Tag Archives: Sir John Franklin

George Strong NARES 1831-1915

13 Jul George Strong Nares

The courage and fortitude of eighteenth and nineteenth century naval Officers and Boys I read about never fails to impress. How did they keep going when the odds were stacked against them?  The answer of course is twofold.- the excitement, the interest, the adventure of the life was persuasive,  but also there were few alternatives: the army, the church, or possibly medicine. Since families were commonly large, employment was a must.

George Nares  was one of these men. His future was preordained. As sixth child of a naval officer, the sea beckoned. His father, William Henry Nares, who was promoted Commander in 1814, had taken part in the capture of French ships and defended Italy, Sicily and Cadiz against the French.. The sea and sea stories would have been in George’s background.

Photo Portrait of George Strong Nares
George Strong Nares

George Nares was born on the 24th April 1831 in Llansenseld, near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, South Wales.  He was the third son and the sixth child.  He was educated in the Royal Naval School in Camberwell, London, (now closed), this was a charitable institution for the ‘Sons of Officers of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines’. He then joined the Royal Navy in 1845 at the age of fourteen – fourteen was the mandatory age for Cadets to join. His naval training began on HMS Canopus,  an old battleship, captured by the English in Horatio Nelson’s time and, by this time a hulk (afloat but not seaworthy). Here he would have received some academic education,  as did all  the naval cadets. Teaching took place for several hours each morning.

HMS Canopus

Training and experience followed. He was posted in 1848, to the Australia/New Zealand Station on HMS Havannah. At this time he passed his midshipman examination. This was followed, in 1852, by a successful  attempt at the examinations to become a Lieutenant – he came second in his group.

The vicissitudes of a naval career are many. I am going to concentrate on three important expeditions which involved Nares. These are:

  1. The search for Sir John Franklin
  2. The Challenger Expedition
  3. The British Arctic Expedition of 1875–76



Sir John Franklin

While Nares returned to England on Havannah in 1851, it was suggested  that he should apply for a place on  Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition which was to sail to the Arctic in search of definite evidence of the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition of 1845.  Sir John had disappeared in the Arctic, along with his ships Erebus and Terror and his entire crew, in his attempt to find a way through the North West Passage. The North West Passage is the waterway north of Canada between the Atlantic and the Pacific – there was no Panama Canal at that time, this route was considerably shorter than the usual route between the two oceans and therefore commercially attractive.

Sir Edward’s expedition followed closely after that of Captain Horatio Austen’s in 1850-52. Austen had set out on the same mission, but had searched in vain for evidence relating to the Franklin expedition’s fate. In 1852, Sir Edward, in command of five ships. was briefed  again with the goal of finding Franklin (or at least some evidence of his fate). On this expedition the search was to be broadened towards the Eastern Canadian Arctic.  The five ships set out with great hopes of success.

George Nares was accepted as Second Mate on HMS Resolute  on this almost impossible task. This 1852 expedition under Sir Edward’s overall command, was to instill in Nares a profound sense of the mystique  of the Arctic, plus a knowledge of  the scientific approach to Arctic exploration, as well as an understanding of the dangers and challenges of the region.

Model of HMS Resolute

When the expedition finally penetrated the Arctic and reached Beechey Island, Sir Edward sent his ships in different directions.  The channels and islands of the Arctic are a maze to the uninitiated, but in summary, after leaving Beechey Island, Resolute, captained by Henry Kellett, and with Nares on board, accompanied by the tender (supply ship), HMS Intrepid, went west in the search of Franklin. (see map)

Resolute and Intrepid sailed to Dealy Island, (see second map), which is near the shore of Melville Island. Before winter set in, and whilst activities remained possible the crews of both ships searched continuously for clues of the Franklin expedition’s fate. They found none

HMS Resolute & Steamship, 1853, in sea ice off Dealy Island
 Recorded by George Frederick McDougal, Sailing Master on HMS Resolute

A winter camp (1852-53) and a temporary ‘dock’ on land ice near Dealy Island   was organized. Activities and education were also organized. Nares took part in evening school to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as needed by crew members.  Organised activities were very important for morale -the winter- dark, cold, monotonous, could be a time of discontent.about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URLabout:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.UploadSelect ImageInsert from URL

During the spring and summer time of 1853 the crews of Resolute and Intrepid continued sledging far and wide, searching unsuccessfully for clues relating to Franklin.

The early months of 1853, brought no expected seasonal change – no spring and summer thaw.  This meant that the ships remained trapped in the heavy ice (see map above). In April 1853, Sir Edward ordered that the tender Intrepid should be abandoned in the ice. The Intrepid crew transferred to Resolute.

