Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 3

For Part 1 of this series, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Legacy

By 1854, nine years after having set out the Admiralty let it be known that unless any tangible proof of survival among any of Franklin’s men was found, they would be declared dead. Whaling ships were known to go on very long voyages in those years, but this was an officially sanctioned mission. There was not one, but two ships. To have no word and little to go off of in the way of evidence, one can scarcely blame them for making that call. One person who refused to accept that decision was Lady Jane Franklin. She refused to go into mourning and made continued efforts to find out what had happened as late as 30 years after the ships had left England.

But there were precious few clues to go off,  and those that were found pointed into an ominous direction.  How well she accepted these clues is another story.  In 1850 clothing and fragments of supplies were found. On Beechey Island a stone cairn was discovered as were three graves-two men from Erebus, one from Terror. All three had perished in 1846. Suggestions were that by 1846, a mere year after setting off both ships had become trapped completely in the ice and the ships were abandoned. With McClure and the Investigator trapped in the ice themselves on the Western side of the passage, little new information was discovered until 1854.

The story of what happened after this time could result in this being a 20 part series. The shorter version is that various people searching over the years eventually found evidence of parts of the story. John Rae, a truly intrepid explorer from the Orkney Islands who had learned hunting and Arctic survival from the Inuit covered vast overland routes found artifacts and evidence of cannibalism among Franklin’s men. This was met with denials back home and stern rebukes from the likes of Charles Dickens and Lady Franklin.

Frank McClintock, another key figure at the time made perhaps the most pivotal discovery of all in 1859. First he found three bodies and clear evidence that they came from Franklin’s men. More importantly he found a note inside a cairn. The original note was dated May 28, 1847 and described meeting trouble. Scrawled around the note was a second message which revealed that John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. It went on to say that at the time of writing 24 men had perished.

Much has been speculated as to what ended the lives of the rest of the crews. The main theories are that many of the men died slow deaths as a result of lead poisoning either as a result of poor sealing on their tins of preserved food or via the lead pipes from the water tanks on board. Another strong plausibility is of the scourge of sailors at that time-scurvy. Though its cause was understood by that time and preventative measures well in place, it is possible it contributed to the poor health of the men. As Palin concludes though, perhaps it was a combination of many factors-lack of food, disease, poor planning, failure to learn tips from the Inuit. And it may have come down to poor leadership, starting with Franklin himself. Well noted for his fiery church services which he conducted on board ship, a major reason he took on the expedition was to salvage his wounded pride he had suffered as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land some years before. That combined with being not exactly in shape for winters on the ice possibly led to some poor decisions.

But I think all of these theories contribute to the why. As in why we are still talking about Franklin all these years later. Why books are written. Why movies and documentaries are filmed. Why scientists have studied the preserved remains of corpses from the expedition all these years later. For me especially, it is also why songs such as Lord Franklin are still sung today, and why newer songs like The Erebus & The Terror, and Mercy Bay are still written. People like a mystery, they like the stories, the history and the drama. They imagine themselves on those ships, if even for a brief moment. Sailing the Arctic Sea along with Franklin and his ‘gallant crew’. After reading Palin’s book, Franklin’s story became even more poignant and personal for me. Not because of any sort of connection to the story, but because of a song that Palin mentions himself towards the end of the book-Northwest Passage, by the late and very great Stan Rogers.

In the song Stan Rogers tells a bit about the story of Franklin. He mentions the ‘long forgotten lonely cairn of stones’…a sight that must have been such a stark contrast to the untouched Arctic landscape in that time. He mentions the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait. But when you contemplate the lyrics further, you realize that Rogers is talking about another journey. As the songwriter he was taking his own journey across Canada, through cites and the vast prairies. But in ‘finding the hand of Franklin’ he was going somewhere more personal. And that is when I realized that the song was telling me so much about not just the historical Franklin’s journey, but my own journey. It might sound trite to say this, but it is about finding your own elusive Northwest Passage. A journey unlike any taken before. A mystery. A struggle fraught with peril. Victory snatched before you as quickly as an Arctic ice flow closes a channel of water. It says so much while making you think and feel so much.

