Last letters – Publication History

The letters Fitzjames sent in July 1845 to Elizabeth and William Coningham are among the last known written records by his hand. They are preserved on microfilm at the Caird Library (the original letters remaining in private hands). Full transcriptions of all of these letters will be published for the first time in the book May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition, out July 2022. Edited versions of the letters have been published a few times before, between 1852 and 1859. Fitzjames’ private letters were made public and edited to suit the purpose of propaganda and ultimately remembrance.
Let us take a look at the publication history of Fitzjames’ last letters.

After over two years of no word from the Franklin Expedition, in 1847 the Admiralty made preparations to send out a three-pronged search expedition in the Spring of 1848.
It consisted of an overland expedition under the command of Sir John Richardson (1787-1865) and John Rae (1813-1893), and two naval expeditions. Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862) and Edward Joseph Bird (1799-1881) commanded HMS Enterprise and HMS Investigator respectively and sailed towards Lancaster Sound to retrace Franklin’s steps. Another naval expedition under Thomas Edward Laws Moore (c.1820-1872) in HMS Plover and Sir Henry Kellett (1806-1875) in HMS Herald sailed to the Bering Strait in case Franklin’s expedition had made it there.1

The Nautical Magazine of July 1848 is hopeful in their report of the search expedition:
“It is gratifying to know that in the opinions of those who are best qualified to judge on the subject, Sir John Franklin and his party are yet safe, his provisions being ample with care, to last him untill the summer of 1849 ; and although, after so long an interval there is much room for speculation, yet there is no good reason for doubting the safety of the Erebus and Terror, when the usual precautions against the dangers of ice navigation are adopted.”

Alas Richardson and Rae found no trace of Franklin & crew while Ross and Bird’s ships could not advance further because of the ice. The ships sent to the Bering Strait also found nothing, because as we know in hindsight the Franklin Expedition never made it there.

Another search mission was conducted during 1850-1851, by a squadron of four vessels under command of Sir Horatio Thomas Austin (1800-1865) in the HMS Resolute.
It was during this search that the Franklin Expedition’s 1845-1846 winter camp and the graves of Torrington, Hartnell and Braine were discovered on Beechey Island.2

The Admiralty planned their final effort to search for the missing Franklin Expedition in the Spring of 1852. The same vessels from the previous search mission would now sail out under Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877). The Nautical Magazine of April 1852 reported:

The Leader (January – February 1852)

In January 1852, William Coningham (1815-1884) decided to share an edited version of Fitzjames’ last letters in The Leader, a radical political and literary weekly to which William sometimes contributed. The timing of publication can be seen as an attempt to remind the public of the 129 brave Englishmen that were still somewhere in the Arctic, in need of rescue. Their cause was not yet lost and deserved attention. Political attention too. Later, in 1860 when William was serving as Member of Parliament for Brighton, he commented that “it was because the Government had not taken the proper measures to search for him [Sir John Franklin] and his gallant companions—because they had not adequately fulfilled their duties—that Lady Franklin had sacrificed almost her entire private resources.”3

Starting on 10 January, the letters were published in installments until 28 February 1852.

The letters are introduced anonymously (“C.” standing for Coningham) and the officer’s name is not revealed. The addressee’s name is redacted. The ”intimate friend” is of course William’s wife Elizabeth. It seems that William believed Fitzjames might still be alive at this point, as the officer is spoken of in the present tense and the expedition as ongoing.
Why were the letters edited? As Fitzjames explains to Elizabeth in his first letter: “Now I do keep a journal such as it is, which will be given to the Admiralty.”
Even though the letters are written in the style of a journal, and contain a report of the day-to-day affairs of the expedition, it contains many personal remarks that would never have been meant for any other eyes than the Coninghams’. William also wanted to publish these private letters without Fitzjames’ permission, and there was still a chance that he would make it back to England alive. The letters needed to be curated to represent the desired image of Fitzjames and not cause him any embarrassment.

It had been about 6.5 years since William had received these letters and last heard from Fitzjames. They had gone without seeing each other for years many times before, which Fitzjames addresses near the end of Elizabeth’s ‘journal’:

“Somehow or other William and I did not know each other of late years, as we did in the days of our boyhood — I always felt convinced that he loved me sincerely ; and was aware that he knew how much I was attached to him — but we had been so long, and so much apart that I doubt if either of us had the same intensity of affection for the other, which both are now concious of feeling — He will perhaps say that this was not the case on his part — and will set it down to my carelessness — but I think you will both understand what I mean though I express myself badly — What I feel convinced however never did exist was a coolness or want of affection between us —”

Years before, during his time on the HMS St Vincent, Fitzjames often asked his uncle Robert Coningham to ask his son William to write to him, as he barely received any word from him. When William finally did write, Fitzjames told his uncle on 30 October 1832:

“Will’s letter appears to me rather cold. Most likely I am mistaken, but for the world do not tell him I say so. God knows I am not altered. I wish I could see him.”

