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Erebus and Terror
John Franklin - in Search of the North-West Passage

Next page - The Antarctic expedition 1839-1843, James Clark Ross - Ships of the Polar Explorers

 - Alfred, Lord Tennyson, inscription on a memorial to Sir John Franklin in Westminster Abbey erected by his widow, Lady Jane Franklin.
Antarctic Ships: Overview  Historical: L'Astrolabe & Zelee | Aurora | Belgica | Discovery | Endurance
Erebus and Terror: Ross - Antarctica  Franklin - Arctic | Fram Fram page2 | Nimrod | Terra Nova
Modern: Ice-strengthened and icebreakers | James Clark Ross | Kapitan Khlebnikov | Yamal
Ships then and now - a comparison

An illustrated description of a long and complex story, there are lots more details and many more works to read if you want to get more involved.

1845 - The ships and the start of the journey

Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy
by Fergus Fleming

The atlas of 1816 was littered with blanks. What was the North Pole? Was there a Northwest passage? What lay at the heart of Africa? Did Antarctica exist?  John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, launched the most ambitious programme of exploration the world had ever seen.

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Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole
Ninety Degrees North: the Quest for the North Pole  
Fergus Fleming

Irish Independent
‘Ninety Degrees North is travel history at its brilliant best'

Daily Telegraph
‘This is the sort of book you want to read in front of a blazing fire. It is immensely enjoyable'

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At the center of this story are two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
These were bomb ships designed to carry heavy mortar and cannon to bombard shore targets from sea. They were reinforced to take the considerable weight and recoil of the guns and so were stronger than other similar sized ships, this strengthening meant they were selected for polar work where they might encounter ice.

They had already been on a four year voyage to the Antarctic returning in 1843 with James Clark Ross, a now famous historic voyage of discovery. Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica and Mount Terror a nearby inactive volcano are named after the ships.

Erebus was 19 years old and Terror 32 years old by the start of the expedition already having had eventful lives. They were fitted with 20hp steam engines with screw propellers for the journey.

John Franklin-Expedition- 1845
HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

John Franklin
Sir John Franklin, leader of the expedition and captain of the Erebus

Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror
The Northwest Passage is a sea route from the Western Atlantic to Eastern Pacific Ocean so allowing European merchants quicker and easier access to the markets of the orient, specifically China and Japan without having to sail around South Africa or the Americas. The search began in the late 1400's, in 1745 the British Admiralty promised a £20,000 prize for whoever discovered this passage. By the early 1800's exploration became more scientific concerned with mapping the arctic coastline rather than the former "lets go and have a try" approaches.

John Barrow, Second Secretary of the British Admiralty from 1804 to 1845 had coordinated and initiated much of the scientific mapping operations. He organized a major expedition that he thought would finally determine whether or not a Northwest Passage existed at all. On the 19th of May 1845 the Erebus and Terror with a combined crew of 133 set out from England under the command of Sir John Franklin, an explorer who had already led two land expeditions to find the enigmatic sea route.

At 59 Franklin was considered too old and unfit for such an undertaking. The first choice, James Ross couldn't be persuaded to take the position and political rather than practical reasons had a large part to play in Franklin's appointment. There were many detractors, John Ross, the uncle of James offered to lead a rescue expedition if nothing had been heard by February 1847, this even before Franklin set off.

1845 - Early days, no news is good news

HMS Terror and walrus near the entrance of Hudson Strait. There are many paintings from the latter half of the 19th century of Erebus, Terror and scenes from the expedition, all of them were painted by artists who weren't there. In some cases the ships clearly don't look like the real ships, but some representative the artistic imagined. In other cases such as this the artist seems to have never seen an actual iceberg or has decided to exaggerate the features to the fantastical.
Barrow thought the expedition might make it through the northwest passage within a single season, so avoiding overwintering, though this was unlikely and there were provisions for three years along with hunting equipment that could be used to supplement preserved rations.

On the 26th of July 1845, two whaling ships saw Franklin's expedition in northern Baffin Bay which they reported on arrival back home in England in August. It appeared that all was well and on schedule. It was to be the last contact the expedition had with the outside world.

The crew were inexperienced in the polar regions with only very few having been to the Arctic previously, though Franklin had and Crozier the captain of the Terror had returned two years previously from the Antarctic where he had also been captain of the same ship in James Clark Ross's four year long expedition.

The diaries from the Erebus (captained by Franklin) that were eventually found report that these early days had a  positive, benign and happy atmosphere where success was assured and failure not contemplated.

Crozier was less convinced however and presided over a ship less convivial. Both captains had a feeling they would not return home alive, shared only in their written thoughts.

In a time before telecommunications and with the ships heading to a region where they would likely be iced in for the winter with plenty of provisions to get them through and no likely contact for several months, no-one worried about what might be happening, no news was what was expected.

1847 - rescue rejected then accepted

On the 9th of February 1847 John Ross true to his word to Franklin before he set sail approached the Admiralty Board in London with a rescue plan. He was rejected, as he was again later with a more detailed plan and as was another plan from a Dr. King. The expedition had been away for two winters at this point, it was known that they had provisions for at least another one.