“How then am I so different from the first men through this way?

Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away

To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men

To find there but the road back home again”

Those of you who follow me on social media know that the past year has been a struggle. I have been going to see a therapist weekly for over a year now. Just over a month ago at a session I was recounting a memory from childhood. We have been gradually going backwards in time to some specific memories I have of my childhood, tracing the passage back from what I feel are inadequacies and failures of my past. Seeing connections to feelings and actions I still have today and how they relate to those memories. Though the memories are not traumatic or disturbing they still affect me. And so it was at this particular session at 9 AM on a Monday morning I had a particular jarring memory and connection made. It came out of nowhere. One moment I was reliving moments in my past and the next a connection was made to now and I became a weeping mess for several moments and unable to speak. I felt anger, hurt, rage, betrayal, guilt and sadness all at once. In the days and weeks after I have worked on these moments some more. It is still a work in progress, but it is a good thing to relive these thoughts.

It was in between then and as I began this series that I picked up Michael Palin’s Erebus. The boyhood fascination with the allure and admiration for the old sailing ships, for tales of adventure across the seas and being frozen in the Arctic with only the polar bears and the Inuit was still there. The love of history and science in discovering what happened to Franklin, of ship building and politics of the era was still there. But in reading the book I realized what was not there. As I raced through the book thoroughly enjoying myself I found myself thinking of my therapy appointments and the recent turn they had taken. What I realized was that the hurt I felt as a result came from a deeper pain inside me. That of failing to capitalize on my own value and worth. Weaving my own unique narrative.

All the things I ever dreamed about doing I have yet to do. The usual excuses come up-budget, time, fear of the unknown. The connections from therapy have proven to me that the desire and wanting has been there, but other reasons have caused me to put a hold on what I want or to give fuel to my system. But if that therapy session was a start in the right direction, then so too does this post. Because I see it guiding me towards the unknown. It might be only a personal unknown. A way of viewing my life differently, but it is a path I need to be on now.

My journey, perhaps all of our journeys are like Franklin. We go forward only to become trapped. We go in another direction only to have that close up as well. We search for those openings because we yearn to find the new. To live for the new. My life up to now has had all sorts of paths that have closed up. Yet the hope is that like Franklin and McClure and all the rest that those paths open up again. A crack in the ice that becomes wider and opens up to a new destination.

Writing this series became an obsession of sorts. It consumed me in a way I have not felt in quite a long time. It merged virtually all of my passions into one place. I came home from work at night and pored myself in as many stories and tales of the Arctic as I could find. I watched documentaries and searched for songs and all sorts of relevant data to the story to mention perhaps only in passing. But I needed to do this. To find the connections to my past in therapy. To find that passage through the  barrier of ice in my mind and live the words of the Stan Rogers song-

“Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage.

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. 

Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”


Unlike most mysteries, 174 years after setting out, Franklin’s expedition is still revealing itself. In 2010 using sophisticated underwater equipment, the wreck of HMS Investigator was found near Mercy Bay. In 2014 a rusted metal U-shaped object was found. Using a bit of on the spot internet research it turned out to be part of a davit, the mechanism used to lower the smaller boats off the sides of ships such as Erebus. The very next day using the location of this artifact as a guide, the underwater equipment spotted the remains of another wreck. A few days later divers went down to the wreck. Among the wreckage found was the ships bell. Erebus had at long last been found,

Such has been my passion for writing this series, I could not quite let it end. For starters, I have created a YouTube playlist for not just the songs from this post, but any relevant interviews, documentaries and supplementary material about Franklin and his expedition. Additionally, I feel compelled to give my own bibliography of some of the key sources used for this series-

Erebus-By Michael Palin

Off The Map-By Fergus Fleming

Sea Of Glory-By Nathaniel Philbrick

Let The Sea Make A Noise-By Walter A. MacDougall

To Rule The Waves-By Arthur Herman

Discovery Of The North Pole-By Dr. Frederick A. Cook & Commander Robert E. Peary

British Polar Explorers-By Admiral Sir Edward Evans

A Sea Of Words-A Lexicon & Companion For Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales-By Dean King, With John Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes

Other sources were the Encyclopedia Of Native American Tribes By Carl Waldman, the World Almanac 2019 for facts and maps, and various other online sources.

