This website is maintained by William Battersby, a British national living in Cambridge and working (mostly) in London. I work in finance and run my own business Asset Dynamics Ltd. As well as working full-time, I also maintain an interested in music and I am a private pilot. In other words, I’m fairly ordinary.
So where did my interest in the Franklin Expedition come from? Like many people I have had to travel for my work. In 2007 I dropped in to the Borders bookshop at Heathrow and treated myself to a history book before leaving for San Francisco. The book I had picked up was by Fergus Fleming and called ‘Barrow’s Boys: A Stirring Tale of Daring, Fortitude and Outright Lunacy’. I started to read the book as the aircraft took the great circle route over northern Greenland, Nunavut and the Canadian Arctic. Visibility was good. Even travelling at nearly six hundred miles an hour, it takes many hours to cross the icy, rocky wastes of Greenland, Nunavut and the far north of Canada. Looking out of the window I could see a vast and inhospitable landscape of rock and ice which didn’t look like planet Earth at all, but more like pictures of one of the moons of Jupiter.
Reading Fleming’s book I found that in the early nineteenth century small groups of Royal Navy adventurers had had almost incredible adventures in the inhospitable wastes which I was at that time flying over. While men had died and some ships were lost, most returned to tell their tales of adventure. Except the Franklin Expedition. Fleming’s book closes this remarkable chapter in history by highlighting the unique horror of Franklin’s Third Expedition, which simply disappeared somewhere in the vast far north of the American continent. I was transfixed by Fleming’s remarkable account and especially by this passage:
‘Within two years the expedition was destroyed – vaporized would be a better word – by an unknown calamity that sprayed human debris across the dark, unknown heart of the Arctic. In decades to come, explorers would pick wonderingly through the bundles of cloth, whitened bones, personal articles, stacks of supplies and scraps of wood that comprised the remains of the best-equipped Arctic fleet to have left England’s shores. Two of Franklin’s men were eventually found. They lay in a boat drawn up on the shore, with loaded muskets and a small supply of food by their sides. One, obviously an officer, wore a fur coat. Their skeletal grins gave no answer to a question that would burn for more than 150 years.’
When I returned I decided to find out more about the Franklin Expedition. I wondered what had made it fail and everyone on it die, while so many people on other Expeditions had survived? I soon found that many other people had asked themselves the same question. I started to read other books on the Franklin Expedition and the huge literature surrounding it. In Owen Beattie and John Geiger’s ‘Frozen in Time’ I read that the Expedition had been poisoned by the lead in their tinned food. In Scott Cookman’s book ‘Ice Blink’ I found that they had all been poisoned by botulism. In the best all-round history of the Expedition, written by a doctor from Cheltenham called Richard Cyriax and published in 1939 I read that the most likely cause was ‘a bad outbreak of scurvy’. I puzzled that even basic facts like the cause of the disaster itself are disputed. It’s loss has been blamed variously on diet, climate and cultural arrogance as well as well as lead poisoning and botulism. I was amazed by the lack of consensus about this.
I found I had stumbled on a real-life mystery. I found that since the 1850’s a diverse range of authors had been drawn to write literature about it which ranged from philosophical and social discussion to downright horror. In the nineteenth century books, plays and articles were written about it by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Swinburne and Jules Verne. And the inspiration lives on. In the last twenty years the Franklin Expedition has formed the central event in a huge genre of fiction including Sten Nadolny’s ‘The Discovery of Slowness’, Mordecai Richler’s ‘Solomon Gursky Was Here’, William Vollmann’s ‘The Rifles’, John Wilson’s ‘North With Franklin: The Journals of James Fitzjames’, Dan Simmons’ ‘The Terror’ and Clive Cussler’s ‘Arctic Drift’. And from the nineteenth century on it has also inspired a wide range of songs, poems and paintings. The respected Canadian novelist Margaret Attwood has gone as far as to say that the Franklin Expedition has become more than mere history and now lives on as a universal myth
This was what attracted me to research the Franklin Expedition. Alone, and working with a number of kind and talented fellow researchers, I started to research into the source materials lto see if I could get some answers myself. This website captures the bulk of what I have been able to do. An early target of my research was Captain James Fitzjames, the handsome, witty and clearly very capable Commander of the Erebus. But who was he? I found that almost everything was a mystery and by tracking down every scrap of paper I could find about him I was eventually able to understand the life of this very likeable man. You can buy the book here and if you read it in conjunction with the updates on the website here you will know as much as I do about him.
For many years I struggled with the ‘single cause’ explanations for the disaster. I looked into botulism, lead, diet and much else. The fruits of these research you can here here and I’ll keep the blog posted on this research as it continues to unfold.
Of course, by far the biggest news in the search for the Franklin Expedition has been the relocation of the wreck of HMS Erebus by the team of archaeologists working at Parks Canada. Even though they were guided by memories kept alive from generation to generation by the Inuit families who lived in the area, and using the latest space-age technology, it still took Parks Canada some six years of intensive surveying before they could locate HMS Erebus. And what a find! Still sitting proudly upright on her keel, Erebus is substantially complete and under the right sea conditions she can even be seen with the naked eye from the surface. Which illustrates just how remote her location is. Nearly 100 nautical miles south of the point where the Victory Point was found, her very location suggests very strongly that the Franklin Expedition lasted several more years after the 1848 when it is supposed to come to an end. And maybe one day when her contents have been fully analysed, recovered, conserved and interpreted we will know much more of the story.
But for now the world waits as Parks Canada continue their sensational work….