In 1845 William and Fitzjames realised that no matter how long they went without seeing each other, they shared a strong bond and love for each other. They were truly brothers.

At the end of the first installment of Fitzjames’ journal, The Leader included a letter that had been published in the Times about the last sighting of the Franklin Expedition and a report of an investigation into the preserved meat supplied to the Navy for its ships.

The letter had been sent to the Times by the Royal Society’s Assistant Secretary and Librarian Charles Richard Weld. Captain Robert Martin’s testimony of his conversation with John Franklin and officers, and the last sighting of the Erebus and Terror was important new information. It offers a tiny piece of the puzzle of what happened after Fitzjames’ last letter of 11 July 1845. It is highly probable that Fitzjames was one of the officers who dined aboard the Enterprise.

The Admiralty ordered a board of examination to investigate the state of the preserved meats supplied to the Navy after complaints going back to 1848.4
The verdict was… unpalatable. It was also discovered that the Franklin Expedition might not have been so well provisioned as they believed… This information was an extra reason why finding the crew was such an urgent matter.

Goldner’s, the company that had provided the Franklin Expedition with their preserved goods, is accused of false advertising:

The second installment on 17 January is preceded by this introduction:

Believing in an Open Polar Sea, Lieutenant Bedford Pim (1826-1886) thought the Franklin Expedition might have sailed towards the Bering Strait via Wellington Channel but ran into trouble along the Siberian Coast. He proposed a Siberian overland expedition, but the Admiralty did not approve of his plan. In the meantime, Pim had gained the support of Lady Franklin. After the Royal Geographical Society and the prime minister provided Pim with additional funds and the proper introductions, he embarked on his journey to Russia. Where, as you can read in The Leader, his plan came to a halt. After his failed Russian expedition Pim returned to England and in April 1852 joined the Squadron under command of Edward Belcher leaving for the Arctic, where he served on the Resolute.5
Beatson’s expedition never began because of a lack of funds. His boat the steamer Isabel was given to his supporter Lady Franklin, who then sent the Isabel to the Arctic under command of Commander Edward Augustus Inglefield (1820-1894).6

In the last installment on 28 February the expedition changes from being called The Arctic Expedition to Sir John Franklin’s Expedition and the officer’s name is revealed to be Captain Fitzjames. Also, a letter addressed to William Coningham is included, his name not redacted.

The original 11th July letter to William is not addressed to “Dear Coningham”. Instead, it says “Dear Will”.
William did not want to show his close relationship with Fitzjames in the publication. It must not seem as if he only wanted attention for the lost expedition because his foster brother is an officer on this expedition. The fate of Franklin’s Expedition was a matter of national importance.

The Nautical Magazine (March – April 1852)

In March 1852 part one of the edited letters to the Coninghams was published in The Nautical Magazine.  The names of the addressees were again redacted and the letters introduced as:

The second and final part was published in The Nautical Magazine of April 1852, and just like in The Leader the name of the author was finally revealed. The letter to William Coningham was again included. Unfortunately Fitzjames’ name was misspelled:

What is new is that Fitzjames’ 1 – 11 July 1845 letters to John Barrow Jr. (1808-1898) are also included here, although Barrow’s name is redacted. The two were very good friends and had corresponded in an informal manner for years. These particular letters however do not contain any overtly personal remarks and look to have been edited simply to make the letters a bit shorter for publication.

Again Fitzjames’ name gets misspelled:

1854 – 1857

The search expedition under Belcher ended in the loss of all of the ships, which were abandoned in the ice. No major discoveries concerning the Franklin Expedition had been made.7

On 31 March 1854 the Admiralty had officially declared the crews of HMS Erebus and Terror deceased and struck them off the Navy list.  
On 14 June 1854 William Coningham appeared in Court to swear “that the last Letters received from the said Ship were dated on or about the 12th day of July in the said year 1845, since which time the said James Fitzjames has not been heard of nor have any tidings been received from the said expedition, since the month of July in the said year, And he verily believes that the said James Fitzjames is long since dead, and he further made Oath that the said James Fitzjames died in or since the month of July one thousand eight hundred and forty five to the best of his knowledge information and belief” 8

After arriving back in England in late 1854 from another overland expedition, John Rae reported to the Admiralty that he had found evidence of cannibalism among Franklin’s crew:
“Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter; and several lay scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the island, one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope, strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barrelled gun lay underneath him. From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging existence . . . . None of the Esquimaux with whom I conversed had seen the ‘whites,’ nor had they ever been at the place where the bodies were found, but had their information from those who had been there, and who had seen the party when travelling.”

