Title: Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition
Author: Scott Cookman
By Admiralty Order, 18 January 1854: It is directed that if they
are not heard of previous to 31 March 1854, the Officers & Ships
companies are to be removed from the Navy List & are to be con-
sidered as having died in the service. Wages are to be paid to their
Relatives to that date; as of 1 April 1854, all books and papers
are to be dispensed with.
—Admiralty Order No. 263
The only thing Sir John Franklin left behind were two faded ship’s
muster books. He sent them back from Greenland on July 12, 1845,
just before his entire expedition—the largest, best-equipped England
had ever sent in search of the Northwest Passage—disappeared in
By Admiralty regulation, the muster listed “the Names of all Per-
sons forming the complement of the ships, with particulars.” By
twist of fate, this accounting proved the epitaph of Franklin and
every man aboard.
William Orren’s was typical. The paymaster simply listed him
AB, or able-bodied seaman, aboard Franklin’s flagship HMS Erebus.
He was thirty-four that summer. He gave his birthplace as Chatham,
Kent, near the mouth of the River Thames. He signed on with the
expedition and appeared for duty the same day—March 19, 1845—
exactly two months before it sailed.
Orren was either eager to get back to sea or, more likely, to col-
lect the higher pay the Royal Navy offered for “Discovery Service.”
His previous posting had been the Woolwich dockyards, where
Final Muster Book, HMS Erebus Sent back from Greenland just before the
expedition vanished, this was its last communication with the outside world.
The scribbled Admiralty notation—written more than ten years later—sealed
its fate. “Officers & Ships Co. are to be considered as having died in the ser-
vice and their Wages are to be paid to their Relatives to 31 March 1854.”
(Public Records Office, London, England)
skeleton crews manned a mothball fleet of ships laid up “in ordi-
nary,” or out of service. He’d been in the navy for fifteen years. His
“first entry” was recorded at age nineteen, when he signed aboard
the HMS Swan. He must’ve been a rather dull-witted fellow or
happy being a simple jack tar, because in all those years he never
advanced a grade in rank.
The muster book shows 16 shillings (worth about U.S. $55 in
1998 values)1 deducted from his pay for tobacco, slop (heavy) cloth-
ing, and a horsehair mattress. This wasn’t much; an experienced
sailor, his seabag must have been ready. Offsetting the deductions
was two months’ advance pay—10 pounds and 4 shillings (about
U.S. $688 today). At a time when a common laborer made 18 pounds
a year ($1,210 U.S.), this was quite a windfall.
The paymaster counted the coins out to him at pay parade—ten
gold sovereigns and four silver shillings—and by tradition placed
them on top of his outstretched cap. Knowing he was bound for
three years in the Arctic, with no ports of call or chance to spend it,
the money was probably gone before he was—most of it gone on
gambling, rounds of gin (a penny a glass), and prostitutes (sixpence
for a “knee trembler” in an alley) before sailing.
Nothing more was ever heard of Able-Bodied Seaman Orren,
or of Sir Franklin himself for that matter. Their names—and 127
others—were checked off in the muster books in 1854. On each
page, an Admiralty clerk repeatedly made the same notation: “See
Memo in Red Ink on Muster Table.” There the clerk inked a single
“Officers & Ships Co. are to be considered as having died in
the service and their Wages are to be paid to their Relatives to
31 March 1854.”
Thus the Admiralty closed the book on the Franklin Expedi-
tion—the greatest disaster in the history of polar exploration and one
1Based upon the Bank of England’s “Equivalent Contemporary Values of the Pound,”
one pound in 1845 would be worth about 42 pounds in 1998 or approx. U.S. $67 at
current exchange rates.
that rocked Victorian England to its core. Franklin and the rest—
129 hand-picked officers and men—were written off with no more
explanation. Indeed the Royal Navy, stunned by the dimensions of
the catastrophe, had no explanation to offer. Its most advanced,
expensive, and sophisticated technology had inexplicably failed; its
finest, most qualified personnel had inexplicably failed. It was as if
Apollo 11, confidently embarked for mankind’s first lunar landing,
had disappeared on the dark side of the moon.
The shock was devastating, the failure to find a reason for it
humiliating. The navy simply closed ranks and officially, bureaucrat-
ically, put an end to the whole affair.
For the families of the men who perished, the “Wages to be paid
to their Relatives” were little comfort. The men had been missing for
nine years before the Admiralty reckoned them dead, during which
their loved ones had been living on nothing but hope. As the clerk
forcefully underlined, they would be compensated no longer.
The cause of the disaster was never determined.
The Franklin Expedition remains one of the most enduring mys-
teries in the annals of exploration. Something—or someone—turned
the greatest Arctic expedition of its time into the greatest Arctic
tragedy of the age.
What, or more intriguingly, who was responsible will always be
open to debate. But an answer to the expedition’s fate lies, riddle-
like, in its story.