Sir John Franklin's expedition to the Arctic in 1845
The loss of Sir John Franklin's expedition to the Arctic in 1845 was one of the most memorable tragedies of the Victorian era, and even today, it still continues to excite the popular imagination. The complete disappearance of one of the most well-equipped expeditions of its time mystified the British public, and inspired a succession of search parties. The idea that Franklin had died at the very moment of his greatest triumph, the discovery of the long-sought-after North West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, entered the national consciousness, and is perpetuated to this day in the inscription on his memorial in London.
However, in the 1850s several of the search parties finally began to turn up evidence of the expedition's fate, and their discoveries soon turned the story from mystery into horror story: it became all too clear that many of the survivors had broken one of society's strongest taboos, resorting to cannibalism in order to stay alive just a little longer in the Arctic wastes.
The story of the expedition continues to fascinate and horrify in equal measure. Within the last five years alone, there have been two books on Franklin's doomed voyage, a full-scale biography of Franklin himself, and at least two TV documentaries. At least some of the abiding interest in the expedition comes from the fact that the exact cause of its failure, and of the horrible fate of its members, has been open to debate from the very beginning, and it has remained possible for dramatic new theories to be put forward. In the 1980s, one revolutionary new interpretation was proposed that had particular resonance in Llanelli area. Post-mortem examination of the bodies of three seamen from the expedition, buried in the Canadian permafrost and almost perfectly preserved after 150 years, revealed supposedly unusual high levels of lead in their systems. This was ascribed to the expedition's reliance on revolutionary new technology to preserve much of its food: tin cans, then in their infancy and still dependent on potentially dangerous lead solder.
The suggested connection between lead poisoning from tin cans and the fate of the Franklin expedition would have been only an interesting coincidence for Llanelli people until some months ago, when a retired Llanelli schoolteacher, Mrs Diana Lloyd, asked members of the Llanelli Community Heritage group if they knew why 'Barnum's' public house in Station Road had originally been called 'The Whitehall Vaults'. The information that had been imparted to her as a young child by her grandfather, who had been a landlord of the pub, was that it had been built or purchased with money received from the government vaults at Whitehall in London. This money was supposedly the compensation paid to the relatives of a sailor in the Royal Navy who had sailed with Franklin to the North Pole and had never returned home! Subsequent research by the authors of this article at Llanelli Reference Library and at the National Archives in Kew revealed that this 'family legend' was at least partly true. Francis Dunn from Llanelli, a petty officer aboard Franklin's ship HMS Erebus, had indeed been a member of the doomed expedition to the Arctic.
Francis Dunn was christened at St Mary's church, Kidwelly, on 4 March 1821. He was the eldest surviving child of Francis senior and his wife, the former Mary Barrett, a Llanstephan woman whom Francis had married in 1818. The family was still in Kidwelly in 1837, but had moved to Llanelli by the time of the 1841 census, when they were living in a house near the Copperworks School. Both father and son, were described as shipwrights, and probably worked in the nearby shipyards. Francis junior went to sea shortly afterwards, perhaps joining a merchantman sailing out of Llanelli. He joined the Royal Navy at Malta on 6 October 1843, initially serving on the ancient 36-gun frigate HMS Belvidera as one of the carpenter's crew. This ship paid off on 5 March 1845, and on 27 March Dunn joined HMS Erebus, Sir John Franklin's ship, for the forthcoming Arctic voyage. He was a 'caulker's mate' and as such was ranked as one of the ship's petty officers – not a bad rate of progress in the service for a 24 year old with less than eighteen months' naval service behind him. The Erebus, built at Pembroke Dock over twenty years before, had been specially adapted for the voyage with an auxiliary steam engine and a plate icebreaking bow, but essentially she was a conventional small wooden warship, and in Arctic waters, maintaining the seals – the caulking – between her planks would have been a vital job. Fortunately the Royal Navy has always kept good records, so we have an excellent idea of what Francis Dunn looked like. He was 5 ft 9 ins tall, had a fresh complexion, hazel eyes, dark brown hair, and a scar over his right eye. He had been vaccinated against smallpox, was single, and had been brought up in the trade of a carpenter.