The Admiralty made this report public and outrage and disbelief ensued that English Royal Navy men could resort to such barbaric behaviour. The writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) devoted a few articles in his magazine Household Words to the matter, claiming that it was far more likely that “Eskimaux” had killed the expedition’s crew.9

On Tuesday 24 February 1857 the House of Commons debated whether another expedition in search of Franklin’s Expedition was justified.10 William Coningham was not present, as his first recorded appearance as MP at the House of Commons is on 15 May 1857.11 It would have been very interesting if he had been a part of this debate.
The motion was presented by Irish MP and lawyer Sir Joseph Napier (1804-1882), who “rose to call the attention of the House to the communications with Her Majesty’s Government respecting the Franklin Expedition, and the urgent nature of the claim for a further and complete search. He had been induced to bring forward this subject because it was one of peculiar and pressing interest to more than one of his constituents and friends, and among them the relatives of Captain Crozier, the friend and companion of Franklin, and that fact would account for so humble an individual as he was taking up this present most important question. In June last a memorial was sent in to the Government, signed by some of the most eminent and scientific men in the country in favour of a new expedition in search of Sir John Franklin and his gallant party. The object was one which deeply concerned humanity, and involved, he thought, to some extent the honour and the character of this country. He had hoped that the Government would have replied favourably to that memorial. It was not his wish to precipitate a hasty conclusion respecting it, but time pressed, and it was most important that, If anything was to be done, it should be done quickly.” 12

Some members of the House responded favourably to this motion, but at the end of the debate Napier withdrew it, particularly because the First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Charles Wood (1800-1885) did not lend his support. Wood was of the opinion that:
“there was a very strong reason why the Government should decline the responsibility of sending out any such expedition. Five vessels had already been abandoned in the different expeditions sent out on the search for Sir John Franklin, the crews of which had been rescued by other vessels; and it was not impossible that any other expedition might meet with the same fate as the Franklin expedition, and then there would have to be renewed expeditions without end to discover the survivors, in order that such people as those to whom his hon. and gallant Friend had alluded, namely, those who supposed that a portion of the Franklin expedition might be living, for the next ten or twenty years, might be gratified. But the lapse of time since that expedition sailed was so great that he (Sir C. Wood) believed there was no possibility of there now being a survivor. He had never felt that the risk of life which Arctic voyages involved was justified by the scientific results which might be attainable by such expeditions. He regretted at the time when the Franklin expedition was determined upon that the Government should have consented to risk so much for so little as the mere discovery of what was called the North-west Passage. He still remained of the same opinion.”

Concerning the valuable written materials of the Franklin Expedition, Wood said:
“If, on the other hand, those articles were taken away by the crew in abandoning the ships, he thought it was equally obvious that the last of the survivors would perish with the bags and journals about them; and it was not likely that the last survivor, before his death, could have deposited them in a place which he had deliberately selected as that which was best calculated to enable any other person to discover them; and where, within an area of 1,200 miles, were they to search for something which, when found, would not be worth the trouble and danger of the search? He thought the prospect, therefore, of any new expedition being able to discover any scientific records of the Franklin expedition was so slight, that he (Sir C. Wood) did not think that a new expedition ought to be risked, and as to discovering any of the men alive he believed there was no prospect whatever.”

Although there would be more privately funded expeditions, the English Government would never again send out any expeditions in search of the Franklin Expedition.

The last journals of Captain James Fitzjames R.N. of the Lost Polar Expedition (1859)

In 1859 William Coningham published the edited letters to him and his wife in a privately printed publication, meant to be circulated among family and friends. The booklet serves, as is stated on the cover, as an In Memoriam. Fitzjames was definitely never coming home.

