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Franklin, John (1786-1847)

Born on 16 April 1786 in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, the youngest son of Willingham and Hannah Franklin. He was educated at Louth Grammar School in Lincolnshire, joining the Royal Navy in October 1800 as a first-class volunteer on HMS Polyphemus, which participated in the battle of Copenhagen in April 1801. Following his discharge, he joined an expedition to explore the largely uncharted coast of New Holland [Australia], serving as midshipman on HMS Investigator under the command of his uncle, Captain Matthew Flinders. The expedition circumnavigated Australia between 1802 and 1803 but failed to complete a detailed survey due to the vessel’s unsoundness and scurvy among the crew.

On his return to Britain in 1804, Franklin resumed war duty with the Royal Navy, acting as a signal midshipman in HMS Bellerophon at the battle of Trafalgar before serving in HMS Bedford between 1807 and 1815. Promoted lieutenant in 1808, Franklin saw brief and inactive service as first lieutenant on HMS Forth in 1815 before he was discharged on half-pay. In 1818, he was selected to command HMS Trent on the British Naval North Polar Expedition (leader David Buchan), sent to Svalbard in company with HMS Dorothea in an attempt to seek a passage to Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean by way of the North Pole. After failing to penetrate the pack-ice northwest of Spitsbergen, the two vessels sustained damage during a gale and were forced to return to Britain later in the year.

Following the renewal of the Admiralty’s interest in the search for the Northwest Passage, Franklin was appointed to lead the British Naval Exploring Expedition [First Arctic Land Expedition], 1819 -1822, sent to explore the north coast of America east from the mouth of Coppermine River to Hudson Bay. After wintering at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River in 1819, the expedition travelled via Fort Providence to Winter Lake where they built their base, Fort Enterprise, and wintered in 1820. Leaving the fort in June 1821, the expedition travelled down the Coppermine River to its mouth, then proceeded east along the coast in two canoes, exploring and charting over 1,100 km of newly discovered coast before turning back at Point Turnagain on Dease Strait. During the arduous return journey, eleven members of the coastal party died, mainly from starvation or exposure. The expedition spent one more winter in the north before departing for Britain in autumn 1822. Franklin returned a hero and was promoted post captain in 1822, having been promoted commander in his absence in 1821. His account of the expedition ‘Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea’ was published in 1823, the year in which he married the poet, Eleanor Anne Porden.

Franklin returned to the Canadian Arctic in command of the British Naval Exploring Expedition [Second Arctic Land Expedition], 1825 – 1827, sent to extend exploration of the coast west from Coppermine River to Icy Cape, Alaska. Setting out from Liverpool in February 1825, the expedition reached the United States where Franklin learned of the death of his wife who had been ill since the birth of their daughter, Eleanor Isabella, in June 1824. After reaching Cumberland House, the expedition proceeded to Great Bear Lake where they built their winter quarters, Fort Franklin. In June 1826, the expedition descended the Mackenzie River to the head of its delta, where two parties were formed and separated. The western party under Franklin and George Back charted the Arctic coastline as far as Return Islands while the eastern party under John Richardson and Edward Nicholas Kendall explored and mapped the coast east to the Coppermine River. Franklin’s narrative of his second expedition was published in 1828, the year in which he married his second wife, Jane Griffin. He was knighted in 1829.

Between 1830 and 1834, Franklin commanded the frigate HMS Rainbow for duty in the Mediterranean, mainly playing a peace-keeping role along the coast of Greece during its war of independence. In 1836, he accepted the post of lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania], remaining in office until 1843.

Following his return to Britain, he was appointed by the Admiralty to lead the British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1845 -1848, sent to search for a Northwest Passage beyond Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait in the unexplored region south-west of Barrow Strait. Sailing from London on HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in May 1845, the expedition was last seen heading for Lancaster Sound by two whalers in northern Baffin Bay in late July 1845. After that, the expedition disappeared and Europeans never again saw its members alive.

Many searches were conducted for the missing expedition between 1847 and 1859, during the course of which the main facts regarding the route taken and final fate of the expedition were established. The two vessels had become beset north of King William Island, where they had spent two winters between September 1846 and April 1848. Franklin died on 11 June 1847 and the command had devolved on Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier. Abandoning the two vessels on 22 April 1848, the 105 survivors led by Crozier set out toward Back River. All perished during the journey. By discovering a channel of communication between known points in Barrow Strait and on the north coast, Franklin’s men had effectively discovered the Northwest Passage, although it was not navigated from end to end until Roald Amundsen sailed through it during the Norwegian Northwest Passage expedition, 1903 – 1906

Published Work

Franklin, Sir J. (1828) Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the Polar Sea in the years 1825, 1826 and 1827. London: John Murray London.

Franklin, Sir J. (1823) Narrative of a journey to the shores of the Polar Sea, in the years 1819-20-21-22. London: John Murray.

Further Information

Beardsley, M. (2002) Deadly winter: the life of Sir John Franklin. London: Chatham Publishing.

Dictionary of National Biography (1889) Vol.20. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Halpenny, F.G. ed (1988) Franklin, Sir John by Clive Anthony Holland in: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol.7. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Poulsom, Lieutenant Colonel N.W, Myres, Rear Admiral J.A.L, (2000) British polar exploration and research: a historical and medallic record with biographies 1818 – 1999. London: Savannah Publications.

Wilson, J. (2001) John Franklin: traveler on undiscovered seas. Montreal: XYZ Publishing.