Monday, 16 September 2019

The Spirits of Erebus and Terror

No discussion of the victualing of the Victorian era Royal Navy would be complete without mentioning the rum ration.

Beer, at a rate of one gallon per day, had long been a part of the sailors diet. The capture of Jamaica by the British in 1655 kicked off the gradual process of substituting rum - initially at a rate of half a pint daily. In 1740, for reasons of health and morals, it was ordered to be served out mixed with water (ie. Grog) in the ratio of 1 part rum to 2 parts water and split between morning and evening. In 1824 the evening serving was abandoned, halving the ration to a gill (0.25 pint), with better food and extra pay to compensate. Part of the reduction was almost immediately reversed by the new Imperial measures which increased the volume by a fifth and the evening serving was reintroduced. This was the regime under which Erebus and Terror sailed in 1845. The ration would be halved again in 1850 and finally abolished in 1970.

The spirits used by the Royal Navy were normally shipped on board at a strength of 5% under proof (54.5% ABV), presumably to mitigate the fire hazard. On Arctic expeditions, where space was at a premium, the rum was supplied at a much higher cask strength and diluted to the standard strength when required.

For my experiment I obtained a bottle of Pusser's Gunpowder Proof rum of the regulation 54.5% ABV, plus a larger quantity of the rather less expensive Lamb's Navy Rum at 40% ABV.
More often than not, I simulated the daily ration of 142ml, ie. an Imperial Gill, of the regulation strength Pusser's with 194 ml of the 40% ABV Lamb's. One half served before lunch and the other in the evening.

Using spirits of the strength common today helps the mind to appreciate the quantities better. The daily rum ration of the 1840s was near enough four 50ml doubles by today's standards. The weekly consumption would amount to four times the current recommendation by the The UK's chief medical officer. Well, they had plenty else to worry about.

Queen Victoria had a taste of 'Grog' in 1842 when she visited 110-gun first-rate 'HMS Queen', the Navy's last battleship driven by sail alone.

On her return to the quarter-deck, her Majesty expressed a wish to see the ship's company at their dinner. As soon as it and the grog were served out, the royal party went below. As her Majesty stepped on the lower deck, the men stood up, and although her Majesty kindly desired that they might be seated, they continued standing during the progress round the deck. On arriving opposite to the table abreast of the mainmast, her Majesty desired Captain Rich to let her taste the grog. The gallant Captain ordered a glass to be brought, but the Queen said, "No I wish to taste it as the men have it." A mess basin was filled from the grog can on the nearest table, and presented by Capt. Rich, on his knee; having tasted it, her Majesty smilingly remarked "that it was very good." (not as formerly stated in the daily papers - that it was very weak,) and taking a second sip, returned the basin.

For my experiment, the jokes I made about reducing my gin consumption to make space for the rum fell slightly flat. I was obliged to go on a reduced ration part way through the week for reasons of health and morals. :-(

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 7

The meal to mark the end of the week was salt pork with pea soup. Long boiling of the pork left the meat tender but perfectly flavoursome. It also yielded a tasty but rather salty stock, which, diluted with the water in which the split peas had been steeped, plus some additional water from the ship's tanks (i.e. the kitchen tap), made the basis of the soup.

Some authors have written approvingly of the technique of mashing the peas by putting a round-shot into the coppers "which from the constant motion of the vessel acts as a sort of crushing machine", but that was not resorted to in this case (I used a hand blender).

The only condiment added was a sprinkling of ground black pepper. From the image it can be seen that the 'soup' is not entirely liquid, being more of a thick paste - somewhere in the middle ground between a soup and a pudding. That did not, however, impair the excellent flavour of the dish in any way. Either alone, or with the addition of meat that was easily shredded with the fork, this was a veritable treat and it is not surprising that it was one of Jack Tar's favourites.

Additional liquid would have been a boon with regard to the shards of ship's biscuit employed as croutons. There being no surplus for them to absorb, they softened hardly at all, resolutely maintaining instead their fortress-like resistance to this diner's molars.

However, that is indeed a minor gripe, which was no detriment to the enjoyment of the meal, and will easily be rectified as the embryonic ship's cook gains in experience.

This was the seventh day of dining on the victuals of Queen Victoria's Royal Navy, and it marks the end of this particular voyage of discovery. The stock of lemon juice is almost expended, and although a dose of scurvy would convey incomparable bragging rights among the Arctic aficionados, the call of home has won through.

