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Erebus and Terror
John Franklin
North-West Passage

Next page - The Antarctic expedition 1839-1843, James Clark Ross
Ships of the Polar Explorers
"Few people of the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic deed, this brilliant proof of human courage and energy. With two ponderous craft - regular "tubs" according to our ideas - these men sailed right into the heart of the pack, which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death ... These men were heroes - heroes in the highest sense of the word."
 - Roald Amundsen, writing in 1912 of the Erebus and Terror expedition to Antarctica with James Clark Ross.
Antarctic Ships: Overview Historical: L'Astrolabe & Zelee | Aurora | Belgica | Discovery | Endurance
Erebus and Terror: Ross - Antarctica  Franklin - Arctic | Fram Fram page2 | Nimrod | Terra Nova
Modern: Ice-strengthened and icebreakers | James Clark Ross | Kapitan Khlebnikov | Yamal
Ships then and now - a comparison

The Ships


Hecla-class bomb ship / 3 masts / L,B,D 105' x 28.5' x 13.8' - 32m x 8.7m x 4.2m / 372 tons / Hull: wooden / Complement 67 / Arms: 1 x 13" mortar, 1 x 10" mortar, 2 x 6pdr, 8 x 24 pdr / Designed Sir Henry Peake / Built: Pembroke dockyard, Wales 1826.

Vesuvius-class bomb ship / 3 masts / L,B,D 102' x 27' x 12.5' - 31.1m x 8.2m x 3.8m / 325 tons / Hull: wooden / Complement 67 / Arms: 1 x 13" mortar, 1 x 10" mortar, 2 x 6pdr, 8 x 24 pdr / Designed Sir Henry Peake / Built: Davy, Topsham, England 1813.

Terror saw war service in 1812 in the Crimea, but was then laid up until 1828. She was damaged near Lisbon and withdrawn from service after being repaired.

In 1836 Terror sailed to Hudson Bay under the command of George Back with the intention of reaching Repulse Bay - which she never did. She almost didn't survive the winter, at one point being pushed some forty feet up a cliff before the ice subsided. Ten months after entering the pack Terror limped to Ireland where she was beached and repaired.

Erebus and terror were designed as "bomb ships" for the naval bombardment of shore targets. The main armaments of large bore mortars weighed 3 tons each and required that the ships be considerably re-inforced for the punishing work that this entailed. The mortars had a powerful recoil. Thus they were suited for polar exploratory work by virtue of being stronger than other similar ships available at the time. The ice strengthened sealing and whaling vessels used in later polar expeditions were not available in such numbers at the time of the Erebus and Terror missions.

They also had capacious holds for all of the stores that were needed and shallow drafts (eleven feet) to get close in to shore.

In preparation for the voyage, the admiralty dockyards doubled the thickness of the ships decks with a layer of waterproof cloth being sandwiched in between the old and new layers. The interiors of the two ships were braced fore and aft with oak beams to resist and absorb shock from ice. The hulls were scraped clean and double planked and finally the keels were sheathed in extra thick copper plate. Triple strength canvas was fitted for the sails.

They ships had sail power only for the Antarctic expedition, but were fitted out with single screw propellers powered by 20hp engines for the Northwest Passage voyage.


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The atlas of 1816 was littered with blanks. What was the North Pole? Was there a Northwest passage? What lay at the heart of Africa? Did Antarctica exist? In his quest to find the answers to these questions John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, launched the most ambitious programme of exploration the world had ever seen.

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The Expeditions

This page - In search of the Northwest Passage, 1845 - 1848, John Franklin
The Antarctic expedition 1839-1843, James Clark Ross

John FranklinAfter arriving back in England following their Antarctic expedition with James Clark Ross, Erebus and Terror were fitted out with 20 hp steam engines and single screw propellers for a new voyage in search of the Northwest Passage under the command of Sir John Franklin.

The ships sailed again from the Thames on the 19th of May 1845. They had been painted black with a wide yellow stripe running along them. They were provisioned for three years, though by careful use and by getting extra food from hunting and fishing, this might stretch to seven.

They were seen in Baffin Bay near to the entrance of Lancaster Sound on the 26th of July 1845 by two whaling ships that were waiting for the ice to clear. Neither ship, the Erebus nor the Terror nor any of the 133 crew aboard them were ever seen again.

The ships sailed north but found their way blocked by ice and had to turn south again. Eventually they became ice bound in Victoria Strait between King William Island and Victoria Island. Franklin died on board Erebus on June 11th 1847 of natural causes. By spring 1848, 23 crew members were also dead from starvation or scurvy. On April 22nd 1848, the 105 remaining survivors abandoned the ships and attempted to march to Fort Resolution about 600 miles to the southwest - none of them made it alive. All of the crew of both ships died and the Erebus and Terror were lost to the ice.

Pressed for news of the expedition, the British Parliament issued a £20,000 reward for Franklin's rescue - no news or sight of the expedition had been seen or heard since August 1845. There was £10,000 to anyone who just found the two ships and another prize of £10,000 to the first to cross the North-West passage. Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John's wife (now widow though she was not sure of it) was very energetic in her searches, paying with her own money (and that donated from others in response to her forthright approaches) for four ships to go to the Arctic. 

She appealed to the Whitehouse in 1849 for help though at first was met with a cool response. Eventually after effectively being shamed by popular public opinion to Lady Franklin's appeal, congress acted. A New York shipping merchant, Henry Grinell offered the use of two of his strengthened ships, the Advance and Rescue, Congress authorized that they be manned by US Navy personnel. 

The lure of the search for the lost expedition of Erebus and Terror led by Franklin gripped many men over the next ten years. Forty search parties set out to find them, six went overland through North America and thirty four went by sea. Initially it was thought the men might be found alive, but eventually this became a quest to find out what had happened to the expedition. Ironically, it was the search for the lost men that led to a great opening up and exploration of the Arctic on a previously unprecedented scale.

Some of the expeditions were possibly using "looking for Franklin" as an excuse for their own attempt to reach the North Pole or to be the first through the North-West passage. Indeed for the next half a century the phrase "going to look for Franklin" became a euphemism for an attempt at the North Pole.

In August 1850, the first signs were found. At the mouth of Wellington channel on Beechy Island, were found the remains of where the expedition had wintered in 1845. There were sledge tracks in the earth, fire sites and a massive pyramid of 600 empty cans. There were also three graves. This was a very unusually high rate of loss for a first winter, despite other expeditions losing men it tended not to happen until a number of years had elapsed. Something had clearly made Franklin and his men ill.

The fate of Erebus and Terror was not learned until 1859 when the Fox, one of Lady Franklin's own ships commanded by Leopold McClintock learned their fate after discovering notes and artifacts on King William Island.

One of Franklin's ships found! - September 2014
Picture courtesy Parks Canada

“I am delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition lost in 1846."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, September 9, 2014

More here from Parks Canada

John Franklin-Expedition- 1845

Division of Sledges Passing Cape Lady Franklin
Picture courtesy - Library and Archives Canada, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

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