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Sir  John Franklin (1786–1847), by Baird, 1845Sir John Franklin (1786–1847), by Baird, 1845
Franklin, Sir John (1786–1847), naval officer and Arctic explorer, was born on 16 April 1786 in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, the ninth of the twelve children of Willingham Franklin (d. 1824), a mercer, and his wife, Hannah Weekes. He had four brothers and seven sisters, and was educated at a preparatory school in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, and, from the age of twelve, at Louth grammar school, near Spilsby.

Early years

Franklin remained at Louth grammar school a mere two years before the lure of the sea led him to persuade his father to send him on a merchant vessel from Hull to Lisbon. It has been suggested that Franklin's father hoped a taste of sea-faring life would bring his son back to his intended career in the church, but if this was the case it misfired, and Franklin requested that an appointment be secured for him as a first-class volunteer in the Royal Navy. In October 1800 he joined the Polyphemus, which, within six months, played a role in the battle of Copenhagen. Franklin's second appointment was as a midshipman on Investigator, under the command of his uncle Captain Matthew Flinders. Investigator circumnavigated Australia before being abandoned as unseaworthy. Her scurvy-weakened crew set sail for home in Porpoise, which sank, leaving them stranded on a sandbank for six weeks until Flinders was able to secure help.

Franklin's next commission was with Bellerophon, on which he saw action at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He continued war duty on Bedford, and was promoted lieutenant on 11 February 1808. In September 1814 Bedford sailed for New Orleans, where Franklin was slightly wounded. The Napoleonic wars were drawing to an end, and, after a short commission on Forth, Franklin was discharged on half pay. This might have been a severe blow to his considerable ambitions, but in 1818 the Royal Navy elected to resume its exploration of the Arctic, at the instigation of John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty and an accomplished traveller, who was convinced that there was a north-west passage, a navigable sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Not only was this exploration an important part of an expanding empire, but it was a practical way to employ idle naval personnel in peacetime. Franklin's war record and experience of exploration aboard Investigator secured him the command of the small brig Trent.

First Arctic experiences

Two Arctic expeditions left England in 1818. The first, under Commander John Ross, aimed to seek a north-west passage through the archipelago to the north of Canada. The second, under Commander John Buchan, aimed to cross the Arctic Ocean in the barque Dorothea in company with Trent. Buchan and Franklin were forced to return to Barrow with nothing more to report than that the pack ice north-west of Spitsbergen formed an impenetrable barrier.

Barrow was undeterred, and in 1819 another two expeditions were sent out. The first, under William Edward Parry, was to seek an entrance to the north-west passage from Baffin Bay through Lancaster Sound, while the second, under Franklin, was to explore the north coast of the American continent east of the Coppermine River. This was no mean task for Franklin. The coast had been sighted only twice before (once in 1771 by Samuel Hearne, and once in 1789 by Alexander Mackenzie). The plan was for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) to convey Franklin to Hudson Bay and to equip him for his overland expedition. However, the area Franklin was to explore was far to the north of the two companies' normal supply lines, and communications were at best tenuous.

After only three months' preparation the expedition set sail, on 23 May 1819, on the HBC's supply ship Prince of Wales. Franklin's crew included the midshipmen George Back and Robert Hood, the surgeon–naturalist John Richardson, and the seaman John Hepburn, all of whom were to earn Arctic fame. They reached York factory on Hudson Bay on 30 August, and, after a difficult journey along part of the HBC's regular trading route, wintered at Cumberland House in what became Saskatchewan. In midwinter, Franklin, Back, and Hepburn travelled to the NWC post at Fort Chipewyan, in what became Alberta. The next stage of the journey began on 18 July 1820, after Franklin had discovered that the supplies and men he had been so confidently offered by the trading companies were not forthcoming. The party left Fort Chipewyan and headed towards Fort Providence, an NWC post on the Great Slave Lake, under the command of Willard Wentzel. Wentzel and Akaitcho, a Copper chief, agreed to accompany Franklin into the unexplored territory along the Yellowknife River. A second winter was spent at Fort Enterprise.