This may, however, be reckoned as just a preliminary excursion. A sort of training expedition as it were. Certainly, much of the fare reported on these pages will be revisiting the writer's table in the future. But for now, there will be a period of revelling in the comforts of home cooking and all the luxuries of the life ashore.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 6

Day 6 brought the welcome addition of (simulated) Goldner's Patent preserved carrots to the table. The bright, natural, colour and pleasant aroma raised the prospect of a most pleasant meal. It has to be said that these hopes were not entirely realised as, although the flavour of the carrots was all that could be asked for, they were decidedly overcooked. This information will be passed on to the contractor immediately the voyage is completed.

Setting aside that small criticism, the day's dinner was exceedingly well received. The combination of three preserved ingredients, combined with broken biscuits to soak up the gravy, made for a most harmonious gastro-nautical experience.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 5

On Day 5 dinner was salt beef again, which this time was properly cooked. It was tender and tasty enough yet it still didn't fare too highly in the flavour stakes in comparison with the excellent preserved meat served the day before. The plum duff which accompanied the beef was this time a triumph - a notable improvement on the ship's cook's previous attempt.

In the absence of a properly sewn pudding bag, a linen tea towel was called to serve in its stead. The specified allowance of nine ounces of flour was thoroughly mixed with an ounce and a half of raisins and three quarters of an ounce of suet. Sugar was added plus a couple of ground allspice berries and a splash of rum before mixing with water to create a sticky mass which was rolled in the wetted and floured cloth.

After an hour's boiling the package was opened and pronounced to the finest example of a (simulated) mid nineteenth century Royal Naval plum duff known to history. In the photos the raisins appear somewhat sparsely distributed, after all they only account for one sixth the mass of the flour. However, the delicious essence of the fruit, was found to permeate throughout the whole to create a very well balanced and satisfying pudding. The quantity was sufficiently generous to provide a slice each to two visitors to the mess table, both of whom pronounced it to be first rate.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 4

Dinner today was preserved meat and preserved potatoes once more, but this time enlivened with a can of (simulated) Goldner's Patent Vegetable Soup. This soup is made with carrots and parsnips boiled up in home made beef stock, then pureed. There is a certain amount of overlap, in the recipes of the time, between vegetable soup and gravy soup. Certainly it does look like gravy in the photo below. The can in question is of the 1 lb size, the smallest available. Only 456 cans of this size are recorded on the expedition's accounts, representing just 1 percent of the total of 32,000 lbs of canned foods. I suspect that these small cans were intended as 'medical comforts' for individuals in the sick bay.

Crunched up ship's biscuit served for croutons. This was a good move as the rock hard biscuits are hard work to eat by themselves, but softened by the soup, they were far more palatable. My verdict was "quite delicious, but slightly over-seasoned". Very welcome on a cold day.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 3

Here's today's dinner. Salt pork and peas. The pork was certainly tasty, but a bit tough to chew. It looked quite grey when removed from the pickle but when cut up the meat was pink inside. I chopped it into lumps before steeping it in fresh water for 24 hours but it was still quite salty and, after 2 hours boiling, still too solid for my taste. The peas were rather bland but made a good contrast to the pork.

Split peas were specified for the Arctic expeditions because they occupied just a little bit less storage space than whole ones normally issued. They became general issue in May 1856.

I lead a sedentary lifestyle so it is no surprise that the full ration is way too much for me. On the other hand, the real Jack Tar in the age of sail led a working life will plenty of strenuous exercise so it is easy to understand his calorie requirements were much greater.

Overall, my verdict on this dish is good, but could do with a bit more care from the cook, to make the meat a little more tender.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 2

Day 2 of my Naval diet experiment provided an historic event: The first can of (simulated) Goldner's Preserved Provisions to be opened in the Twenty First Century. In fact it was probably the first can bearing the Goldner name to be opened for more than 150 years. I must admit I was a little nervous. Would I be greeted with the horrible sight and smell of a putrid abomination? No. the smell was as fresh and wholesome as anyone could have hoped for. The congealed fat at the top of the can did look a bit strange at first sight but it was perfectly good and was more a sign of successful processing than otherwise.

The gravy which accompanied the meat made a small dish of tasty soup. As an accompaniment to the meat, a portion of (simulated) Edwards' Patent Preserved Potatoes was served. As may be seen above, the condiments salt, mustard, and pepper, were laid out, but the meal was tasty enough not to require them. This is the opposite of the case with yesterday's salt beef which really did need the extra help in the flavour department. With some ship's bread and a glass of grog, it really was a most satisfying meal.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Naval rations: Day 1

Day one of my experiment started with a breakfast of hot chocolate, ship's biscuit, and a pint of lemonade made with one ounce each of lemon juice and sugar. Perfectly satisfying although the cocoa was a bit lumpy.