By August, the cold front still completely encased Resolute in ice and she was carried slowly eastwards with the ice flow, at about 1.7 miles per day.  As winter (1853-54) drew in, the temperature dropped further, at one point to fifty-nine degrees below zero –  it averaged minus thirty degrees between November 1853 and March 1854.  The crews endured long periods of confinement and inactivity – they were in the dark, there was no exploration, charting, searching or hunting. Also they were on reduced rations. There was no fresh food, all the ships compliment ate tinned food, this brought the ever present danger of scurvy, the dread of all long expeditions.

But even these experiences did not deter Nares from his fascination in the Arctic and for its possibilities of advancement in knowledge.

One important positive outcome of the expedition concerned the 1853 rescue of men from the abandoned ship HMS Investigator  (shown in Map 2) Investigator   which had, set off three years earlier,  was one of the ships who took part in the search for Franklin expedition. She was captained by Robert McClure who, in addition to this search, had made the first journey along the Canadian Arctic from the Pacific to the Atlantic using a combination of sea travel and sledging (thus traversing the North West Passage). Investigator was locked in ice for four

winters, her crew started walking for help and were found by one of Resolute’s crew, Lieutenant Bedford Pim, who guided the men from Investigator  over the 80 miles to safety on Resolute

By April 1854, when Resolute had been encased in ice for over a year, Sir Edward  ordered that she should be abandoned. Her Captain, Henry Kellett was adamantly against this, but naval orders could not be challenged – to disobey would have resulted in court marshal and Kellett had no choice but to obey his commander’s instructions.  So the ships were abandoned to the ice [1]and the crews, including  Nares,  faced a hard march across ice to reach the expedition ships at Beechey Island. They were transported home on transport ships in 1854

Resolute had a remarkable story: The British Government announced in The London Gazette that Resolute was Her Majesty’s property, but no salvage was attempted. In 1855, she was found adrift by the American whaler George Henry, in an ice flow off Baffin Island, over 10,0000 miles from where she had been abandoned. She was taken to New London Connecticut, restored with US government assistance and presented to Queen Victoria.

The importance of recording Nares early Arctic experience is that he gained experience in Arctic geography,  its wildlife, and climate. During the expedition  many geographical locations were explored and named (for example: Northumberland Sound, Prince Edward’s Cape, Prince Albert’s Island, Cape Disraeli) and experiments were undertaken on the freezing of liquids,  the depth of the ice, and the effects of the extreme cold on instruments, as well as details and patterns of Arctic ice floes. His experience had  made him a knowledgeable expert on Arctic matters and this made him an ideal choice for further hazardous expeditions.  He had been fascinated by the Arctic and wanted to return but – to his frustration, no further Arctic expedition undertaken for the next twenty years. 


  1. Command of surveying ship on Australian station
  2. In 1854 Nares specialized as a gunnery officer. He joined the new battleship Conqueror in 1854, which included service in the Mediterranean during the Crimean War.
  3. Nares commanded HMS Newport in the Mediterranean—this posting includes the wonderful story that, at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when British ships were lying second in the approach to the canal, Nares manoeuvred Newport through the flotilla to a position in front of the French yacht L’Agile. Newport was therefore the first vessel to sail through the canal. Nares received an official reprimand bur there must have been secret enjoyment amongst those superiors giving the rebuke.
  4. In 1859 Nares wrote a best selling book The Naval Cadets Guide republished as Seamanship.
  5. He was promoted to commander in 1862 and took command of the training ship Boscawen in September 1863 when he was aged 32.