Meanwhile, the privately funded Arctic expedition under command of Leopold McClintock (1819-1907) in the Fox was still ongoing. After two winters stuck in the ice, they would arrive back home in October 1859, bringing with them relics among which was the so-called Victory Point Note. To date, this piece of paper written by Fitzjames is the only written record by members of the Franklin Expedition that tells us something about what happened after July 1845.
Thanks to the discovery of the Victory Point Note it is at least certain that Fitzjames was still alive on 25 April 1848, Captain of Erebus, and well enough to write.
When the Fox Expedition left England on 1 July 1857 it was clear that it would probably no longer be a rescue mission, but a mission to find relics and information about what happened to the men. On the ‘List of Subscribers to the Fox Expedition’ there are the names of many relatives, friends, and colleagues of the Franklin Expedition’s crew, donating generously to hopefully obtain some more information on what happened to their loved ones. William Coningham was one of the top donators with £100, and even Fitzjames’ Euphrates Expedition commander Francis Chesney contributed £2.13

All the Year Round (July 1859)

In the 30 July 1859 issue of All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal conducted by Charles Dickens, the magazine had been given permission by William to publish excerpts from the letters as part of a literary piece.
“It is necessary to state that the journal produced under Mr. Coningham’s supervision is intended for private circulation among his own friends.”
The magazine makes a point of saying that they were privileged to view the journal, while the edited letters had of course already been published in full in The Leader and The Nautical Magazine. Perhaps a way to make the publication sound more exclusive. However All the Year Round was a cheaper and more widely read publication than The Leader and The Nautical Magazine, so many of its readers probably had no knowledge of the prior publication of Fitzjames’ letters.14

The piece is entitled The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book, and while its author is not mentioned, we now know it was written by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889).15 The Franklin Expedition was a familiar subject for him, as in 1856 he wrote the play The Frozen Deep in close collaboration with Charles Dickens.16 It was based on the search for the Franklin Expedition as well as Dickens’ condemnation of John Rae’s evidence of cannibalism among the expedition’s crew.

While the previous publications of Fitzjames’ letters seemed to have had as their purpose to instill interest and sympathy in the public for the search for the lost expedition, this piece is all about legacy and remembrance. Although it is certainly well-written, it clearly tells the biased story of a crew of good, Christian, Englishmen who died heroically in the Arctic for Queen and Country. As a eulogy it serves perfectly well.

Two interesting things can be learned from The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book.
It says that Fitzjames joined the Arctic Expedition “against Mr. Coningham’s urgent entreaties”. Does this mean that William thought the expedition to be dangerous, or did he simply want Fitzjames to stay at home in England for a while?
Fitzjames did seem to have been thinking of taking a break from the Navy. An almost 32 year old Fitzjames wrote to Elizabeth on 26 June 1845, William’s birthday:

“He is only 30 I wish I was only 30 — I begin to fancy I am getting old and stupid — I certainly do fancy (now and then only) that a year or two on shore would do me a world of good —”

Another interesting piece of information is that this is what William Coningham wanted the world to know about Fitzjames’ connection to the Coninghams: “Although Captain Fitzjames was not related either to Mr. or Mrs. Coningham, he had always lived on terms of the closest intimacy with them; having being brought up at an early age under the roof of Mr. Coningham’s father.” The reason why Fitzjames needed to be brought up by a family he supposedly was not related to, is not given.

After having read the original letters it is funny to see Fitzjames’ edited observations of his messmates be described by Collins as “so careful and so considerate”.
These are excerpts from Fitzjames’ original descriptions of his messmates:

“[…] he is mad am I sure — for he squints to himself with a painful expression of countenance when he is thinking (or thinking of nothing) […] yet he is not a bore nor a nuisance — but a non-entity”

Second Master Henry Foster Collins

“Couch is a little bullet headed black haired smooth faced lump of inanity […]”

Mate Edward Couch

“[…] but no energy of character — and I fear not too much sense. But fortunately does not (as is usual in such cases) fancy himself very clever.”

Mate Robert Orme Sargent

Fitzjames writes to Elizabeth that “you know me sufficiently to be sure that I mention their little faults, ailings, and peculiarities in all charity.”
It does seem however that mister “life of the party” and “universal favourite”17 thinks being quiet and unassuming are somehow negative qualities.

In 1860 William pleaded with the Government to send out more expeditions to learn more about what had happened to the Franklin Expedition:
“Not only those who were interested in Polar discovery, but the great bulk of this nation and the civilized world were interested in obtaining all the information that could be collected as to the fate and history of Sir John Franklin’s expedition; and he [William] really thought the Government would be wanting in their duty to the relatives and memory of those whom they had sent out on such dangerous adventures if they did not take steps to recover what traces they could of their history and endurance.”18
But just like in 1857, the Government was not willing to spend any more resources on the Franklin Expedition.

The publication history of James Fitzjames’ last letters shows how in the letter author’s absence and after his eventual death his words are used and interpreted by others to suit their own intentions. Writing history is always done by making the choice to leave some things out and include that which supports the intended narrative.
The only way to get closer to understanding the letter author’s true intentions is to read the original letters or faithful full transcriptions. However, without the author present and able to elaborate on their writings, everything is still conjecture.