The expedition, consisting of 129 handpicked officers aboard two ships packed with some of the most advanced scientific equipment of the time, sailed off from the Thames in May 1845. Although it was popularly believed both at the time and subsequently that the expedition was searching for the North West Passage, this was not actually its primary mission. In fact, Franklin and his men were taking part in a massive year-long multinational scientific experiment to map the world's magnetic fields, following the theories of the great German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who believed that it was possible to rationalise the world's natural phenomena by comprehensively understanding magnetism. Franklin had long been a keen follower of Humboldt's theories; when he was governor of Tasmania he had set up the biggest observatory in the southern hemisphere at Hobart. Franklin was also heavily influenced by and friendly with the main British follower of Humboldt, Colonel Edward Sabine, who was based at Woolwich arsenal - just over the hill from where the Erebus and Terror were fitted out. The Franklin expedition perished very close to the north magnetic pole, which was precisely where they were meant to be, because the readings from the pole were going to be critical to the success of the whole vast global experiment. Any discovery of the North West Passage was going to be a desirable extra, not the expedition's raison d'etre – but charting magnetic fields (and charting them on behalf of a German, to boot) did not fit quite as well with the romantic Victorian myth that was built up around Franklin and his men.
In the event, both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, became icebound off King William Land for two years, forcing the crews to abandon the safety of their vessels and attempt a trek of over 900 miles, across frozen wastes, to safety. Nothing conclusive of the fate of the expedition was heard of for nearly 15 years, by which time the Admiralty had already written off the officers and men, endorsing the ship's muster book with the words...
"to be considered as having died in the service. Wages are to be paid to their relatives to that date, as of 1st April 1854"
The order for payment to the families was carried out because the local newspaper the 'South Wales Cambrian' of September of that year reported:
Sir John Franklin's Expedition
"The father of Francis Dunn, of Llanelly, one of the seamen engaged in the Arctic expedition, has recently received about £ 300 from the Admiralty, the accumulated wages of his son. The family attended Capel Newydd on Sunday dressed in deep mourning". (New information discovered in the archives at Llanelli Reference Library has come to light to show that Francis Dunn's father did indeed own The Whitehall . The evidence was found in the 'Llanelly Highway Rate Book' for 1857 showing him as the 'owner'.)
Therefore, the payment to the Dunn family was not a special compensation payment as such, but nine years' accumulated back pay. Even so, £300 was a very substantial sum in 1854 – equivalent to anywhere between £20,000 and £200,000 today, depending on different comparison criteria – and it would certainly have made the family wealthy enough to be able to afford a pub. Definitive evidence for the building of the 'Whitehall' pub by the Dunn family is still being sought, but it is already known that the Dunns were retailers of beer in the Greenfield area, and in 1881 Francis Dunn's mother was living in Salamanca Road (the top end of Station Road), Both these addresses could be considered to be synonymous with the 'Whitehall' in Station Road. Francis's fate did not deter his younger brother Richard from a career at sea. By 1881 he was skipper of the Llanelli-built sailing ship Gem of the Sea, and when he died in 1900, aged seventy-one, he was described as Captain Richard Dunn of Glanmor Place. Poignantly, Richard's first son, born in about 1862, was named Francis after his lost uncle, but did not follow in his footsteps: the 1891 census records that he became a signal clerk and telegraphist.
Meanwhile, the Franklin expedition had long become the stuff of legend, but it was a legend that concealed a failure on a grand scale. The discovery during the 1850s of evidence of the expedition's fate was followed in short order by the death of Alexander von Humboldt (1859) and the appearance in the same year of Darwin's Origin of Species, which effectively demolished Humboldt's theories. Humboldt had believed the world was ordered and logical; hence his idea of mapping the world's magnetic fields; he did not realise that the magnetic fields constantly shift. Darwin, though, saw the world as essentially chaotic and illogical, and although some 'creationists' still dispute his vision, it has become the accepted scientific orthodoxy for the last 150 years. Humboldt, Sabine, Franklin and those caught up in their wakes, like Francis Dunn, were therefore all pursuing a scientific 'dead end', and in that sense, Franklin, Dunn, and all the others, died pointless deaths. Lady Franklin, though, was determined to turn her dead husband into a national hero who had died gloriously, in the process of discovering the 'holy grail' of the North-West Passage. Because of her many powerful contacts in the government of the day, and because the Victorians preferred the myth that she created to the horrible reality of cannibalism and failure, she got her way. Franklin has a memorial in Westminster Abbey which reads:
'TO THE MEMORY/OF/SIR JOHN FRANKLIN,/BORN APRIL 16/1786/AT SPILSBY/LINCOLNSHIRE/DIED JUNE 11/1847/OFF POINT VICTORY IN THE FROZEN OCEAN/THE BELOVED CHIEF/OF THE GALLANT CREWS/WHO PERISHED WITH HIM/IN COMPLETING/THE DISCOVERY OF THE/NORTH WEST PASSAGE'
'OH YE FROST AND COLD, O YE ICE AND SNOW/BLESS YE THE LORD PRAISE HIM AND MAGNIFY HIM FOR EVER.'/'NOT HERE: THE WHITE NORTH HAS THY BONES; AND THOU,/HEROIC SAILOR-SOUL/ART PASSING ON THY HAPPIER VOYAGE NOW/TOWARD NO EARTHLY POLE'.
