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Two Memorials connected by one tragedy – The Franklin Expedition

Our stories

Fri 17 May 24

Since the middle of the 19th century the Franklin Expedition is an event that has haunted the imagination of many. Shrouded in mystery and tragedy, this moment in naval history has left an indelible mark, and has inspired artworks, literary works, and even a TV series (The Terror, 2018). But did you know that the Old Royal Naval College has a close relationship to this expedition with not one, but two monuments in the grounds commemorating it? Keep reading to find out more.  

What was the Franklin Expedition? 

The Franklin Expedition was part of a broader 19th-century push for Arctic exploration and mapping. The purpose was to discover the elusive Northwest Passage—an Arctic Sea route that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, providing a more efficient trade route. 

The expedition was named after its commander, British Royal Navy officer Sir John Franklin, a seasoned explorer with several Arctic expeditions to his name. The expedition left England on 19 May 1845 with a crew of 134 men. The two vessels that were selected for the adventure, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had recently been fitted with steam engines from the London and Greenwich Railway, which enabled them to make 4 knots (7.4 km/h; 4.6 mph) on their own power.  

With a well-chosen crew, two sturdy ships, and a seasoned captain at the helm of the flagship, at first, the expedition seemed to be assured of success. However, it soon transpired that the unforgiving climate of the Artic would pose immense challenges to the explorers. The two vessels reached Disko Bay, Greenland in July 1845. Five sick crew members and the men’s last letters were sent homeward bound with the support ships HMS Rattler and Barreto Junior. Shortly afterwards, the crews of two Scottish whaling ships in Baffin Bay, were the last Europeans to ever set eyes upon the ill-fated expedition.  

What went wrong? 

As the Arctic’s icy grip tightened, the expedition’s two formidable vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, succumbed to the relentless cold, becoming entombed in the frozen wasteland. The remaining 129 crew members were left icebound for more than year, with over two dozen men perishing. According to the last record left by his immediate subordinates, Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847. The survivors, now led by Franklin’s second-in-command, Francis Crozier, and Erebus’s captain, James Fitzjames, set out for the Canadian mainland in search for food and help but from this point onwards they disappeared, their fate unknown. 

The Perilous Hunt for a Lost Expedition 

The frozen ice held tight to the secrets of Sir John Franklin’s doomed voyage, but the world refused to forget. Two years after the expedition had left, a relentless pursuit to unveil the enigma of the Franklin Expedition began, mainly led by Franklin’s wife Jane, who petitioned the Admiralty to arrange an expedition to find her husband. Search parties were sent out, and slowly and steadily, the horrendous fates of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror came to light.  

In 1850, a row of three graves were discovered on Beechy Island and nine years later, further skeletons and a written account of the expedition up to 1848 were found. Local Inuit testimony combined with the observations of the search parties began to paint a mortifying picture of the sailors stranded in the ice, forced to leave on foot when the realization set in that the ships were unlikely to move again. 

Throughout the years, archaeological digs, surveys and DNA analysis have found further evidence of ravaging illness, hypothermia and lead poisoning, stemming from the seals on tinned food and the ship’s lead water pipes contributing variously to the crew’s demise. Perhaps the most horrifying of all, extreme starvation leading to cannibalism.  

In September 2014, it was announced that a Canadian Expedition team had discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus at the bottom of Wilmot and Crampton Bay. Two years later, the perfectly preserved wreck of HMS Terror was found to the south of King William Island in Terror Bay by the Artic Research Foundation. Finally, the mystery was solved. 

The Bellot Memorial: Two Nations Joined in Grief 

Nestled between the Thames and the lawns of the Old Royal Naval College stands a slim obelisk crafted from Red Aberdeen Granite. On its base, facing the river, the word Bellot is inscribed in large letters. What is the significance of this name, and how does it relate to the Franklin Expedition? 

In the spring of 1853, the steam-paddle ship HMS Phoenix, captained by Edward Augustus Inglefield  set out to deliver supplies and dispatches to Sir Edward Belcher’s five-ship expedition; the British Admiralty’s largest and last attempt to find and rescue Sir John Franklin. On board was a young and adventurous Lieutenant of the French Navy, who had willingly volunteered his services, Joseph René Bellot. 

