the actual table at which Franklin and his officers dined.  As Peter Carney observed to me afterwards ‘how many tables do you think they had on those ships’?

Other finds included the ship’s tiller, the 6-pounder cannons which the ship carried for signalling and a wealth of her fittings including a round hole in the upper deck reinforced with a copper gland which may have been for one of the vent pipes from her steam engine.  At the stern can be seen the tracks along which the retractable propeller passed.  There was no sign either of the propeller or of the chocks which were designed to fill the propeller well when the prop was not in use.  Around the periphery of the ship were no less than six anchors which all appear to have been neatly stowed.  The seven dives were, in Ryan Harris’s words 'from beginning to end just endless discovery’.  As is well known, the ship’s bell was clearly visible on the deck and the team took the rapid and wise decision to recover it for safe-keeping. 
Some of the images Ryan showed are available are at the Parks Canada website here and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society website here. 
But what does the future hold for HMS Erebus?  Ryan pointed out that if this is what we see on her exterior, there is likely to be a treasure-trove of information and artefacts inside. The Parks Canada team was able to look though some of the broken timbers of the upper deck and see along the main deck, where the bulk of the ship’s company lived, to the Fraser stove where food was prepared and ice was melted to make water.  Examination of that will provide a wealth of information on the men’s health.  It is perfectly possible that writing may survive in log-books, diaries and maps.  Any of this has the capability to revolutionise our understanding of what happened on the Franklin Expedition.

The responsibility for capitalising on this treasure trove of information lies with the Parks Canada team, supported by their range of partners. It’s clear that they are already thinking extremely carefully about how to realise this.  The very detailed survey which the team carried out in the summer will help them plan for next year’s campaign.  And they plan for a major effort.  For example, with suitable reinforcement it may be safe for divers to enter parts of the wreck.  Intriguingly, each officer’s cabin was lit by a ‘Preston’s patent illuminator’ in its ceiling - a brass ring into which was screwed a glass lens.  If the glass can be withdrawn, then the ‘illuminators’ may give direct access to the cabins, perhaps making it possible to recover and then conserve any written documents that can be identified.  And then, perhaps, they can be read.  Ryan speculated that perhaps one day Erebus might even be raised from the seabed and conserved ashore.  What a sight she would be! But the cost would be huge and before that could happen there is literally years of work recovering the moveable and readable artefacts from inside her hull.
Even without further work, the information we already have throws major new light on the Franklin Expedition. It’s not certain yet whether the ship was sailed to its present location or simply drifted there.  But (and this is PURELY my own speculation) it seems to me more likely that she was sailed there, rather than simply drifted.  And while Parks Canada are very sensibly keeping secret the precise location, it does seem to be something like 100 nautical miles south of the point where the Erebus and Terror were so memorably ‘deserted’ in April 1848.  If true, this would mean that the Erebus at least must have been re-manned in the summer or autumn of 1848, and reached her present location in the summer of 1849 or perhaps even later.  Erebus was the flagship, and Franklin’s Expedition was a ship-borne voyage of exploration.  The implication of this is that the Expedition lasted a lot longer, and travelled a lot further, than anyone could say for sure before.  This does not alter its ultimate failure, and nor does it minimise the tragedy for the men, but it does make their achievement even more remarkable than we realised before.  As Ryan observed, we can now see that the famous observation of Franklin’s great friend Sir John Richardson that ‘they forged the last link [in the north west passage] with their lives’ was closer to the truth than many people had realised.  The Erebus apparently now lies only a few miles from the littoral waters along the north American continent where, as Franklin himself said in his last letter to Richardson, written on 7th July 1845, “our ships might safely go”.
Photo: Ralph Lloyd-Jones.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014


It's fascinating how prevalent social media has become in the academic and business worlds.  Social media, it seems, is no longer just social.  I suppose that's inevitable really because, whether at work or play, Man is a social animal and we are all more productive as teams rather than as individuals.

I mention this because in the context of the Franklin Expedition the group on Facebook: "Remembering the Franklin Expedition" has become ubiquitous.  I will continue to blog here and the blog format is really excellent for thought pieces.  But I would recommend that anyone who follows my blog and is interested in the fate of the Franklin Expedition should also seek out 'Remembering the Franklin Expedition" and join it.

Franklin aficionados in Britain will already be aware no doubt that the British Library is hosting the special lecture by Parks Canada on Monday 1 December entitled 'The Search for Franklin's Lost Ships' to coincide with their exhibition ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ which runs from 14 November 2014 to 29 March 2015.  I'm looking forward to that very much (although the pedant in me notes the inaccuracy in the lecture title, given that the location of HMS Erebus is now known).  I will write up my considered impressions for the blog for anyone who wants to read them, but I would expect Facebook to give internet users a much more immediate, albeit perhaps more disjointed, impression of the event.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A first attempt to collate evidence from the Franklin Expedition ship with other evidence

Like many people who have followed the Franklin saga, I am still reeling over the extent of Parks Canada’s achievement in finding one of the Expedition’s ships.

