Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Author interview with Erin Knight, Open Book: Toronto

Just a note that I was interviewed this morning by Erin Knight of Open Book: Toronto about my book 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition'.

You can find my interview at the Open Book: Toronto website here. It's also noted in the section listing all the reviews on the book's website at

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Sir James Gambier

Until 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' was published, there was no public knowledge of who James Fitzjames' true father was - in fact it was a closely guarded secret.

The book presents the evidence that his father was a British diplomat of the early ninteenth century called Sir James Gambier. Publication of the book put me in touch with (legitimate) descendants of Sir James, and through them I was able to see a portrait of Sir James, which they have kept down the generations and still retain.

Here is a photograph I took of the portrait.

There is more information and a close-up of Sir James' face on the book's website here.

Can anyone spot a resemblance between Sir James and his ill-fated son, James Fitzjames, in the Franklin Expedition Daguerreotypes?

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Early news of an exciting possible new discovery of Franklin Expedition remains

A potentially very interesting new piece of evidence has emerged today for those trying to piece together 'the Fate of Franklin' from the Future Capital Partners North West Passage Expedition, led by Bear Grylls. ( This was a voyage by Bear Grylls and six companions through the North West Passage this summer in an open Rigid Inflatable Boat, the "Arctic Wolf". Do read their description of their exciting transit of the North West Passage and the exciting discovery they have made.

On their way south down Peel Inlet and Franklin Strait from Resolute Bay, heading towards King William Island, the team took shelter in the lee of an island 'abutting the Wellington Straight in the uncharted waters off the coast of King William Island'. It is only about 8 meters high and 200 metres across. They named it Jonesy Island after their marine engineer Ben Jones. Ben has discovered evidence that an earlier group of people spend some time, and died, at this desolate spot. The evidence so far described is:
  • Signs of large fires having been lit on the northern side of the island abutting Wellington Straight. Because of the direction of the prevailing winds, they interpret these as beacons lit by men hoping for rescue from the North, rather than for warmth. They make the point that to burn so much wood is characteristic more of desperate westerners rather than Inuit.
  • What appears to be part of a mast blown up on shore. Presumably from a ship's boat rather than the mainmast of a ship, but that will have to wait for clarification.
  • Whale-bone pins. Given that the Franklin Expedition was well equipped with metal needles, which were found in some quantity at their Felix Cape encampment, this is perhaps more suggestive of an Inuit presence.
  • Human remains buried in 'western looking graves'. Associated with these were bones and a small piece of felt or fabric – certainly not indicative of an Inuit burial. How many individuals are represented is not entirely clear – certainly more than four – and Bear Grylls also located a human skull not associated with any grave.
  • What appear to be tent-circles made from stones.
This sounds rather like the 'boat-places' of Erebus Bay associated with the Franklin Expedition. It is a very exciting discovery and no doubt a short professional archaeological survey and perhaps limited excavation will be able to identify and approximately date these unfortunate people. If they were NOT Inuit, then who could they be if not Franklin Expedition members? How many other Kabloona boat crews have been lost in this part of the world? Could they have been a little-known stranded group of whalers? And if the evidence includes both Inuit and Kabloona traits, could it even have been a mixed group?

Now let us shamelessly speculate what this find might mean IF it turns out to be of Franklin Expedition members. It might represent the final resting place of a group of refugees struggling north east back the way they had come, perhaps hoping that their first anchorage at Beechey Island would by then have been discovered.

There is another possibility. In an earlier post I suggested that the conventional interpretation of the Victory Point note may be wrong, and that in the autumn of 1845 the Expedition might instead have secured the ships at Beechey Island and spent the following months until they sailed in 1846 exploring the waterways to the west, south and north to seek out the best passage to follow. I speculated that they first attempted to break through north via Wellington Straight, before doubling back to Peel Inlet via the west of Cornwallis Island. If this did in fact take place, then this site might be where a, or perhaps the, party exploring south met its end. Perhaps it was the loss of this party which tipped the balance in the minds of the Expedition's leaders that they should attempt the northern route rather than the southern?