Bellot was born in Paris in 1826 but educated in the marine town of Rochefort. At the age of 16 he was enrolled in the French Naval Academy at Brest. Though still relatively young, Bellot was much admired for his “assiduity in the discharge of his duties, gallantry in the hour of danger, and obedience under command.” 

On the 8 August 1853, having arrived at Beechey Island in the Artic, Bellot set off across the ice, accompanied by four crew members, in an attempt to deliver dispatches to Belcher. As the ice broke apart, Bellot fell between two drifting ice floes and drowned. 

After his death, Sir Roderick Murchision, President of the Royal Geographical Society set up a committee to arrange a suitable memorial. The banks of the Thames, near the Royal Hospital at Greenwich was decided to be the suitable location. Records attest: “The committee feel assured that every Frenchman who may pass by on the river, or visit our great naval hospital, would see that we had paid to our lamented friend the very highest compliment in our power, and that our tribute was a pledge to be forever before us, and that we desired to perpetuate the mutual good-will which so happily exists between the two nations.” 

Over £2,000 was subscribed towards the memorial. the cost was only £500 (equivalent to about £52,000 today), with the remaining funds being distributed to the sisters of Bellot. The French Emperor, Napoleon III also granted an annuity of 2,000 francs to Bellot’s family.  

The inscription on the monument reads: “The intrepid young Bellot of the French navy, who in endeavour to rescue Franklin shared the fate and the glory of that illustrious navigator. From his British Admirers. 1853-55.” 

Print showing the memorial, soon after it was installed in 1856.

The Chapel Memorial: A Representation of Hope & Despair  

A second memorial, inside the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul can also be visited. This beautiful marble memorial was created by sculptor Richard Westmacott Jr and installed in 1869 to commemorate the lives lost in the Franklin Expedition. Human remains, initially thought to be that of Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte were repatriated back to England and entombed inside the monument in 1873. When the memorial was renovated in 2009, DNA analysis and a facial reconstruction carried out on the skeleton revealed a better match to the Assistant Surgeon and Naturalist Harry Goodsir.   

As you look at the memorial, the two sides symbolise hope at the outset of the expedition followed by despair as the expedition meets its tragic end. On the left a naval officer studies an open book, with compasses in hand. Near him are a globe and papers relating to Arctic research, inscribed with the names of Franklin, Ross and Parry. In the background are the tall masts of a ship, with sails set as if about to depart. To the right, in the sky above the towering, jagged icebergs rests the North or Polar Star. Below, a desolate sailor sits on a fragment of rock. One of his feet is bandaged and broken equipment litters the scene. 

Interestingly, although Westmacott was much praised for his execution of the memorial, John Franklin’s widow Jane, was not at all satisfied, as she felt it “fell far short of the heroic image that [she] required.”  

Who was Charles Coombs? 

There were 129 lives lost in the expedition, and we will never be able to know their full stories, what their lives were like and who they left behind. However, a little research provides us with information about some of them.  

For instance, records show that Charles Coombs was born in Greenwich, in June 1816 and studied navigation and seamanship at the Greenwich Hospital school. At 23, he spent a year in Maidstone Gaol for ‘rioting and assaulting certain police officers.’ As many as 75 Seventy-five Greenwich house holders petitioned the courts for clemency after his sentence, believing that he had a good reputation. They argued that his only crime was ‘swearing at the police’.  

Unfortunately, the petition was unsuccessful, and Charles had to serve his time. However, he was allowed to enlist in the navy, and in 1845, aged only 28, he was selected to participate in the Franklin Expedition as a sailor on board HMS Erebus. Records show that his brother George Coombs, worked in Woolwich Dockyard, after leaving the navy in 1843. 

In 1857, the Arctic Medal was first issued, awarded to those who had journeyed to the Arctic between 1815-1855. Records show that George, in April 1857, claimed this medal on behalf of his brother Charles. Three years later, George Coombs was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as an out-pensioner.  

The Chapel’s Franklin memorial was first erected in the vestibule of the Painted Hall in 1869. Records show that George was still living in the area at the time, so perhaps he was able to see the memorial with his brother’s name on it. Did he perhaps take pride in showing it to his children, along with Charles’ Arctic medal?  

We may never know the answers to these questions, but what we do know is that these two  solemn memorials, help us remember and honour the lives of all the men lost over the course of the expedition, as well as a solemn testimony to the unyielding power of nature at its most vicious