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History of ill-fated Franklin Expedition which left Greenhithe to seek out Canada's Northwest Passage


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They were the incredible photos which fascinated people around the world.

In 1986, the preserved body of a man lost in the Canadian wilderness was discovered – almost 150 years after he left Kent.

Warning: Some readers might find images below disturbing

Robustly fitted out at Chatham, HMS Erebus exploring the Antarctic. In the distance is HMS Terror
Robustly fitted out at Chatham, HMS Erebus exploring the Antarctic. In the distance is HMS Terror

Although more than a little sinister, the amazing pictures clearly showed sailor John Hartnell pretty much as he'd looked when he died.

The Gillingham resident had been part of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, which set sail from Greenhithe on May 19, 1845 – just under seven years after Queen Victoria's coronation and the same year the Irish Potato Famine began.

Two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – slipped away from the north Kent shore on a mission to find the elusive Northwest Passage, a fabled route through the icy waters of northern Canada.

The mission was simple: find the passage and establish a key trading route between Europe and Asia, which in today's terms would have been worth billions of pounds.

Leading the 133 men, was Sir John Franklin, a decorated Arctic explorer and Royal Navy officer, who had completed three previous expeditions, two of which he commanded.

John Hartnell, exhumed from the permafrost after 150 years. Picture: Brian Spenceley
John Hartnell, exhumed from the permafrost after 150 years. Picture: Brian Spenceley

The iron-clad ships were kitted out with state-of-the-art tools and had enough provisions to last them three years.

In total they had 14,646kg of meat, 207kg of raisins and 2,636 litres of pickles.

The crossing over the northern Atlantic had gone well but disaster lay ahead when they entered the Victoria Strait.

At the end of July, the ships were spotted for the last time by the crew of a whaling vessel. They were secured to an iceberg

In 1854, Scottish explorer John Rae met Inuit residents of nearby Pelly Bay who possessed items belonging to the Franklin expedition.

Four graves of British seamen in the frozen desolation of Beechey Island. Picture: Brian Spenceley
Four graves of British seamen in the frozen desolation of Beechey Island. Picture: Brian Spenceley

Remains of the sailors' bones – including knife marks – were found, sparking rumours they had resorted to cannibalism in their final days.

Further discoveries of marks carved into remains found on King William Island in the 1980s and 1990s backed up these claims – that the explorers were driven to devour their fallen comrades as they battled to survive.

Among the doomed crew were a selection of men from Medway, including John Hartnell who had sailed aboard HMS Erebus.

He succumbed to the harsh conditions and died just off of Beechey Island, where he was laid to rest alongside three of his shipmates.

His body was exhumed in 1986 as part of a mission to the Canadian Arctic to delve into the story behind the failed expedition.

The still frozen body of John Hartnell is lowered onto the autopsy table. Picture: Brian Spenceley
The still frozen body of John Hartnell is lowered onto the autopsy table. Picture: Brian Spenceley

He was so well-preserved that skin still covered his hands, face and chest with his plume of natural red highlights still being visible amongst his jet black hair.

The preservation caused by the ice enabled the discovery team to stare into the deep blue eyes of a man who had perished 140 years before.

One of the people who met the icy gaze of Hartnell's eyes was photographer Brian Spenceley – an actual descendant of his.

He'd joined the crew after a chance meeting with anthropologist Owen Beattie, who organised the expedition.

Back in 2011, he told Medway Messenger history writer Peter Cook, with whom he shared these photos, about the amazing discovery.

Discovery teams set out to exhume the frozen body of John Hartnell. Picture: Brian Spenceley
Discovery teams set out to exhume the frozen body of John Hartnell. Picture: Brian Spenceley

He said: "We attacked the ice with pickaxes to break it up and used shovels 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 John had the same Hartnell nose as my grandmother, and, as I subsequently found out, similar to many other Hartnells. 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.

The meticulously detailed plans for the refitting of Erebus and Chatham, prepared by Chatham Dockyard's master shipwright
The meticulously detailed plans for the refitting of Erebus and Chatham, prepared by Chatham Dockyard's master shipwright

"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."

Nearly 30 years after the discovery of the sailors, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were found in an incredibly well-preserved state deep in the freezing depths of the Arctic Ocean.

The Erebus was found off the coast of King William Island, whereas the Terror was discovered in a bay 45 miles away.

Pefectly preserved in the ice, John's face still has recognisable features. Picture: Brian Spenceley
Pefectly preserved in the ice, John's face still has recognisable features. Picture: Brian Spenceley

Experts have been left baffled by many questions surrounding the disaster: how did the two ships sink? Why were they so far apart from each other when they went down?

There isn't a definitive answer as to why the HMS Terror sank – no evidence was found to suggest it was crushed by ice and upon first inspection the hull was still intact.

Last year, a research team, led by archaeologist Ryan Harris, went inside the Terror for the first time using specialised underwater drones inserted into the ship's hatchways and crew cabin skylights.

The ground-breaking feat showed just how intact the vessel was nearly 200 years after it sank.

When speaking to website All That's Interesting, Harris said: "You look at it and find it hard to believe this is a 170-year-old shipwreck, you just don't see this kind of thing very often. One way or another, I feel confident we'll get to the bottom of the story."

"Like birds of passage" Erebus and Terror set off down river at the start of their perilous voyage
"Like birds of passage" Erebus and Terror set off down river at the start of their perilous voyage

The Medway men who set sail in 1845 were promised tales of success and discovery beyond their wildest dreams – little did they know they would succumb to the unforgiving conditions of the frozen north.

Hopefully, with new technology and innovative techniques, the true story of Sir John Franklin and his doomed expedition will be revealed.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

Read more: All the latest news from Medway

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