Llanelli has hardly any permanent memorials to its long and illustrious maritime past; perhaps it would be fitting if Caulker's Mate Francis Dunn of HMS Erebus, and the part that he played in one of the most famous and tragic voyages of exploration in history, was commemorated in some way in the town.
Finally, two equally grizzly questions remain. Firstly, could Francis Dunn have been killed by cans manufactured in his home town of Llanelli? This would have been impossible, as tinplate manufacture did not begin in the town (at Dafen) until a year or two after the Franklin expedition sailed. However, there is an intriguing possibility that Stephan Goldner, the contractor who supplied the expedition, might have got the tinplate for his cans from the existing Kidwelly works, which had been in production for over a century, and that Francis might have been killed by the produce of his birthplace. Goldner had a dubious reputation, and the navy ceased to do business with him in 1852. Goldner's shady image, and the obvious fact that he was a foreigner, made him an obvious scapegoat for both the Victorians and some recent authors. However, Professor Andrew Lambert of King's College, London, who has undertaken the most detailed recent study of the Franklin expedition, concludes that in the Arctic in 1845, there were more than enough potential causes of death waiting to destroy the men of the Franklin expedition without throwing in either lead poisoning or botulism (the favoured explanation in the most recent book on the subject). The primary cause of death in all three of the preserved bodies exhumed in 1984 was tuberculosis, and scurvy, malnutrition, and exposure probably did for the rest of the crew, even leaving aside the possibility that some of them were killed and eaten by stronger crewmates even before they were dead. The levels of lead poisoning found in the three preserved bodies were not particularly unusual by nineteenth century standards; the Victorians lived through exposure to far higher levels of lead in all aspects of their lives than would be considered tolerable today, and lead soldering of tin cans continued (without markedly fatal results among the population at large) until much later in the nineteenth century, much to the benefit of the town of Llanelli.
Secondly, when the Franklin expedition met its terrible end, was Francis Dunn one of the 'consumers', or one of the 'consumed'? Perhaps fortunately, we are unlikely ever to know the answer to this question. But the discovery of the three perfectly preserved bodies of members of the Franklin expedition in 1984 raises the astonishing possibility that somewhere on Prince William Land in Canada, the mortal remains of Francis Dunn from Llanelli, one of the doomed explorers of the Franklin Expedition, may be preserved in the permafrost, still waiting to be discovered.
Llanelly Mercury 17th November 1892
June 1st, 1845.
Dear Father and Mother
I have found the greatest pleasure in writing you these few lines, and hope they will find you all as they leave me at present—well. Thank God for it. We arrived here last night about eleven o'clock. We had a long passage from Woolwich here, but we stopped at "Greenhive" (sic Greenhithe) for three days to test our compasses and chronometers. So, dear mother, this is the last place we are going to call at except Greenland. After we have left that place, our course will be North West, to try for a passage between America and Russia. I am sorry to say, as I mentioned before in my last letter, that I could not send you any of my advance money because I wanted a great deal of clothes and tools, so I went to a great deal of expense. Never mind, dear parents, I hope you won't see the want of them, but I am happy to say that I have left my half-pay for you. I believe that it will be about £2 4s. per month ; so you can go to the Custom House and inquire for it when you like. We intend to sail to-morrow (Monday), the 2nd of June. Dear father, I hope that you will give a little schooling to the children. Tell my dearest brothers, Joseph and Richard, to stick to the night school, for they may depend upon seeing the want of it after they have seen as much of the world as I have seen, and whoever is the best scholar when I come home I will give him twenty shillings (£1). Give my love to all my brothers and sisters, and all inquiring friends. This is the last letter until I come back. So, goodbye, dear father and blessed mother. Goodbye again, this is the last that I will be able to write to you until I return. So no more from your dear son Frank. God be with you all, and God protect both you and me until we shall meet again. Farewell; good-bye.