Today I’ve done some thinking on how to collate the Inuit accounts of the ship with the new find.  I’ve been doing this by reading of those two invaluable books: “Unravelling the Franklin Expedition” by Dave Woodman and “Encounters on the Passage” by Dorothy Harley Eber.  It seems pretty clear that this was the ship which the Inuit visited, and this also tallies precisely with the finds we have from other sources which can be linked to it. What is also interesting is that by collating this evidence we may be able to learn more.  For example, and quite astonishingly, this quick assessment suggests that William Closson and William Wentzel might have been two of the sailors who sailed this ship to its present location!  This deduction may prove to be a fallacy, but is an example of how new insights may emerge from blending old and new evidence.

McClintock heard all about this ship. He was told specifically that it was driven ashore on ‘Oot-loo-lik’.  He thought that meant the west coast of King William Island so he searched for it there very carefully indeed.  This search produced the Victory Point note and the famous ‘boat place’, but no ship.  We now know that McClintock was wrong and that Oot-loo-lik meant the west coast of Adelaide Peninsular, which is exactly where this ship has now been found.  (And not, I understand, at Hat Island which is where first reports had suggested.)

Hall, Schwatka and Rasmussen were all given further information about this ship.  You can read the full accounts in Eber and Woodman, but to summarise: the ship was seen by the Inuit while they were out sealing, but they were afraid to approach it.  For how long we might wonder?  We don’t know.  None of their accounts record meeting any men alive on this ship, so it seems likely they stayed out of contact while they thought any potentially armed Franklin men might be living on the ship. Schwatka’s informant Puhtoorak said he had only ventured on board ‘when his people saw the ship so long without anyone around it’. McClintock says there was ‘some laughter’ when he asked for details about the ship and a reference to fire which his interpreter did not understand, or perhaps chose not to translate.  Perhaps this was a reference to smoke coming from the ship - either its galley or heating system, or even its engine? 

Hall was told that the ship was covered over with its awning and Schwatka was told something about canvas which he took to mean that the ship had some of its sails set.  This sounds unlikely. Pushtoorek said the ship was covered in snow when he entered it with scrapings and sweepings alongside.  To me this sounds as though the ship had had its canvas awning fitted, although maybe later it blew away, and that men had lived on board it for some time with our Inuit witnesses only boarding after the ship had been abandoned. 

Hall was told that Nuk-kee-che-uk was the first Inuuk to enter the ship, having seen it first while sealing with a number of Ook-joo-lik Inuit.  He visited alone ‘and saw nobody’ so went back to tell the rest of the band, who all then entered the ship.  This all suggested they waited until they were sure the ship was abandoned before they boarded.  On it were ‘a good deal’ of things.  Schwatka met Pushtooraak, who said that he had been on board the ship to recover ‘wood and iron’.  They found many empty red cans of meat (the Expedition’s meat cans were painted red) with four still unopened and saw guns, ‘plenty of knives, forks, spoons, pans, cups and plates’ and also books, which they left.

In May, 1859 McClintock bought selected materials from Inuit which he was told had come from this ship.  Some of these are in the National Maritime Museum’s collection.  It’s instructive to look at what he bought on 3rd May, 1859 from Inuit people he met near Cape Victoria on the Boothia Peninsular:

·         AAA2090.1 and AAA2090.2, two plain metal buttons with shanks.

·         AAA2094, a thin piece of curved metal plate with embossed decoration, pierced at one end with cotton fibres attached.

·         AAA2095, a file blade without a handle.

·         AAA2104, a triangular steel knife blade with two reinforcing plates attached which retain one copper and two steel rivets.

·         AAA2108, one of a number of arrows made using copper heads with long shanks lashed to a wooden shaft.

·         AAA2096, a broken file blade mounted it in an Inuit-manufactured bone handle.

·         AAA2103, AAA2099, AAA2102, AAA2097, AAA2100, five of the 'seven knives made by the natives out of materials obtained from the last expedition… either of iron or steel, riveted to two strips of hoop, between which the handle of wood is inserted, and rivets passed through securing them together. The rivets are almost all made out of copper nails, such as would be found on a copper-fastened boat, but those which have been examined do not bear the Government mark'.

·         AAA2477, a silver, fiddle-pattern table fork once owned by Sir John Franklin and bearing his family crest.  As it has 'W C' scratched on the back, it seems to have been reused by William Closson, Able Seaman HMS 'Erebus'.

