Monday, 24 December 2012

Remembering the Franklin Expedition at Christmas

It’s months since I have posted thoughts on the Franklin Expedition and, strangely, it is Christmas which has triggered this latest essay.  Why? Because ever since the first Christmas of 1845, when apparently 'all was well', Christmas has always been a time when minds cast back to the lost ships and men with a poignancy undimmed by time. 

The Expedition sailed on 19th May 1845 and, though it seems absurd to us knowing the impossibility of taking sailing ships through the North West Passage under the then prevailing climatological conditions, optimists at the time thought the ships might be ‘through’ and in the Pacific by Christmas 1845.  James Fitzjames had heard this opinion and even expressed the hope that they would spend at least one winter in the ice.  How bitterly he must have come to regret that wish!  Incidentally, Fitzjames knew that his promotion to Captain would be made on 31st December 1845, and a note of this is indeed the very last entry in the Erebus' contemporary records at the Admiralty.

So although no news of a rapid transit of the Passage had been received by the end of 1845, waiting friends and relatives of Expedition members would have felt no qualms.  And this is particularly poignant since the 1840’s and 1850’s were a time when the celebration of Christmas in Britain became recognizably ‘modern’.  Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ had recently been published, in December 1843, while the 1840’s saw the acceptance by British families of such modern practices as putting up Christmas trees and exchanging Christmas cards.  Christmas for the waiting families must have been very much a time when they would come together to remember their absent menfolk.  And with each passing Christmas they must have looked back on this first as a happy time.

But how was that first Christmas of 1845 at Beechey Island for the Expedition itself?  Some pointers suggest that even this first Christmas in the ice would have been an unsettling time.  Why? 

A first, comparatively minor, point is that the Expedition probably did not have their expected full Christmas treat.  We can surmise this from the eyewitness account of Lt. Griffiths, the Admiralty’s agent on the Expedition’s transport Barretto Junior. Lt. Griffiths’ ship had transported live oxen for the Expedition from Orkney to Disko Bay in Greenland.  The oxen that survived the voyage across the stormy Atlantic were slaughtered there and the beef hung in the rigging to air-dry.  Franklin himself told Griffiths that he intended some of this at least to provide his men’s Christmas dinner. But before Griffiths left the beef had started to deteriorate in the unseasonally mild summer of 1845 in Baffin Bay and Grffiths witnessed the beef being consumed then before it became unfit to eat.  So in all probability Franklin’s plan for a morale-boosting dinner of old English (in fact Orkney) beef was thwarted.  Perhaps this doesn't matter, but we know from earlier and subsequent Expeditions that special occasions like this were important and happy events and the loss of the promised beef might have put a dampener on celebrations. 

Much more sinister is that by Christmas 1845 at least one man in each ships’ company was very sick and close to death.  John  Torrington of HMS Terror passed away on New Years’ Day 1846 with John Hartnell of HMS Erebus dying three days later.  We know this from their graves, still at Beechey Island today. Owen Beattie’s autopsies of their bodies a century and a half later revealed that both men died a lingering death.  So their unhappy existences must have cast a pall over both ships.  And all the medical evidence that we have suggests that both ships companies were also suffering at least to some extent from lead poisoning.  One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is depression. Unless or until records from the Expedition are found, we cannot know what the atmosphere was like on the Terror and Erebus that first Christmas.  But we do know what it was like on the Terror when she wintered in the ice just nine years earlier in 1836 - on George Back’s Expedition. Back’s Terror then was the same ship on which John Torrington lay dying at Christmas 1845. 

Back has left us an account of that Christmas, describing how on January 13th 1837 “a sailor, named Graham Walker, had been for some time under the care of the medical gentlemen who, at first, had good grounds for supposing that little was the matter with him. However, he was treated as a sick man; and for want of exercise, or by some means or other, he soon contrived to render himself so in earnest. Unhappily the symptoms shortly after became scorbutic, and the man being of melancholic temperament, and utterly incapable of being roused or cheered, grew daily worse. Yet his appetite continued good until within the last few days, and even on these he always ate some nourishing diet. This day, however, at 9 p m. he died without suffering, and indeed so calmly, that those in attendance were unconscious of the moment of his departure. Such visitations are always melancholy, and it was natural that in our case a more than ordinary impression should be made. Isolated as we were from our fellow-creatures, and at the mercy of a power over which we had no control, who could help feeling that his hour also might shortly come? At 10 am on the 14th, the officers and crew of H.M.S. performed the last mournful duties towards their shipmate. The body was conveyed on a sledge to the extremity of the floe, where a grave had been dug through the ice; and the solemn and affecting service for the dead having been read, the remains were committed to the deep.”