It was at Fort Enterprise that the problems of inadequate supplies and unwilling guides began to tell. Back had to snowshoe back to Fort Chipewyan for supplies, and Franklin's aggressive response to the problems alienated both the Indians and the voyageurs. The situation was resolved temporarily when Back returned with replenishments. The third, and most arduous, part of the expedition began on 14 June 1821; the party travelled down the Coppermine River, reaching the sea on 18 July, after which Wentzel and the Indians returned to Fort Providence. Franklin's party of twenty men set out to explore the coast east of the Coppermine River in two small Indian canoes. Progress, however, was painfully slow, provisions were critically low, winter was approaching, and there was unrest among the voyageurs. They turned back at Turnagain Point on the Kent peninsula on 18 August. One canoe was so badly damaged that it had to be abandoned, and the party was forced to return overland to Fort Enterprise. On the way they were reduced to eating lichens, and cold and exposure took a huge toll. Nine men died, and it was suspected that Michel, one of the voyageurs, was eating the bodies of his fallen comrades. Michel shot Hood, and was in turn executed by Richardson.

It was a pathetic party that struggled into Fort Enterprise, only to find that it had not been restocked with provisions as promised. They existed on bones, scraps of vegetation, and deer skins for another three weeks until some Indians arrived and took them to Fort Providence. Eleven men of the party of twenty had died of starvation or exposure, or at the hands of their comrades.

Franklin spent another winter in the north before returning to London in September 1822. He went home a hero, having displayed great courage during three years of almost unimaginable hardship and privation. He was hailed triumphantly as ‘the man who ate his boots’, although no reference was made to the spectre of cannibalism that was the cause of the deaths of Michel and Hood. At a time when Britain was hungry for heroes and tales of noblesse in the face of terrifying danger and hardship, Franklin was perfect. His Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819, 20, 21, and 22 (1823) was immensely popular and was regarded as something of a classic in travel literature.

The traders, however, and particularly George Simpson of the HBC, told a different story, noting in Franklin an inability to adapt, and a rigid adherence to orders when better results might have been obtained with flexibility. They also resented his antagonism to them during the winter at Fort Enterprise, and they accused him of taking sides in the trade wars between the HBC and the NWC. In reality, Franklin was a diffident man in many respects, though his peers found him knowledgeable in his own field. The governor-in-chief, Lord Dalhousie, wrote in 1827 that he was endowed ‘with slow, clear perception, with a dignified & impressive good sense, sound judgement & presence of mind’ (Ramsay). This description suggests that Franklin was neither the dashing naval hero beloved by the British public nor the irrational weakling projected by Simpson.

Regardless of the grumblings of disgruntled traders and voyageurs, and the appalling deaths on an expedition that offered little in the way of scientific or geographical achievement, the Royal Navy was well pleased with Franklin. He had been made a commander in his absence (on 1 January 1821), and was promoted post captain on 20 November 1822. He was also elected fellow of the Royal Society. Despite this public acclaim, Franklin remained a modest man, and was awkward at social gatherings. He married the poet on 19 August 1823, and his daughter, Eleanor Isabella, was born on 3 June 1824, when he was already laying plans for his next expedition.

Later Arctic experiences

Franklin had learned a hard lesson, and his next expedition was supplied by the Royal Navy, with the HBC providing transport. The first supplies, two strong boats, and a party of seamen were sent in advance to ensure that they arrived in time. Franklin and the main body of the second expedition, which included Richardson and Back, left on 16 February 1825. On his arrival in New York he learned that his wife, ill since the birth of their daughter, had died shortly after he had left.

The expedition forged north-west, arriving at Cumberland House on 15 June and establishing winter headquarters at Fort Franklin on Great Bear Lake in August. The winter was spent comfortably with ample supplies, and the expedition set out north in four boats on 22 June 1826. On 4 July, at the Mackenzie delta, the party split, and Franklin and Back travelled west, intending to rendezvous with Blossom under the command of Frederick William Beechey, at Icy Cape (later in Alaska). Progress was slow, and with the onset of winter Franklin abandoned the journey, and prudently decided to return to Fort Franklin. Ironically, a boat dispatched from Blossom was waiting for him the day he turned back: had he known, he would have pressed on. Meanwhile, Richardson and midshipman Edward Nicholas Kendall had travelled east, and had completed their survey of the coast eastwards to the Coppermine River. They arrived back at Fort Franklin almost three weeks before Franklin.

