This is a story of a British expedition to one of the coldest places in the world to navigate a route where none had gone before. All those involved were lost in the attempt and rescuers had to piece together what had happened from the bodies they found and the accounts left behind. In contrast to the failed British attempt, the first expedition to successfully make this journey was led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.  

But this is not the story of Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed race to the South Pole. 

This is the story of an expedition that took place more than 50 years before Scott ever ventured forth to Antarctica. The mystery of its disappearance continues to this day, although we can be almost certain that it involves cannibalism, lead poisoning and the slow lingering deaths of the 129 men who were on the mission.  

Yet its loss and subsequent rescue missions had many unexpected effects. As well as vastly increasing our knowledge of the Arctic, it is unlikely that without it we would have Charles Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities' or the iconic photograph of JFK at his desk with his son playing underneath. 

And this story has a direct link to Aberdeen.  

Yet many people visiting Aberdeen's Maritime Museum walk straight past the rusty propeller beside the entrance which links the city to one of the biggest rescue missions in the entire history of exploration.  

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In May 1845 an Arctic expedition left England to navigate the last section of the Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the very top of North America. Ever since the Fifteenth Century explorers had tried to find a way to Asia across the top of the continent since such a route would vastly improve trade links. 

It was to find this fabled passage that the Franklin Expedition set sail - so named for the 59-year-old Captain Sir John Franklin, a veteran of three previous Arctic missions and the Admiralty's fourth choice to lead the expedition. He commanded two ships  HMS Erebus and HMS Terror  and 129 men. These ships and the men aboard them were last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay (an area of sea between Baffin Island and the southwest of Greenland) in July 1845.  

When two years had passed without any word from the ships, Lady Franklin, Sir John's wife, pressured the Admiralty to send out a rescue party. In Spring of 1848, the Admiralty sent an overland rescue party and two expeditions by sea, as well as offering a £20,000 reward (almost £1.8m in today's money) to anyone who helped the crew of the Franklin Expedition.  

But they discovered nothing.  

In 1850, 13 ships set off for the Arctic. Among the would-be rescuers was Captain William Penny, an Aberdonian whaler, who had command of two ships - Lady Franklin and Sophia. 

Like many whalers at the time, Penny's experience in the Arctic meant that he was able to "over-winter" - aka spend the long, cold and dark winter in the Arctic. It was a skill that had been learnt from the Inuits so that whalers could take part in two fishing seasons in one trip. Perhaps these skills explain why they were more successful than other rescue parties. They found the remains of the expedition's first winter camp (1845/6) at Beechey Island, including stores and the remains of a hut. Most grisly of all, they discovered three graves of Franklin expedition members who had died in early 1846. 

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In 1852 the Admiralty sent its largest and last expedition under Sir Edward Belcher, mainly out of concern for two other ships that had gone missing while searching for Franklin and his crew.  

Belcher's mission was a disaster. His ships became locked in the ice and he abandoned four out of five of them, for which he was court-martialed on return to Britain.  

One of his ships, HMS Resolute, was later discovered by an American whaler 1,200 miles from where she had been abandoned. The whaling captain sailed her home to ConnecticutAt this time there were rising tensions between Britain and the US so Congress decided to restore Resolute and return her to Britain as a goodwill gesture 

Unfortunately since the ship had become a symbol of good relations between the two nations, the British government did not want to risk the ship being lost at sea and, instead of returning to the Arctic, she lived out her days in a rather gentle manner. When the time came for the ship to be broken up, Queen Victoria had at least three desks made from its oak timbers, one of which she presented to President Rutherford B Hayes in 1980. (Incidentally, these desks are a key plot point in the Nicolas Cage film 'National Treasure'.)  

The desk spent several years being shuffled around the White House until Jackie Kennedy decided it would look good in the Oval Office. Since then it has been used by most US Presidents. It is the desk Barack Obama sits at today and is the one you see in that photo of JFK with his son playing under the desk and peering through the open door. 

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Meanwhile Scottish surgeon and explorer John Rae had added new and highly controversial information to the mystery of the missing expedition. In 1854 he encountered Inuits who had found relics of the expedition and said that they had encountered Kabloonas (white men) who had abandoned their ship before starving to death and engaging in cannibalism. 

Rae's report provoked outrage in Britain, with the most notable critics being Lady Franklin and Charles Dickens. Their argument basically consisted of saying that Englishmen would never become cannibals because it just wasn't cricket. This became a debate about national character and racial traits and Dickens tried to discredit the truth of the accounts coming from those inferior races – the Inuits and the Scots.   