This is of course completely speculative, but it may be an example of how much more still remains to be found of the Franklin Expedition in the Arctic. It will be fascinating to see what evidence the Future Capital Partners North West Passage Expedition has been able to bring back and what the final interpretation of this exciting discovery will be.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Updates, Corrections and Reviews

Much of the content of 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' was researched by me from primary sources. Inevitably in doing this there were some errors which I made. Also, the process of publication spreads the net of my research much wider, so more and more people with complementary knowledge will be able to add to mine.

I will therefore be maintaining a section on the book's website here so that as I receive this information I can maintain in one place a complete list of all the revisions I would wish to make to the book.

If you have a look now you will see there are three updates - all quite interesting. The most exciting is that I am now aware of the existence of a portrait of Sir James Gambier, James Fitzjames' true father. I am hoping to be given permission to place a detail of this on the internet. And yes, there is a strong family resemblence.

I have also added a section to the website providing links to reviews of the book. So far I have linked to 'The Arctic Book Review' and 'Macleans'. Maybe there will be more? If you see a review I have missed, please drop me a line so I can add it.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Arctic Book Review reviews 'James Fitzjames'

Professor Russell Potter (why am I always tempted to describe Russell as 'the indefatigable'?) has just beaten off the rest of the world's literary establishment to publish the first review of my book 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition'.

You can read it here:

Thanks, Russell!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

William (well, James Fitzjames really) hits the airwaves

I'm grateful to Howard Leader of BBC Radio Lincolnshire for having taken the trouble to read my book 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' and then to discuss it with me live on his BBC radio programme today. Howard's programme is on the BBC website for another seven days and if you want to listen to it the link is at:

Howard's chat with me begins 1:13:45 in to the broadcast.

Howard broadcasts a weekly programme on Sunday afternoons on BBC Radio Lincolnshire from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm which is a mix of nostalgia, music from the '40's and '50's and interviews with special guests. Well, this afternoon I was his special guest. He asked me a series of informed and sensitive questions about James Fitzjames and the Franklin Expedition. This was my first radio interview and Howard was great - he made me feel quite relaxed.

It's been quite a big day for me and of course I'm pleased to have the exposure. It might sell a few more books. But for me Howard's interview has a much deeper significance. That's because I didn't write this book for me. I know this may sound ridiculous, but what compelled me to write about the Franklin Expedition and about James Fitzjames was a gut feeling that posterity has dealt the men of the Expedition, and Fitzjames in particular, a poor hand. Having read so many of their letters and the records relating to them, I now understand that these men were neither insensitive Imperialists on the one hand, nor selfless heroes on the other. Instead they were real people who set out to do an outlandish thing - to sail the Erebus and Terror through those ice-choked waterways. They failed, but if their guts could inspire and earn the respect of a man like Roald Amundsen, as it did, then I feel that people in their homeland and their adopted homeland Canada should respect them too.

Howard gave me an opportunity to talk in public about James Fitzjames the man, and that for me will always be a privilege.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Thinking about HMS Investigator

The finding of HMS Investigator has made headline news across the world. What a great achievement!

The Parks Canada website has a very clear account of the find and also some wonderful pictures, at

Here, as well as a description of the campaign, the team and their plans, there are some wonderful pictures not just of the ships but of the graves and the remains of the cache of stores which McClure left on shore.

It is interesting to compare Parks Canada’s photographs with the arresting contemporary paintings of Samuel Cresswell:,+samuel+gurney/

From the perspective of the search for Franklin this relocation of HMS Investigator is almost eerily significant. The Investigator, with her companion HMS Enterprise, was the first ship to set out to try to find the Franklin Expedition in 1848 at a time when most members of that Expedition were still alive. So it was the Investigator which opened the largest and longest search and rescue effort in history – the quest to find out what happened to Franklin, his men and his ships. It is very fitting that this Parks Canada team, with the powerful modern Canadian ice-breaker Sir Wilfred Laurier, should have made this direct link with the first ship to take part in this search.

The dramatic pictures of the Investigator will serve as a welcome reminder of the remarkable achievement of her Captain, Robert McClure and his men, in being probably the first people to complete the North West Passage. (Let’s not forget that it is perfectly feasible that some Inuit peoples made this same journey earlier, but sadly memories of that epic of exploration will have been lost). And anyone who looks at the Parks Canada map must feel a chill of horror at just how remote the site of the Investigator is. How brave these men were to push themselves into such a hostile and remote part of the world. And while McClure may not have had a very good press for some of the harsh decisions he took, and contemplated, unlike Franklin he was able to bring most of his men home. It’s wrong for us today to be judgemental in the case of a man placed in such a hugely difficult position with such terrible responsibilities.

