Sunday, 3 May 2009

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!)


  1. Just a quick comment for the record. The Scott Polar Research Institute kindly let me see the Franklin Expedition cutlery in their collection when I visited last Friday. Many thanks.

    All of it had belonged to Sir John Franklin.

    We examined it carefully with a magnifying glass and, while the handles were scratched, it was not possible to make out any initials. But the cutlery has been highly polished since its recovery and it may be that initials scratched on it have since been polished out. Impossible to say either way.

    I'll add the facts and figures about these items to my database, and I'll be most grateful for any information from anyone else, anywhere in the world, which might help me track down more Franklin Expedition cutlery.

  2. I just finished the book " The Terror" and would like to know if Hickey was such a bad guy as made out in the book. What do we actually know of him? Any ideas?

  3. I would certainly not ascribe words like 'good' or 'bad' to individuals placed in such terrible circumstances or facing such a terrible fate as the survivors of the Franklin Expedition in 1848.

    It is because the Expedition was such a catastrophe that, like the Titanic, it continues to attract the attention of fiction writers as well as serious researchers. This helps new generations of people trying to understand the Expedition but can be harmful when fiction starts to be accepted as fact. This is exactly what has happened with James Fitzjames. Having researched his life for my forthcoming book I now know that much which has been written about him is completely untrue. Initial assumptions about him have been repeated over and over again and have now been accepted as fact.

    I would not want to risk starting this process with Mr. Hickey, though there are a few very interesting things about him. It's clear that at some point, presumably when the ships were abandoned off Victory Point, some of the officers' silver cutlery was distributed to the men. Some at least of the men who received this cutlery scratched their initials on it. Cornelius Hickey was unique in being the only man we know of whose initials appear on more than one item of cutlery. His initials can be found on a table spoon which had belonged to Lt. Fairholme (AAA3286 in the National Maritime Museum's collection). His name and initials are also found on the bone handle associated with the Millikin surgical knife. I've not got access to all my records at the moment so I can't say definitively where the spoon was recovered, but according to the National Maritime Museum's records, the bone handle and the Millikin blade associated with it 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”.

    This means that Cornelius Hickey was almost certainly one of the toughest and most determined members of the Expedition who struggled as far as Starvation Cove before starvation, exhaustion and exposure overwhelmed him. This was a journey of about two hundred and fifty miles, although still only about a quarter of the distance to safety. He was of Irish origin, having been born in Limerick in 1826, and so was only about twenty-four at the time of his death.

    The artifacts associated with Hickey also give us two more pieces of information. The Victory Point note says that nine officers had died before the ships were abandoned. It only names two of them - Gore and Franklin - and also identifies two still alive - Crozier and Fitzjames. It seems difficult to imagine that the cutlery of a living officer would be given to sailors if he was alive. So Mr. Hickey's spoon strongly suggests that Fairholme, like Gore and Franklin, had already died.

    The blade which Hickey appears to have rehandled was a surgical knife and suggests that one of the surgeons had also died by then. We know that one surgeon's medicine chest was abandoned at Victory Point. Perhaps the rest of this man's kit was abandoned there and this was where Hickey acquired the surgical blade? It is hard to see a surgeon choosing to leave his equipment behind. This suggests that one of the surgeons was another of the nine dead officers. I am not aware of any way of associating this Millikin equipment with any particular surgeon, so unless someone else can think of a way of doing so, this surgeon will have to remain anonymous.

  4. Hi Wiliam, thank you for the feedback about Hickey. I am a 11 year old from South Africa and this was my first book about the Franklin Expidition. I found it quite amazing and would like to continue reading about their journey. Could you tell me when you plan to publish your new book? Thanks again.

  5. Hi Schalk,

    I hope that you enjoy my book when it comes out, which will be in July 2010. James Fitzjames had an amazing life of adventure, just like something out of Hornblower or the film 'Master and Commander'. The sad thing is that he wasn't really an expert in the Arctic at all. That was just where he chose to go for his next adventure so it's rather sad, really, that he died on it. And since we don't know what happened on the Franklin Expedition because virtually all of their records were lost, almost all of the book is about him before he left England in May 1845. Still, almost everything written about him so far is wrong, so the book will make some things clear about the Expedition which are currently misunderstood. And I think his adventures, and even some of his jokes (still funny today), will make the book a good read.

    If you want to read up on the Franklin Expedition generally, there isn't really one single book which is satisfactory. The best general history of it, amazingly, is Richard Cyriax's book, which was first published in 1939! You will find that apart from Cyriax almost every book is written about an aspect of the Expedition rather than the Expedition itself.

    For example Owen Beattie's 'Frozen in Time' is very strong on the lead evidence and his descriptions of the work he did himself are wonderful. But that same strength of this book is also its weakness, as it focuses on lead far too much to make it a balanced history. Still, John Geiger and Beattie have sold a huge number of books so they got something right!

    Similarly Andrew Lambert's book is really about the magnetic research the Expedition carried out and why this has been ignored by other writers. He's very good on the aftermath of the Expedition too. But it isn't really a general history and if you've read the other books you won't really get anything new from this one. Still, it's worth a read.

    There are good biographies of Franklin and of Crozier (by Michael Smith) around too.

    Two other best-sellers to note are 'Ice Blink' by Scott Cookman and 'The Franklin Conspiracy' by Jeffrey Blair Latta. Cookman's book is well written but flawed because he says the whole cause of the Expedition dying is botulism. There is no evidence FOR botulism and no explanation of why it didn't affect other Expeditions, so this doesn't really stand up. As the name suggests, the "Conspiracy" book is too silly for words, buit you should read it if only to challenge your own preconceptions.

    The funny thing is that when you look at all these books, they are as much about their AUTHORS' BELIEFS as they are of the men of the Franklin Expedition. And that's what's sad about this. Because we know so little of what happened we tend to write interpretations of the little evidence we have in terms of our own preconceptions rather than fact.

    There's no doubt that a better narrative of what happened will be put together over the next 5-10 years from a combination of better interpretations of what we already know plus new archaeological finds and that's another thing which makes the subject so exciting.

    Following blogs like Russell Potter's (and I hope mine too) is probably the best way to keep in touch - and to float your own ideas too!

    Good luck!