Saturday 10 November 2012

Memorial to the crews of Erebus and Terror

One of the lesser known memorials to the dead of the Franklin expedition is this brass plaque in the former St Andrews Waterside Mission Church, on the banks of the Thames at Gravesend.

The plaque lists the crews of HM Ships Erebus and Terror, ie. the members of the ships' companies who were not officers, with the exception of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine who are buried at Beechey Island. Presumably the intention was to specifically commemorate those who had no known grave.

The men of both ships are grouped together in three categories: Petty Officers; AB's &c; and Royal Marines &c.

The Captain's Steward and the Paymaster and Pursers Steward for each ship are classed as Petty Officers while the Gunroom Stewards and Subordinate Officers' Stewards are counted among the AB's &c.

There are numerous transcription errors among the names listed. For example petty officers James Rigden and Philip Reddington are listed as Bigden: James and Beddington: Philip. Josephus Geater is listed as Geater: James. Presumably the name was abbreviated to Jos. and the engraver read it as Jas.

The Church building is not open to the public on a daily basis but is used for art exibitions and other community purposes. My thanks are due to Sandra Soder, Chair of the Gravesend Historical Society, who kindly showed me around the building in August this year, thus avoiding the need for me to enrol in a yoga class.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Matty Island wreck

The chart showing the track of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier on the excellent CBC Franklin search website brings to mind what David Woodman described as 'One of the most unlikely of the Inuit tales'. The story, collected by Major Lachlan Taylor Burwash during several visits to King William Island between 1925 and 1929, concerns the wreck of a ship and a cache ashore near to Blenky Island to the North East of Matty Island.

Burwash's analysis was that the wreck was of one of Franklin's ships remanned after the 1848 abandonment. To my mind, the problem of the Inuit testimony giving three different locations for where one of Franklin's two ships sank is no more of a problem than the white man's testimony stating that the two ship's engines came from three different railway companies. I wholeheartedly agree with Woodman's comment that the tale "However, it is so simply and straightforwardly told, and has such telling internal consistency, that it is hard to discount entirely."

In my opinion it warrants further investigation.

Saturday 25 August 2012

The disappearing dead.

In June and July 1931, Chief Trader Paddy Gibson, manager of the Hudson's Bay Company's outpost at Gjoia Haven, made an overland journey along the south coast of King William Island in search of remains of members of the Franklin Expedition.

On an islet in Douglas bay he discovered seven skulls and a large collection of human bones together with small fragments of wood identified as oak and Norwegian pine. His conclusion was:

"It would appear that this island marked a halt in the march of the retreating crews, and was the site of one of the camps: a camp from which many never rose to pursue the terrible march."

Gibson interred the remains on the highest point of the island and built a large cairn over them.

Owen Beattie and James Savelle investigated this cairn in 1981 and reported:

"The remains of the cairn were easily located, but unfortunately all skeletal material had been removed, very likely within the last decade, and most likely by non-archaeologists."

There seems to have never been any detailed archaeological survey of these islets nor any investigation into the whereabouts of the remains. The fate of these bones is just another of the myriad minor mysteries of the Franklin saga.

I sincerely hope that some time in the future the relevant authorities sponsor a more comprehensive search of the locality and that a renewed effort is made to discover the ultimate fate of these remains.

Sunday 24 June 2012

The writing's on the wall for little 'Weesy' Coppin (if my memory serves me right).

This is a follow up to Russell Potter's recent post on "the 'Revelation' of the little child of Londonderry".

Captain Coppin's story of the 'revelation' is neatly summarised in a diary entry of William Rossetti for Friday, 15 November 1867:

They both told us, as coming from a Captain Coppin of Londonderry, and also related by a city-man Mr Allan, three or four extraordinary supernatural events with which Captain C has been connected. One is that the spirit of one of his deceased children revealed to a sister, before the M'Clintock expedition, the exact bearings of the sea-passage which would lead to a discovery of the Franklin remains; that Coppin wrote this off to Lady F; that the expedition searched accordingly, found the data correct, and that Coppin holds a letter from Lady F fully acknowledging these facts.
A decade after Lady Franklin had passed away, and nearly 40 years after the 'revelation', Coppin got together with the Reverend J Henry Skewes to publish the story.