In the history of our lives there is one touching
domestic experience, associated with the
solemn mystery of Death, which is familiar to us
all. When the grave has claimed its own ; when
the darkened rooms are open again to the light
of heaven ; when grief rests more gently on the
weary heart, and the tears, restrained through
the day, fall quietly in the lonely night hours,
there comes a time at which we track the farewell
journey of the dead over the familiar ways
of home by the simple household relics that the
lost and loved companion has left to guide us.
At every point of the dread pilgrimage from
this world to the next, some domestic trace remains
that appeals tenderly to the memory, and
that leads us on, from the day when the last
illness began, to the day that left us parted on a
sudden from our brother or sister-spirit by the
immeasurable gulf between Life and Eternity.
The sofa on which we laid the loved figure so
tenderly when the first warning weakness declared
itself ; the bed, never slept in since, which
was the next inevitable stage in the sad journey ;
all the little sick-room contrivances for comfort
that passed from our living hands to the one
beloved hand which shall press ours in gratitude
no more ; the last book read to beguile the wakeful
night, with the last pace marked where the
weary eyes closed for ever over the page ; the
little favourite trinkets laid aside never to be
taken up again ; the glass, still standing by the
bedside, from which we moistened the parched
lips for the last time; the handkerchief which
dried the deathly moisture from the dear face
and touched the wasted cheeks almost at the
same moment when our lips pressed them at
parting — these mute relics find a language of
their own, when the first interval of grief allows
us to see them again; a language that fills the
mind and softens the heart, and makes the sacred
memory of the dead doubly precious; a language
that speaks to every nation and every rank, and
tells, while the world lasts, the one solemn story
that exalts, purifies, and touches us all alike.

Reflections such as these are naturally suggested
by a relic of public interest, associated
with a public bereavement, which now lies before
is while we write.  England has not forgotten
the brave and devoted men who went out
from her, never to return, on Franklin’s expedition
to the Polar Seas. Few subjects of national
interest have sunk deeper into the public mind
than the fate of the lost heroes whose last
earthly resting-place is still hidden from us in
the mysterious solitudes of the frozen deep.
Every step of their progress so long as any
trace of it was left, was once eagerly watched ;
every chance of their preservation, so long as
those chances remained, was once anxiously discussed ;
every relic of their past existence that
has drifted back to us, since we mourned them
as lost, has been welcomed with melancholy
gratitude, and treasured with loving care. Any
fresh trace of their progress on the fatal voyage
which we can still recover, is a memorial of the
dead and gone, only less precious than those
nearer and dearer memorials associated with the
private and personal losses which have tried us
all within the circle of our own homes.

The new relic of the lost Arctic voyagers to
which we now refer, is as simple in form as any
of those little household remembrances which
hard experience has taught us to regard with
such tender care. It consists only of a few
pages of a journal on board ship, kept by Captain
Fitzjames, of the Erebus, and addressed
by him, from the coasts of Greenland, to
Mrs. Coningham. The manuscript thus produced
has been privately printed by Mr. Coningham,
well known to many of our readers as the
Member of Parliament for Brighton, and as the
advocate of some important reforms in con-
nexion with the purchase of pictures for the
National Gallery. Although Captain Fitzjames
was not related either to Mr. or Mrs. Coningham,
he had always lived on terms of the closest intimacy
with them; having being brought up at
an early age under the roof of Mr. Coningham’s
father. Captain Fitzjames’s career began in
the year 1825, when he entered the navy as a
master’s assistant. At a later period, he became
a first class volunteer. After serving in various
ships, he joined Colonel Chesney in the Euphrates
expedition; and before sailing, rescued
a Liverpool tide-waiter from drowning, at the risk
of his own life, by jumping overboard in his clothes
in the middle of the Mersey — an heroic action
which the authorities of Liverpool rewarded by
presenting him with a medal, and with the freedom
of their city. Subsequently this brave
officer joined the Chinese expedition, and was
severely wounded. His next, and last, exertions
in the service of his country were devoted —
against Mr. Coningham’s urgent entreaties — to
the fatal Arctic Expedition under Sir John
Franklin; and his narrative of that part of the
voyage which brought the Erebus and Terror to
the coast of Greenland is now privately printed,
as the simplest and truest memorial of a man
whose happy privilege it was to be loved,
honoured, and trusted by all who knew him.
It is necessary to state that the journal produced
under Mr. Coningham’s supervision is intended
for private circulation among his own
friends. That gentleman has, however, voluntarily
accorded to us the permission to make what
literary use we may think fit of Captain Fitzjames’s
Diary. We have gladly accepted Mr.
Coningham’s offer, not only in consideration of
the deep public interest which attaches to this
unprentending document, viewed simply as an
addition to our few memorials of the lost Polar
Expedition, but also on account of the remarkable
merit of the journal itself. Every page of
it assures us that Captain Fitzjames added to
his high professional qualifications the two rare
gifts of a quick and true observation of character
and a happy facility in conveying the
results of that observation plainly, unaffectedly,
and graphically to others. Narrow as its limits
are, this interesting journal effects its avowed
object of placing us on board ship by the
writer’s side, of showing us his floating home in
its most familiar and most domestic aspect, and
of introducing us, in a delightfully considerate
and kindly spirit, to the more prominent characters
among the officers and the men. We propose
to make our readers sharers in the attractive
view thus presented — the last view attainable,
so far as we know at present — of past life
and past events on board one of the two doomed
Discovery Ships; in the full belief that every
one who looks over them will close the pages
here presented, as we have closed the journal
from which they are quoted, with a heightened
admiration and a closer sympathy for Sir John
Franklin, for Captain Fitzjames, and for their
brave companions on that memorable Voyage
which Englishmen who prize the honour of their
country can never forget.

