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Medway sailor'd body exhumed

john hartnell
john hartnell

These astonishing pictures show Gillingham sailor John Hartnell whose body was exhumed from the ice in a remote island north of Canada - 140 years after an illfated expedition to find the North West passage.

Mr Hartnell, who lived in Nelson Street, was one of eight Medway seamen among 127 crew led by Sir John Franklin who set sail on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror from Kent in 1846.

john hartnell
john hartnell

They all perished in the frozen wastelands of Beechey Island.

John Hartnell and two shipmates were buried with headstones where they remained for a century and a half. His direct descendant Brian Spenceley, who grew up in Rainham, joined an team of scientists, who exhumed the body of Mr Hartnell, de-iced the remains and carried out an autopsy.

John hartnell
John hartnell

Writing in the Medway Messenger's memories pages, he recalled: "We attacked the ice with pickaxes to break it up and shovel and buckets to remove the fragments.
Eventually the coffin was exposed, the lid removed and the business of freeing John Hartnell from the ice, which had filled the coffin, began. It was a slow and laborious process of pouring warm water over the body to melt the ice so there was no sudden revelation of Hartnell's face.

There was some satisfaction in seeing that John had the same Hartnell nose as my grandmother, and, as I subsequently found out, similar to many other Hartnells.
When it came time to perform autopsies, I had full responsibility of photographing the procedure and the details of the individual organs. If there is anything rarer than meeting face to face an ancestor dead for 140 years it is photographing his autopsy.
To avoid having the corpse warm up too much the surgical work was conducted at a hot pace so I was concentrating on ensuring that the photography did not fail and there was no effort to spare for emotions.
It was only when John Hartnell was re-interred that I was overcome with a sense of loss. I had only been with him for a few days but a sort of relationship had developed.
As we consigned John's body to the permafrost again for the last time I could not help but reflect on how different the time was compared with the January of 1846, when he died. Not only were we working in continuous sunshine but in the intervening century and a half so much had changed.
He had arrived by steam-sailing ship, we by modern aircraft. Although photography had appeared when John lived our modern equipment would
have amazed him and the portable X-ray machine would have appeared magical."If you have any family connections with Medway men involved with voyages of exploration and discovery we would be fascinated to hear from you. Comment below or mail at pcook78@btinternet.com or telephone our newsroom on 01634 227803.

The full account by Mr Spenceley appears in last Friday's Medway Messenger.

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