His was to be a successful career


Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror

19 May

When I qualified in medicine we knew about chromosomes; curving long threads of DNA that carry our hereditary information, about germ cells, about mitosis when chromosomes duplicate to create daughter calls.
We did not know about forensic DNA profiling, also commonly referred to as DNA fingerprinting. This should not be confused with the fingerprinting techniques carried out at countries’ borders. DNA profiling came into general use in the 1980s, developed by Sir Alec Jeffreys. It is a process whereby DNA samples are matched. Each sample shows everyone’s unique properties but also shows characteristics that are similar to their relatives. Comparison of the DNA of bones from archeological specimens with samples of the DNA of known relatives, may allow for identification of the deceased.
This process is now to be used to gain further information about the causes of the deaths of the crews of HMS Erebus and Terror. This famous expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, set out from Britain in 1845. Its aim was to find a way through the North West Passage, a route that many believed would dramatically reduce the transit time between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and open up a new trade route.
None of the 129 crew members were to survive. The ships became trapped in heavy ice. Sir John and twenty-five of the crew died in 1847. The ships were abandoned in April 1848 and the remaining crew (104 men) began their desperate trek from the northwest coast of King William Land towards the mainland.
Precise details of their fate remained a mystery despite numerous expeditions to ascertain their fate, although for years fragments relating to the expedition were found frozen in ice. Erebus herself was finally located in 2014 in the Queen Maud Gulf, below King William Island, her ship’s bell was recovered in November. In September 2016, the wreck of HMS Terror was found submerged in Terror Bay, which is off the southwest coast of King William Island. Both ships were in remarkably good condition despite being lost in the icy wastes for nearly 170 years.
There is a poignant memorial to the disaster in Waterloo Place in London, which I have often studied. On the memorial are the names of all the crew members. Many theories have been advanced to explain the catastrophe: lead poisoning, scurvy, infection, notably tuberculosis. The ships were well stocked with provisions but clearly food ran out for some of the parties; Dr. John Ray who investigated the fate of the Franklin expedition in 1854, reported stories of cannibalism.
Now, researchers have extracted and sequenced DNA from the skeletal remains of 24 crew members from the expedition. The samples were from numerous different sites including King William Island. Thirty-seven tooth and bone samples were tested and DNA extracted from thirty-two and it is hoped that the work may help actually identify the crew by comparative DNA (if living descendants can be found), also that information about the cause of death will be obtained. The study was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Four of the samples were identified as females; unexpected, as the ship’s documentation did not record women on board. Two possibilities relating to this finding are a) the DNA has degraded over the 160 years since the crew were lost or b) that there were women actually serving in the ship dressed as men – this is thought unlikely, it would have been difficult for four women to successfully concealed their identity. Another study found zinc deficiency in toenails of one of the mummies.
The expedition remained in the public conscience for years. The suggestion of cannibalism apparently infuriated Charles Dickens who collaborated with his friend Wilkie Collins on a Franklin based play The Frozen Deep. Landseer’s painting Man Proposes, God Disposes, shows man ‘proposing’ in the form of a shipwreck and God ‘disposing’ in the form of two bears. But the discovery of Franklin’s ships is one of the most important archeological finds in exploration history. Finding the ships has been likened to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister in 2014, emphasized the importance of Franklin’s ships in Canadian history – the expedition laid the foundation for Canada’s Arctic control- all the waterways in the North –West Passage are claimed as Canadian.

the ships used by Sir John Franklin published by Illustratated London News 24 May 1845/Getty images

The Northwest Passage

21 Jun

When, in 1845, Sir John Franklin (KCH FRGS RN), attempted to navigate and chart the Northwest Passage, all of the crew of 24 officers and 105 men died. Their poignant memorial is in Waterloo Place, London, outside the Athenaeun Club. All the men who died are listed on the memorial. Franklin’s ships were ‘Erebus’ and “Terror”, names now permanently remembered, following Sir James Clark Ross’ decision to call the two volcanoes on Ross Island, (one active), by these names. These volcanoes were a powerful backdrop to the British expeditions of the early 1900s.
Franklin’s men died of starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis and scurvy. Franklin himself died in June 1847; some two years after the expedition had left England. The men must have suffered terribly as they attempted to return to civilisation. In their desperation they are said to have, reasonably, resorted to cannibalism –this report by the Scottish explorer Dr John Rae, enraged Franklin’s widow and Victorian society and condemned Dr Rae to ignominy. Many ships were involved in a search for the lost men. Eventually more ships and men were lost looking for Franklin, than on the expedition itself.
Now cruise ships are to sail along the Northwest Passage as the Arctic summer sea ice diminishes. Polar Bears are losing ground. Ice volume decreased by 3% per year between 1979 to 2014. But those who see the melting ice sheets press the need for a Climate Change Accord, emphasising again, that those human activities that contribute to climate change must be modified.


3 Feb

The medal is awarded by the Queen. It was known first as the Arctic Medal, which was issued in 1857 and awarded to, amongst others, the expedition trying to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in 1847 whilst trying to discover the North West Passage. The Polar Medal was introduced in 1904 in recognition of the achievements of Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctica. It was awarded to members of the Discovery crew, also, I understand, to the crews of both rescue ships the Terra Nova and the Morning. A few years later members of Shackleton’s expeditions (1907-09 and 1914-1916) were honoured also.

The medal is given to citizens of the United Kingdome and Northern Ireland who have made significant contributions to knowledge in the Polar Regions or those who have given outstanding support in the acquisition of this knowledge and the objectives of polar exploration. Both groups have to have had experience of the hazards and rigours of the Polar environment.

The Arctic Club is delighted that its honorary secretary has been awarded the 2016 Polar Medal. Seven people have been awarded the medal this year ‘for outstanding achievement and service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research’ with three of these related to Arctic work’.

As you know I am writing about William Speirs Bruce who led the major (Scottish) expedition, the Scotia expedition, to the Weddell Sea in 1902. After the expedition Bruce expected that he would get London-based recognition for his scientists and officers, but none received the Polar Medal. Bruce considered this a tremendous slight to himself and his crew and battled for years for the honour. He was convinced that Sir Clements Markham, the powerful President of the Royal Geographical Society and not a man to be crossed, influenced the decision. Sir Clements was the father of the Discovery expedition. He thought (and wrote) that he considered that Bruce had diverted monies that should have gone to Discovery to the coffers of the Scotia. This fundamental disagreement left Bruce with a lifelong distrust of Sir Clements and a conviction that the powerful president had effectively prevented the award.