Admiral Sir Francis Leopold McClintock was outraged by the publication and accused Skewes of fabricating the whole story.

He was wrong, Skuse's account was based on fact. Lady Franklin had taken the 'revelation' seriously.

However McClintock's error was in condemning the story in its entirety rather than in part. While founded on fact the story had been embroidered due to failures of memory, misunderstandings, and the natural tendency for a good story to improve with the telling.

Spufford labels Skewes's evidence as 'massaged' and Lloyd-Jones calls it 'greatly embellished'.

Unfortunately the octogenarian Coppin had not retained copies of the materials he had sent to Lady Franklin so critical details of the account had to rely on his failing memory.

Coppin's recollection of events is sometimes notably at odds with the surviving records. Coppin remembered that the account of the 'revelation' sent to Lady Franklin had included a postscript:
I beg to call your Ladyship's special attention to the words "Point Victory, Victoria Channel" which were brought so often before the child.
It does appear that a copy of Coppin's original letter has survived, which I'll refer to as 'the Trinity House document', from this it would appear that the actual postscript was worded:
"Victory and Victoria are frequently written in full, you have the above letters pict[ured] as they were named by the child"
Skewes gives the text of the revelation as a series of phrases:
Erebus and Terror, Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel
While the Trinity House document just gives a series of letters, some in groups:
B.S., P.R.I., N.F., S.J.F., and B.V.F.R.G.R.L.S.P.F.M.F.M., and the complete words 'Victory' and 'Victoria'.
This point is corroborated by several sources quoted by Skewes: Kennedy,  Parker-Snow, and Lady Franklin.

The most important element in the 'revelation', delivered late in 1849 was that Sir John Franklin (d. 11 June 1847) was alive. This may well have encouraged Lady Franklin in her efforts to send searching expeditions.

The contribution made by William Parker Snow to Skewes's 'defence' actually undermines the case rather than strengthens it. The newspaper quotation from 1860 confirms that the revelation was mostly made up of initials, and Parker Snow had a facsimile of the child's chart. I suggest that Parker Snow's later addition to the copy of the chart in his notebook to include King William's Island again derives from a failing memory and a need to make the evidence fit the facts. The fact that Boothia was a peninsula and not an island had been known since 1847 and is mentioned in Parker Snow's own account of the 1850 'Prince Albert' expedition. Most remarkable is Skewes's admission that "The channel leading from Regent Inlet towards Victoria Channel is not in Parker Snow's chart".

Skewes quotes what is presumably Coppin's 'letter from Lady F" mentioned by Rossetti.
Dec. 21st 1859
"I have received your letter of yesterday, requesting me to tell you how far the 'mysterious revelations' of your child, in 1850, respecting the expedition of my late husband, correspond with the facts recently ascertained by Captain McClintock's researches.

In reply, I have no hesitation in telling you that the child's chart drawn by herself, without as you assure me having seen an Arctic chart before, represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at that time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found, they actually navigated.

Moreover, the names 'Victory' and 'Victoria,' written by the little girl upon her chart, correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William's Land, where the important record of the 'Erebus' and ' Terror'' was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships where [sic] finally lost.

I regret that I have not at hand your very interesting letter of May, 1850, in which you made to me those remarkable communications with more detail, but I believe I am quite correct in what I have stated. I have carefully preserved your letter and the child's drawing and you may be assured that they are in safety, and can be referred to, tho' it would be difficult for me to do so at this present moment.

Ever yours, dear Mr. Coppin,
Most truly and obliged,
Skewes makes clear that he believes the 'revelation' refers to Bellot Strait but it is difficult to believe that Jane is thinking of the same thing when she mentions a channel "which we believed at that time to be inaccessible". In 1850 no one could have described Bellot Strait as inaccessible because it's existence had not been imagined. Equally, it would be untrue to describe Bellot Strait as the seaway "it has since been found, they actually navigated".