It is interesting that Back described the melancholic nature of the unfortunate Graham Walker in this rather unsympathetic account.  Back describes his symptoms as 'scorbutic', but was this scurvy?  He does not mention the word, and his account makes it clear that the men were receiving fresh food.  Perhaps he was suffering from the lead-poisoning which we know afflicted his counterparts in the Franklin Expedition on this same ship nine years later? And sadly this was not the only symptom of melancholy on Back’s Expedition.  Back was clearly deeply troubled by the very low morale on HMS Terror that year and unable to explain it.  His complete passage describing Christmas 1836 on HMS Terror reads as follows:

“Sailors, it is proverbial, are naturally light hearted, and have in general a great flow of animal spirits; but in this respect ours most assuredly differed from their brother tars. Whether this arose from the services in which they had been brought up, or from their never having been subject to the salutary influence of naval discipline, I know not, but certainly their want of cheerfulness was not attributable to any lack of example or encouragement on the part of the officers. For about six hours every day except Sundays, they were kept at some easy work on the ice, as was absolutely requisite for their health ; but it was in vain that we endeavoured to lead them into the wholesome habit of amusing themselves with games or dancing, to cheer their spirits, and while away the long hours of our winter evenings. The most trivial cold or other complaint induced despondency, and an attack in the joints of the legs and limbs attended with extravasation of blood, for which it may be remarked there was some difficulty in accounting, excited the most discouraging apprehensions. Under these circumstances, I was not a little delighted when informed that they had contrived, in imitation of the officers, to get up a play, and had appointed Christmas Eve for its performance. In due time two farces were announced for representation, the "First Floor" and the “Benevolent Tar”; and these went off with unbounded applause in a stifling atmosphere between decks, though outside the thermometer stood at -30°. Christmas Day which succeeded, was duly and religiously observed; neither were the personal comforts, more majorum, neglected, for, as we were on two thirds' allowance, I directed a double portion to be served of all but spirits, and thus gave the men a treat without intoxication. The officers also dined together; and, among other luxuries which the providence of the caterer had furnished, was a haunch of the reindeer, shot by Mr. Gore.”

Here we see an absolute proxy for all Royal Naval Arctic or Antarctic Christmas celebrations, from Parry via Nares to Scott: the feast, the theatricals, the involvement of both officers and the ‘lower deck’. Although the gloomy and depressive atmosphere of the ship’s company on HMS Terror in 1836, and the alarming symptoms of ‘lassitude', 'despondency’ and the ‘attack in the joints of the legs and limbs attended with extravasation of blood’ sound different and seem to represent something alarming for which, as Back said, ‘there was some difficulty in accounting’.

Back’s description of Christmas on HMS Terror in 1836 does perhaps give us an accurate feel for what that first Christmas at Beechey Island was like for the Franklin Expedition in 1845.  Even down to ‘Mr. Gore’ - the same Lt. Graham Gore of the Franklin Expedition whose hunting prowess seems to have been high. Perhaps he also brought the Christmas fare in for Franklin’s men as he had for Back in 1836? Sadly, however ‘despondent’ the men felt at the time, this was most likely the best Christmas they had – things most likely can only have got worse.

At home their families do not seem to have expected them for several years – ‘up to five years’ seems to have been thought of as the length of time the Expedition could last unsupported.  So Christmas in 1850 for their families must have been a sad affair. Graham Gore’s family in Australia later erected a monument to him on which they gave his date of death as circa 1850 – obviously before news of McClintock’s recovery of the ‘Victory Point’ note reached them.  And we find that a ‘James Fitzjames’ made a donation to the fund to build a monument to commemorate Sir John Barrow at Ulverston as late as 1851.  Presumably his friend John Barrow junior had not entirely given up hope that Fitzjames might yet emerge from the Arctic?

In 1850 Charles Dickens, in many ways the populariser of the Victorian tradition of Christmas, evoked the possibility that the Franklin Expedition might still be celebrating Christmas aboard their ships somewhere, as a way to link them with the experiences of his readers.  In Household Words Volume 5, published in 1851 (page 179) he expressed the hope that ‘some commemoration of Christmas may perhaps take place in the Frozen Regions’.  Perhaps, he ended this canter of optimistic fantasy, ‘we may yet hope to see the crews of the ‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ once more ready with a yarn about Christmas at the Pole, to help out a Christmas in England’.  This fascinating passage illustrates how strong the links between the lost Expedition, their loved ones and the general public became at Christmas.  Ironically Dickens is now mostly linked to the Franklin Expedition because of his disgraceful and racist propagandising against the Inuit peoples among whom the Expedition foundered, some of whom were possibly at the very time he was writing doing their best to help save the last members of the Expedition.  But that is another story.