Appeals by the Government to convince the Palace that the award should be granted were rebuffed. But recent evidence suggests that Bruce’s suspicions were wrong. The refusal appears to have been neither due to doubts as to Bruce’s scientific achievements, nor to Sir Clement’s malign influence, but because the Scotia expedition had been financed in Scotland and did not require government monies nor Admiralty rescue i.e. it had not had financial support out of Scotland (one of the ironies of this decision is that Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition did not have London-based financial support either). King Edward VII refused the award, his son George V was not prepared to overturn his father’s decision, a reason given that to honour Bruce’s expedition would set a precedent by widening the scope of the medal. A more recent application also failed.
Bruce considered, until his dying day, that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the Royal Geographical Society after the Scotia Expedition


2 Jan

In Waterloo Place, St James, London there is a poignant tribute to Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition, planned to last three years from 1845, to find the Northwest Passage – the sea route that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The names of the 129 Royal Naval officers and men who lost their lives in the expedition are listed on each side of the memorial.

The Northwest Passage runs from its eastern entry from the North Atlantic (between Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago) and is contiguous with Canada’s northern mainland coast. The discovery of a route through the maze of islands making up the archipelago was considered to be a most important economic prize. Although it lay within the Arctic Circle and the passage was thought to be frozen most of the year, many speculated that the route would be considerably shorter than the long sea route via the South Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and The West Coast of North America

The route had been sought for many years and many thousands of pounds were offered as a prize to the successful navigator. Experienced seamen had failed to do this though many miles of the Northern Canadian coast and its archipelago had been explored and surveyed.

Sir John Franklin had been one of these explorers. In total he made four journeys to the Arctic. On the second, the expedition ran out of food and the men chewed leather to reduce their hunger pangs. This thrilling escapade made Franklin a British National Hero. On his third expedition he mapped over 1000 miles of the Northern Canadian Mainland coast and like subsequent explorers recorded the weather, wild life and plant life. In 1845, aged 59, he was considered an excellent choice to lead a further expedition and to gain the elusive prize.
Franklin led an expedition of 2 ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, (whose names are now well recognised as volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). They were sailing ships but had small steam engines to blast through the ice. The ships carried food for 3 years including thousands of tins that were sealed with lead, (which, it is now speculated, could have caused lead poisoning). The ships left England in May 1845 and were last seen off Baffin Island in July of that year. It is known that initially the expedition explored Canada’s Northern coast but in the winter of 1846-47 the ships were beset in the Victoria Strait, an area of deep sea between Victoria Island and King William Island.
Franklin died in June 1847, many of the crew sickened and died. Later the same year the ships were abandoned when Captain Crozier decided to attempt to travel south overland to seek help. No one survived.
Many expeditions went subsequently to try to ascertain the fate of the men, including John Ross and his nephew James Clark Ross, McClintock (who was given buttons, needles and knives from the ship) and John Rae (Orkney’s greatest unsung hero and Edward Wilson’s personal hero) who recorded that cannibalism had occurred (hotly contested by the Great British Public including Charles Dickens and Sir John Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane who spent her fortune financing search parties).
There have now been remarkable developments. Recently the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition was launched to find the lost vessels. Huge resources were put to the task that was backed by the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. A helicopter expedition to an island in the eastern end of Queen Maud Gulf found remains from one of the ships; the wonderful find of an iron fitting from a davit and two halves of a deck hawser plug. Soon after a sonar towfish found the wreck of one of Franklins ships. This was subsequently identified as Erebus
Stephen Harper spoke at a press conference in September 2014 in Ottawa of the truly historic moment for Canada. He said that Franklin’s expedition laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic history
There will be much more. The hull is amazingly intact. It may be that information will appear about the fate of Franklin. Great stuff!



12 Sep

The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific is becoming more accessible. The sea ice is disappearing fast. This summer it has shrunk to its lowest since measurements began.

Apparently in 1979, the ice covered nearly 14 million square kilometers. This year it measured 4.1 million sq km.

This has one indisputable effect. The Northwest Passage is becoming more accessible, for navigation and exploration.

As is well known, in 1845 Sir John Franklin led a Royal Naval expedition that was to chart northern Canada and attempt to discover a route through the Northwest Passage, the ‘shortcut’ from the East to West. Sir John perished along with the crews of ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ (the names that had been given given by Ross to the two volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). Searches to discover conclusively what happened to the expedition have regularly failed. There is now a traditional annual summer search for the remains of the ships.  At the rate the sea ice is disappearing, the chances of finding them improve each year.