Peglar Pocket Book 1: An Account of Franklin’s Funeral?

One of the most frustrating of the Franklin Expedition’s relics to be recovered in the nineteenth century surface is the Peglar Pocket book. Many people have pored over this for well over a century now, from McClintock and Hobson themselves down to current researchers.

The Pocket-Book is described by Cryriax and Jones in a paper published in 1954 – “The Papers in the Possession of Harry Peglar, Captain of the Foretop, H.M.S. Terror, 1845” in “Mariner’s Mirror”. Basically it consists of a small leather cover, like a little filofax cover, containing a ‘Seaman’s certificate’ for Harry Peglar, a semi-literate account by him of his sailing career and a number of other sheets of paper. Some of these are written in what is evidently Peglar’s hand and some by other people. Some of the papers seem to be re-used envelopes, judging by the folds in them.

Reading what is written on them is difficult because of the fragmentary nature of many of the pages, botched earlier attempts to make the readable, the semi-literate nature of a lot of the writing and because many of the words are written backwards. Where this happens words are placed on the page from from left to right and top to bottom, just as they do on this blog, but each WORD is spelt backwards. So Franklin, for example, would appear Nilknarf. The different papers were obviously written at different times. The Certificate itself was written before the Expedition sailed. Other documents might have been written early on. One is a recollection of the words of a song ‘The Sea. The Sea’. Others MAY have been written late on – for example there are what appear to be a couple of addresses – perhaps where next of kin might be found?

This is all for background and the pocket book and its context has been ably discussed by Glenn Stein, FRGS, at What I wanted to do in this posting is share my thoughts on just one sheet in this pocket book. These thoughts are based on extensive research I carried out into this sheet using new, very high quality images of the Pocket-Book’s contents available at the National Maritime Museum. I have discussed these thoughts with others, notably Prof. Russell Potter, and I would stress that what I am proposing here are entirely my own, and very speculative. I am not suggesting for a minute that this is the final word, or that anyone else is responsible for these speculations!

So, having said all that, what do I want to share with you?

Well, the sheet itself looks to be a flattened out resused envelope. On one side it has a page of backward-written script which starts with words can clearly be seen to read ‘Oh Death, Whare [where] is thy Sting?’, recognisably part of the Anglican Funeral rite. The other side is blank, apart from a sentence mysteriously written in a circle, with several lines of additional writing inside that. Virtually all the words are written backwards. This sheet was NOT written by Harry Peglar, judging by his handwriting in the earlier documents which can be linked to him, but it is not obvious who did write it.

I spent a great deal of time studying the images. And when I say that, I mean it! For example, I once spent literally an entire day from dawn until disk poring over the wording in the roundel. I had Cyriax’s reading of it in my hand. After a whole day I was able to see that three backward words in the roundel which have always been reconstructed as ‘bord onn hay’ actually, and far more significantly, read ‘Lord our God’. That gave me confidence that, while complete reconstruction may never be possible, a better reading might be.

So here’s my best attempt at reading the ‘Funeral’ page. My very best attempt at a reconstruction currently reads:

O Death Whare is thy Sting
The grave at Comfort Cove
For who has any doubt now
Nelson look(?)
The Dyer sad and (a)ware Trafalgar
As it is of him
and ….[t]o finish a later a corpse.
and…. Adam and Eve.
.. another… thy right hands …
being prove(?).
I am … will be a very
splendid …. m…. yes and splendid ……
to ..m…
that …. [ma]kes trade flourish.
That’s the way the world
g[oes] round.

Can we work out what meaning the author was trying to preserve? It seems clear that it is based on a Funeral carried out to the Church of England’s rite. The use of a reused envelope suggests that it took place in the later rather than the earlier stages of the Expedition. Why would a semi-literate sailor want to keep a doggerel record of the address at someone’s funeral? Presumably it was the funeral of an important person.

There are some further pointers. The person being buried, the ‘Dyer’ or the dying man, had not died instantly. He had been ‘sad and aware’ of something as he was dying and was ‘[t]o finish a later a corpse’. He was associated in some way both with Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar as he had been ‘sad and aware of Trafalgar… as [wa]s.. of him’, and ‘who has any doubt Nelson look(?)’.

The reference to Adam and Eve, the source of the original sin, and the ‘right hand’ (Christ sits at God’s right hand) suggests this death could be paralleled with Christ’s death and His consequent victory in resurrection. The sermon ended on an upbeat note with something ‘very splendid’ and ‘splendid’ that ‘makes trade flourish’ and which is ‘the way the world goes round’. Given that the protection of trade was one of the principle roles of the Royal Navy, and safer trade was one of the most dramatic consequences of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, this is a natural uplifting conclusion to a Royal Naval funeral with a link to Nelson and Trafalgar.

Despite ingenious efforts by Cyriax and others to find it, no place named ‘Comfort Cove’ has ever been linked convincingly with a Franklin crewmember. I suggest therefore that Comfort Cove was a name given by the Franklin Expedition itself to a location on King William Island (presumably) and that this was the location of the burial.

So far: not too contentious. But speculating a little further, I propose that the ‘dyer’ was no less than Sir John Franklin, the speaker was Captain Francis Crozier and the occasion was the burial of Franklin by Crozier at ‘Comfort Cove’. Of all the funerals which must have taken place, Franklin’s was the most important and therefore the most worthy of record. Furthermore, Franklin was the only man on the Expedition to have served directly under Nelson at Trafalgar. The time when Franklin died, 12th June, 1847, was exactly when the Expedition would have been preparing to sail south to complete, as they imagined, their transit of the Passage. His death at this point could be argued to parallel that of Nelson in 1805. Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar knowing (‘was aware’) that he had won the victory he had sought for so long. Crozier could argue that in June 1847 Franklin similarly died knowing (or believing) that his life’s work, the transit of the North West Passage, would be achieved after his death.  This ‘death at the point of victory’ argument also parallels Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent triumph over death in resurrection. All three – Nelson, Franklin and Christ – died knowing (or believing) that their victory would be secured after their death. Crozier would have needed to preach a sermon along these lines, ending with an uplifting sentiment, because handled wrongly Franklin’s death would have been a huge blow to the morale of the Expedition..

Well I’m not so arrogant as to believe I could get this all right. I’ve already discussed this interpretation with Russell Potter and, while Russell made some extremely valuable suggestions, I know he doesn’t agree with everything I say – so blame me!