Eventually by November 1847 a rescue mission was prepared by James Ross and accepted by the Admiralty Board. By the spring of the following year 1848, two sea-borne rescue missions set off along with a land attempt. Another winter had passed since John Ross approached the Admiralty Board. None of these missions found anything at all.

John Barrow died in November 1848 and with him any interest in the Franklin expedition from the Admiralty, or so they would have preferred. Franklin's disappearance was a major news item of the day, he was a hugely popular public figure and his disappearance only served to make him more so. Eventually the response was to offer £20,000 for the rescue of Franklin, £10,000 for finding his ships and another £10,000 for finding the northwest passage. The issue was handed over to the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council planning a search for John Franklin

1850 - rescue mission in force finds something...... and then nothing

Franklin's widow, Lady Jane Franklin became obsessed with finding her husband or at least his remains. She spent her time and money financing expeditions and when the money ran low, she lobbied others for funds. In 1850 fifteen ships entered the Arctic on search missions including two American ships, one financed directly by Lady Franklin and another small two-vessel expedition financed and led by the now 73 year old John Ross. They had no real idea where to look. The main difficulty was an unawareness (despite much advice from people who were aware) of the capricious nature of ice in the search area, what can be clear one year can be blocked for the next several, such was the case with the Peel Channel, clear when encountered by Franklin but blocked by ice during the subsequent searches.

HMS Assistance,
one of four ships that winter in the ice near Beechey Island in 1850, it returned to England in 1851 before the winter, having found no trace of the lost expedition.

In late August 1850 the first signs of the expedition were found on Beechey Island, or specifically the remains of the first winter quarters from 1845 by an Admiralty fleet under Horatio Austin on the Resolute and and William Penny with the ships HMS Lady Franklin and HMS Sophia. John Ross and his two small ships were there too. Marks on the ground from fires and sledges were to be seen along with a pyramid of some 600 hundred empty food cans. More ominously there were also three graves with headstones marked with the date of deaths as January and April 1846, though rather than being seen as a bad sign, these were seen at least being better than an awful lot more. There was however no sign of the customary stone cairn with an expected message from Franklin stating his current state and intentions of what to do next.

Sledge tracks were found extending at least forty miles up a nearby channel and it was assumed that these represented scouting parties Franklin sent out for the next summer (which would have been 1846 - 4 years previously). The search party settled into a protected bay for the winter.

Beechey Island 2010, empty cans from the winter of 1845 still litter the ground,
these filled with stones so as not to blow away and arranged into a cross.

The ships crews endured the endured the winter at a place they called Union Harbour more or less cheerfully. They also went out on numerous sledging expeditions, manhauling. No further signs were found of Franklin or the two ships or the 133 men that winter or by the ships that fanned out in the summer when the winter ice had cleared and so they returned to England in 1851 carrying with them a rumour via some convoluted connected whispers that Franklin and his men had been killed by Eskimos.

After this enormous costly search that essentially found nothing, the Admiralty had even less desire to continue with it. However Franklin had attained an almost legendary status and while the public had lost interest in the North West Passage, it was becoming a matter of national pride to find out what had happened.

Every one had an opinion so it seemed about what had happened, where Franklin had gone and what should be done to find him. Arctic foxes were captured and had notes attached to them around their neck with details of where to find food in the hope that the men of the expedition might capture them and read the notes, a similar idea was also tried with balloons. Medals were struck and handed out to Eskimos so if they found any trace of the expedition, they would know where to find  the searchers and inform them.

Four graves on Beechey Island, three from the Erebus and Terror in 1846 and one from the Investigator in 1854

1852 - 5 ships look in the wrong place and find nothing, incidental rescue

The main problem was that the search efforts were being made in the wrong place. The Wellington Channel was considered to be the most likely place to look, it is 500 miles almost due north from where the wreck of one of Franklin's ships would eventually be found. This expedition led by the unsuitable Sir Edward Belcher consisted of the ships: Assistance, Resolute, Intrepid, Pioneer and a supply ship, the North Star.

The ships froze in for the winter and Belchers pettiness and harsh application of the rules soon earned him many detractors and downright enemies, especially in the long, cold, dark nights. Life on the frozen-in ships with Belcher was so unpleasant that almost all the men who could were volunteering for sledging expeditions, the level of discomfort of this being preferable. Belcher himself thought he was being told to look in the wrong place as much as anything to make an attempt on the north pole if the opportunity presented itself, a situation that he resented and couldn't have helped his attitude to the men in his command. In fact his is considered to be the first expedition that was ostensibly "looking for Franklin" where in reality it was a euphemism for making a attempt on the north pole, such claims were often made by men in subsequent years.

