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Review: Death In the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin's Final Expedition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

By Angela Cole

It’s one of the biggest mysteries of maritime history, which claimed the lives of many.

The fate of explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew will probably never be known, although pieces from the jigsaw puzzle of their final years are on display at the National Maritime Museum in Death In The Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition.

The exhibition studies the British explorer’s unsuccessful quest to find the North-West Passage and asks: what really happened to those men?

Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Picture: PA Photo/Mark Robinson OOE

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through their expedition, from the pictures of the healthy-looking sailors who set out on the voyage, which both Franklin and his wife were keen for him to go on, to the few artefacts and clues discovered years later.

Full of enthusiasm and loaded up with three, full years of supplies, they would surely have been buoyant about it when they set off for the Canadian Arctic on May 19, 1845 on board HMS Erebus and Terror. There were 128 men (and a monkey) with high hopes of discovering the highly-desired passage between Europe and Asia.

Just two months later, all contact was lost.

Sir John Franklin

There were a staggering 36 rescue missions sent out between 1847 and 1880 before it was decided they had all perished.

Many of the artefacts and notes gathered from their investigations are included in the exhibition, which does an impressive job of showing the human cost, both for the men on the mission and those left behind at home, waiting for news.

But it also sets a chilling scene, including photos of the remains of three men who perished early on, and whose remains were left well preserved by the ice.

A sea boot from the doomed expedition picture: PA Photo/National Maritime Museum

In 2014, Parks Canada, who protect and manage the country’s natural and cultural resources, discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus, which was well preserved in the icy waters. Many items from that mission are included, including a gnarled leather officer’s boot, found on the upper deck.

Items recovered from Franklin's expedition

It also includes letters by Franklin's wife, and there is also the poignant Victory Point note declaring Franklin’s death in handwritten scrawl, found on King William Island.

The important role played by Inuit in unravelling the mystery is also recognised through accounts of oral histories and native tools adapted from European items found on the ships, something which was met with mistrust by authorities at the time.

The exhibition looks at a range of different theories for the men’s demise, including some hard to stomach.

Collecting samples from HMS Erebus Picture: PA/Parks Canada/Thierry Boyer

Although it is near impossible to have a definitive answer as to what happened to the men, the Inuit witness accounts feel compelling.

There could, however, be more evidence to come as last year, Franklin’s second ship, Terror, was found and research dives are currently being conducted.


Death In The Ice runs until Sunday, January 7, 2018. Tickets cost £12 for adults and £7 for children. Visit rmg.co.uk

The HMS Erebus Picture: PA/Parks Canada/Marc-Andr Bernier

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