Lord Franklin and Sir John Barrow

The well-known folk song ‘Lord Franklin’ also known as ‘Lady Franklin’s Lament’ recounts the story of a sailor who dreams about Lady Franklin speaking of the loss of her husband, Lord John Franklin, who disappeared during his 1845 expedition through the Arctic Ocean in search of the Northwest Passage sea route to the Pacific ocean. The song first appeared as a broadside ballad around 1850 and has since been recorded with the melody of the Irish traditional air “Cailín Óg a Stór” by numerous artists.

Ulverston’s most famous landmark on the top of Hoad Hill is the John Barrow Monument.  It commemorates Sir John Barrow who was born in Ulverston in 1764.

In 1804, Sir John Barrow became Second Secretary of the Admiralty, a post he held until 1845, and began a push by the Royal Navy to complete the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and to navigate toward the North Pole.  He held that sea water could not freeze and that open seas must therefore exist beyond north Canada. All sailors had to do was persevere. Others, such as William Scoresby, a whaling captain and a veteran of the Arctic, argued vehemently that open sea water could freeze. He had seen it do so many times, he pointed out. The fact that Scoresby was ignored while the wrong-headed views of Barrow gained acceptance was just one factor in the chain of events that would lead Sir John Franklin’s expedition to its icy doom.

The Barrow Strait in the Canadian Arctic as well as Point Barrow and the city of Barrow in Alaska are named after Sir John Barrow.

In 1845 Franklin set off from Greenhithe in Kent with 129 men to find the Northwest Passage in two well-provided sail ships that had been fitted with steam-driven propellers to help them manoeuvre in pack ice. They were Erebus and Terror. Their holds were filled with a three-year supply of tinned provisions. Franklin’s two ships were observed, by whalers, sailing into Lancaster Sound in late July 1845. They were never seen again. After several years of mounting concern for Franklin and his men, Britain became obsessed with his disappearance and more than 40 expeditions were launched to find him. For each mission, his widow, Jane, wrote a letter to be handed to her husband on his rescue. Each time, it was returned unopened.

The truth was uncovered by the Scottish explorer John Rae in the 1850s. After interviewing Inuits, he learned that Franklin had died in 1847, two years after his ships became trapped in ice. Later, his men, by now starving, started to eat each other. Not surprisingly, Victorian society was appalled by the story and Rae was denounced in a campaign instigated by Lady Jane and waged by Charles Dickens as chief propagandist. Rae had no right to believe “a race of savages”, Dickens claimed. It was far more likely the Inuits had killed Franklin’s men themselves.

The issue was not fully resolved until 1997, when blade marks on the bones of crew discovered on King William Island were found to have cut marks consistent with the men having been cut up and eaten. Trapped in ice for years, and afflicted by scurvy, starvation and possibly lead poisoning from their poorly preserved tins of food, the men had died the grimmest of deaths.

The Canadian government began searching for Franklin’s ships in 2008 as part of a strategy to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, which has recently become accessible to shipping because of melting Arctic ice.

In September last year they discovered the wreck of Franklin’s ship Erebus. It has been extremely well preserved due to the cold and dark of the arctic waters which keeps biological and chemical processes in check on the sea floor.

One intriguing aspect of the discovery of Erebus in Queen Maud Gulf is the fact that its location fits in neatly with Inuit testimony about Franklin’s expedition. “Their stories about the expedition were vivid and detailed but were dismissed in the 19th century because Inuits were considered to be savages,” said Ryan Harris, who is senior marine archaeologist for Parks Canada, which manages the nation’s wilderness areas. “In fact, they were providing extremely accurate information, we now realise. The discovery of Erebus in our southern search area completely vindicates what they had been saying. The ship is exactly where they said it had sunk. They also reported that Erebus’s masts were still visible after it had gone down, and again that fits in with the shallowness of the waters in which the ship settled. That means we can re-examine their testimony in greater detail and be more confident of getting more clues about the fate of the rest of expedition.”

Channel 4 are broadcasting a documentary about the discovery of the Erebus entitled ‘Hunt For The Arctic Ghost Ship’ on Tuesday 4 August at 9.00pm. This Secret History documentary has exclusive access behind the scenes of this momentous expedition. The story unfolds in the freezing Arctic, on the search vessels on the 2014 expedition, from their battle with heavy sea-ice that threatened to stop the search entirely, to the dramatic chain of events that led to their historic discovery.

It is being repeated at various times on channel 4seven.