For dinner, the salt beef was boiled for one hour in a net bag carrying a tag with my fictional mess number. It had previously been steeped in fresh water for 24 hours to re-hydrate it.
The beef was served with plum duff . Duff being a mixture of flour, suet, and raisins, wrapped in a cloth and boiled for an hour. There was also an ounce of pickles which worked out as a single onion.

My verdict: The meat was a bit dry but reasonably tasty - a bit like pastrami. The duff had too much flour due to a measuring mistake but although the raisins were sparse, their flavour carried through. Not bad, perhaps just a bit dull. It would have been improved with some gravy. Overall a good start although I had a thick head for most of the afternoon due, I believe, to my not being acclimatised to drinking grog in the morning.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 5. Goldner's Patent Preserved Provisions

At last! That disreputable cut-price contractor has finally delivered the preserved provisions! The voyage can proceed! Erm, wait a minute, the dodgy contractor is me. These four cans are by far the best reproduction of Goldner's Preserved Provisions that I have achieved so far. Pictured above are two two-pound cans of boiled beef, a two-pound can of carrots, and a one-pound can of vegetable soup.
The chunks of beef were boiled for about ten minutes before being threaded through the small hole in the top of the can. About three quarters of the liquid was then poured in. The meat wasn't fully cooked at this stage - most of the cooking, or more likely over-cooking, occurs in the can.
Here's the sealed up can sitting in a pan of muriate of lime (Calcium Chloride). From the thermometer reading you can see that the temperature is approaching 130 Celsius yet the solution displays no obvious signs of boiling. The original recipe called for sealing the pin-hole in the lid while the can was being heated. I tried this but the jet of steam blew through the solder, so it was allowed to cool slightly first. After sealing, the can was heated again gently to check for leaks, then finished off in a pressure cooker. In the old days the can itself was the pressure cooker. You can be assured that I was wearing full protective gear throughout the more risky parts of the process.

The final step in the process is to keep the filled can in a warm place for at least a week. This was achieved using a plastic crate and a 40 Watt heater. If there were any viable microorganisms left inside, this was their chance to show themselves by bulging out the ends of the can. Pleased to say that there was noting to report on this score. Painted up and labelled, the cans look almost too good to use for anything other than display, but opened they will be, and their contents tasted. Could they be anything other than delicious?

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 4. Lemon Juice

The essential anti-scorbutic lemon juice is one of the easiest period food stuffs to prepare. That is  just as long as you don't have to squeeze the lemons by hand. The Navy's specification called for an ounce of brandy to be added to ten of fresh juice. Presumably this will have been cask-strength but, in the interests of expediency, I made do with the what I had to hand, which is a paltry 40% alcohol by volume. The final touch is a layer of olive oil floating on the top to exclude the air. Much nicer than the modern chemically preserved version, I think. No scurvy for me!

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 3. Salt Meat.

British artist Damien Hirst made a name for himself (and quite a bit of money) by preserving parts of chopped up animals in tanks of liquid. My homage to the genre is shown above. Beef on the left and pork on the right. I just need to think of a lengthy and ironic title. No prizes for suggestions, thanks. Anyway, back to my Naval food project...

Prior to the introduction of canning, the main source of protein for seafarers was meat which had been preserved by salting. It is a simple process, which goes back centuries, if not millennia. You start with a lump of meat, cover it in dry salt, then leave it in a cool place for a few days. For the beef, a small proportion of food-grade saltpetre (about 1%) was added to the salt. Supposedly this should help it keep some of its original colour.

Osmotic pressure, caused by the salt, draws liquid out of the meat. This liquid is periodically poured off, and new dry salt added. The dry salting process can continue indefinitely or, as in this case, the meat can be submerged in a strong brine solution. The strength of the pickle can be judged from the fact that there is a layer of undissolved salt crystals at the bottom of the tub. It is important that the meat, which is slightly buoyant at this stage, is wholly submerged so I started off by using a couple of off-cuts from an oak beam to hold it under as a nod towards the use of oak barrels back in the day.

