Sailors who served on the Franklin Expedition – and survived!

The one thing everyone knows about the Franklin Expedition is that nobody who went on it survived. I’ve said this many times myself.

Yet technically it is not true. Here is a list of men who joined the Franklin Expedition and survived:

  • William Aitken, Private, Royal Marines, HMS Terror
  • John Brown, Able Seaman, HMS Terror
  • Thomas Burt, Petty Officer, HMS Erebus
  • Francis Clarke, Able Seaman, HMS Erebus
  • William Eaton, Boy, HMS Terror
  • James Elliott, Petty Officer, HMS Terror
  • Robert Nixon, Able Seaman, HMS Terror
  • Joseph Robinson, Warrant Officer, HMS Erebus
  • James Savage, Able Seaman, HMS Terror

Of course none of them staggered alive from the Barren Lands of Canada to a hero’s welcome. They were men who signed on to HMS Erebus or HMS Terror in 1845 for the Expedition but for one reason or another were dismissed from it before the Expedition left Disko Bay in July 1845.

At present what I know about them mostly derives from Ralph Lloyd-Jones’s research. I have seen their names in the originals of the two ships’ Muster Books at Kew, but I have not specifically researched them further.

The first to leave was Joseph Robinson, who was discharged to HMS Vernon on April 7th, 1845. He was followed by James Savage, discharged to the Woolwich Hospital on 24th April 1845 for medical treatment. William Eaton was discharged on 29th April and Robert Nixon just ten days before the Expedition sailed.

That left five men who were discharged after the ships sailed from Greenhithe but before they parted company with the Baretto Junior at Disko Bay. It looks like John Brown was the man discharged at or prior to Orkney, and the other four made it as far as Greenland. My thanks are due to Ralph Lloyd-Jones, who has noted these men’s careers in his two paper on the men and the Royal Marines who sailed with Franklin.

It would be fascinating to trace more about these men. Why were they dismissed – what quirk of Fate meant that they would survive while their shipmates would die? And what happened to them afterwards? How many people are alive today who would not exist if their ancestor had remained on board one of the doomed ships? Did any of them leave letters or memoirs of their time on the Expedition? And, poignantly, who was the last to die? What happened to these men who, presumably, slipped back into blameless obscurity? Apart from its innate fascination, one of the reasons I am posting this is in the hope that any genealogists out there will recognise their ancestor’s name and get in touch with me. One day, I have promised myself, I will chase down these men through the records, but maybe by publishing their names like this someone will help me?

As a PS, if you study the lists of the officers and men of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror carefully, you will notice that only two Mates were ever entered on HMS Terror, yet she was supposed to sail with three. Why was one officer never recruited? Well, the answer is ‘I don’t know’ and I have never seen any document which would shed any light on this. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one else has even noticed….