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The Franklin expedition

The Franklin expeditionA number of Franklin related memorabilia are found in the personal papers of Thomas Holloway (SHC ref 2620/9/8) which show how Holloway, founder of the Holloway Sanatorium in Egham, was as fascinated as much of the rest of the country in the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin to the Northwest Passage.

For centuries, explorers had sought to discover a route through the complex series of waterways in the High Arctic that spans the entire width of the North American Continent. By the mid 19th Century, finding a way through the fabled North West Passage, in order to establish an alternative trading route from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, had become the Holy Grail for Victorian explorers and numerous expeditions had tried and failed to find a route through the ice. The expedition that captured the British public's imagination more than any other was the attempt made by Sir John Franklin, who set sail on the morning of 19 May 1845 with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men aboard the ships Terror and Erebus.

The Franklin expeditionThe ships were last seen by Europeans in July 1845, but after two further years and no word from the expedition, Franklin's wife began to urge the Admiralty to send a search party to find her husband or his records, and although Lady Franklin sponsored seven expeditions in total to find her husband before her death in 1875, the document featured here pertains to this first attempt in 1850. Her determined efforts, in connection with which she spent a great deal of her own money to discover the fate of her husband, added much to the world's knowledge of the arctic regions.

In 1854, the Scottish explorer Dr John Rae discovered what would later be proved to be the true fate of the Franklin party from talking to Inuit hunters. He was told that both ships had become icebound, the men had tried to reach safety on foot but had succumbed to cold and some had resorted to cannibalism. Rae's report to the Admiralty was leaked to the press, which led to widespread revulsion in Victorian society, enraged Lady Franklin, and condemned Rae to ignominy. Lady Franklin's efforts to eulogise her husband (click on newspaper cutting image to enlarge it), with support from the British Establishment, led to a further 25 searches over the next four decades, none of which would add any further information of note.

The Franklin expeditionThe North West Passage was finally navigated by Roald Amundsen between 1903 and 1906. In 1981, the graves of some of the members of the Franklin expedition were discovered, and a series of scientific studies of the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left by crew members began. The combined evidence of all studies suggested that hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning and disease, including scurvy, along with general exposure to a hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition, killed everyone on the expedition in the years following its last sighting in 1845.