Of course, there are a few ways in which the process described above diverges from its historical antecedents. For the Franklin expedition, the beef and pork was salted in eight pound and four pound pieces respectively. These would have been on the bone while I used British boneless pork leg from Morrison's and Irish beef brisket from Tesco. There are many humorous tales about the salt meat of the Navy. Referred to as 'salt junk' or 'salt horse'. It has been said that after too long in the cask it was hard enough to be turned or carved into durable ornaments. Myself, I don't set much store by these tall tales. I have confidence in the diligent efforts of the Victualling Board. I am convinced that, cooked properly, it will be delicious!

Monday, 20 May 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 2. Biscuit

The biscuit factory at Deptford Victualling Yard, 1901
For centuries, Ship's biscuit was the bread of seafarers. In the mid 1820s the British Government initiated the construction of the worlds first steam powered biscuit factories at Deptford, Gosport, and Plymouth. The machinery was designed by the notable Thomas Tassell Grant of Portsmouth and constructed by the firm of George and John Rennie. Grant's biscuit making apparatus was described in an article in the Mechanics Magazine in March 1835 and with additional detail in 1844 by Dr Andre Ure. Some of the equipment shown in Ure's drawings can be seen in the above photo. Although the descriptions refer to the hexagonal biscuits supplied to the fleet, archive sources indicate that, for the Franklin expedition, square biscuits were specially ordered. The shape was specified to enable them to be efficiently packed in tin cases.

Dr. Ure describes the  meal used to make the biscuits as "a mixture of fine flour and middlings, the bran and pollard being removed". The accounts for the Victualling Department from the 1860s provide more detail, indicating that the mixture used comprised around 87% of the milled grain. As part of my project to replicate the diet of the mid-Victorian Royal Navy, finding a suitable source was a priority.

The first step in my quest for authentic flour was to visit Charlecote watermill in Warwickshire, near Stratford-upon-Avon. Although there are occasional open days, this centuries old watermill is a commercial business milling locally grown grain to produce traditional stoneground flour for artisan bakeries and home bakers. They also have a very good business producing premium chapatti flour for the local South Asian community. My thought was to purchase both the white flour and the middlings mentioned by Ure, and make the mixture up accordingly.

The Miller, Karl Grevatt, was very interested in my project but he explained that he was only set up to produce either white flour or wholemeal, the elusive middlings not being separated from the bran. However he did suggest another source: Redbournbury Watermill in Hertfordshire, about 20 miles north of London.

Redbournbury has a fully restored traditional flour dresser or "wire machine", which is used to extract the different fractions of the meal. On the day of my visit, the mill was working by means of its auxiliary engine. I saw this as an added bonus for the authenticity of my project as the mills in the government victualling yards were engine powered, by Boulton and Watt steam engines. I purchased several bags of their Stoneground Organic 85% Wheatmeal flour, which was almost exactly what I was looking for.

I still felt the need to try to find the 87% wheatmeal of historical record, so I started experimenting with the wholemeal flour I had purchased at Charlecote and a selection of sieves of different mesh. The results were encouraging so I continued with two different flours which I bought from my local wholefood co-operative, five minutes walk from my house. I finally settled on a mixture of Shipton Mill Organic Stoneground wholemeal flour, plus Doves Farm Organic Stoneground Fine Plain English Wholemeal Flour, in the ratio of four to one. This allowed me to sieve the mixture to produce exactly the 87% extract I was looking for.

Shipton Mill is another ancient watermill. They proudly state their use of French burr stones (the best) but don't say whether or not they are still driven by water power. They have the additional prestige of a Royal Warrant as suppliers to the household of the Prince of Wales and their product claims a proportion of Maris Widgeon grain which is a rare heritage variety of wheat, now primarily grown for its tall stems which provide the long straw essential for thatching historic buildings.
For comparison, I also tried "Strong Brown Flour" from my local supermarket. The results were pretty good, so I would recommend it for anyone who wants to make their own ship's biscuits but isn't nerdishly obsessive about the minutiae of nineteenth century milling and flour grading techniques.


Making the biscuits themselves is a far more relaxing activity. There are only two ingredients: flour and water.

To make the dough, a vintage Kenwood Chef food mixer took the place of the steam-engine powered machines of the Navy's Victualing yards. To roll it out I used a trusty wooden rolling pin with two strips of wood as guides to ensure a consistent thickness. 

An improvised "Docker" marked the pattern of holes and I made up some lettering and a broad arrow from some strips of tinplate. The ship names are more for fun than historical accuracy. The originals would certainly have worn the broad arrow but probably the only additional lettering would have been a capital 'D' to signify their place of manufacture - Deptford.

This batch of biscuits were baked with the oven close to its maximum setting of about 250 C (482 F) for 15-20 minutes followed by two hours at 100 C (212 F) to thoroughly dry them out.