The second winter passed as comfortably as the first, and the expedition was back in Liverpool on 26 September 1827. In contrast to his return from his first Arctic expedition, Franklin's second homecoming was happy in the knowledge that he had made a significant contribution to Arctic geography. A sizeable portion of the coast of Arctic North America had been surveyed, and important data on geology, meteorology, topology, and magnetism had been collected. Franklin set to work on his second book, Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, 1825, 1826, and 1827 (1828), which was written in the same, somewhat arid, laboured style as the first.

For the next two years Franklin was fêted as Arctic hero. He received a knighthood on 29 April 1829, and was awarded a gold medal from the Société de Géographie de Paris and an honorary DCL from Oxford University. He married Jane Griffin [see ], a friend of his dead wife, in London on 5 November 1828. Biographers of John and Jane Franklin have commented on his shyness in the courtships of his wives, although both marriages appear to have been perfectly satisfactory.

Franklin's career suffered an unexpected blow when, after working on plans with the Admiralty for further Arctic exploration, he was informed that the Royal Navy's operations in that area were no longer required. In 1830 he was given command of the frigate Rainbow, and was stationed in the Mediterranean during the Greek War of Independence. For his services there he received the order of the Redeemer of Greece and the Royal Hanoverian order. After returning home in 1833 Franklin was unemployed until April 1836, when he was offered the lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen's Land.

Lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land

Between 1823 and 1836 the colony at Van Diemen's Land had been under the rule of George Arthur, whose social reforms had alienated members of the small community. On his arrival in Hobart on 6 January 1837, Franklin quickly realized that he had inherited a gravely split and uneasy command. Although he was a deeply religious man who strove fervently to improve conditions among the convicts, Franklin's inexperience in administration hampered him severely. His steps to introduce a representative assembly to the colony were considered inappropriate by the British government in what was largely a penal station, and his preoccupation with improving social and educational facilities was unpopular with the Colonial Office. The situation was not improved by Lady Franklin, who undertook reform and education with a zeal that rendered her insensitive to or dismissive of the ominous rumblings of outrage against her husband from other government officials.

The outcome was that, when Franklin's period of office expired, he was not invited to continue, and he left Hobart on 3 November 1843. From the government's point of view, Franklin's six-year appointment was at best unsuccessful and at worst disastrous. The petty factions that had arisen from Arthur's rule had festered, goaded by the sly political manoeuvrings of the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley. But Franklin's sense of justice and compassion had made him a popular figure among many Hobart colonists, settlers and convicts alike. He had established a scientific society, and founded (and largely financed) a school, for which Dr Arnold of Rugby was requested to select a headmaster. He even attempted to prevent the extinction of the few surviving Aborigines, but what he could do was too little and far too late.

Franklin's last voyage and its aftermath

Franklin returned to England in June 1844, his confidence shattered by the Van Diemen's Land experience. During his absence the search for the north-west passage had been renewed, and expeditions under the command of Peter Dease, Thomas Simpson, Back, and James Clark Ross had mapped most of the Arctic coast of mainland North America. Of the north-west passage, a route winding through the frozen islands had been established, with the exception of a 300 mile stretch between Barrow Strait and the mainland. The Admiralty began to discuss the possibility of an expedition to explore this last tantalizing section of the passage.

Franklin's depression at his perceived failures in Van Diemen's Land lifted instantly. With the support of fellow Arctic explorers William Edward Parry, Richardson, and Ross, he began to petition to be allowed to lead the proposed expedition. His enthusiasm prevailed, and he was given the commission on 7 February 1845. Franklin, perhaps because he was not flamboyant, egotistical, or abrasive, was a man well liked by his colleagues, his men, and his seniors at the Admiralty. He was reliable and honest, and it may have been his affability, coupled with knowledge that this pleasant, likeable man had been hurt by his unfortunate experiences in Hobart, that prevailed over the Admiralty's doubts about his age (he was fifty-nine when the expedition left). These were not, perhaps, the soundest of reasons for choosing a man to command an arduous journey, since there were other, younger, and equally appropriate men who might have been chosen.