Another significant aspect of this dramatic news is the light it may help shed on the Franklin Expedition itself. The Investigator was fitted out only three years after the Erebus and Terror. It is fitted with the same Sylvester central heating system with which it now appears the Erebus and Terror were equipped – the longstanding allegation that that those ships had a steam heating system now seemingly a misconception. A scientific examination of her must surely help us better understand what may have happened to the Erebus and Terror.

Also very important is consideration of the graves of the three crewmembers of the Investigator who died at Mercy Bay. Should they be left there? The decision should be for their next of kin, who are perhaps not yet aware that their distant relatives bodies’ still lie frozen in Mercy Bay. A further decision these unknowing relatives may consider is whether to have their relatives’ bodies’ autopsied. Such an examination is intrusive, but would no doubt shed very valuable information on the disease and dietary conditions on Arctic ships of the time. Re-reading Sherard Osborne’s ‘The Discovery of the North West Passage..’ I see that the death of AB John Boyle, first man to die, was said to have been ‘occasioned by the thoughtlessness of the poor fellow himself, who, by way of a joke, went into the surgery and drank off the washings of several medicine bottles’. One wonders whether this was the whole truth. Especially since the two other men to die at Mercy Bay, AB John Eames and John Kerr, Gunner’s Mate, did so only a few days after AB Boyle.

Already there have been calls for the Investigator herself to be raised and taken back south to form the core of a museum in southern Canada. And why not? While the ship has been remarkably preserved in Mercy Bay where she lies, even there she must be vulnerable now to treasure hunters and also to further damage by large icebergs. The relocation of the Investigator is bringing to the fore decisions which will have to be faced if the Erebus or the Terror are ever discovered. In many ways, these ships are now part of the North and should remain there. But the ships may still contain the mortal remains of some of the officers and men of the Franklin Expedition, and their relatives may well feel repatriation is appropriate. Once located, the ships will be vulnerable to further degradation by Nature and by man.

So this great news should help us applaud the memory of McClure and his men, wonder at the preservation of their ship HMS Investigator and wish the very best of good fortune to those who are searching for Franklin, his ships and his men this summer.

Will there ever be an end to this story?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Trinity House book launch

I simply couldn't have been more delighted by the launch party for 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' yesterday evening at Trinity House.

It's a wonderful venue and I was so pleased that so many people could come.

As well as family and friends, it was a deeply moving experience to meet so many people who are related to the people in James Fitzjames' life, including descendants or relatives of Francis Crozier, Graham Gore, Joseph Geater, Robert and William Coningham and Sir Leopold McClintock.

Many thanks to Trinity House and Mint catering for looking after us all.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The book has been published...

Well, I am absolutely delighted to say that my book, 'James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' has been published.

I am so grateful to Simon Hamlet, my publisher at The History Press for taking the book on. Not every publisher was willing to entertain a book by someone who had never written before. Thanks Simon! And Abbie Wood, who designed the book and has also done a great job.

It is also great news that Dundurn in Canada has taken the book on as that gives it great coverage on the left hand side of the pond.

I'm going to be fascinated by the response to it. I still feel reluctant to discuss the outcomes of my research publicly, which is rather a strange reacon given that the book describes them in great detail and is available for the world to buy. But I do feel deeply, deeply privileged that I was the person who was able to get close to this fascinating, but ultimately cursed, young man James Fitzjames. For the truth was that he was anything but the privileged young aristocrat of Franklin Expedition mythology. Heavens, he wasn't even genuinely English! He struggled and fought for the position he craved in the Royal Navy, and it is very unfair that ever after he has been held up as someone who didn't need to. And far from being the favourite of Sir John Barrow, the relationship with Barrow was much stranger than anyone ever realised.