And how do they taste? I hear you ask. Well, they are a bit hard to chew, but worth it if you make the effort. Individually, on the few occasions I have tried them, they were delicious. When it's every day I can believe that the story may be different.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Victualling Victoria's Navy - 1. Chocolate

As mentioned in my previous post, I am currently attempting to assemble the necessary provisions to perform a reasonably authentic simulation of the diet of the early Victorian Royal Navy. The intended duration is  one week, but if it goes smoothly then maybe I'll try it for a longer period at a later date.

In his book, The Voyage of the "Fox" in the Arctic Seas, Francis McClintock reported the discovery of nearly forty pounds of chocolate in the deserted boat at Erebus bay. This was the only substance of any nutritional value among the remains recovered from the expedition.

Cocoa, the liquid, made in this case, from chocolate, the solid, was the standard breakfast of the Royal Navy from the first quarter of the 19th century onward. The ration was one ounce per day to make one pint of the drink. Originally the roasted beans (sometimes confusingly referred to as cocoa nuts) were supplied to the ships, and preparation of the cocoa involved pounding with a large mortar and pestle, but by the late 1830s the prepared chocolate was manufactured in government owned mills at Deptford, London. After some problems, celebrated chemist Dr Andrew Ure was consulted in 1842 to troubleshoot the manufacturing process. 

For my experiment in making Navy chocolate, I started with a bag of cocoa nib, which simply consists of cocoa beans which have been roasted and then cracked into small pieces. I soon discovered that my kitchen was lacking a grinder which could mill these fine enough so I next purchased a bag of cocoa mass. This is still the pure bean after it has been ground to a minute degree of fineness, and in this case moulded into buttons.

Sources slightly later than the Franklin era refer to two sorts of cocoa: "Ordinary", for which the only added ingredient is sugar, and "soluble" or "optional", which also includes a quantity of starch such as arrowroot or sago flour. It appears that only the "ordinary" sort would have been supplied to Franklin's ships but that formulation has the disadvantage that it must be boiled with water for several hours before the mixture thickens satisfactorily. The "soluble" version was quicker to make, so it could be handed out to men on duty during cold nights.

As I wanted to make both types, I melted the cocoa mass in a small pan and compounded my version of the "ordinary" with 16% sugar and the soluble with 18% sugar and 18% arrowroot starch. The proportions are from an 1895 source. Extra sugar is added when the chocolate is boiled up to make the drink.

The slabs of chocolate looked good, but upon boiling up an ounce of each to make the liquid cocoa drink, both samples seemed to me to be somewhat too thin. Because of that, the example of the finished product pictured below has been thickened by the addition of a little finely milled oatmeal. It may look a bit like cold gravy in this photo, but I can attest that it is delicious.

Cocoa remained a staple in the Navy, even into the Cold War era. Referred to as "Pusser's Kye" (or Ki) it is still reminisced over, particularly for its properties in fending off the cold. Many a sailor must have sung its praises during the cold watches of the night. Many thanks to YouTuber Scoutforlife for permission for sharing this piece of oral history which was passed down from his father. Explanation of some of the terms can be found in his post "How to make Kye". Various versions can be found, dating from WWII or earlier, with varying amounts of profanity.
Up in the Arctic Circle, where the pongos have never been,
Lie the bodies of many a matelot, and many a Royal Marine.
Cold, cold as charity.
Cold, by Christ, that's chilly,
But not as cold as Willy.
He's dead poor bugger he's dead.
It was the cold that got him,
His oppo had forgot him,
And didn't bring him any midnight kye.
The morning watchman found him,
His frozen coat around him,
And took him to the sickbay, there to die.
Cold, cold as the hairs on a polar bear's chuff.
Cold as custard on pusser's duff.
Cold, by Christ, that's chilly,
But not as cold as Willy.
He's dead poor bugger he's dead.
For several reasons, I find this strangely appropriate when thinking of those Arctic voyagers of a different era.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

My talk at Mystic Seaport

It was a real honour for me, and a great pleasure, to participate in the symposium
 which was hosted by the wonderful Mystic Seaport Museum on Friday, April 5, 2019.

My part in the show was as the second speaker on a panel with John Geiger and Keith Millar. Our set was billed as:
 “Of Ships and Men: What can modern forensics tell us about their fate?”

A "Goldner's Patent" tin can

I started off with an image of a replica Goldner's soup can and explained that the story of these cans and the mystery of the lead detected in the human remains had fascinated me more more than a decade.

