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?


  1. William, great point about an unusual item -- I hadn't known the blade was a surgical one! I can say that, when first displayed in Greenwich in 1854, the handle was shown separately from the blade; the NMM's current description simply that "the handle and blade have become separated."

    The appearance of the bone suggests ivory to me -- could be walrus, I suppose, but I'd guess this was originally a handle of some kind; its square, slightly bevelled edges suggest manufacture with something beyond the small hand tools available on board.

    As to analyzing the cut-marks, there are indeed cases in recent forensic science of identifying a knife used in a crime from cut-marks, but in every case the evidence was that of soft tissue as well as bone. With only the bone, and that weathered over more than a century, I think that Keenleyside's view that the marks on the bones she examined were probably made by a metal blade is about as much detail as we're likely to get.

    Nevertheless, Hickey's act of improvisation -- which he was evidently proud of, as witness his carving of his name -- is a point of great interest.

  2. If Hickey was born in 1826, wouldn't that have made him 19 when the expedition sailed? Young, even for a petty officer, although Torrington was around the same age.

  3. I need to check - maybe I mistyped something. I got most of this information from this paper:;jsessionid=78BDA235C3A19F5591E692AE74A9F84C.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=337604

    If you don;t have it it's well worth a read. I'll check on Hickey's dates and come back to you.