I also highly recommend a documentary series streaming on Netflix now called Arctic Ghost Ship, focused on the discovery of the Erebus wreckage. It also contains lots of great information about Franklin’s voyage as well.

Northwest Passage-Written By Stan Rogers

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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Photographs By Robert P. Doyle


Spring-The Return

Spring-The Return

Hello again good people! After 6 weeks or so of not thinking about writing, 6 weeks of not thinking about blogs, or worrying that for the past year maybe I was thinking about both too much I feel I am ready to start back up again. Before I get into that I wanted to mention that I really appreciated the support I received after my last post announcing the break. It meant a lot to have people tell me in comments or in private that they appreciated my words and photography. I realize I may have scared a few people into thinking I was going silent for good. Writing these words now is the proof that I have not. Thank you to all of you who reached out. I’m still working things out on the personal level, but it feels right to be doing this again now.

I did spend some time thinking if I wanted to do a rethink of this space along the lines of changing the theme and color scheme again. I ended the last post with the realization that I needed to find out what has been missing for me in putting these words to the computer. To find the ways to feed creativity again. This is a tentative step back today, and I am unsure what and where it will lead me. But I realized something important during this break. In lamenting the state of blogging today, I forgot the crucial part. Being myself. At its peak I was heeding the advice of others-writing often to build an audience. Writing shorter posts so as not to lose an audience. Tagging, doing weekly features, trying to copy what more successful bloggers did. Continue reading “Spring-The Return”

In The Garden

In The Garden

Well after a few weeks off I am ready to dive back into some new music related posts for all of you. During my little break I thought about the origins of this space, about what made me want to combine my own photographs with music in the first place. I was also thinking about how in some ways I slipped away from ‘owning’ this idea of mine recently.  I can now see  how ideas evolve and grow over passage of time. As my photography continues to evolve, so too does my writing.  The things I write today are quite different from what I wrote over four years ago at the start. Sometimes though things can unintentionally go off course. I realized during my break that I had always intended this place to be so much more than just writing about a song. I wanted it to be a creative space, linking words, music, and imagery all together as one. Finding connections between them all. In this coming year I plan to get back to that and I have some ideas for making this happen.

Another thing I realized is that sometimes I hear a new song and know exactly what I want to do with it.  More often than not however, I might know a song for years but do not feel like I have the right photo that pairs up with it in a satisfactory way…because I have not actually taken it yet. Once I find the right one though it reminds me of why I started writing in the first place. Why I wanted to ‘create’.  I can listen to a song and nod my head in agreement with the story or sentiments of the song. I can look at a photo and remember the moment I took it.  When I first started this all off I chose a song by Ralph McTell for my first post.  As I recall the origins of this blog I thought a return to his music might be a good idea. And an idea formed  when I looked back on some photos I took of a butterfly last summer. Continue reading “In The Garden”

Lark Rising-A Tribute To Flora Thompson

Mower In The Field

‘The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.’

So begins one of my most favorite books-Lark Rise To Candleford by Flora Thompson. Originally written as a trilogy in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s the three books were eventually unified as one title. What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the American prairie in her Little House On The Prairie series, what Lucy Maud Montgomery did for Prince Edward Island in Canada with Anne Of Green Gables, Flora Thompson did for her own little corner of England. Ironically, all three women were roughly contemporaries, and all three became known for writing about their own lives growing up. Wilder’s and Montgomery’s stories were originally marketed as successful children’s books (though plenty of adults still admire and read them to this day), Flora Thompson’s series  however was probably more of a slow grower in terms of popularity and importance, and definitely not a children’s book.

