Sunday, 5 October 2014

Interior details of HMS Erebus

I have referred previously to the superb depiction of Fitzjames's cabin printed in the Illustrated London News, and also to the subject of on-board illumination.


The above picture is flipped over this from the way it was originally printed in order for it to reflect the layout of the cabin shown in the ship's plans. When the orientation wasn't considered important, images were often drawn directly on the wood in order to save time causing them to appear reversed when printed.

The cabin is shown flooded with natural light by means of the "Preston's Patent Illuminator" overhead. It seems likely that these will prove to be of use to the underwater archaeologists investigating the recently discovered wreck. By unscrewing the iluminator and removing the glass it may be possible to pass cameras and miniaturised remotely-operated vehicles through the aperture in order to survey each of the surviving cabins with minimal disturbance to the contents.

Turning now to artificial illumination, I have tried to make sense of the part of the drawing in the immediate vicinity of the wall mounted lamp. When blown up to several times the original size, it would appear the lamp is held out from the bulkhead by a bracket with a cloth draped over it and what may reasonably be interpreted as a mirror perched on top to spread the light.


The 3D reconstruction is based on a pattern of patent candle lamp which in differs from the original drawing in that it has a rounded weight at the bottom.

The final image is an example of a candle lamp which is plausibly of the type which the artist saw. It has a flat bottom and the pattern of steps and ridges on the counterweight may be what the artist has tried to represent.


It is truly amazing how the engravers of the time were able to cram so much detail into a tiny wood-block while working under the pressure of tight deadlines. I look forward to the day when photographs of Fitzjames' cabin are published and we can directly compare them with the works of this anonymous Victorian artist.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Windlass and Cathead

The thrilling news of the discovery of the remains of one of Franklin's ships has left everyone wanting to know the answer to one question: is it Sir John Franklin's HMS Erebus or Francis Crozier's HMS Terror?

Windlass and cathead of HMS Terror (top) and HMS Erebus (bottom),
From Chris Ware's "The Bomb Vessel: Shore Bombardment Ships of the Age of Sail".

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Erebus (launched 1826) had been built with many more iron components than had been used for Terror's construction a decade earlier. This difference is noticable in the case of the knees (shaded blue) which reinforce the windlass and cathead (shaded red).

Terror surely gained a good deal of  additional iron reinforcement during her various refits but it seems reasonable that if a wooden component was still doing its job then it wouldn't have been replaced without good reason. For very sound reasons Parry had ruled that Arctic ships should be identically equipped but I think it would be stretching that doctrine too far to extend it to structural components such as these.

Just possibly these small details may play a role in restoring a name to this currently anonymous victim of the Franklin tragedy.


Friday, 1 August 2014

Return to Poctes Bay

In his book the Voyage of the Fox, McClintock suggests that Franklin steered to the West of King William Island, resulting in the permanent besetment of his ships, because he was supplied with charts showing 'King William Land' as a peninsula connected to the mainland - thus giving the appearance that there was only one course open to him. I don't really agree with this reasoning: Franklin's mission was to sail West - he will surely only have learned the true nature of the ice conditions in Victoria channel once it was too late.

When Sir John Ross published his Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-west passage the map at the end of volume one shows what we now know to be the navigable Rae Strait closed with a dotted line to make a Bay, known to history as Poctes Bay. I have long wondered who Mr, or perhaps SeƱor, Poctes was and why he deserved such an honour. Who were Landon, Rowley, and Sheridan whose names are given to three entirely imaginary capes within the bay. Were they delighted to see their names immortalised in geography only to be crestfallen when the whole coastline proved to be a fantasy?


A close look at the map from Ross' Narrative (above) shows the bay in question actually labelled Poctes's Bay - a somewhat ungrammatical construction which hints at a mistake.


The Royal Geographical Society read it as Poetess Bay (also independently suggested by a commentator on my earlier post). The Society's journal article after the return of George Back's expedition down the Great Fish River tentatively concluded on the balance of presumption that the land which Captain Ross had explored was an island.