I hope that the book has two results. The first is that I trust that people can start to look again at 'The Men who Sailed with Franklin' as men, and not as stereotypes. Just as the baddie of the story, Charles Dickens, ridiculously traduced the Inuit families who met the Franklin survivors, and even tried to help them, as 'savages', I think it is no longer fair to look at Franklin's men as stereotypical imperialists either. I believe when we analyse them we find that many were men much closer to the margins of their society than popular myth would allow. Men like Fitzjames and Gore, for example, had very peripatetic backgrounds. The second result, I hope, is that the tragedy of James Fitzjames will be recognised as a sad human story in its own right. How cruelly ironic that just as he had won the position in English society that his shameful origins had earlier denied him, and as soon as he had gained a really powerful source of patronage, he should use that to participate in the greatest disaster in British exploration history! I am sure this was an irony NOT lost on him in his last months.

Anyway, I'll be fascinated to hear your feedback to the book, which you can buy at

Let me know what you think.

Incidentally I've set up a website

Which I'll be using specifically to support the book. I'll locate here any additional references which people want. Perhaps there are other things we can do.

Anyway people, over to you know - let me know what you think....

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Lt. Irving memorial

Yesterday I was able to visit the Edinburgh tomb of Lt. John Irving, RN, of the Franklin Expedition. As many people will be aware this tomb contains the remains of an officer of the Franklin Expedition buried on King William Island, which were discovered by Lt. Schwatka. On the basis of a medal found associated with the grave, the remains were identified as those of Lt Irving.

Were they really Irving's bones? Who knows, but it was a privilege for me to see this beautiful Celtic cross in the immaculately maintained Dean's Cemetery in Edinburgh.

I was struck not only by the dignity of the monument and its setting, but also by the aptness of its carving. Right down the shaft of the cross, it bears the following inscription:

In memory of Lt. John Irving, RN. HM Ship Terror. Born 1815. Died in King William's Land 1848-9. Her Majesty's Ships Erebus and Terror left England in May 1845 under command of Sir John Franklin KCB to explore a North West Passage to the Pacific. [Note the 'a', not 'the'] After wintering 1845-6 at Beechey Island they sailed south down Franklin's Strait and entered the NW Passage. Having been there beset with ice for two years Sir J Franklin and 8 other officers and 15 seamen having died the survivors 105 in number Lt. Irving being one landed on King William's Land and attempted to march to Canada but all died from cold and want of food. In 1879 Lt. Schwatka of the American searching expedition discovered Lt. Irving's grave. Through his kindness the remains of this brave and good officer were brought away and were deposited here on 7th January, 1881."

Below it is the quotation from the Bible - Romans 8:35 - "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" St. Paul went on to write: "Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?". The answer presumably was - no. In turn below that is the the famous wording from Horace, Odes III, 2, 13, which chillingly was used by Wilfred Owen for the title of of one of his most moving poems "Decorum est pro patria mori" - it is right to die for one's country. One wonders whether Owen was aware of this use of the quotation when he chose it as the title of his poem. And finally, there is an attractive bas relief showing the imaginary scene of the burial of Irving on King William Island. In the background can be seen the two ships Erebus and Terror. This does look rather similar to the bas relief on the Franklin Memorial in Waterloo Place, London, except without the more absurd fantasies of that one - no mountainous icebergs. And on Irving's tomb the mourners are shown holding nothing more unorthodox than a spade. Of course in reality I am not sure how much use a spade would have been for a gravedigger on King William Island - but at least the mourning sailors are not clutching bows and arrows as they appear to be in Waterloo Place! The bas relief is till in very good condition.

Of course when I spent my time before this cross I had two very different emotions. The historian in me mourned the loss of the young man buried below, and appreciated the quiet dignity of the tomb erected over him. But the archaeologist in me started to obsess about the potential for forensic evidence that was below my feet. Should we try to disinter these remains and see whether modern forensic research could find out more about this man and his unhappy death? Who knows?

Saturday, 3 April 2010

James Fitzjames book launch date

I'm very pleased to be able to say that my book 'James Fitzjames: the Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' will be launched with a Reception and Lecture to be held at Trinity House in the City of London from 6:00 pm to 9:30 on Tuesday 27th July, 2010.

The book is the first ever biography of James Fitzjames. On and off, I have spent a lot of time over the last two years reading, thinking, talking and writing about James Fitzjames and I feel I have got to know him quite well. He was a remarkable man with a rare combination of charm and intelligence and I hope the book is an appropriate memorial to him. As well as that, I hope that some readers at least find the account of his life and adventures exciting. And also, the book contains two significant exclusives. The first of these is who he was - his origins and family has always been unclear - and the second is the source of his influence. Neither of these have ever been known before and their revelation will cast significant new light on the Franklin Expedition.

