It was one of the hottest days of the year and I was off to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London to explore the story of Franklin, lost in the arctic!
I knew very little about Franklin before I arrived and was keen to find out why this exhibition was subtitled ‘ The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition’. The exhibition takes you through the story of his journey out to final a way through the north-west passage in 1845 and how the months stretched out into years without any news until all hope was finally lost. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Franklin was an experienced explorer and the prize of finding a way through the north-west passage led Britain to send the largest ever expedition in HMS Erebus and Terror led by Franklin. Trade routes were at the heart of the challenge with fame and fortune awaiting those who were successful. Arctic exploring was nothing new and the 2 ships, just back from the Antarctic, set off with extra reinforcing against the ice and 3 years’ of provisions on board as they expected to have to overwinter, stuck in the ice pack. We learn of life on board this long expedition when keeping men stuck in the ice was key even to the extent of staging theatre and of course panto!
July 1845 was the last sighting of the expedition by a European and beyond that it was reported by the Inuit people who enabled the story to be pieced together before modern-day researchers found more information about their fate. It was not unusual to hear no news in those days but two years of silence resulted in a vigorous campaign by Jane Franklin, urging the Admiralty to send out a rescue mission. Her campaign paid off and over 30 missions set out between 1847 and 1880. The Government were forced to support these missions and even offered a substantial reward, no doubt encouraging the large number of missions launched. The Franklins were famous and the public’s imagination was caught so much that by 1850 figurines of the couple were for sale, such was the Victorian fascination with exploration! Jane also wrote very sad letters to her husband in the hope that he was still alive.
During the years of those missions, contacts were made with the Inuit people who had news of sightings of the boats and of starving men dragging sledges across the ice. Artefacts were found which were clearly European and then in 1859, the Victory Point note confirmed that disaster had struck and that Franklin had died way back in June 1847. The exhibition has this note on display, understandably not in pristine condition! It has 2 messages on it, the first says all’s well in May 1847 but the second added in the margins in April 1848 talks of the death of Franklin and desperation of the survivors who were deserting the ship to try to find an overland escape route.
Tales came back of cannibalism which horrified the public and were largely swept away, not suiting the heroic narrative required at the time. The exhibition does explore this aspect as well as other possible causes of weakening of the sailors and their deaths. These include scurvy, TB, starvation and madness caused by lead poisoning from the newly invented tin cans used to store food.
Most questions about the fate of this expedition remained unanswered until 2014 when the wreck of the HMS Erebus was found and subsequently HMS Terror was discovered in 2016. They have had time to research Erebus and its location and contents are beginning to fill in some blanks. The discovery of the ship’s bell certified this was really HMS Erebus.
However, the mystery of what really happened to the ships and the 129 strong crew largely remains despite these recent discoveries although with more time to investigate we may find some answers. This show explores the questions waiting for answers.
The displays are impressive and eye-catching and the sounds effects of arctic wind certainly give some atmosphere. We learn a good deal about the Inuit, their lifestyle and their strong culture of oral sstorytelling which meant rescuers were told tales of explorers such as Martin Frobisher from back in the 1570s as if they were in the 1800s.
For more info on the National Maritime Museum check this link.
I took the Thames Clipper back to the centre of London as it’s the best way to get around and enjoy the varied sights of the Thames banks. A 440-minuteride takes you past the old and the new, from Canary Wharf to the Prospect of Whitby, from The Shard to St Paul’s. Check out this great river service here. A couple of shots from the boat:
Disclaimer: The National Maritime Museum is free to enter but they charge for the special exhibitions. I was invited to preview this show so my ticket was paid for, my views are my own.