The Hydrographic Office's chart of 1847 has dotted lines connecting King William Island to the Boothia Peninsula by a spindly isthmus but without naming the bay. The 1849 chart (above) includes the title Poctes Bay but dispenses with the dotted lines. The fact that some of the geographical features have different names to those in Sir John Ross' map (top) is a good story in it's own right.


John Arrowsmith's early charts of the region also use Poctes but later editions, including the above, from 1850, use Poets Bay.

So what is the correct name for this imaginary bay - Poctes's, Poetess, Poctes, or Poets? What did Sir John Ross intend?

A hint may be found in the fact that opposite the imaginary bay on Ross' chart can be found Artists Bay. Three capes within that bay are named Lawrence, Shee, and Landseer. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850) were among the most notable portrait painters of the day while young Edwin Landseer (1802 - 1873) would make his own contribution to Arctic history in 1864.

Returning to the capes in 'Poctes Bay', and taking Poets as our clue:

Sheridan is easily recognised as the playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751 – 1816)

Landon is surely Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802 – 1838), often referred to by the initials L.E.L., one of the most popular and well-known poets of the 1820s and 1830s.

Rowley may be Thomas Rowley, the pseudonym of Thomas Chatterton (1752 – 1770) forger of pseudo-medieval poetry, the authenticity of which was still debated at the time of The Ross' voyage.

How appropriate then, that an imaginary geographical feature should bear the name of an imaginary poet.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The sole survivor of the Franklin saga.


Last Saturday I joined three other Franklin expedition aficionados in a very enjoyable visit to Hartlepool's Historic Quay, home of the beautifully restored Leda class frigate HMS Trincomalee.

Trincomalee is in a sense a big sister to Crozier's HMS Terror, both ships were ordered during the War of 1812. While Terror played a memorable role in that conflict, Trinco was not launched until 1817 due to the plans going astray en-route to Bombay where she was to be built.

By happy coincidence, Franklin's HMS Erebus also has a surviving Leda class sister:HMS Unicorn - preserved at Dundee, Scotland. I hope to visit her too some day. Unicorn and Erebus were launched just two years apart, in 1824 and 1826 respectively.

Although these frigates were much bigger than Franklin's ships, a visit to either gives a vivid impression of life on board.

Comparing constructional details of the two frigates we can see that Unicorn has the iron knees introduced during Sir Robert Seppings tenure as Surveyor of the Navy.


HMS Unicorn 1824

Similar features can be seen in the well known engraving of Fitzjames' cabin.


Trincomalee uses an earlier pattern of iron strapped wooden reinforcement.


HMS Trincomalee 1817
These differences in construction can also be seen in the plans of Erebus and Terror: the 1839 profile of Erebus has iron knees reinforcing the cat-heads and windlass while on the 1837 profile of Terror they are wooden.

 If the ice-crushed wreck of either ship were found these details might aid identification.

The key significance of HMS Trincomalee to Franklin buffs is that in 1854, under the command of Captain Wallace Houstoun, she played a supporting role in the search for Franklin by carrying supplies to the West coast of North America for the ships looking for Franklin via Bering's strait. Thus, as well as being the oldest British warship still afloat, she is the sole survivor of the Franklin saga.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

To Build a Fire


One particular group of Franklin relics in the National Maritime Museum nicely illuminates the story of one of the humblest but also one of the most profound technological advances of the mid-Victorian period.



Prior to the 1840s, every household would have considered a tinderbox, with flint, steel, and brimstone matches, to be essential equipment for domestic existence. Flint and steel created the spark to set the tinder glowing then a brimstone match turned that ember into a flame. The damper was used to exclude air from the smouldering tinder in order to preserve it for use another day.






Friction matches were invented in the 1820s and were variously referred to lucifers, congeves, or vestas. By the time of the 1845 expedition they were on the brink of the mass production which would drastically reduce their cost and consign the tinderbox and its accoutrements to the museum. The vesta cases in the NMM indicate a time when matches were considered sufficiently valuable to warrant a fine container. A tin cylinder in the collection may also be a vesta case. The 'J. HYNAM' matchbox shown above is a particular puzzle. The information that when found it "was sewn up in cloth & that within was a paper" inspires a pang of grief that it may once have contained a critical piece of information from the lost expedition.