Franklin's ships, Erebus and Terror, were bomb-vessels powered by high-pressure steam engines with the latest boilers. Their keels were extended to obtain a more advantageous vertical alignment and to protect their interiors, and their sterns redesigned to allow the raising and lowering of new propellers. But they were only part of what was to be the best-equipped, best-prepared Arctic expedition ever mounted. The expedition took advantage of the latest technology in food preservation and canning, the most recent advances in Arctic land travel, and crews that were the cream of the Royal Navy. Supplies—which included handsome silverware, fine cut glass, and an extensive library—were expected to last for three years, though it was believed that the expedition would have solved the question of the north-west passage long before that and returned home in a blaze of glory.

Erebus and Terror sailed down the River Thames on 19 May 1845. Shortly before departure, daguerreotypes were taken of Franklin and his officers. Franklin sits in full uniform, a large man tending to fat with heavy jowls, his baldness concealed by his hat. It seems that he had changed little since 1827, when Lord Dalhousie described him as having ‘dark complexion & hair, his head very round, bald, with thick curled short hair’ (Ramsay). Franklin's orders were to sail to Lancaster Sound, and search either south-west from Barrow Strait towards the mainland (where he had explored on his first two expeditions) or north and west through Wellington Channel. On 26 July 1845 they were hailed by whalers in Baffin Bay, after which John Franklin was never sighted again.

At first the failure of the expedition to return provoked no response from the Admiralty: it was equipped to survive three years, the ships and men were the best the Royal Navy could provide, and their leader was the reliable, responsible Franklin. But when no word of the expedition had been heard by 1847, the families and colleagues of the crew, and especially Lady Franklin, began to agitate for the Admiralty to begin a search. Between 1847 and 1859 some thirty expeditions were sent to discover the fate of Franklin, most sponsored by the Admiralty, but some by Lady Franklin herself or by the wealthy American merchant Henry Grinnell, whose interest was roused by Lady Franklin's appeal to the president of the United States. Unaware of Franklin's fate, the Admiralty promoted him rear-admiral in October 1852.

Gradually, the search expeditions began to piece together what had happened to Franklin's expedition. In 1850 Horatio Thomas Austin and William Penny found his 1845–6 wintering site at Beechey Island in Barrow Strait. Four years later, HBC explorer John Rae heard accounts from the Inuit that white men had died on King William Island, and he found relics indicating that the bodies he found were unquestionably those of the crews of Erebus and Terror. Rae wrote that, ‘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’ (J. Rae, letter to the Admiralty, 29 July 1854, cited in The Times, 23 Oct 1854).

Rae's claim outraged the British public, who dismissed his findings and allegations with scorn, refusing to believe that Englishmen of her majesty's navy would eat each other. The search continued, and in 1859 Leopold McClintock and William Hobson found, along with more bodies and relics, two written messages. The first, dated 28 May 1847, stated that Franklin was commanding the expedition and all was well. The second, dated 25 April 1848, was written by Franklin's second in command, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, and reported that Erebus and Terror had been abandoned on 22 April, and that the remaining crew was intending to walk to Back's Fish River. Franklin, Crozier wrote, had died on 11 June 1847. He did not say how Franklin met his death, and, since it is likely that he was buried in the ice, only the discovery of his body will reveal the truth.

The final part of the Franklin expedition tragedy was as clear as it would ever be. After wintering at Beechey Island, the ships had circumnavigated Cornwallis Island and then sailed south through Peel Sound and Franklin Strait, where they had been beset in an area which has some of the thickest sea ice in the world. After Franklin's death and Crozier's abandonment of the ships, the party, weakened by starvation and scurvy, struggled towards the Adelaide peninsula, some dying on the way, others when they reached the mainland at Starvation Cove. Not one of the 129 members of the expedition survived. But, by reaching the Adelaide peninsula, the expedition essentially completed the discovery of the north-west passage, despite rival claims by leaders of the search expeditions.

