Franklin was born in 1786, son of a Lincolnshire textiles merchant. He joined the Royal Navy in 1800 and accompanied Matthew Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia in 1802-1803; before serving as a midshipman on the ‘Bellerophon’ at Trafalgar. Still just a junior officer at the end of the war, he became involved in Arctic exploration as commander of the British Naval North Polar Expedition 1818 (HMS Trent and HMS Dorothea), in an attempt to find a route to the North Pole through the pack ice north of Spitsbergen. It was on board HMS Trent in 1818 before the expedition’s departure that Franklin met his future first wife, romantic poet Eleanor Porden. The encounter was the inspiration for her verse ‘The Arctic Expeditions’ which would launch a network of polar exploration romance writing. The following year he led an overland expedition to the Arctic coast – the British Naval Exploring Expedition 1819-22 (First Arctic Land Expedition) – with the goal of exploring the northern coast of Canada via the Coppermine River. For the expedition Franklin and his men were equipped with clothing and moccasins made by Inuit women, stitched together with the caribou sinew these women had prepared as thread. Sewing was crucial to survival in the Arctic and once you start looking you can see sinew thread stitching and binding everywhere on gallery – from boots and jackets to sledges and knives. The Polar Museum even has skeins of whale and caribou sinew thread collected on the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition 1821-23 (HMS Fury and HMS Hecla) led by William Edward Parry and contemporary with Franklin.
Despite being well-equipped in clothing, the Coppermine River expedition was poorly provisioned and, with their two canoes badly damaged, Franklin and his nineteen men abandoned the expedition and turned inland. Then the hunting parties began to fail. Before long they were eating ‘[their] old shoes and a few scraps of leather’. When they ran out of boots they starved on a weak, bitter broth of boiled lichen called ‘tripe-de-roche’ which had formerly seasoned the game provided by the once successful hunts.
The expedition split into three parties. One, led by Franklin headed for Fort Enterprise in the hope of finding supplies there; another, led by George Back went in search of a group of Indians who had previously supplied the party with food; the third group was made up of surveyor Robert Hood, who was too weak to go on, seaman John Hepburn and Scottish naturalist Dr John Richardson, Franklin’s closest associate on the expedition, who agreed to stay behind with Hood. Franklin’s party soon split again with three French-Canadian voyageurs, Teroahauté, Belanger, and Perrault, exhausted and starving, opting instead to return and join Richardson and the others. Only one, Michel Teroahauté, made it to rejoin Richardson.
Following his reunion with Richardson’s small group, Teroahauté went hunting and returned with fresh wolf meat for the party. However, after eating the meat, the others became increasingly convinced that the voyageur was lying and that the meat was in fact, in Richardson’s words, ‘a portion of the body of Belanger or Perrault’. A few days later Richardson and Hepburn returned to the camp after a foraging expedition to find Hood dead with a bullet hole in his forehead and Teroahauté claiming it was suicide. Richardson shot Teroahauté to prevent, as he believed, the voyageur murdering them and eating their bodies. Richardson and Hepburn then sought out the Franklin party, reaching Fort Enterprise in late October to find Franklin and three other members of the expedition, all those of the Franklin party still living, themselves near death. George Back accompanied by the Indians he had set out to find eventually rescued the Fort Enterprise party. Of the twenty men who formed the original Coppermine expedition, eleven had died. Despite the disastrous losses Franklin became a British hero and Richardson was never tried for the murder of Teroahauté.
A group of concerned and well-wishing ladies had provided the expedition with a small collection of religious books before it left London. Throughout these ordeals Richardson’s party kept hold of the most portable, reading portions to one another as they lay in bed, in addition to the morning and evening services. For Richardson the affect was such that ‘[h]ad my poor friend [Mr Hood] been spared to revisit his native land, I should look back to this period with unalloyed delight’. When he was reunited with Franklin at Fort Enterprise he introduced the practice so that Franklin would later recall, despite being half dead from exhaustion, ‘the performance of these duties always afforded us the greatest consolation, serving to reanimate our hope in the mercy of the Omnipotent, who alone could save and deliver us.’ The Polar Museum has two such ‘portable’ religious works owned by Franklin, a book of sacred poetry (N:820) and The Christian Pattern (N:987), this latter apparently purchased before Franklin and Richardson returned to the Arctic again in 1825 on the British Naval Exploring Expedition (Second Arctic Land Expedition) 1825-27.