Plymouth, Devon, and the Search for Sir John Franklin

Plymouth, Devon, and the Search for Sir John Franklin

WITH THE NEWS that the shipwreck lying in 11 metres of water in Victoria Strait, previously tentatively identified as the HMS Erebus, is indeed the Erebus, one of the two ill-fated ships (with HMS Terror) that carried 138 men on the Arctic expedition of survey and discovery under the command of Sir John Franklin in 1845, PUNCS presents some of the aspects of the search for the truth, linked to Plymouth and the wider South West region – through printed sources such as the local newspapers. The mystery of Franklin’s fate fascinated the Victorians.

The Davy shipyards at Topsham on the River Exe in Devonshire, had actually been the birthplace of HMS Terror in 1813, a ship which had first served as a bomb-ketch (her icebound fate on an earlier Arctic expedition was depicted in a painting by Edward William Cooke, ARA, which was exhibited at the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic at Falmouth in 1860). Plymouth’s connections with Franklin himself maybe slight – as signal-midshipman, he was on board the Bellerophon on its return from the Battle of Trafalgar at Plymouth in late 1805; and reports from one of his earlier polar expeditions of scientific discovery had been read to the savants at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Plymouth in 1841.

It’s not surprising that Plymouth Dockyard provided a port for repairs, and departure point, for a number of ships involved in some of the early searches that followed Franklin’s disappearance. News too arrived at Plymouth about the expedition’s possible fate. Thus the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on 3 May 1850 that the story of Franklin’s safety, ‘which reached Plymouth via Hong Kong, on Wednesday, is believed to be without foundation’; Exeter Plymouth Gazette published as ‘local news’ in May 1852, ‘from a private letter, that yesterday … the Admiralty received a telegraphic announcement from France’ that Franklin had been found; and the local newspapers (as elsewhere), carried correspondence and commentary on Franklin, for instance the letter from ‘Humanitas’ published in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 October 1852). In 1850 Exeter inhabitants could see ‘The Search for Sir John Franklin’, an image that had first been exhibited in a panoramic display of the Arctic, by the artist Alfred Adams (‘artist to M. Soyer’) in London:




(From the Royal Gallery of Illustration, Haymarket,


Hamilton’s Grand Moving Panorama of

The Arctic Regions

 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 23 November 1850, see also 7 December 1850 and 14 December)

The discovery ship Plover, which joined Sir James Clark Ross’s expedition, was repaired in Plymouth before setting out for the Behring Straits on 30 January 1848. The Literary Gazette instructed its readers: ‘to those who may have friends in Sir John Franklin’s expedition, to whom they may wish to have letters conveyed, that they must send them under cover to Lieut. Moore, of her Majesty’s ship Plover, Plymouth …’ (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 January 1848).

The two ships Enterprise (under Captain Richard Collinson) and Investigator (under Captain Robert J.L.M. McClure), which had been part of the expedition under Ross, were towed from Greenhithe to Devonport and sailed from Plymouth on 20 January 1850 – the Enterprise was forced back by the ice, north east of the Behring Strait, but returned to the search in 1851. The following was reported in late January 1850 (Sherborne Mercury, and other newspapers):

PLYMOUTH, Jan.20 –The Enterprise, Capt. Collison. and Investigator, Commander M’Clure, tripped their anchors inside the breakwater this morning, at eight o’clock, under their two topsails, jib and spanker, and left the Sound by the western channel, the Commodore being in advance to the westward. Outside they hove to, to receive letters and secure their ground tackle, after which they hoisted top gallantsails and foresails, and having a spanking breeze from north east, direct fair wind, were soon out of sight. In the absence of Mr, William Walker, Queen’s Harbour master, who on Admiralty leave, Mr. Davey, Second Master Attendant, piloted expedition out of the harbour. On departure the officers and crews were in excellent spirits, and full of hope of finding the long lost Sir John Franklin, by which they will obtain a well merited promotion.

