Greenwich and the Franklin Expedition

Wed 19 May 21

Greenwich and The Franklin Expedition

Depicting the Hope before the voyage and the Despair during it, the memorial to the Franklin Expedition in our Chapel of St Peter and St Paul is profoundly moving. Much has already been written about those harrowing events, especially after the discovery in 2014 and 2016 of the ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus themselves, including the acclaimed BBC series The Terror (2018).

Franklin and the officers feature prominently in the historical record – only they had a daguerreotype taken and are directly named on the memorial in the Chapel. However, more than 100 men were involved, and many have been overlooked. One HMS Erebus crewmember is recorded as Charles Coombs, Able Seaman, 28. Born in Greenwich, Kent. What was the story of this local sailor from Greenwich?

Greenwich Life

Like his ultimate fate, much of the life of Charles Coombs is mysterious – there is a notable dearth of information on the sailor. However, there are indications that Coombs was an individual embedded within the local community of Greenwich through family, friends and learning.

Greenwich Hospital School Records provide the first clue. They indicate that he was born in June 1816 and that he was admitted to the school. Once the largest school for navigation and seamanship in the country, its original purpose was to provide assistance and education to the orphans of seafarers in the Royal and Merchant Navies, perhaps indicating a tragic start to life for this ill-fated man.

Records show his birth and notable events in his life, but for Charles Coombs, the next record is not a positive one. Fast forward to October 1839 and Charles Coombs is now a 23-year-old sailor getting himself into trouble. Coombs, along with two others was ‘indicted for a riot and assaulting certain police officers in the execution of their duty’. This event occurred at Church Street, opposite St Alfege’s. The punishment of one-year in Maidstone Gaol can only have damaged prospects in his naval career. Confirmation that this is the same Coombs from the Franklin Expedition is clear by the details given: ‘Charles Coombs, Bridge-street, sailor’.

After these events, Coombs returned to his naval career and, just under 6 years later, had secured himself an enviable spot on an exciting voyage: The Franklin Expedition aboard the Erebus.

By 1848, it was clear that something has gone wrong with the Franklin Expedition. After numerous expeditions, including one by Francois Bellot, an Admiralty Order in 1854 appeared in the London Gazette: ‘If intelligence be not received, before the 31st March, next, of the Officers and Crews of Her Majesty’s ships “Erebus” and “Terror” being alive, the Names of the Officers will be removed from the Navy List, and they and the crews of those Ships will be considered as having died in Her Majesty’s Service.’

Community and Friendship

Charles seems to have engendered a good reputation amongst the local populace. 75 householders from Greenwich petitioned the courts for clemency after his 1839 sentence. 18 of these petitioners were from the same street – Bridge Street. The petitioners and ‘friends’ claimed his only crime was ‘swearing at the Police, and which we consider it was very natural, as a Sailor he should do, after having been so cruelly used’. Unfortunately for Charles this petition seems to be have been unsuccessful.

Bridge Street is not on current maps of Greenwich as it was already renamed Creek Road by 1934. It ran perpendicular to St Alfege’s (close to Coombs’ brush with the law in 1839).

Family Endures

As someone who went on an Arctic Voyage between 1815-1855, Coombs was entitled to an Arctic Medal, which was issued from 1857. The Arctic Medal Roll indeed shows that a medal was claimed for Charles Coombs of the HMS Erebus on 12 April 1857 by George Coombs – Brother. How long did he hold out hope for his lost brother?

Three years later in 1860 and George Coombs was admitted to Greenwich Hospital – presumably as an ‘out pensioner’ as he was still living and working nearby in Woolwich. He is marked again in July 1869, the same year of the Hospital closure.

The story of Charles Coombs and Greenwich reaches its end in 1869 when, nearly 25 years after the fateful expedition set out, the Franklin Memorial was finished and then put in place in the Painted Hall Vestibule (it was moved in 2009 to its current position).

Records show that in 1871 George Coombs was still living in the area. He had retired as a labourer after 25 years at the Woolwich dockyard in 1869. He would therefore have been able to see this memorial to his brother. Did he show his own son Charles and young grandson this memorial to their unfortunate relative? Did he show them Charles’ Arctic Medal with pride? Or did he think the memorial ‘fell far short of the heroic image required’ – in the same way as described by Jane Franklin, Sir John’s widow?

A sad ending?

It is an interesting part of the history of our site that the Franklin Memorial ended up so close to where one of the crew studied and lived. It certainly adds a more personal element to the story that the boy who not only lived locally but also studied at the Hospital School was later memorialised there.

Another sailor, Joseph Lloyd, of Greenwich, was also on the Muster roll of the HMS Erebus but he was discharged on 25 April 1845. The best guess from the records is that he had just gotten married and therefore had second thoughts about a voyage to the Arctic. Two men from Greenwich on the same doomed ship, with two very different fates.