The sad story takes us back to the June of
eighteen hundred and forty-five. The two discovery
ships, the Erebus and Terror, are at sea,
with the transport containing their supplies in
attendance on them. The time is noon; the
place on the ocean near the island of Rona,
seventy or eighty miles from Stromness; and
the two steamers, Rattler and Blazer, are taking
leave — a last, long leave — of the Arctic voyagers.
“Their captains” (says the journal, referring
to the two steamers) “came on board and took
our letters; one from me will have told you of
our doings up to that time. There was a heavy
swell and wind from north-west ; but it began
veering to west and south-west, which is fair.
The steamers then ranged alongside of us, one
on each side, as close as possible without touching,
and, with the whole force of lungs of
officers and men, gave us, not three, but a prolongation
of cheers, to which, of course, we responded.
Having done the same to the Terror,
away they went, and in an hour or two were out
of sight, leaving us with an old gull or two and
the rocky Rona to look at ; and then was the
time to see if any one flinched from the undertaking.
Every one’s cry was, “Now we are off
at last!”. No lingering look was cast behind.
We drank Lady Franklin’s health at the old gentleman’s
table, and, it being his daughter’s birthday,
hers too. But the wind, which had become
fair as the steamers left (as if to give the latest
best news of us), in the evening became foul
from the north-west, and we were going northward
instead of westward. The sky was clear,
the air bracing and exhilarating. I had a slight
attack of aguish headache the evening before,
but am now clear-headed, and I went to bed
thinking of you and dear William, whose portrait
is now looking at me.”
Such was the farewell to England, and the
sailing away in right earnest to the Arctic seas
— such the steady and hopeful spirit in which
officers and men confronted the unknown and the
dreadful future that was awaiting them. The
next passages in the journal, which can be profitably
extracted for quotation, describe the companions
of Captain Fitzjames’s mess.
“In our mess we have the following, whom I
shall probably from time to time give you descriptions
of: First Lieutenant, Gore ; second,
Le Vescomte ; third, Fairholme ; purser, Osmar ;
surgeon, Stanley ; assistant-surgeon, Goodsir ;
ice-master (so called) Reid ; mates – Sargent,
Des Voeux, Crouch ; second master, Collins ; commander,
you know better than he does himself.”
“The most original character of all – rough,
intelligent, unpolished, with a broad north
country accent, but not vulgar, good-humoured,
and honest-hearted – is Reid, a Greenland whaler,
native of Aberdeen, who has commanded whaling
vessels, and amuses us with his quaint remarks
and descriptions of the ice, catching whales, &c.
For instance, he just said to me, on my saying
we should soon be off Cape Farewell at this rate,
and asking if one might not generally expect a
gale off it (Cape Farewell being the south point
of Greenland) ‘Ah! Now Mister Jems, we’ll
be having the weather fine, sir! fine. No ice
at arl about it, sir, unless it be the bergs — arl
the ice ‘ll be gone, sir, only the bergs, which I
like to see. Let it come on to blow, look out
for a big ’un. Get under his lee, and hold on to
him fast, sir, fast. If he drifts near the land
why, he grounds afore you do.’ The idea of all
the ice being gone, except the icebergs, is racy
beyond description. I have just had a game of
chess with the purser, Osmar, who is delightful.
I was at first inclined to think he was a
stupid old man, because he had a chin and took
snuff ; but he is as merry-hearted as any young
man, full of quaint dry sayings, always good-humoured,
always laughing, never a bore, takes
his pinch after dinner, plays a rubber, and beats
me at chess – and, he is a gentleman.”