Together the three parts of the book-Lark Rise, Over To Candleford, and Candleford Green describe life at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth in a rural corner of England.  Lark Rise being a small hamlet where the protagonist Laura Timmins and her family grew up. Candleford being the slightly larger village, and Candleford Green the market town. The names are fictionalized, but very much based on real places. Using the character of Laura, Thompson was able to weave much of her life growing up, from school and seasonal rituals, to her work as a postmistress in the area. The wonderful thing about this book is though the distance between the three places was not so great, Flora Thompson manages to convey instead a vast landscape, filled with flowers, trees and wildlife.

She also told the story of the people that lived in that area. From her own hardworking parents and her favorite brother Edmund to memorable characters such as Queenie,  Twister, Cousin Dorcas and Zillah, Thompson imbued them all with the spirit of the era. What makes the books still so special today is that they are a living, breathing history of the time period. Flora Thompson wrote them later in life while thinking back on those years. Not purely for nostalgia, but also I think a fair bit of pride for how she and the other inhabitants of the area lived. When she described how a trip to the neighboring village required ‘more than turning over the leaves of a bus time-table’ I do not think of it as being a complaint in the difficulty of planning the excursion. Instead it was just how it was. Nothing more.

I think I have said on these pages before that there is the history that you read about in  books, and the history of any given person during the same time.  What the history books miss in the telling of general trends are the day to day lives of people. People scratching out a living however they could. As Thompson wrote- ‘Lark Rise must not be thought of as a slum set down in the country. The inhabitants lived an open-air life; the cottages were kept clean by much scrubbing with soap and water, and doors and windows stood wide open when the weather permitted.’ They sang songs throughout the year, went to church on Sunday, gossiped about one another, and talked politics at the pub. The charm of the book is in giving life to normal tasks such as the way the houses were decorated, the gardens and animals most households kept, or the archaic rules of children’s games.  In Thompson’s world, these were the historical events, not what was going on in the world around them necessarily.

I could go on quoting many more passages from the book, but I will leave it to you to read for yourselves some day to discover its charms. Revisiting its pages over the last few days  reminded me that  as a photographer when I am looking for interesting things to take photos of, I sometimes stumble upon an artifact from the past. An old barn on a country road or a vintage sign for example. Rather than viewing it as a museum piece or antique, I often think about what that artifact has been witness to. Take the photo I am using in this post. I took it on the little farm my mother grew up on in Ireland. It is one half of a mowing machine and would have been pulled by a horse. It sits in the field, rusted but built so well one could almost imagine it working again.

Perhaps because it is not in a museum or in an antique shop, but was actually used by my grandfather, I felt more of a connection to it. Like the world Flora Thompson recounts in Lark Rise To Candleford, the machine feels relevant still because it represents part of a life that is gone, replaced instead by modern machinery. I think a large part of why Lark Rise is considered such a gem is that it did not lament the inevitable change. Thompson herself once remarked of desiring  ‘a combination of old romance and modern machinery’. Lately with the world moving  faster than ever, when I read the words of writers like Flora Thompson, or when I take a photograph of something I know to be very old, it is my way of linking to the past. Similarly, the world of traditional music has a hand in preserving the same life that Thompson recounted. Bands like The Albion Band did that quite well in fact.

When bass player Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in 1969, he eventually formed the group Steeleye Span, and later The Albion Band. The Albions…as fans generally refer to them as owing to a bit of an open door musical policy were a true extension of Hutchings desire to explore the English folk traditions in full. Not just the traditional ballads, but also the various dance traditions encountered throughout the land. He has explored the work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp, he has performed both with very large groups of musicians and smaller acoustic based ones. He has done obscure concept albums, and more commercial sounding folk-rock.

