A Chilling Mystery: Franklin's Fatal Arctic Expedition

18 May 2018

Empire and Globalism | History

Nineteenth century exploration produced countless thrilling tales of derring-do, but the epic story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition is a blockbuster.

Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Franklin’s story has it all – a noble quest against tremendous odds in the pursuit of science, a charismatic hero chasing one last adventure to rescue a reputation in tatters, the mystery of lost ships in the desolate Arctic ice, and an influential woman at the heart of British politics. There’s even a bit of cannibalism.

Franklin was already a celebrity when he and 128 men set off on 19th May 1845 in the high-tech ships, Erebus and Terror. Franklin was a Navy officer who fought at Trafalgar, but it was Arctic exploration that earned him fame. Prior to 1845, Franklin had carried out three overland and sea missions. He wrote popular books about his adventures, during which he overcame tremendous difficulties (cue first accusation of cannibalism), was promoted, knighted, made a Fellow of the Royal Academy, and is appointed governor of Van Diemen’s Land – which he renames Tasmania! He also marries a remarkable woman called Jane Griffin. 

Franklin’s tenure in Tasmania was difficult, and he was eventually recalled in disgrace. When the opportunity arose for another expedition, Franklin leapt at the opportunity to redeem his reputation. The aim of the voyage was to explore the Arctic coastline, make a study of terrestrial magnetism, and to perhaps finally make it through the Northwest Passage. Terror and Erebus set sail, safely reaching Baffin Island in July 1845. Here the mystery begins – almost no one aboard was ever seen alive again. 

Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

Theories abound about what happened; lead poisoning from tin cans, a tuberculosis epidemic, besieged by ice and starved to death. This last theory is particularly chilling; Innuit hunters report seeing survivors, mouths blackened from scurvy and carrying human limbs – and so, the myth of the Franklin party cannibalism began. Rescue parties also discovered a document in a cairn on King William Island recording Franklin’s death in 1847 and reporting that the ships had been trapped in ice for a year; all crew had abandoned ship. Later three bodies were found on Beechy Island, identified as members of the crew.

Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Failure could easily have become Franklin’s Arctic legacy – if it weren’t for his wife. Lady Franklin was an extraordinary force of nature. Her role in the 20 years following Franklin’s disappearance was to drive numerous rescue missions; pulling strings, raising funds and maintaining the profile of the Franklin mystery amongst scientists, politicians and the public. The government declared the crew dead in 1854, but Lady Franklin continued to find finance for many subsequent expeditions. In total, around 50 rescue missions were launched to find Erebus and Terror, and here lies Franklin’s real legacy, as those expeditions covered new ground, added more details to the rapidly evolving maps, and helped define the territory of Canada. Numerous documents in Age of Exploration detail the reports, sketches and maps created by explorers such as Francis McClintock, Robert McCormick and Captain William Penny during their overland and sea-based expeditions.

Image © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection click the image.

Recently published, Age of Exploration is a fantastic resource with which to research the Franklin Arctic narrative. Documents explore the impact of Franklin’s earlier missions, the discoveries of the rescue parties, and Lady Franklin’s unprecedented influence. Make a start with Professor Andrew Lambert’s excellent video essay and navigate straight to relevant documents from the video. 

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About the Author

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Rachael Gardner - Stephens

Joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 has given me the chance to work with exciting and diverse material, from photographs and dispatches for Migration to New Worlds, to British diplomatic papers for our forthcoming project on the Middle East - perfect fodder for a history geek!