Trinity House is a wonderful setting for this Reception and Lecture. One of the artefacts on display there is the sextant Admiral (then Captain) Collinson used during his search for Franklin (and Fitzjames of course). Collinson knew Fitzjames as they had both fought in the First Anglo-Chinese War.

I truly hope that this Reception is a worthy memorial to a brave man. If you would like to attend please let me know by contacting me through blogger or Facebook, where James Fitzjames has his own page.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

An Excellent set of Daguerreotype images

I was very impressed with this set of images of the famous Franklin Expedition Daguerreotypes on the Scott Polar Research Institute's website:

The images of Couch and Stanley are especially interesting as they are of much better definition than most of the reproductions of their Daguerreotypes in circulation.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Raising Ghosts

When I started researching the life of James Fitzjames one of the things I always found odd was that he had no known date or place of death and no known date and place of birth. The earliest acknowledged date associated with him is his baptism on 27th February, 1815. That was the day, one hundred and ninety five years to the day yesterday, when 'James Fitzjames, gentleman' and 'Anne his wife' baptised their baby James at the Church of St. Mary-le-Bone in London.

Last year I spent a long time at the London Metropolitan Archive trying to track down any evidence relating to these parents. Like every other researcher into Fitzjames I could find nothing more about them. But from completely different lines of research, I now know the truth about Captain James Fitzjames, RN. I now know who he REALLY was, who his true family were and where he was born. Release of all of this information - and more - will have to wait until 'James Fitzjames, the Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition' is published in July.

Yesterday being the 195th anniversary of this baptism, I made a little private pilgrimage to the grave of James Fitzjames' true father. I made the same journey to this grave that Fitzjames himself must have made in those brief months he had in England between returning with HMS Clio in late 1844 and departing on the Franklin Expedition on HMS Erebus in 1845. He had never been able to acknowledge his father, so sharing this secret and this journey with his memory made for a slight, strange bond between author and subject. I wondered what he must have thought and felt, and whether his shoes got as wet as mine on the ill-drained soil.

After paying my respects at this place, the closest thing Fitzjames has to a grave, I made my way, deep in thought, to the Church of St. Mary-le-Bone. Here this man, whose grave I had just visited and who called himself 'James Fitzjames, gentleman' had baptised his little child one hundred and ninety five years ago to the day. Round the corner, having eaten a beautiful roast pork sandwich from a Hogroast in the Churchyard (recommended,, I made my way to the Prince Regent pub. There I drank a private toast to the memory of Captain James Fitzjames, RN with a pint of excellent, and appropriately named, Adnam's Broadside ale.

I cannot help feeling that if ghosts exist I must have disturbed, if not raised, a few who must have felt that no mortal would ever stick his nose into their affairs again.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Forthcoming paper on HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

Blogging has been a little quiet lately but interesting research into the Franklin Expedition continues in the UK, Canada and elsewhere.

I'm looking forward to reading the forthcoming paper which Peter Carney and I have co-authored on the technology incorporated into HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 1845 to the Newcomen Society on Wednesday, 10th February, 2010. The reading will take place at the Fellows' Room at the Science Museum in London. Full details are on the Newcomen Society website:

As the Newcomen Society is the world's oldest learned society devoted to the study of the history of engineering and technology, founded in 1920, Peter and I feel very privileged to be able to do that.

What's in the paper? Well, that would be telling, but Peter and I have synthesised very carefully what is known about the ships currently and hope that will be useful for other researchers. We have also come up with one or two surprises, too. As always the two lessons are the critcal importance of primary sources, and the value of open collaboration. Whatever merits the paper may have derive very largely from the process of our two minds looking at the same material with different perspectives, and then debating its meaning until we arrive at a better understanding. We have also found (as if we didn't know already...) that secondary sources cannot be relied upon even for quite basic 'facts' about the Franklin Expedition - always go to the source!

If you are in London and would like to come to the reading, check out the Newcomen Society website and Peter and I will be most glad to meet you then. And if you live in the far North (of England that is, not Nunavut), then the paper will also be read at the wonderful Manchester Museum of Science & Industry in Liverpool Road on 30th March, courtesy of the Newcomen Society.