Click the image to read the whole magazine on Google Books.

In the third issue of his magazine Household Words, dated April 13, 1850, Charles Dickens wrote an article dealing with the subject of the old way of making fire as a memory of a bygone age.

By coincidence, the preceding article in that paper contains an interesting snippet relevant to the issue of lead poisoning on the Franklin expedition:

"It is a wise provision of Nature, that waters should contain a greater or less quantity of foreign ingredients; for without these water is dangerous to drink. It never fails to take up from the atmosphere a certain proportion of carbonic acid gas, and when passing through lead pipes it imbibes enough carbonate of lead to constitute poison."



Friday, 17 May 2013

Shining a light on a new era


In my previous post I invited readers to suggest why I found fault with a scene portraying an episode on board one of Franklin's ships. My answers all concern lighting. Firstly, the oil lamp: If Franklin and Fitzjames can see each other at all it will only be dimly, their eyes being dazzled by the brightness of the lamp between them at face level. From the Art Director's point of view it makes for a great image but in real life it would be extremely annoying for those seated at the table. The next thing to mention is that we can see portholes in the far bulkhead. Erebus and Terror didn't have any portholes, instead they had Preston's Patent Illuminators in the deck. The Captain's cabin also had (double glazed) rectangular windows in the stern of the ship. Both the Captain's cabin and the wardroom also had a skylight as does the location this scene was shot, the officers' saloon on the Cutty Sark. This begs another question - if there is light coming in through the portholes, why isn't the cabin flooded with light from the skylight? If it's daylight then why do they need the lamp?

These are fairly trivial details of set dressing but there is one detail which is anachronistic for a ship fitted out in 1845 - the oil lamp. Except that it's not an oil lamp, it's a kerosene lamp (like this one). If you try looking for an antique oil lamp on eBay about 99.5% of the results returned will be kerosene lamps. Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is thin enough to be drawn up the wick by capilliary action from a reservoir a considerable distance below the burner. On the other hand, the whale oil and vegetable oils used for lighting in Franklin's day were more viscous so the reservoir has to be almost  level with the flame. The first commercial refinery for kerosene was opened in Bathgate, Scotland, by James 'Paraffin' Young in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, so it is not credible that Franklin's ships would be lit by kerosene lamps. The raw materials for Young's refinery were varieties of coal now regarded as oil shale.

Click for full-size image
The above sketch depicts the wardroom of the steam-tender Pioneer, by her commander (from 1851), Sherard Osborn. At first glance the hanging lamp is not greatly different from the one in the documentary. This type is known as a sinubra lamp (like this one). The oil is held at the level of the burner in an annular reservoir supporting the shade and designed to minimise the shadow it casts - hence the name from Latin meaning without shadow.

The mid Victorian period in which the Franklin saga occurred is particularly fascinating for the relentless cascade of technological advances which wrought profound changes in peoples lives in a few short years. Historians frequently use 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, as a convenient boundary marker between an earlier agrarian age and the later industrial epoch. The advent of fossil energy in liquid form being just one of many technological advances which fuelled the Victorian revolution.

As a footnote, in 1821 Franklin missed an opportunity to see an early experiment with street lighting using fossil fuel, as he was engaged on his Coppermine river expedition. The demonstration was superintended by the brother of the inventor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, who was, at the time, commanding the Chilean Navy in that country's war of independence.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Chiaroscuro on the Cutty Sark


This frame from Louise Osmond's superb ITN/C4/Nova documentary "The Search for the North West Passage" brings to mind an artistic technique beloved of renaissance masters such as Caravaggio. Chiaroscuro, or in its most developed form Tenebrism, enhances the drama of an image through extreme contrasts of light and darkness. The dramatised scenes in this documentary are a tour de force. In this scene, shot in the officers saloon of the Cutty Sark, Anthony Gardner makes a very convincing Sir John Franklin. I have however noticed three minor mistakes. If anyone would like to suggest what they are then please go ahead. I'll add my answers in a couple of days.