Thursday, 10 December 2009

Drinks in Memory of James Fitzjames

There are several reasons why I refer to James Fitzjames in my book as the ‘Mystery Man’ of the Franklin Expedition. For example, it is strange that for a public figure of some importance there is no true record of his birth and no record at all of his death.

We know that all 129 men on the Franklin Expedition died, but we only have the dates and times of deaths for four of them. Sir John Franklin died on 10th June, 1847, almost certainly on board HMS Erebus off the coast of King William Island and two sailors and one Royal Marine died in the winter of 1845-1846 off Beechey Island. The dates of their deaths are given in my earlier blog posting.

Fitzjames was baptised at the church of St. Mary-le-Bone in London on 27th February, and his birth was recorded there as having taken place on 24th July, 1813. But the father and mother whose names appear on this, ‘James Fitzjames, gentleman’ and ‘Ann Fitzjames’ his wife, simply do not appear in any other records anywhere else in the world. As my book will make clear, these were false names.

Who knows when anyone last commemorated the life of James Fitzjames or mourned his death? Well, in 2010 I will. Just around the corner from the Church of St. Mary-le-Bone is a particularly splendid pub. One hundred and ninety five years to the day after Fitzjames’ christening, I shall be standing in this pub and I shall raise a glass of beer to the memory of this fine man. That’s Saturday, 27th February, 2010. This is entirely the correct commemoration for a man who wrote from HMS Erebus, out in the Atlantic on Wednesday 11th June, 1845: “the sea is of the most perfect transparency — a beautiful, delicate, cold-looking green, or ultramarine. Long rollers, as if carved out of the essence of glass bottles, came rolling towards us; now and then topped with a beautiful pot-of-porter-looking head”. A man who can come up with such a wonderfully alcoholic description of the sea does not deserve to be forgotten.

Something else will make this occasion special. Fitzjames gave a single rose to Elizabeth Coningham when he left England. She kept it all her life and it remains in the hands of her family to this day. It was to her that he wrote the letter I have quoted from. Earlier on Tuesday 27th February, I will have made a solitary pilgrimage to the grave of the man who I now know to be Fitzjames’ real father. This man’s grave is the closest thing we have to a grave for Fitzjames. I shall lay a single rose on it in memory of his son James Fitzjames. But the identity of Fitzjames’ father will remain private until the book is published in July.

Anyone who wants to join me for this rather special day – in the pub, that is – is most welcome to email me or contact me via the blog and I will send you an invitation.


  1. Hi William. Work permitting I would be interested in raising a glass with you in February. Really looking forward to you book. Best wishes, Paul

  2. The name James Fitzjames sounds like some kind of action hero. He even looks like a dashing explorer or hero in the Daguerreotype (I remember this was my first impression).

    Will the book include any theories about what happened to Fitzjames post April 1848?

    That he wrote the Victory Point note implies he was in relatively good health at the time.

    It is possible that his remains have been recovered at some point though identification would be a major project.

  3. Hi William
    I can not stop thinking about the fate of the franklin expedition and the cruelty they
    must had suffered over such a long time.
    With the ships named erubus(entrance to
    hell)and terror was the voyage meant to fail.


  4. The names of the ships are certainly arresting. The explanation is more innocent in that the Royal Navy tended to give its bomb-ships names which were threatening, such as 'Fury', 'Explosion' and 'Sulphur'. Then when these ships were converted into exploration ships they carried over these names. Strangely, of course, the names of the Erebus and the Terror in turn were transferred to the two volcanoes of Antarctica which were discovered by the Ross Expedition using these two ships.

    Somehow the biggest tragedy of the Franklin Expedition seems to me to be that not a single person survived to tell the story. They must have struggled on perhaps for years, yet without a survivor their story has been lost. And the names of the ships seem full of forboding when you look at it that way.

    By 1845 Fitzjames had made a remarkable success of his life from very inauspicious beginnings, based on personality, education and ability. His personal tragedy is that he really didn't HAVE to go on the Expedition, but then neither he nor most people thought it was especially risky. Had Fitzjames lived I am sure he would have managed to 'bag' a VC in the Crimean War - but whether he would have survived that is another story...