Plausibly, Jane is saying that the ships are Peel Sound or Victoria Strait, which they did navigate. This patch of sea adjacent to King William Island is shown as the inaccessible 'King William Sea' on the map printed for the account of Sir John Ross's Victory expedition.

Jane does confirm that the words 'Victory' and 'Victoria' correspond to 'Point Victory' and 'Victoria Strait', which again implies that the revelation only contained the single words 'Victory' and 'Victoria'.

She closes with the formula "Most truly and obliged" which is hardly overflowing with thanks if Coppin had really provided the key to the mystery.

In short Lady Franklin's letter does not support the contention that "the 'mysterious revelations' had revealed 'the exact bearings of the sea-passage which would lead to a discovery of the Franklin remains"

I'm my opinion there is only one document in the annals of Arctic exploration which does deserve to be called prophetic:

In a letter written by John Ross dated 5th March, 1836 - fully ten years before the Franklin Expedition sailed:
no man in his senses would commit such an act of imprudence with bomb ships such as now proposed drawing eighteen feet and with a complement of sixty men.
I am fully convinced that it would prove fatal to every one employed
Ross predicted that the Franklin Expedition was a suicide mission ten years before it sailed!

To sum up: Ross's sober wisdom trumps Skewes's hectoring hyperbole

Sunday 15 April 2012

Masques and Masks

On  the 1850 search expedition (Resolute, Assistance, Intrepid, and Pioneer) commanded by Horatio T Austin, Parry's practice of holding theatrical entertainments and costume parties (including one onboard the Fury where the then Midshipman Crozier appeared as a native of Africa, and others were chimney sweepers), to relieve the monotony of the long Arctic winter, was revived. Handwritten newspapers were circulated containing amusing original compositions as well as factual essays. These pastimes had not been pursued on James Clark Ross's 1848 expedition in Enterprise and Investigator but who knows what performances may have taken place on Franklin's ships?

A facsimile edition containing the five issues of The Illustrated Arctic News (in imitation of the Illustrated London News), was later printed and distributed after Austin's squadron had returned home. Part of the front page of the issue for December 31 1850 is shown below.

The illustration headed "ARCTIC SKETCHES" and subtitled "FASHIONS FOR THE MONTH" is of particular interest.

The figure on the left brings to mind (again!) Charles Francil Hall's account of Oookbarloo's tale of the black faced men with "little black noses" who frightened the Inuit dog sled driver with "three great noises".
"These men who were then all around him, had black faces, black hands, black clothes on - were black all over! They had little black noses, only so big: [the old lady here put her hand on the bridge of her nose showing that the noses were not more than half the length & size of common ones] & this Innuit was very much alarmed because he could not get away from these black men but especially was he frightened when they made three great noises [three rounds of cheers as Too- koo-li-too thinks these great noises were]."

A report from visitor to the Resolute, prior to the expedition's departure, would seem to explain the illustration.

" ... a sort of helmet is to be worn on the head, to which is attached a mask of knitted wool, wadded and lined with silk, and doubly thick over the nose, leaving only an aperture for the eyes. These masks are of different colours; and the whole attire, especially when the hands disappear in the huge fur gauntlets which complete it, is almost ludicrous."

Ludicrous to some, but possibly terrifying to others.

A modern photograph of  a man wearing a ski mask shows how the thick cloth of a mask can reduce the apparent size of the nose to a small bump, which may explain the little black noses.

Fabric fragments in the National Maritime Museum's collection of Franklin Relics appear to have once at least approximated black in colour and there is also an Inuit report of black clad bodies being found on the islet of Keeuna.

It is not difficult to find other nineteenth century reports of face masks being used to protect against cold weather.