In 1978, Hutchings and The Albion Band were asked to take part in a stage version of Lark Rise To Candleford. It was a theater in the round type of performance-actors became musicians and vice versa. Later, a studio album comprising some key moments was produced, which is where the music in this post comes from, two traditional songs very much in keeping with the themes of the book.  This album was my introduction to Flora Thompson’s world. The play was perhaps the first real push to present her work as being special. Just a few years ago, a very popular BBC television series went on air, and Thompson’s work is now seemingly on par with those of her two contemporaries.

Inevitably, whenever I play The Albion Band’s album, I find myself pulling out my battered copy of Flora Thompson’s book. Something about the leisurely approach to her story, lends itself to opening up random passages to read at will. I began writing this post as a way of introducing people to the book, but now in conclusion I feel something else happened along the way, and it has to do with that same leisurely approach. I do sometimes fear that the times we are in now really do move too fast. Not only is the technology changing, but we are too. Flora Thompson’s own life was not completely idyllic and was certainly not without hardship. But later in life, she wanted to recount those times, the good and the bad. When musicians like The Albion Band perform old traditional songs they do so to present something similar. When I take a photo of something like an old piece of farm equipment I am doing the same thing. Three mediums keeping the past alive in the present. My fear is that in the fast paced world of today will we collectively recount our pasts the way Thompson did? Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are!

Lemady/Arise & Pick A Posy-Traditional, Arranged By The Albion Band

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

Take Back This House

Early on in this blogging journey of the past three years I made a lot of mistakes. It is inevitable that it should happen of course. I had not done any writing since college some 30 years before after all, and even then it was not my strong suit. It is still a learning process and as I go on, I still learn more every time I sit down and put these posts together. The biggest thing I have learned is to be more focused and succinct when I write. I have thought about re-working some of my older and longer posts in this manner the same way an artist or a band revisits a song from the past. But much like a 1980’s song awash with synthesizers and drum beats that sounds painfully dated, it is sometimes best to move on and write something new instead.

Which is not a bad thing in this case, because early on I wrote a post about yet another favorite group of mine, the Oysterband. You can go searching for it deep in the archives if you want but to be honest, because I was so new to blogging and writing, I don’t feel like I expressed what I really wanted to and lost the point along the way. Ever since I have wanted to correct that, and find a way to write about them again.  That time is now. Rare is a band that gets stronger and comes up with  albums later in their career that are arguably better than the earlier ones, but such is the case with Oysterband who have been plugging away for well over 30 years now. Continue reading “Take Back This House”

Photo Shuffle-Barrett’s Privateers

I pressed play on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Barrett’s Privateers By Stan Rogers.

CSS Acadia, Halifax Nova Scotia
CSS Acadia, Halifax Nova Scotia

Those of you who have been reading my posts for awhile now must surely realize that recurring themes pop up in my posts from time to time. Chalk that up in part to the types of photographs I like to take.  When I travel to a new and different place I  anticipate the types of photo ops I might get, and I instinctively pull the camera out to be ready. Say for example in Halifax, Nova Scotia,  which I stopped in while on a cruise a few years ago. It was a place I hoped would be full of different types of ships, which is one of those recurring themes I mentioned. I do have a thing for all manners of transportation! Happily I was not disappointed, and just a few moments after disembarking while still getting our bearings, my wife and I walked along the fabulous waterfront in Halifax, which was filled with all manner of ships in a busy port.

I suppose the reason I don’t feel bad about recurring, or ‘repeating’ themes here is because  photos, like songs  have similarities, yet there is always something unique to them somehow. A busy port filled with commercial, military, and  cruise ships together with pleasure craft may seem the same as any other port anywhere in the world, yet there is always something different about them, be it due to the layout or the climate. Likewise though songs may have the same time signature, same instruments playing, and maybe even the same subject matter, no two songs are ever truly alike.  I think both of these elements are why I am so easily influenced and inspired by things like transportation as a photography subject. It is also why I am so particularly drawn to folk music because it keeps such a connection with history. Continue reading “Photo Shuffle-Barrett’s Privateers”