So while we all celebrate our different Christmas’ in 2012, let’s spare a thought and a prayer for Franklin’s lost souls and hope, as generations have done over the last 165 years, that more may still be uncovered to help us understand their fate. 


  1. I'm glad someone decided to post for Christmas. It does sound like Back's men were suffering from early lead poisoning, how awful considering their voyage didn't last years, which means that the effects of the poison were much worse in Franklin's men. As for them being 'lost souls' I believe if they were conscious of the passage of time, they would be content with still being remembered after 165 years; as I read once in a history book on the NWP, 'Franklin never died' because their memory lives on.

  2. I was wondering few time ago how would be a Christmas celebration on an arctic or antarctic expedition on that time, so thank you very much. I was wondering also if some of the scripts of the farces would have survived.

  3. "The body was conveyed on a sledge to the extremity of the floe, where a grave had been dug through the ice; and the solemn and affecting service for the dead having been read, the remains were committed to the deep.”

    Some of Franklin's men may have been buried this way. If so, they may be located at the bottom of Larsen sound between the ships' September 1846 and April 1848 positions.

    Back to lead poisoning. If the tins were the source of the lead that Franklin's men consumed then why didn't every following expedition encounter the same problems? The crew of HMS Investigator was stuck in circumstances similar to Erebus and Terror yet her pre-abandonment casualty rate was nowhere near as high. If lead poisoning was a such a major downfall for the Franklin Expedition then it would make sense that the primary source would be from some source besides the tinned food supply.

  4. Very moving sentiments. Thanks for posting this. As you once said yourself, "They're immortals who are trapped between life and death." We help to perpetuate their immortality.

  5. More on how Christmas was kept in the Frozen Regions on my blog here.

    And I agree that one key mystery about the winter of 1847-48 is that, if indeed so many men had already perished before the abandonment, where are their graves? We know of the Beechey graves from the first winter, and we know of Irving's grave (which must have been post-abandonment); it seems odd then that in the intervening year all these bodies would have just been dumped down holes in the floe?

  6. I don't think the first Christmas of the Franklin Expedition would have been too downbeat. The illness of two crew members would hardly have caused much consternation at a time when deaths at sea were commonplace. The ships' supplies at this early stage would have been more than adequate to provide the crews with seasonal treats, they were sailors not gourmet diners.

    Evidence of lead poisoning on Back's expedition is a little thin, especially as the patient was reported to have a good appetite. Being depressed in an Arctic winter doesn't appear odd to me, it was cold and dark. Seasonally Affected Depression, anyone?

    There are no clear indications of lead poisoning on other Arctic expeditions, even those involving Terror and Erebus. It seems to be something specific to the Franklin Expedition. The use of railway locomotive boilers is the one factor that distinguishes this expedition from others. I suspect that desalination equipment provided for these boilers may prove to be the source of lead contamination. It would also explain the widely varying levels of lead poisoning, as some of the crew may have preferred water made from melted snow or ice. The popularity of pungent mineral waters and boiled seawater as 'cures' may even have encouraged the consumption of toxic boiler feedwater.

  7. Hi Tiny Tim and thanks for troubling to comment.

    Re. your first two paragraphs I agree the evidence is a little thin. Most if not all of the crew of the Erebus and Terror in 1845 must have witnessed the deaths of shipmates before. And I agree there is no proof that the experience on the Terror in 1836-7 has to be a precursor for the Franklin Expedition of 1845-8. But the death rate 1845-8 was a lot higher than Parry's or Sir John Ross's Expeditions, so I hope I can be forgiven speculation along these lines.

    Your third paragraph is interesting. Like you I thought that the railway locomotive engines, and the desalination equipment fitted was the unique factor. But now, especially having discussed this with Peter Carney, I have come to realise that the desalination equipment probably didn't exist and the most likely source of the lead poisoning was the system which combined ice-melting tanks and the Fraser galley. This is most definitely an area for ongoing research.

  8. I belong to Cambridge Storytellers as well as being a professional storyteller myself, we are telling some stories at the Scott Polar this Feb and the real story is what I am attracted to and telling.

    It is a fascinating story peopled by folk with all sorts of histories and connections, Franklin himself and his uncle, Franklin's wives both strong women themselves.

    It is incredible that the story and loss still draw people looking for answers. Searching the internet I came across your blog which has also given me food for thought as I try and put together two ten minute stories based on fact that will form a frame for other arctic tales and stories.

    Keep up the work.