Lead has some surprising properties, it is resistant to strong acids like Sulphuric acid, but is attacked by weak acids such as may be found in fruit juice. There have been documented cases of people getting lead poisoning from fruit juice served in lead-glazed ceramic jugs brought home as souvenirs.

Distillation has also been a culprit. As water condenses from vapour it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air to make carbonic acid. This weak acid has been implicated in poisoning cases where lead-soldered radiators were employed as condensers in illicit moonshine stills, and in crudely constructed rum distilleries in the eighteenth century West Indies.

Canned tomatoes have been also been a cause of lead poisoning, the fruit's acid leaching lead from the soldered seams of the cans. This principle has famously been proposed as the source of the lead exposure on the Franklin expedition, but faces the obstacle that the only canned provisions which appear in the expedition's victualling manifests are of low-acidity. There are canned meats and soups, but no canned fruit or other acidic canned products are listed.

I feel considerable sympathy for Stephan Goldner, the supplier of the canned food, or "preserved provisions" as it was called in the day. Goldner is reported to have had a prickly personality but his downfall was caused by a change to the production process, requested by the Admiralty, some time after the Franklin expedition had sailed. Nonetheless, from the early 1850s, when the scandal of the putrid meat in the Naval storehouses erupted, Goldner was villified for decades. He was called a miscreant and a traitor, one old Arctic hand even wrote that he should have been hanged - twice.

That abuse is not connected in any way to the lead from cans theory, which is a valid scientific hypothesis, albeit one which I have argued against.

Frazer stove from Peter Carney's paper
Original artwork by Kristina Gehrmann
I next mentioned the work of my great friend, the late William Battersby. William had, in 2008, published a paper in the online Journal of the Hakluyt Society with the confident title "Identification of the probable source of the lead poisoning observed in members of the Franklin expedition". 

On first reading, I found his paper compelling. William had gone back to the dockyard drawings of the ships, and nineteenth century patent documents, and from these he had synthesised a brilliant interpretation of the technical systems of the ships, including the conclusion that freshly distilled water produced by a modification to the Frazer's Patent cooking stove was at the root of the lead poisoning story. This distilled water, being mildly acid, would dissolve lead from any piping or soldered joint in the apparatus.

However, several of William's interpretations of the evidence proved questionable and were later reinterpreted in our co-authored paper, for the Newcomen Society, on the equipment of the ships. Perhaps most significant is the fact that a simple comparison of physical constants (latent heat of fusion = 334 joules per gram, latent heat of vaporisation = 2,230 joules per gram) suggests that for a given quantity of heat energy you get more than six times more water by melting ice than you get by boiling water for distillation. In other words, making drinking water by distillation of sea water is an insane waste of energy if there is ice or snow available to melt.

My subsequent paper built on William's work but used evidence from Ross and Crozier's Antarctic voyage that indicated drinking water was routinely made by melting ice in the stove's coppers or boilers. The snow tank above the stove would in this case serve only to condense excess steam arising during use of the stove for cooking. My idea was that some of this steam might condense in the (probably) lead pipe leading to the snow tank, dissolving lead and carrying it down into the coppers. There it would contaminate the day's production of drinking water made by melting ice in the coppers immediately they were free after cooking dinner was completed.

I know that I surprised a few people when I said that, for various reasons, I no longer believed my own cherished theory and that I now regard some of my interpretations of the evidence as incorrect. My current view is that the vast majority of the lead found in the bones of Franklin's men was laid down in their bones during their lives before they joined the expedition, even before they went to sea.

My next move was a theatrical flourish. I reached into my pocket and pulled out this:

a brightly coloured lollipop
There have been various suggestions for potential sources of lead exposure in the Victorian period. Lead piped water supplies are often mentioned but I think that, at this early period, such luxuries as indoor plumbing were only for the rich. Adulterated food seems more likely to me, and of the various foodstuffs mentioned in the contemporary literature the one which stands out can be summed up as "Poisonous Coloured Confectionery". I listed some of the (possible) pigments used in candy of the period:
City of London Medical Officer Dr. Henry Letheby, stated in evidence to a Parliamentary Committee:

... of all adulterations of that kind, introduction of poisonous pigments into confectionery is the most common and the most serious, There is not an article of confectionery in this country which is not so coloured, I have before me a sample of such confectionery, in which there is enough chromate of lead to do serious mischief,...
Coloured candy of the era was truly the "mutual friend" of doctors and gravediggers.