We shall hear more of the quaint ice–master
and his shrewd north country sayings. For the
present, he must give way to a character of paramount
interest — to the high-spirited old man
who nobly led the expedition, at a time of his
life when he might well have rested among us,
content with his high professional position and
his well-won fame. Every word in the journal
relating to Sir John Franklin is now of such interest
and value, that we can hardly do better than
mass together the detached passages in which
his name occurs, with the object of presenting
all that is characteristically related of him to the
reader’s mind at one view.
“6th June. – To-day Sir John Franklin showed
me such part of his instructions as related to the
main purpose of our voyage, and the necessity
of observing everything from a flea to a whale in
the unknown regions we are to visit. He also
told me I was especially charged with the magnetic
observations. He then told all the officers
that he was desired to claim all their remarks,
journals, sketches, &c., on our return to England,
and read us some part of his instructions
to the officers of the Trent, the first vessel he
commanded, in 1818, with Captain Buchan, on
an attempt to reach the North Pole, pointing
out how desirable it is to note everything, and
give one’s individual opinion on it. He spoke
delightfully of the zealous co-operation he expected
from all, and his desire to do full justice
to the exertions of each . . . At dinner,
to-day, Sir John gave us a pleasant account of
his expectations of being able to get through the
ice on the coast of America, and his disbelief in
the idea that there is open sea to the northward.
He also said he believed it to be possible to
reach the Pole over the ice by wintering at
Spitzbergen, and going in the spring before the
ice broke up and drifted to the south, as it did
with Parry on it. ….. 8th. I like a man
who is in earnest. Sir John Franklin read the
Church-service to-day and a sermon so very
beautifully, that I defy any man not to feel the
force of what he would convey. The first
Sunday he read was a day or two before we
sailed, when Lady Franklin, his daughter, and
niece attended. Every one was struck with his
extreme earnestness of manner, evidently proceeding
from real confiction. …. We are
very fond of Sir John Franklin, who improves
very much as we come to know more of him. He
is anything but nervous or fidgety ; in fact, I
should say remarkable for energetic decision in
sudden emergencies ; but I should think he
might be easily persuaded where he has not
already formed a strong opinion.”
These are slight touches ; but the stamp of
truth is on every one of them. They add to
the deep regret which the sacrifice of such a
man inspires ; but they also strengthen our conviction
of the Christian courage and resignation
with which he met his dreadful end.

Let us look back again to the journal, and
take our places at the mess-table with some of
Captain Fitzjames’s companions . Assistant-
surgeon Goodsir is as well worth knowing in
his way as ice-master Reid.
“6th, towards midnight.– I can’t make out
why Scotchmen just caught always speak in a
low, hesitating, monotonous tone of voice, which
is not at all times to be understood ; this is, I
believe, called ‘cannyness.’ Mr. Goodsir is
canny. He is long and straight, and walks
upright on his toes, with his hands tucked up
in each jacket pocket. He is perfectly good-
humoured, very well informed on general points,
in natural history learned, was Curator of the
Edinburgh Museum, appears to be about twenty-
eight years of age, laughs delightfully, cannot
be in a passion, is enthusiastic about all ‘ologies,
draws the insides of microscopic animals with
an imaginary pointed pencil, catches phenomena
in a bucket, looks at the thermometer and every
other meter, is a pleasant companion, and a
acquisition to the mess …. 10th.– A clear fine
sunset at a quarter to ten, and Goodsir examining
‘mollusca’ in a meecroscope. He is in extasies
about a bag full of blubber-like stuff,
which he has just hauled up in a net, and
which turns out to be whales’ food and other
Goodsir and Reid are the two Characters of
the expedition. But there are more members of
the mess, pleasantly distinguishable one from the
other, by the light of Captain Fitzjames’s clear
and genial observation. “Crouch, the mate, “is
a little black-haired, smooth-faced fellow, good-
humoured in his own way ; writes, reads, works,
draws, all quietly ; is never in the way of anybody,
and always ready when wanted ; but I
can find no remarkable point in his character,
except, perhaps, that he is, I should think, obstinate.
Stanley, the surgeon, I knew in China.
He was in the Cornwallis a short time, where he
worked very hard in his vocation. Is rather
inclined to be good-looking, but fat, with jet-
black hair, very white hands, which are always
abominably clean, and the shirt-sleeves tucked
up ; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would
not mind cutting one’s leg off immediately – ‘if
not sooner.’ He is thoroughly good–natured
and obliging, and very attentive to our mess.
Le Vescomte you know. He improves, if possible,
on closer acquaintance.
Fairholme, you know or have seen, is a smart, agreeable
companion, and a well-informed man.
Sargent, a nice, pleasant-looking lad, very good–natured.
Des Voeux, I knew in the Cornwallis. He went
out in her to join the Endymion, and was then
a mere boy. He is now a most unexceptionable,
clever, agreeable, light-hearted, obliging young
fellow, and a great favourite of Hodgson’s,
which is much in his favour besides.
Graham Gore, the first lieutenant, a man of great stability
of character, a very good officer, and the
sweetest of tempers, is not so much a man of
the world as Fairholme or Des Voeux, is more
of Le Vescomte’s style, without his shyness.
He plays the flute dreadfully well, draws sometimes
very well, sometimes very badly, but is
altogether a capital fellow.
Here ends my catalogue. I don’t know
whether I have managed to convey an impression
of our mess, and you know me sufficiently
to be sure that I mention their little faults,
ailings, and peculiarities in all charity. I wish
I could, however, convey to you a just idea of
the immense stock of good feeling, good-humour,
and real kindliness of heart in our small mess.
We are very happy.”

