For Part 1-Click here
Part 2-The Search
“It was homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew”
These words were written as a broadside ballad around the year 1850. Broadsides were often single sheets of paper that contained the news of the day, woodcut illustrations, or sometimes ballad songs. Sometimes these songs were reprints of known traditional songs, but other times they were ‘ripped from the headlines’ of the day. This meant they were often about true crime, murder or other salacious tales. Other times they were about the buzz of the moment. And in 1850, five years after setting out to find the Northwest Passage, the buzz was still about what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition.
Yesterday in Part 1 I gave you as much that IS known about Lord Franklin’s expedition on the Erebus and Terror. But there is so much we still do not know for certain after all these years. By 1848 after not a single trace or word from the expedition the first relief parties were organized. As I mentioned in Part 1, it was understood that the ships would have to hunker down and live trapped in the ice during the brutal Arctic winter. But the fact that three years had gone by with not a single sighting or word along with the dogged persistence of Lord Franklin’s wife Jane persuaded the British Admiralty to become involved. In the short Arctic summer several official parties went searching via overland routes to where they believed evidence of the expedition would be, as well as by sea from both the eastern and western approaches to the Northwest Passage. Nothing was found.
In Fergus Fleming’s book Off The Map he takes up what happened next-a prize was to be given-£ 20,000 for definitive proof or sighting of Franklin, and £10, 000 if in the course of searching for what happened the Northwest Passage was also found. In 1850 when the broadside of Lord Franklin is thought to have first appeared, no less than 13 vessels were in the Arctic searching for the expedition. This included Royal Navy ships, two U.S. ships, a small ship commanded by fellow polar explorer and hero Sir John Ross, and another financed by Lady Jane Franklin’s personal efforts.
All of which undoubtedly gave the broadside writers plenty of material to work with. And in the ballad Lord Franklin, or its other variant Lady Franklin’s Lament they came up with something noteworthy. In setting the song within the context of a dream the song becomes something ethereal and mysterious conjuring up what may have actually happened to the men on board Erebus and Terror. Years ago as I was becoming interested in traditional music I came across the song first from a giant of traditional music-Martin Carthy. This version comes from his second album released in 1966. Since then I have heard many versions by other artists, but Carthy’s version was my first. Typical for a broadside, a ‘device’ was used to set the story in context. And in using a dream as that device the appropriate mood is set for presenting the likely outcome of the disappearance of the expedition.
The song continues-
“In Baffin Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell”
After five years gone most logical people would be forgiven for agreeing with the words of the song. A realization that the ships and crew were surely lost and all hope abandoned of actually finding them was not so far fetched. Yet some were not so convinced, especially Lady Jane Franklin who held a lot of sway in society circles. Which leads straight into the next part of the Franklin story.
One of the ships that set out in 1850 was HMS Investigator. Since those first relief parties started setting out the focus was searching the probable routes Franklin had taken. But what if Franklin had gone further west and was trapped in the ice beyond where the relief ships had gone? Investigator was tasked along with HMS Enterprise to search locations from West to East where some possible trace may have been found. The ships made the long journey around Cape Horn, past Hawaii, and all the way around Alaska. Separated from Enterprise, the Investigator under Captain Robert McClure made an effort to search for signs of Franklin but also reveled in the chance of finding the Northwest Passage.
As it turns out they wound up getting caught in the ice themselves for two years, scarcely able to make any progress and faced with their own adversity. The extremely short window for getting ships as large as Investigator out of the ice or sending smaller land parties out searching for evidence of Erebus and Terror was surely frustrating. But it was understood to be the way things happened in the Arctic. That did not make life any easier for the crew of Investigator. Which is precisely what the next song is about. It makes for an interesting companion to the ordeal of Franklin and his men.
Fairport Convention have written and performed three songs about Franklin in recent years. I’m Already There is about his first doomed Arctic voyage, Eleanor’s Dream covers similar ground to ‘Lord Franklin’. But with Mercy Bay the band tells the lesser known story of Investigator and Robert McClure and their own agonizing journey. The mid-tempo pace of the song at the start becomes more insistent the further the story goes along. The song tells the story yet also conveys the hardship every man on board was living through. Once again it is an interesting exercise to imagine yourself in the situation. Numbing and unforgiving cold seeping into every part of the body. Sharing tight quarters with others. Little variety to diet and rations cut short. Being literally trapped in the ice. growing more desperate with each passing day, the loss of three members of the crew. One can hear the voice of the unnamed narrator begging and pleading to be free of the ordeal-
“Turn this ship around, from these frozen grounds
Lets be homeward bound
Find a way”
As the song alludes to at the end, McClure and the surviving crew of the Investigator were fortunate to eventually make it back to England having spent a total of four years in the Arctic. They had their own harrowing tales of disaster, hardship and rescue. As Fleming points out ‘in taking his ship to Banks Island, and then crossing the ice to Melville Island, McClure had become the first man to actually traverse the Northwest Passage. He was given a gold medal and was awarded the £10, 000 prize’. But what of Franklin?
Studying the entire history of relief parties searching for what happened is as much of a mystery as what direction the frozen inlets and narrow bays of the Arctic led to for the men on board those ships. Due to lack of communication it was not easy piecing together all the disparate sightings and tangible evidence that was being slowly pieced together both for the public and the ever hopeful Lady Franklin. Some evidence was actually even discounted And that is where we will pick up in the third and final part of this series.
Lord Franklin-Traditonal, Arranged By Martin Carthy
Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie
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Photographs By Robert P. Doyle