I promised every member of the audience a lick but no one took me up on the offer ☹️

A traditional style sweetshop
My local sweetshop

What about the spongy bone! I hear you cry. Anne Keenleyside's marvelous analysis of the bones found on King William Island shows a high ratio of lead levels between the spongy (trabecular or cancellous) bone and the dense (cortical) bone. Spongy bone has a large surface in contact with the blood, so its lead content is indicative of blood lead levels. Lead incorporated in the mineral structure of dense bone is locked away out of reach of the blood. Comparison with the same ratio for workers exposed to atmospheric lead pollution, led to the conclusion that the lead exposure was relatively recent.

However, there are circumstances in which lead locked away in the dense bone is released into the blood stream. One well known example is pregnancy, which must be considered unlikely in this case. A better example can be found in cases of treatment of obesity by gastric banding. In such cases the body seems to exhibit a starvation reflex and starts mining the bones. In the case of Franklin's men the comparison is obvious, lead which had been laid down in the dense bone many years before was released into their blood stream while they were starving to death.

There are other cases where comparisons with healthy modern people subject to atmospheric pollution are not helpful. After all, there was no lead smelter or automobile battery factory in the vicinity of the ships.

But what about the lead in the hair! Surely that proves they were ingesting lead during the expedition?

Well, no. Firstly the lead levels in the hair are extraordinarily high. In the case of John Torrington about twenty times the level of a man who was deliberately poisoned to death, with lead, by a love rival. Clearly, Torrington did not ingest twenty times the lethal dose of lead week after week in the months before his death with no signs of lead poisoning. The vast majority of the lead in the hair must therefore be from an external source and not from his diet.

This another case where comparison with atmospheric pollution is not helpful. When hair is contaminated with lead particles from the air, a high proportion can be washed off using detergents or organic solvents. Stronger reagents such as EDTA or mineral acids may remove even more but run the risk of confusing the analysis by leaching out lead incorporated within the body of the hair.

The situation is different when hair absorbs lead in a mildly acidic aqueous solution. In this case it seems the lead ions are exchanged for ions from within the hair. The lead in this case is like a permanent dye and is not removed by the standard laboratory washing procedures.

In his memoir of the 1875 Arctic expedition, George Strong Nares wrote:
The greatest annoyance of all, and which has never yet been completely avoided in Arctic ships, was the moisture which collected on the beams of the messdeck, to such an extent as to necessitate their being frequently sponged in order to prevent it dripping.

Nares' ships didn't have the advantage of the Sylvester stove for heating the ship but there can be little doubt that condensation was an issue on Erebus and Terror.

The water condensing on the beams will have absorbed carbon dioxide from the air, creating carbonic acid. This mild acid will have leached lead from the painted surfaces of the beams. It may have dripped onto the men directly or been transferred to their hair as they wiped their fingers through it. The hair will have absorbed lead ions from the mildly acidic aqueous solution. The lead, tightly bound to the hair, would go on to confound scientists who were more familiar with the loosely bound hair-lead resulting from atmospheric pollution.

So, in short, my answer to the Franklin expedition lead question is paint. Lead paint on the candy. Lead paint on the ships.

My researches on the subject sparked a wider curiosity into the diet of the seamen of the era, which led me to start work on a simulation project. My plan is to live for one week solely on the seaman's diet of ships biscuit with either salted or canned meat on alternate days, plus the various other foodstuffs in the manifests. When I mentioned this to John Geiger he immediately replied "No! Do it for a year!". Well, we'll see.

As you can see in this photo, I already have most of the necessary stores assembled.

Salt meat, ship's biscuit, and various other Naval foodstuffs

The Goldner cans are the only major hurdle left for me to overcome. They have been supplied as kits by Master Tinsmith Shay Lelegren of Hot Dip Tin. I will assemble them using 60/60 Tin/Lead solder and they will be filled and heat processed in as close a simulation to the original process as possible. It goes without saying that I will have medical monitoring during the period and intend to provide samples which may contribute to the scientific understanding of the seaman's diet of the era. By this I mean things like blood and hair samples and not, as someone suggested, my autopsy.

Many thanks to my fellow panellists, and in particular to Nicholas Bell for his hospitality at Mystic Seaport and to Russell Potter for his fantastic work in making this fabulous event happen.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

An Unsung Hero: John Salmon - Intrepid Sledger of the Franklin Search

Michael Smith has led the way in celebrating the lives of Ireland's lesser known Polar explorers. His marvelous biography of Tom Crean being a shining example.

