In the summer of 1845 two ships were waiting in the icy waters of Baffin Bay, off the southwest coat of Greenland, for good conditions to cross Lancaster Sound. They were HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and they carried an expeditionary party aiming to chart the elusive Northwest Passage, captained by the celebrated Sir John Franklin FRS.

Little did the whaling crews who encountered the ships know that they were witnessing the start of an enduring mystery. For the Erebus and Terror, and all 129 crew, were about to disappear into the hostile and desolate landscape of the Arctic. Over the 172 years since the last official sighting, the fascination surrounding Franklin’s lost expedition has only deepened as searches uncover clues which point to its horrific fate.


HMS Erebus (L) and HMS Terror (R) on an earlier journey, from ‘A voyage of discovery and research to the Southern and Antarctic regions … 1839-43’ by James Clark Ross (London, 1847)


The tale of Franklin and his men is the subject of a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, ‘Death in the Ice: the Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition’. Whether you are familiar with the story or not, I’d highly recommend you pay a visit.

The plan for the expedition to complete the Northwest Passage was made by Sir John Barrow FRS, Second Secretary of the Admiralty. Here in the archive at the Royal Society we have his ‘Proposal for an attempt to complete the Discovery of a North-West Passage’ (MM/10/172) written in December 1844. Somewhat ominously, Barrow states that, ‘There can be no objection with regard to any apprehension of the loss of Ships or Men’.

Franklin was by no means Barrow’s first choice for the voyage. When the Erebus and Terror set sail out of Greenhithe in May 1845 he was 59 years old. However, Franklin had experience of the Arctic regions, and we have visited his exploits on this blog before, where an earlier attempt to chart the Northwest Passage earned him the peculiar sobriquet of ‘the man who ate his boots’.

After the encounter with the whaling vessels in 1845, two years passed without word from the expedition. Sir John’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, was one of the first to urge that a search party should be assembled. In our archive we have a letter from her (MC/4/298) to William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse PRS, in which she states that the Council of the Royal Society should advise the Admiralty to give ‘immediate attention to the question of the means to be adopted for prosecuting the search after the missing Arctic Expedition.’


The Crystal Palace Winter Quarters, from ‘The last of the Arctic voyages … in search of Sir John Franklin during the years 1852-53-54’ by Sir Edward Belcher (London, 1855)


The accounts of the early searches for Franklin are fascinating reads in their own right. The hostility and otherworldliness of the Arctic, still overwhelming to us even today, presented itself as a formidable horror to the Victorian imagination.

Sherard Osborn was the commander of the Pioneer, one of the ships sent to look for Franklin in 1850. In his Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal he writes of ‘the deep and picturesque fiord pent up between precipices, huge, bleak, and barren; the iceberg! Alone a miracle; then the great central desert of black lava and glittering ice, gloomy and unknown but to the fleet rein-deer, who seeks for shelter in a region at whose horrors the hardy natives tremble.’


Camp at the Entrance of Cardigan Strait, from ‘The last of the Arctic voyages … in search of Sir John Franklin during the years 1852-53-54’ by Sir Edward Belcher (London, 1855)


This deep foreboding was only heightened when the search party located gravestones bearing the names of three of Franklin’s crew – John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine – in the icy wasteland. This discovery suggested the sad fate of Franklin and his men. But no-one was prepared for the sensational claims made by the explorer John Rae.

In 1854 Rae met an Inuk who told him of a group of about 40 white men who had perished of starvation by the mouth of a river. They gave a shocking account of seeing many dead bodies, which Rae related in a letter to the Admiralty. He wrote, ‘From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.’

The terrible outcome of the expedition was settled with the discovery of a perplexing document hidden within a cairn – a pile of stones in which letters were often secreted – on King William Island. The Victory Point note, as it would become known, was uncovered by a search expedition captained by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859. It is also one of the fascinating artefacts which can be seen in the exhibition at the National Maritime Museum.

The note was written on a form which was usually supplied to ships for the purpose of being thrown overboard, and, when found, to be handed in to the Admiralty. One part, dated 28 May 1847, announces ‘Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.’ But it is the strange postscript, written around the edges of the form, which has generated the most discussion. It reveals that on 25 April 1848 the Erebus and Terror were abandoned, and that Franklin had died on 11 June 1847, just weeks after he was said to be still in command of the expedition.

So what really happened to Franklin and his crew? Why did all 129 perish, and how? Why did they abandon the ships, and did they ever return?

Modern research has hinted at many explanations for their deaths – lead poisoning, scurvy and even tuberculosis. Fragments of bone and skeletal remains have yielded the tell-tales signs of knife cuts, seeming to confirm Rae’s claim that at least some of the men did indeed resort to eating their crewmates in a bid to survive.

There have been many lost expeditions over the years, but the tale of Franklin and his men prevails. The mystery is like the Arctic region itself, puzzling and at times full of terror. Even all this time later, new discoveries still pose more questions than answers.

In 2014 the Erebus was found in Queen Maud Gulf, where Inuit oral history relates that a wooden ship sank. In September last year the wreckage of the Terror was located in pristine condition at the bottom of Terror Bay, miles away from where it was thought to have been crushed by ice. Heavy winter snows encase the Arctic bays in thick ice for most of the year, giving researchers a matter of weeks annually to investigate the ships. The only thing certain about the mystery of Franklin’s lost expedition is that we still have a lot yet to explore.


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