The aura of mystery about and the horrifying fate of Franklin's final expedition, together with the fame and honour he had earned for his first land expedition, meant that biographers had difficulty making fair judgements of Franklin for many years after his disappearance and death. Assessments have oscillated between emphasizing his reliability, deep sense of morality, and courage, and his apparent inflexibility, inability to adapt to new conditions, and unquestioning following of orders. But, as with Robert Falcon Scott more than half a century later, the brave naval officers who died carrying out their duty for England, no matter how misguided or flawed, attained an exalted position with the British public. In Franklin's case, this is not wholly unwarranted: he was not the most innovative or successful of Arctic explorers, but his charting of the North American coast was accurate and extensive, his governorship of Van Diemen's Land was just and compassionate, and his personal qualities and characteristics were admirable.

B. A. Riffenburgh


R. J. Cyriax, Sir John Franklin's last expedition (1939) · C. S. Houston, ed., Arctic ordeal: the journal of John Richardson, surgeon-naturalist with Franklin, 1820–1882 (1984) · C. S. Houston, ed., To the Arctic by canoe, 1819–1821: the journal and painting of Robert Hood (1974) · C. S. Houston, ed., Arctic artist: the journals and paintings of George Black, midshipman with Franklin, 1819–1822 (1994) · R. Owen, The fate of Franklin (1978) · A. H. Markham, Life of Sir John Franklin and the north-west passage (1891) · P. D. Sutherland, ed., The Franklin era in Canadian Arctic history (1985) · G. F. Lamb, Franklin—happy voyager—being the life and death of Sir John Franklin (1956) · A. Cooke and C. Holland, The exploration of northern Canada, 500 to 1920 (1978) · K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania, 1837–1843 (1949) · P. Nanton, Arctic breakthrough: Franklin's expeditions, 1819–1847 (1971) · E. Ramsay [ninth earl of Dalhousie], The Dalhousie journals, ed. M. Whitelaw, 2 vols. (1978–82)


Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre, account of a search to find him in the Arctic · BL, personal and family corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 22613, 40666, 45545, 46868, 47768–47772, 56233 · Derbys. RO, corresp., journal · Lincs. Arch., MISC DON 430; 447/1–2 · McGill University, Montreal, McCord Museum, corresp. · Mitchell L., NSW, corresp. relating to Van Diemen's Land · NMM, lunar observations · PRONI, corresp. and papers of him and Lady Franklin · RGS, corresp. and papers · Scott Polar RI, corresp., journals, letter-books, and papers · TNA: PRO, letters to Sir Edward Sabine, BJ 3 · TNA: PRO, CO 6/15–16 · University of Tasmania Library, corresp. and papers of him and Lady Franklin |  BL, corresp. with Charles Babbage, Add. MSS 37183–37200, passim · Lincs. Arch., letters to Booth family · NMM, letters to Mary Anne Kay · NMM, letters to Mary Kendall and Edward Kendall · Scott Polar RI, letters to George Back · Scott Polar RI, corresp. with Robert Brown · Scott Polar RI, letters to W. H. Fitton · Scott Polar RI, corresp. with John Richardson · Scott Polar RI, letters to James Clark Ross


W. T. Fry, stipple, 1823 (after T. Wageman), BM, NPG; repro. in New European Magazine (1823) · G. R. Lewis, pencil, pen and ink drawing, c.1823, Scott Polar RI · T. Phillips, oils, 1828, NPG · D. D'Angers, bronze plaque, 1829, Scott Polar RI · P. J. D. D'Angers, bronze plaque, 1829, NPG · P. J. David, wax bust, 1829, priv. coll. · W. Derby, watercolour drawing, c.1830, NMM · W. Brockedon, chalk drawing, 1836, NPG · S. Pearce, oils, c.1837 (after J. M. Negelen?), Scott Polar RI · Baird, photograph, 1845, NMM [see illus.] · daguerreotype, 1845, Scott Polar RI · C. Bacon, bronze statue, 1861, Spilsbury, Lincolnshire · plaster relief plaque, 1861 (after J. S. Westmacott), Scott Polar RI · M. Noble, statue, 1866, Waterloo Place, London · M. Noble, marble bust on monument, 1875, Westminster Abbey, London · A. C. Lucchesi, bronze bust, 1898, NPG · L. Haghe, lithograph (after Negelen), BM, NPG · S. Pearce, group portrait, oils (The Arctic council, 1851), NPG