I would now like to draw your attention to another unsung hero: Able Seaman John Salmon -  a leading member of Francis McClintock's sledge crew during three expeditions of the Franklin search. In many ways he may be considered the Tom Crean of an earlier era. This post was sparked by a chance conversation with a descendant.

Salmon is commemorated by a point of land which bears his name. Just off Intrepid Inlet on the Eastern coast of Prince Patrick Island. A coastline delineated during McClintock's 1853 sledging expedition.

John Salmon was born in July 1827, his father, also named John, had married his mother Ellen Furlow in Dundalk parish church on 19th July 1823 according to the rites of the Church of England,

Clements Markham, in his book "The lands of silence, a history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration" (published posthumously in 1921), noted that M'Clintock's sledge crew "deserve a niche in the Arctic temple of fame" in connection with M'Clintock's first great sledge journey during the 1850-51 Expedition under Captain Horatio Austin.

Markham, who served with McClintock on HMS Assistance, wrote:
"John Salmon, a small, wiry man, who was with M'Clintock in the Enterprise, was really the strongest of all."

In the aftermath of the scurvy ravaged Nares expedition of 1875–76, Robert Scott, who had been Assistant Surgeon of HMS Intrepid wrote to the Times:

  Sir, - Having served in the Arctic expedition of 1852-54,
I beg to send you the following statement of facts:-
    In the Autumn of 1852 Sir L. M'Clintock and myself
were absent travelling 38 days, and accomplished 222 miles,
the temperature ranged from +28 deg. to -35 deg. We took
no lime-juice, the scale of diet in other respects being
similar to that given by Commander Herbert. We all re-
turned in the best health. In 1853 Sir L. M'Clintock was
away 106 days; distance accomplished 1,210 miles; no
lime-juice was taken. The men returned in perfect health,
and 17 days after their return took part in games on shore,
When John Salmon, Captain of Sir L. M'Clintock sledge,
carried off the chief prizes against competitors who had not
been away travelling, and who had been given lime-juice

Salmon collected his Arctic Medal on 23rd June 1857, signing the register with a cross, which suggests he was illiterate at that time.  

Nonetheless, he found secure employment in later life. The 1881 census gives his occupation as Gauger of HM Customs. In modern parlance, an Excise Officer.

Salmon would have been a natural choice for a member of McClintock's famed Voyage of the Fox in 1858, however that was apparently precluded by his poor health.
He died on December 6th 1886 at his house in Litchfield Road in Bow, London E3, of Addison's disease and exhaustion.

The London Standard, of  December 14th 1886 carried his obituary:
    Admiral Sir F. Leopold M'Clintock writes to
us:— "There has just passed away one of the very few
survivors of that memorable series of Arctic Expeditions
which were engaged in the Franklin search between
1847 and 1855. The late John Salmon served through-
out the three Government expeditions to Barrow's
Strait, in each of them taking part in the most ex-
tended sledging journeys. These journeys were gradu-
ally lengthened as experience increased, from forty
days in the first expedition, to eighty in the second, and
one hundred and five in the third, this last being the
longest continuous journey of the kind ever accom-
plished. Arctic travellers need not be reminded that
these sledges were dragged over the ice by their own
crews, at an average rate of about ten miles a day, and
that such intense and long-sustained labour required
much  more  than  ordinary  endurance and resolution.
In this manner Salmon served as one of my own sledge
crew in five sledging journeys, making a total of two
thousand six hundred miles in two hundred and seventy
days. His cheerful disposition and heroic endurance
gained for him the esteem of all, but the labour and
exposure permanently injured his constitution: he did
not live to see his sixty-first birthday. The great lesson
of Divine watchfulness through many perilous adven-
tures was  not lost upon him.  His end was  one  of
joyful Christian hope and peace."

The  East London Advertiser of Saturday December 18th 1886 added the detail that his funeral had taken place the previous Saturday at Bow Cemetery, he was one of the oldest members of the Conservative party in East London, and a man highly respected by a very large circle of friends.

Salmon and his wife, who predeceased him by 6 years, had invested their earnings in property. As they had no children of their own, after his death the rental income was distributed among the families of his siblings and their descendants. The properties were eventually sold in 1939 and provided a lasting legacy for the prosperity of this family to this day.

John Salmon rightfully deserves his niche in the Arctic temple of fame.



Russell Potter has pointed out that details plus a photograph of the grave of John Salmon and his wife Ellen can be seen on the website


The Spirits of Erebus and Terror

No discussion of the victualing of the Victorian era Royal Navy would be complete without mentioning the rum ration. Beer, at a rate of ...