In his narrative of his 1851 expedition, in the brig Prince Albert, Kennedy recounts:
"We had all been exercising our ingenuity in the contrivance of various little arrangements for the protection of the face against the effects of the frost, and this morning a curious observer might have studied with some interest the idiosyncrasies of individual genius as exhibited in the variety of grotesque appendages to noses, cheeks, eyes, chins, and every vulnerable spot of the human face divine. ... For the face some had cloth masks, with neat little crevices for the mouth, nose, and eyes;"
In his narrative of his 1836 voyage in HMS Terror, Captain Back recounts:
"By way of experiment Lieutenant Smyth put on a common mask, and at first considered it rather comfortable, until getting heated with exertion, a cake of ice was formed inside, which, not being the kind of lining he preferred, was immediately rejected, and from the face the mask was transferred to the end of a boarding pike, the point being thrust through one of the eyes, and carried in that way over his shoulder. With such a Gorgon's head, it was laughingly remarked, we need not fear to face a troop of bears."
Of Parry's 1821 voyage (Hecla and Griper), it was reported that:
"The sailors generally wore masks, warmly lined, when upon deck. Upon their return below they were examined by their messmates, for fear there should be any white spots upon their faces. These white spots were the effects of the intense cold in congealing the blood, and if not attended to, were the forerunners of mortification; they were, therefore, immediately rubbed with snow, until the free circulation returned."
In the first two of these examples it seems that the masks were improvised during the expeditions, and it is not difficult to find other examples of similar ingenuity....

It would be very surprising if the officers and crews of Franklin's ships did not find solutions to the problems of Arctic travel which were similar to those improvised on other expeditions. If that is accepted, then the simplest explanation for the terrifying appearance of the black faced men is that they were members of the ship's company who went on deck wearing their cold weather gear, complete with face masks, and when they saw the Inuit dog sled driver they gave him the traditional Royal Navy salutation of three cheers.

The tent mentioned in the story doesn't present any difficulties as long as we don't interpret the third-hand account of the original testimony too literally.

"Before the Captain took him down into his Cabin he told this Innuit to take a look over to the land, the Captain pointing out to him the exact spot where there was a big Tupik (tent). The Captain asked him if he saw the tent, & the Innuit told him he did. Then the Captain told him that black men, such as he had just seen, lived there, and that neither he (this Innuit) nor any nor any of his people must ever go there."

I now think the simplest explanation is that the tent was a magnetic observatory sited 200 yards away on the floe so that the instruments wouldn't be affected by the ship's ironwork. This would have been out of bounds for the ship's crew, and the Inuit too, and for the same reason - that any iron implements they carried would be detrimental to the measurements.

I've repeatedly come back to the puzzle of the black faced men because I believe it is important, particularly as it impacts on the possible chronology of other events attested by the Inuit, such as Kokleearngnun's 'great tuktoo hunt' and Bayne's 'Cemented Vaults'. My current view is that the visit of the anonymous dog sled driver occurred in the spring of 1847 when the expedition was not in distress, as the original text of the Victory Point record says - "All Well".

It's recorded that the faces of members of sledging parties sometimes became 'as black as ebony' with soot from cooking over tallow lamps. This would not happen on board the ships as they were equipped with efficient coal fired galley stoves and there would have been no excuse for not washing. There was a widely held, though erroneous, belief that a lack of cleanliness increased the likelihood of scurvy so the officers took great pains to ensure that the ships and men were clean and wholesome as possible. The inuit account makes clear that the black faced men were under the control of the Captain so, to my mind, theories that these men were dirty because of a breakdown of discipline simply won't wash.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Cans of Confusion

Copyright Paul Ward,

Aside from the exhumations of the 1980s, there has been very little scholarly work published concerning the traces left by the Franklin party's 1845-6 overwintering at Beechey Island.

I was therefore pleased to read an article by Todd Hansen (plus an addendum), recently published in Polar Record, which answered several questions which had been bugging me for ages.

Near the South East end of Beechey island, many large, rusting, empty tin cans can be seen to this day. Some are arranged into a memorial cross. Plenty of photographs of these can be found on the web, some referring to the theory that the lead solder contributed to the expedition's demise.

However, these are not the cans supplied by Goldner to Franklin's expedition in 1845. They are the cans left behind in August 1854 by Edward Belcher's searching expedition. Many intact cans were left in Northumberland House, which was built as a refuge in the hope that any wandering survivors of the lost expedition might find it. Empty cans were also built into a cairn mimicking the cairn built by Franklin's men near the North West corner of the island.

