Sunday, 3 May 2009

Cornelius Hickey's 'table knife'

One of the more unusual items of cutlery recovered from the Franklin Expedition is Cornelius Hickey's 'table knife’. Petty Officer Cornelius Hickey was the Caulker’s Mate on HMS Terror. He was born in 1826 in Limerick so was twenty four when the Franklin Expedition sailed and twenty seven when HMS Terror was abandoned off King William Island.

He was clearly the owner of a knife now on display at the National Maritime Museum collection, which can be seen at, where it is described as “a bone-handled table knife inscribed with initials of Cornelius Hickey.” The accession record goes on to say “the maker's name on the blade is 'Millikin 301 Strand London”. The bone handle is carved with the initials 'C.H.' on one side and 'HICKEY’ on the other side.

But all is not what it seems with Mr. Hickey's knife. The firm of Millikin was a manufacturer of surgical equipment and it seems that Millikin supplied the surgical equipment for at least one of the surgeons on the Expedition. A metal tourniquet by Millikin was recovered by the Schwatka search expedition from near Ross' Cairn on King William Island in 1879 and is now in the National Maritime Museum collection as well. It can be seen at A Medicine Chest was also found ( near this spot.

This knife was not a table knife at all but a surgical blade which William Hickey re-handled in bone. When did Hickey acquire this blade and convert it into a table knife? Obviously we don't know. It is generally accepted that officers' silverware was distributed to the sailors at the time of the abandonment of the ships, and the fact that one surgeon's equipment supplied by Millikin seems to have been abandoned at Point Victory at that time would suggest that this was when Hickey acquired this knife. We can guess why, though. On board ship sailors ate cooked food, often boiled, so the necessity for a sharp knife for eating was limited. Ashore, though, a sharp eating knife would be very necessary. It would be interesting to have an expert examine the bone from which the handle was carved. Was it made from the bone of a British domestic animal – cow, sheep or pig – or from an animal native to King William Island – seal, for example?

The National Maritime Museum website says that the knife “was obtained from the Inuit at Repulse Bay in 1854 by the Rae Expedition. The Inuit said they had found the material at a camp to the north west of the mouth of the Back River where a party of Europeans had died of starvation”. That implies that Cornelius Hickey may have been one of the last survivors of the Expedition to die at Starvation Cove. There is a final, ghoulish, possibility which integrated global scientific analysis might be able to examine. We know from the work of Owen Beattie and his team that cut marks consistent with butchery using metal knives have been found on the bones of members of the Franklin Expedition. As far as I know, no attempt has been made to match these cut marks with any of the blades recovered from the Franklin Expedition. This is a long shot, but would anyone dare try to match the profile of this blade to any of these cut-marks?

A Plea for information on Franklin Expedition cutlery

The silver cutlery of the Franklin Expedition is famous but, as Russell Potter pointed out on his blog (, much more information could be derived from it about the Franklin Expedition if it could be collated and properly analysed. Russell has already sent me some new (to me) information, which is great.

I have tried to construct a database of information on this cutlery, which at the moment is mainly restricted to cutlery held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich or the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Although not complete, it suggests what a comprehensive database might tell us. Cutlery belonging to at least fifteen officers has been recovered: Couch, Crozier, Fairholme, Franklin, Goodsir, Gore, Hodgson, Hornby, Irving, Le Vesconte, Macbean, MacDonald, Peddie, Sargent and Stanley. Some of these definitely have scratches on them which look like the initials of seamen. The suggestion is that this cutlery was issued to the seamen at the time the ships were abandoned in April, 1848. If that is correct, the cutlery distributed is most likely to have been that of officers who had died prior to the abandonment of the ships. We know from the Victory Point note that Franklin had died before then and the fact that, of the sixteen pieces of Franklin’s cutlery in my database, no less than five definitely have seamen’s initials on them, supports this thesis. The only other officer who we know had died before then was Graham Gore, and I have two pieces of his cutlery in my database, but I do not know whether they have been examined for initials. Lt. Fairholme is the only officer other than Franklin whose cutlery definitely has a seaman’s initials (CH = Cornelius Hickey) scratched on it. This suggests that Fairholme might have been one of the seven un-named officers who had died before the ships were abandoned.

Conversely, the scratches on officers’ cutlery may help us identify some of the sailors who were alive when the ships were abandoned. My (incomplete) database suggests that Cornelius Hickey, either Thomas Terry or Thomas Tadman, William Closson, William Rhodes and/or William Wentzel were alive at that point. Additionally, a desert spoon of Franklin in the National Maritime Museum collection, AAA2486, is said to have the initial ‘IW’ scratched on it. There was no-one with those initials, although if it was a ‘JW’ or ‘TW’, it could refer to James Walker, Thomas Work, John Weekes, John Wilson or Thomas Watson.

More information could undoubtedly be gleaned from a comprehensive database of cutlery. Russell Potter has pointed out that there may be a significant pattern in the distribution of where this cutlery was found. If we can identify the ‘final’ owners of some of these pieces, and associate them with sites where we know men died, we may be able to establish to some extent who died where.

If a comprehensive database of all the cutlery recovered existed, and if each item could be examined under the microscope with care for initials or other marks, we might be able to learn a lot more from it. I have seen Franklin cutlery on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and also at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge which plainly appears to have initials scratched on it. Yet as far as I am aware these have never properly been examined for initials, and if they have, the findings definitely have not been documented.

What is really needed now is a global search of public and private collections so that this information can be logged in a single, comprehensive and accurate database. I do not have any information from the Manitoba Museum, the US Armed Forces History Museum, nor any private collections. Could I ask anyone at these Museums, and anyone who has any information on any Franklin Expedition cutlery to email it to me using this blog? I will then add this to my database and maintain it as a public resource on my blog (once I have worked out how to do that!)