While in the Sound the upper deck of the Enterprise was caulked, and her topgallant yard was sent ashore and repaired. From the Royal William Victualling Yard thirteen ions of preserved meat were despatched on Thursday, and from the dockyard there have been forwarded soldering and solder for repairing leaks in the tin cases of preserved meat, pumps for clearing the ships’ holds foul air, a great quantity of leather hoses, small cordage, &c. From the Gun Wharf they have received some patent aerial telegraphs for use in the Arctic regions, by which exploring parties detached from the ships in different directions may communicate with each other or with the ships. The gins made at the dockyard and sent on board on Friday are described as being composed of iron somewhat in the shape of bulbous inverted cone, the point of which is of hardened steel, made very sharp. This instrument, which weighs 141b. or 151b., is attached by a teakle and fall to the outer end of the bowsprit, and, being worked on the ship’s deck, is allowed to drop suddenly on the ice, which it will penetrate when of ordinary thickness, and thus clear passage for the ship.

From Plymouth, the expedition sails direct to Valparaiso, where fresh provisions will be obtained. Thence it crosses the Equator, and proceeds to Sandwich Island, where the Commodore will wait instructions from the Admiralty at home, prior to joining the Plover brig which is to accompany the Investigator and Enterprise to Behring’s Strait, and assist in the prosecution of their perilous adventure.

The Plymouth Times carried news of the Enterprise and Investigator’s ‘Ice Masters’, men skilled and experienced in arctic navigation, and other details of the expedition (Exeter Flying Post, 31 January 1850). Local subscriptions were raised to support Lady Franklin’s private efforts to locate her husband, such as the fund established by the Exeter Gazette in 1851 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 26 April 1851). Local papers relayed Captain Frances Leopold McClintock’s news, from the screw discovery vessel Fox, about the record left by Captains Crozier and Fitzjames and dated 25 April 1848, which had been discovered in a tin box at Point Victory, on the north west coast of King William’s Island, concerning Franklin’s death in June 1847 and the abandonment of the two ships, in 1859 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 September 1859).

By the late 1850s and 1860s, with credible evidence of the death of Franklin and the crew in the form of artefacts and reports via the Inuit, the search for the Erebus and Terror had become the subject for local lectures, for instance the Reverend William Scoresby’s ‘highly interesting lecture’ to a crowded audience at the Natural History Society in Torquay in January 1855 (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 January 1855); and one given at Dawlish (a penny reading by Dr Baker, South Devon Gazette, 29 November 1861).

The Western Times in 1906 published news of the death of one local link with these Victorian endeavours to seek evidence about the fate of Franklin and his men – Joseph Worth, apparently quartermaster on the Herald which had searched for Franklin in 1854-55 (so the paper stated: the Herald had also been searching for Franklin with the Plover after 1848), dying at Plymouth at the age of 81.

James Gregory, 2 October 2014



Augustus Petermann, Historical summary of the search for Sir John Franklin (London: J.E. Taylor, 1853), p.11.

Sir John Richardson, Arctic searching expedition. A journal of a boat-voyage through Rupert’s Land and the Arctic Sea, in search of the discovery ships under command of Sir John Franklin (New York: Harper Brothers, 1852), p.24.

The Athenaeum, 24 September 1859, pp.398-399.

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 7 January 1848

Sherborne Mercury, 26 January 1850

Exeter Flying Post, 17 January 1850

Exeter Flying Post, 31 January 1850

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 23 November 1850

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 26 April 1851

Exeter Plymouth Gazette, 22 May 1852

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 30 October 1852

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 20 January 1855

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 September 1859

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 21 September 1860

Western Times, 8 March 1906

The Illustrated London News, 13 May 1848 carried engravings of the Enterprise and Investigator.

On H.M.S. Terror, see–a-Topsham-Ship/Exhibitions/topsham-museum/Museum-Exhibition/

See also: ‘HMS Terror, 9 months in the Ice of Frozen Strait, under the command of Captain, now Rear Admiral Sir George Back, April, 1836-7’, museum catalogue, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge,


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