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Picture library catalogue: British Franklin Search Expedition, 1857-59

 
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British Franklin Search Expedition, 1857-59

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Relics of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition

These stereoscopic slides were produced and published as a boxed set by Lieutenant Cheyne in 1861. They display items found on King William Island, Northern Canada by the British Franklin Search Expedition in 1859 during its search to determine the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to discover the Northwest Passage.

Sir John Franklin’s expedition was organised by the British Admiralty in an attempt to discover the final stretch of the Northwest passage which linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the north of Canada. Carrying the weight of great expectation and hope amongst the British public, it was the best equipped, best-prepared Arctic expedition ever mounted. It consisted of 129 officers and men aboard two vessels, ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’. Expensively refurbished to withstand Arctic extremes, they carried equipment and provisions to survive for three years. The leader of the expedition, Sir John Franklin, had considerable Arctic experience, having been despatched twice by the Navy to search for the Northwest Passage in the 1820s. The ships sailed from London in May 1845 and were last sighted by two whaling ships at the entrance to Lancaster Sound on the west side of Baffin Bay in July. The two vessels and crew were never seen again.

The vessels were expected to be at sea for some time, but by 1847, with still no word of the expedition’s fate, friends and family of the lost men, especially Franklin’s wife Jane, began to agitate for some official action to be taken. In 1848 the Admiralty despatched the first expedition tasked with discovering Franklin’s fate. Over the ensuing years, further expeditions, both official and privately sponsored, gradually pieced together further information. In 1850 a site was found on Beechey Island where the expedition had over wintered. In 1854, Inuit testimony, and the discovery of various relics, proved that at least some members of the expedition had abandoned the vessels and had died attempting to walk to the mainland by way of King William Island.

With hope fading, and the Crimean War now taking up all available funds, Admiralty backing for further search expeditions ceased. Lady Franklin still had not given up hope, however, and she set about financing and organising her own British Franklin Search Expedition. In 1857 the yacht ‘Fox’, captained by Leopold McClintock, a veteran of three search expeditions, set sail. King William Island was finally reached in early 1859 and, with the help of local Inuit, McClintock at last made real discoveries. A lifeboat containing the remains of two corpses and an amount of equipment was found on the west coast of the island, as was another corpse complete with the tattered remains of an officer’s uniform. Most importantly, two messages left by the expedition were also discovered. The first, dated May 1847, stated that the expedition had wintered on Beechey Island and that Franklin was commanding the expedition, ending breezily, ‘all well’. The second was written a year later by Franklin's second in command, Francis Crozier, in April 1848. It briefly told of the abandonment of the ships, which had been ice-bound since September 1846, and the intention to walk to Back’s Fish River on the mainland. Franklin, Crozier wrote, had died in June 1847. Eight other officers and fifteen men had also died. These messages, though enigmatic, together with the bodies and relics, provided the most tangible evidence of the fate of Franklin’s expedition and McClintock returned to Britain to much acclaim.

The interest shown by the general public in Franklin’s Expedition, and its subsequent demise, was enormous. Newspaper articles discussed the supposed fate of the expedition. Articles were printed in magazines, notably by Charles Dickens in his ‘Household Words’ journal. Books describing the expeditions to look for Franklin, including McClintock’s ‘The voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas: a narrative of the discovery of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his companions’, became best sellers. Cheyne’s stereoscopic slides were part of this fascination with the Franklin story, bringing it to life through the new medium of photography. As the United Services Gazette put it, ‘[t]he reader in Canada, at the Cape, at Sydney, or at Calcutta, to whom an actual glimpse of the Franklin relics is among impossible dreams and desires, may now travel by aid of a stereoscope and Lieutenant Cheyne’s slides over the scenery of this perilous expedition with a realizing sense of its grandeur and desolation, its dramatic incidents and its new discoveries.’

Lieutenant Cheyne, though not part of McClintock’s expedition, had served on three previous expeditions sent by the Admiralty to search for Franklin. He retired from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1870. In 1880, Cheyne proposed a plan for an expedition to reach the North Pole by balloon, travelling to the United States the following year in an attempt to raise funds, but the project was later abandoned. He died in 1902.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 15th April 2014.