On 7th May, 1859, MClintock bought some further items which, again, he was told had come from the same ship:

·         AAA2111, a broken steel razor by Millikin (a firm which made medical equipment) which had been reused by being mounted in a bone handle.  What the NMM claim are ‘Illegible letters’ are engraved on the handle and it would be VERY helpful if the NMM were to read these ‘illegible letters’ as we might presume they would identify the man who made this knife, quite possibly on board the missing ship.

·         AAA2480, a silver, fiddle-pattern table fork owned by Sir John Franklin and bearing his family crest. 

·         AAA2479, a silver, fiddle-pattern tablespoon which had been owned by Sir John Franklin and which bears his family crest. It bears a ‘W.W’ roughly scratched on the back and front of the handle. Those are the initials of Wiiliam Wentzell, an Able Seaman on HMS 'Terror'.

The material McClintock bought is all readily portable and exactly matches the goods which our Inuit sources say they recovered from it.  It’s very interesting how closely these tally.  Possibly William Wentzel, William Closson and the man who carved the ‘illegible letters’ on his knife were among the last survivors living on this ship?

Hall, McClintock and Schwatka were all told that a 'dead white man' was found on the ship.  All agreed that he was large.  Koo-nik told Hall that this man’s body was partially decomposed ‘smelt very bad’ and that his body was lying on the floor in a locked cabin. That’s my interpretation of what she told Hall, that the Inuit ‘broke into a place that was fastened up and there found a very large white man who was dead’.  The same basic story was told to McClintock also.

At some point later the Inuit returned to find that the ship had sunk with only her masts visible above sea-level.  If the ship which has been found had its masts set when it sank, then it looks as though their tips would have been visible while they remained erected.  So this tallies.  The loss of the ship was clearly a shock to the Inuit as it largely cut them off from the valuable materials contained within.  Persistently the accounts blame the Inuit who visited the ship for ‘breaking a hole’ in it, so that when the ice holding the ship afloat melted it sank.  This has always seemed rather unlikely – the ships were so stoutly constructed you would need very substantial tools to cut a hole in their hulls. When we look at the images Parks Canada has released we can see that the ship has huge damage to its stern – which is basically missing.  That damage must have been caused by ice, but perhaps it was how the Inuit gained access to the ship.  If men of the Expedition were living on the ship at the time, they would have known that damage of this magnitude meant they had to abandon ship and seek salvation by the ship's boats or land.  So as well as being the entry point for the Inuit, it looks like this damage was the trigger for the last men to abandon the ship, as they would know that once the ice melted it would sink. 

So why did the Inuit blame themselves (or each other?) for damaging the ship so badly that they were responsible for its sinking?  Perhaps the story of the breaking of the interior door into the cabin containing the corpse grew with the telling, and later this action was blamed at second hand for causing the damage which sank the ship. 

There is a similar consistency in the accounts of sightings of men from this ship ashore hunting.  The stories describe three men and a dog, and it is intriguing that the Expedition took a Newfoundland dog named Neptune with them.  Newfoundlands (sadly) don't live to be very old, but if 'Nep' had been one when the Expedition sailed he could still have been an active dog six or seven years later.  It seems highly significant that he WAS alive at this point - starving men don't keep a dog for very long...  Given the remarkable consistency of what our Inuit witnesses said they saw with the finds McClintock recovered and the evidence from the ship today, there is no reason to doubt them and you can find detailed accounts of these sightings in Woodman, Eber and elsewhere.  Of course it doesn’t mean that ONLY three men survived on the ship – this was, we are told, a hunting party which leaves open the prospect of other men remaining on the ship.

Perhaps I am being na├»ve, but to me the evidence that the ship was ‘housed’ with its awning, coal or wood was burned and hunting parties sent out from it, which included a domestic dog, suggests that the party on board the ship was in some reasonable order, at least when it first arrived.  Provisioning by hunting, sealing and fishing must always have been hard, but the men who survived would have become proficient and, of course, there would be fewer mouths to feed as time passed.  Perhaps this ship arrived at its anchorage in reasonable order and the final blow, which forced the men to abandon it and seek salvation ashore, was the ice damage to the stern and the side of the ship which we see in the images released by Parks Canada.
I am sure that much more evidence will emerge in due course and existing finds and accounts will have to be re-assessed in much more detail than in this brief account.  However, this is my first 'stab' at assimilating what we have learned.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Perceptive interview with David Woodman

Here is a very insightful commentary by David Woodman. He is vindicated to a huge extent by the recent find of the Franklin ship.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Franklin ship found

And here is the news which the world has waited for since 1848 - the finding of one of Franklin's ships. 

