Grave Matter

Graves of three men who died whilst Franklin's expidition overwintered on Beechey Island

Beechey Island is in fact only an island when the tide is high and it becomes separated from Devon island by a transient flow of icy water. Indeed had Sir Benjamin Franklin not chosen it as the sight of his first winter lie over it is quite possible it would not be remembered for much at all.

In 1845 Sir John Franklin took his expedition of 129 men and two ships into the Wellington Channel. Not a soul returned from the fateful expedition. It was two years before search parties were launched.

The first to die, in January 1846, was Petty Officer John Torrington. Two other crewmembers died that winter, and were buried in coffins with simple markers. The graves were discovered in 1850 by one of the earliest search parties. They also found stone rings where tents had been erected, the gravel foundations of a storehouse and carpenter’s shed, the remnants of a garden, a shooting gallery, several lookout platforms and a neat pile of over seven hundred tin cans.

Had Franklin adhered to a long standing Royal Navy tradition of leaving a message in a cairn, describing the journey to date and indicating the ships‘ planned routes from that point, he would have saved a great deal of hardship, sorrow and expense on his behalf.

Monument to Lt Bellot, of the French Navy who died whilst seaching for Sir John Franklin in the Wellington Channel in 1853

But there was no message, and no cairn to show that there ever had been one. Why the punctilious Franklin overlooked such an obvious gesture has long been a subject of puzzlement.

The three graves found at Beechey Island left no indication as to the fate of the rest of the British party In the autumn of 2014, Canadian archaeologists discovered remnants of the HMS Erebus in the frozen waters of the Northwest Passage, a discovery that has re-galvanized interest in the fabled region.

Frances and Michael Howorth explored the North West Passages onboard Ocean Endeavour with the help of Destination Canada and Adventure Canada We are truly grateful to them both for the opportunity they provided with us to do our job.


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