 Belcher was ready to abandon his quest and go home when he received new orders, to search for the ships Investigator and Enterprise which had gone to search for Franklin in 1850 and had become not quite lost as such, but their whereabouts were unknown. In April 1853 sledging parties left the Resolute for what was to become a 105 day 1,400 mile journey, though they made only geographical discoveries. Another party went west and found the Investigator frozen into the ice at Mercy Bay, the now near starved crew had entered the Arctic in the west by the Bering Strait, the captain McClure thought he would be able to reach the Atlantic and become the first to traverse the North West Passage, spurred on in no small part by the £10,000 prize.

HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator searching for Franklin. Investigator was to make two journeys to the Arctic in search of the Franklin expedition, in the second, leaving in 1850 it became trapped in the ice and was abandoned three years later (the crew was rescued by the Resolute after a long overland walk). The wreck of the Investigator was discovered in 8-10m of water by marine archeologists in 2010.

More sledging trips were made along the routes that Franklin might have taken, still to no avail. By February 1854 Belcher had become sufficiently worried about the safety of his ships and men that he ordered them to be abandoned and all crews to board the North Star and return to England, fortunately the crews were able to be divided amongst two other supply ships that arrived. Belcher was subject to the automatic court martial for any captain who lost a ship. While he was exonerated, he was never again given an active command. Later on, the abandoned Resolute broke out of the ice and drifted to Davis Strait where it was salvaged by an American whaler.

1853 - the story of Franklin's fate is revealed

It was a man called John Rae an overland man for the Hudson Bay Company who found what had happened to Franklin. While exploring the one empty space left by previous expeditions in 1853 he encountered a group of Eskimos who told him of an encounter they had four years previously in 1849-50.

The Eskimos told of meeting a group of forty men dragging a boat south, they were all very thin and using sign language made it known that their ship had been crushed in the ice, they purchased a seal from the Eskimos. Later the same season, the Eskimos encountered the same party, or at least what remained of it about a days walk from the Great Fish River. The scene must have been apocalyptic, there were scattered dead bodies, in tents, under the upturned boat or out in the open. Many of the bodies has been hacked with knives and human remains were reported in cooking pots, they said there thirty dead in that place, another five dead were found on a nearby island. The Eskimos also reported hearing gunshots later in the year after the game had returned probably after May so indicating that not all of the men had died by that time. To confirm the story they told Rae, they sold him a number of artifacts, a silver spoon, silver forks and similar with initials and names that confirmed their provenance as being from the officers of the Erebus and Terror.

Division of Sledges Passing Cape Lady Franklin
Picture courtesy - Library and Archives Canada, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

The ships sailed north but found their way blocked by ice and had to turn south again. Eventually they became ice bound in Victoria Strait between King William Island and Victoria Island. Franklin died on board Erebus on June 11th 1847 of natural causes. By spring 1848, 23 crew members were also dead from starvation or scurvy. On April 22nd 1848, the 105 remaining survivors abandoned the ships and attempted to march to Fort Resolution about 600 miles to the southwest - none of them made it alive. All of the crew of both ships died and the Erebus and Terror were lost to the ice.

Pressed for news of the expedition, the British Parliament issued a £20,000 reward for Franklin's rescue - no news or sight of the expedition had been seen or heard since August 1845. There was £10,000 to anyone who just found the two ships and another prize of £10,000 to the first to cross the North-West passage. Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John's wife (now widow though she was not sure of it) was very energetic in her searches, paying with her own money (and that donated from others in response to her forthright approaches) for four ships to go to the Arctic. 

She appealed to the Whitehouse in 1849 for help though at first was met with a cool response. Eventually after effectively being shamed by popular public opinion to Lady Franklin's appeal, congress acted. A New York shipping merchant, Henry Grinell offered the use of two of his strengthened ships, the Advance and Rescue, Congress authorized that they be manned by US Navy personnel. 

The lure of the search for the lost expedition of Erebus and Terror led by Franklin gripped many men over the next ten years. Forty search parties set out to find them, six went overland through North America and thirty four went by sea. Initially it was thought the men might be found alive, but eventually this became a quest to find out what had happened to the expedition. Ironically, it was the search for the lost men that led to a great opening up and exploration of the Arctic on a previously unprecedented scale.

Some of the expeditions were possibly using "looking for Franklin" as an excuse for their own attempt to reach the North Pole or to be the first through the North-West passage. Indeed for the next half a century the phrase "going to look for Franklin" became a euphemism for an attempt at the North Pole.

In August 1850, the first signs were found. At the mouth of Wellington channel on Beechy Island, were found the remains of where the expedition had wintered in 1845. There were sledge tracks in the earth, fire sites and a massive pyramid of 600 empty cans. There were also three graves. This was a very unusually high rate of loss for a first winter, despite other expeditions losing men it tended not to happen until a number of years had elapsed. Something had clearly made Franklin and his men ill.

The fate of Erebus and Terror was not learned until 1859 when the Fox, one of Lady Franklin's own ships commanded by Leopold McClintock learned their fate after discovering notes and artifacts on King William Island.

One of Franklin's ships found! - September 2014
Picture courtesy Parks Canada

“I am delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition lost in 1846."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, September 9, 2014

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