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


  1. And in fact told Franklin before the expedition sailed that if no news of him was received by mid-January 1847, he would volunteer to go on a search.

  2. Peter, great post! I agree with nearly everything, but would differ in that I do think that the "Revelation" had the effect of leading to the discovery of Bellot Strait, and that (even though he could have gotten there by a more circuitous route) McClintock did indeed friend Franklin's final record at Victory Point is connected with this. I'm still puzzling over B.V.F.R.G.R.L.S.P.F.M.F.M. though! Some additional thoughts spurred by your post are on my blog here.

  3. Sounds like a reasonable conclusion!

  4. Hello, great job! Certainly the deduction of the meaning of this spelling is a matter to be hooked. It seems that S.J.F can be translated also as "Sir James Fitzjames", isnt´it? But it makes more sense "Sir John Franklin".

    Is a casuality but I´ve recently discovered, reading the book "To the arctic by canoe 1819-1821: The journals and paintings of Robert Hood" by C.Stuart Houston, that Robert Hood made similar considerations or conclusions at his arrival at York Factory as that that John Ross made although for different purposes.

    Hood wrote about how appropiate would be using lighter ships to maneuver among the ice floes in the Hudson Bay and for carrying their loads upstream to the Forts. The Hudson Bay Ships often were captured there by the ice preventing them returning to England.

    He considers that a bigger number of ships would increase the opportunities to avoid being trapped by the ice and that this also would increase the oportunities to help each other in that case.

    Amundsen demonstrate the theory, though in different weather and enviromental conditions.

  5. Thanks for all the comments.

    The fact that John Ross volunteered to lead a search even before Franklin sailed clearly shows his foresight. Sadly Ross's standing with the Admiralty had never recovered from his 1818 mistake in delaring Lancaster sound to be merely a bay.

    I would certainly agree that the "Revelation" did encourage Lady Franklin to send the expedition which discovered Bellot Strait and so did have an impact on the voyage of the 'Fox'.

    Fitzjames was not a knight (so not a 'Sir'), but he was likely named after the mysterious "Sir James Fitzjames" of Sir Walter Scott's narrative poem 'The Lady of the Lake' (1810). The character is a King in disguise.

    Clearly Hood anticipated Ross's advice to some extent - I'll add that book to my list. Both Amundsen's Gjøa and Nansen's Fram fit Ross's spcifications for suitable vessels.

  6. Oh! sorry for the mistake about S.J.F. i didn´t check his titles.

    Ross seemed to be cursed, he missed also the Bellot Strait if i remember well. But i don´t understand why nobody took measures before, it would have to be obvious to anyone who sailed in those waters. Perhaps the reason was the necessity to employ the Navy men after the war, smaller ships would employ less people..., who knows.

    I am reading the journal of Hood right now and in fact is really fascinating. Hood writes incredibly well, his writing is fresher than the Franklin Journal (he was in his twenties then). In fact the whole trilogy of C.S.Houston seems to be very interesting. The book is full of thorough commentaries of the editor and offers a lot of new sources of information and helps to understand better the character of Franklin.

    For example, the editor explains how the original journal was recovered from an old box in the family house (The Birch family) of the descendants of Catherine Hood sister of Robert Hood) when the house was going to be abandoned. Looking in Internet i´ve located, in a genealogical forum, at one of the great great grand sons of Catherine Hood (there were several unmistakable connections) so i´ve just warn him of who seem to be his ancestors. You can imagine his surprise. He didn´t know anything about it, and now he is checking it with his relatives.


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