Today’s announcement by Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, that Parks Canada have located one of the ships of Sir John Franklin’s lost Expedition on the bed of Victory Strait, is the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.                                                                                                                

The whole world owes a debt of thanks to the Canadian Government and Parks Canada for leading this search, and to the Inuit people of Nunavut who tried to help Franklin’s men and who faithfully kept alive their memories of the tragedy.  From the images it is clear that a huge amount of evidence will be preserved from the Expedition, possibly even including the remains of the men and maybe, just possibly, some of their photographs.  Preserving the wreck and recovering the evidence will be a painstaking and difficult task which will take many years.  But today we should remember the loss of those men and rejoice that throughout the 170 years since they sailed the world never entirely forgot them and that the people of Nunavut and Canada have made this astonishing news possible.
I am sure much more will be released about the ship in the next few days but it is already clear that much of it has survived.  In the years to come as researchers investigate it and recover what evidence they can from it I am sure our understanding of what happened to Franklin and his men will be revolutionised.
And in the excitement, let us just spare a moment, and perhaps a prayer, for the men who died and whose frozen watery tomb this is, and for their loved ones, every single one of whom lived out their days and died without ever knowing what happened to their menfolk.

Pieces of Franklin Expedition ships found

Now here's some really significant news. 

CBC tell us that a team led by Doug Stenton, the Director, Heritage at the Government of Nunavut, has found what looks like two pieces of debris from either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.  One piece is apparently the iron fitting from a davit, the mechanism used for lifting ships' boats in and out of the ship, and the other described as 'possibly a plug for a deck hawse, the iron pipe through which the ship’s chain cable would descend into the chain locker below'.  These finds were made close to the shoreline on Hat Island, which is located here.  You can see CBC's report here.

This is highly significance because, while perhaps thousands of relics from the Franklin Expedition have been found since people started searched for the ships and their men back in 1848, almost everything is material which the men carried themselves - not part of the ships.  So if you look at the National Maritime Museum collection of Franklin Expedition remains, which must be the largest in the world, it's a bewildering range of material from clothes to spectacles to guns - all poignant and having personal associations with the lost men - but not a single item was directly part of the fabric of the lost ships. 

So remains of the Erebus and Terror themselves are extremely rare.  I am only aware of three earlier finds of material which we can reasonably have formed part of the ships: 
  • On 20th August, 1851, when the great Dr. John Rae was exploring the Victoria Strait coastline of Victoria Island, he found a piece of pine wood 'resembling the butt-end of a small flag-staff' which had white rope attached to it by two copper nails.  The wood was marked with the 'broad arrow' and the rope contained a red worsted thread.  Both of these were marks which the British government used (and in the case of the 'broad arrow', still uses) to mark its property.  Half a mile further on Rae found a 3' 8" piece of oak, partly squared, which he interpreted as a ship's stanchion.  It is interested that Rae reported the rope as being nailed to the staff.  Nailing a flag to the mast is typically an act of defiance on going in to battle to ensure that the flag cannot be lowered.  Had Franklin's men nailed their colours to the masts when they 'deserted' the Erebus and the Terror?
  • Two years later a party from HMS Enterprise under Captain Collinson found two apparently more substantial pieces of fragmented wood in the same area, apparently on the coast of Victoria Island.  Both had on them the 'broad arrow', and they were interpreted to be two pieces of a broken door frame or hatchway from a Royal Navy ship. One piece even had on it the remains of the latch.  The pieces were apparently brought back to Britain although they seem now to have been lost.  As with Rae's find, it's difficult to account for these unless they had formed part of the Erebus or Terror.
  • In 1954 Paul Cooper found a 7.5 cm thick piece of pine planking on the coast of King William Island, of exactly the type use in the decking of the Erebus and Terror.  This is held in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History - details here.
And now Doug Stenton's team have made what looks like the fourth find of material directly from the Erebus or the Terror - a huge achievement. 

What might we learn from these remains?  With the possible exception of the door frame, all these fragments come from the upper works or external parts of the ship or ships.  Presumably these scraps were part of the debris left on the surface of the ice after one of the ships was crushed and sank under the ice, taking its more substantial components down to the seabed.  It's interesting also that these remains are so widely dispersed.  What might their locations tell us about where the ship or ships went down?  My 'back of the envelope' estimate from google earth places Hat Island at least sixty nautical miles away from the likely location of the Collinson and Rae finds and perhaps eighty nautical miles from Franklin Point.  So we now have four sites where ships' remains have been found, forming a triangle roughly 60 by 80 nautical miles.  For someone who understands the pattern of ice flows and currents in that part of the world, this triangle must help narrow down the position where at least one of the ships sank.