(BTW it is now pretty much uncontested that the members of the crew were driven to cannibalism. A study of the bones found in 1992 show that they had been de-fleshed and that the ends of the bones had been smoothed in a way that was consistent with having been boiled in a pot. If you are interested in that kind of thing, you can read here about the evidence that shows that marrow was extracted from the bones in what the article describes as 'a particularly gruesome form of cannibalism'; I hadn't realised there was a sliding scale.) 

As part of this disagreement on what really happened to the Franklin expedition, Dickens' friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins wrote 'The Frozen Deep', a play ostensibly about the Franklin expedition but really it's more like 'The Phanton of the Opera on Ice' - its focus is on a love triangle with lots thrown in about self-sacrificing love and a brooding anti-hero. Dickens found much to like in it for he put on several performances of the play - taking the starring role himself. It was while acting in the play he met the eighteen-year-old Ellen Ternan for whom he would leave his wife of 22 years. 

If that wasn't enough, the main character and the tortured love triangle also provided him with the inspiration for 'A Tale of Two Cities'. 

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After Belcher's lamentable efforts, the Admiralty gave up searching for the lost Franklin expedition. Yet Lady Franklin, still in denial over Rae's discoveries, refused to do so. 

A word on Lady Franklin – she was a badass. Some (not necessarily relevant) facts on her:  

  • She had a big crush on Roget, the guy who invented the Thesaurus. (She said he was the only man who ever made her swoon.) 

  • She corresponded with Elizabeth Fry and was interested in the plight of female convicts 150 years before 'Orange is the New Black' made the rest of us care. 

  • She was a big traveller, joining her husband in Australia when he was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Dieman's Land and was the first European woman to travel overland between Port Philip and Sydney.  

She dedicated the rest of her life to trying to find out what had happened to her husband and his men, personally sponsoring 7 expeditions as well as supporting and instigating many more. At one point she reportedly visited Out Stack in Shetland (sometimes described as 'the full stop at the end of Britain') to be as northerly as possible and therefore as close to her missing husband as she could be. The go-to quote to describe her is this: 'What the nation would not do, a woman did.' 

And it is a fair comment. Her drive and determination kept the search going and made it an issue of national interest. In turn, all of the expeditions that she backed contributed to the mapping of the Arctic and our understanding of the ice cap. Indeed, it is a great irony of the Franklin expedition that by going missing and provoking all of these rescue missions, it contributed far more to the sum total of human knowledge than it would have done had it been successful. And for the fact that there were so many rescue missions, we have to thank Lady Franklin. 

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Although Rae's report of cannibalism was dismissed, his findings did suggest a new place where evidence of the expedition might be found - King William Island. 

This brings us back to the rusty propeller mentioned at the start. It is from Fox, a pleasure boat built by the Aberdeen shipbuilding company Alexander Hall in 1855. Two years later it was bought by Lady Franklin and left Aberdeen for the Arctic on 2 July 1857. Led by Francis Leopold McClintock, the trip was one of the most successful at finding out what happened to the Franklin expedition. In early 1859 sledge expeditions from the ship found three skeletons and the only written note from the Franklin expedition describing their fate. 

Left by Franklin's deputies in a cairn, the note contained two messages. The first message was dated 28 May 1847. It said the two ships had wintered successfully off the coast of King William Island and had spent the previous winter off Beechey Island. It finished with the words 'All well'. The second message was written in the margins of the paper, dated 25 April 1848. It said that the ships had been trapped in the ice for a year and a half and that the crew had at last abandoned the ships two days before. Twenty-four more of their number had died, including Franklin himself only two weeks after the first message. The 105 survivors were intending to set out the next day on foot towards the south. As we now know, they never made it. 
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The Franklin expediton has remained a source of fascination in the 150 years since it went missing. Scientists and explorers have tried to puzzle out what happened and only in the last few years have the Canadian government discovered the wrecks of both Erebus and, this year, Terror. Last year facial reconstruction of skulls found suggested that one of them might belong to the ice master James Reid who hailed from Aberdeen.  

It is now thought that all 129 men died from a combination of hypothermia, starvation, tuberculosis, exposure and lead poisoning - possibly caused either by the ships' water supplies or their tinned food in badly soldered tins. The provisioner was asked to provide the expedition with three years worth of tinned food in only seven weeks - and 8,000 tins were sloppily produced with lead dripped like melted candle wax down the inside.  

As for Fox - it was sold to the Royal Greenland Trade Department before being beached in 1912 when it broke its propeller blade. And that is how that propeller ended up here, creating an ongoing link with Aberdeen and this tragic tale of a British expedition whose failure caused so many ripples throughout the world.

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