James Clark Ross, in his 1847 Account of the Antarctic expedition, wrote "it would be better that the canisters in which the meats are preserved should be of a much stouter tin", and it appears this advice was taken as Belcher's cans, although rusty, still look quite sturdy while Franklin's cans have almost entirely disintegrated. The site of the 'Franklin can cairn', reported by the first searchers to reach Beechey, is now marked by a mossy crater containing rusty fragments. The crater was made by searchers digging up the gravel where the cairn stood and the growth of moss is attributed to the minerals provided by the decay of the cans.

Site of the 'Franklin can cairn', Beechey Island. Copyright Todd Hansen

An additional puzzle concerns the number of can-built cairns found by the searchers: Was there one can-cairn or several?.

The account published in 1852 by Peter Sutherland, the surgeon to William Penny's expedition in the brigs  'Lady Franklin' and 'Sophia' includes the paragraph:

        The meat-tins were piled up in heaps in the same regular manner as shot is piled up; each had been filled with loose shingle, and when the tiers of a single layer were completed the interstices were also filled up with shingle. In this way several mounds were raised to a height of nearly two feet, and they varied in breadth from three to four yards. Six or seven hundred tins were counted, and many more besides these were dug up and emptied out in search of documents.

The information that there were "several mounds" of cans is contradicted by the same author in a letter to the Times, on 20th January 1852, which describes "upwards of 600 empty tin canisters which were found in one heap". The best explanation I can think of for this discrepancy is that there was but a single cairn which Sutherland had first seen after it had already been partly dismantled by searchers looking for a record. He put what he saw into his journal manuscript but the letter to the Times reflects the truth he learned subsequently.

There is an interesting post-script to the story of the cans left at Northumberland House. In 1885 the remaining stores were pillaged by Inuits (they found many of the preserved meats to be bad). The story was reported by Alexander Fairweather, Captain of a Dundee whaler, who was able to save a collection of documents left by visitors to Beechey Island, from Belcher in 1854 to Allan Young in 1875.  More than twenty years later Fairweather's ship, the Terra Nova, would carry Scott's fateful expedition to the Antarctic.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Captain Back's Patent Poison Producer

This bizarre contraption is my home-made experiment intended to shed some light on the question of the origin of the lead detected in the bones of participants in the Franklin Expedition. The apparatus is designed to  approximate the system originally installed on HMS Terror following the suggestion of Captain George Back on the 16th of May, 1836. A 2kw wallpaper steamer plays the part of the Fraser stove and the condenser/snow-tank is a black plastic box which normally holds paper for recycling. The five-foot length of lead piping between them is arranged so that any water condensed within it can't flow back into the steamer but instead drains via a narrow plastic tube into a glass jar on the floor. This approximates the arrangements shown on the 1837 profile drawing of HMS Terror but has the advantage, for experimental purposes, that the water which condenses in the pipe can be collected separately instead of mixing with the boiler water. 

I had been worrying how to test the lead content of the water produced. There are test strips available, for a few pounds, which give a yes/no answer to the question of whether lead is present in tap water and there are digital colorimeters, costing a few hundreds, which give an accurate measurement in terms of parts per million. In the event, no special equipment is needed. The water collected is cloudy with lead carbonate - white lead. After an hour or so the water clears leaving a powdery deposit at the bottom of the jar. When the jar is shaken it produces a pretty snow storm of glinting crystals, as shown by the middle one of the three jars in the photo above. This sample was produced as the result of 30 minutes operation. The conclusion I draw from this demonstration is: that the water making systems in place on Erebus and Terror during the fatal 1845 Franklin Expedition are likely to have introduced relatively huge quantities of lead, measurable in terms of grams per day, into the drinking water supplies, when the ships were overwintering. This seems likely to have been the major source of lead exposure, totally overwhelming any trace amounts absorbed from any other of the proposed sources.

Stephan Goldner and the Billion Dollar Corporation

  I was amazed to discover recently that it is now ten years ago, in November 2012, that I had the privilege to travel to Nelson Mandela Rd,...