They are very happy. What a pathos in
those four simple words, read by the light of
our after experience! They are very happy.
How delightfully the little strokes of character
in the journal open the view to us of the cheerful,
simple-hearted social intercourse of the
sailor-brotherhood! How vividly, between tears
and smiles, we see the honest faces round the
mess-table, as day by day draws the good ship
nearer and nearer to the cruel north! Purser
Osmar, taking his after-dinner pinch, and
playing his rubber; long, straight, pleasantly
laughing Goodsir, matching his learning and his
science against ice-master Reid, and his natural
north-country sharpness; plump, white–handed
Surgeon Stanley, with an attentive eye to the
appointments of the mess-table ; little, quiet,
steady, black-haired Crouch, listening to the
conversation, while sweet-tempered Des Voeux
keeps it going pleasantly, and Graham Gore
sits near at hand, ready to while away the time,
when the talk flags, with a tune on his flute. —
one by one, these members of the doomed ship’s
company appear before us again : fold by fold,
the snowy veil wreathed over them is melted
from view, and the dead and gone come back to
us for a little while from the icy keeping of
The journal, so careful and so considerate in
describing the officers, does not forget the men.
They, too, come in for their share of kindly and
clear-sighted notice.
“Our men are all fine, hearty fellows, mostly
north-countrymen, with a few men -of-war’s men.
We feared at Stromness that some of them
would repent, and it is usual to allow no leave
— the Terror did not. But two men wanted to
see — one his wife, whom he had not seen for
four years, and the other his mother, whom he
had not seen for seventeen – so I let them go to
Kirkwall, fourteen miles off. I also allowed a
man of each mess to go on shore for provisions.
They all came on board to their leave ; but
finding we were not going to sea till the following
morning, four men (who probably had taken
a leetle too much whisky, among them was the
little old man who had not seen his wife for four
years) took a small boat that lay alongside, and
went on shore without leave. Their absence
was soon discovered, and Fairholme, assisted by
Baillie, and somebody or other, brought all on
board by three o’clock in the morning. I firmly believe
each intended coming on board (if he had
been sober enough), especially the poor man with
the wife ; but, according to the rules of the
service, these men should have been severely
punished – one method being to stop their pay
and give it to the constables, or others, who apprehended
them. It struck me, however, that the
punishment is intended to prevent misconduct in
others, and not to revenge their individual misconduct:
men know very well when they are in
the wrong, and there is clearly no chance of any
repetition of the offence until we get to Valparaiso,
or the Sandwich Islands ; so I got up at
four o’clock, had everybody on deck, sent Gore
and the sergeant of marines below, and searched
the whole deck for spirits, which were thrown
overboard. This took two good hours ; soon
after which we up anchor, and made sail out.
I said nothing to any of them. They evidently
expected a rowing, and the old man with the
wife looked very sheepish, and would not look
me in the face ; but nothing more was said, and
the men have behaved not a bit the worse ever

Was this wise forbearance, this merciful interpretation
of the true end of punishment, tenderly
remembered, on both sides, when officers
and men lay helpless together, waiting for their
long release, in the voiceless and lifeless solitudes
of the North? Even such a trifle as the
memory of what had happened at Stromness
might have helped to soothe the last moments
of some among the lost men when the end was
near at hand. We may at least hope and believe
that it might have been so.
The journal which has, thus far, mainly occupied
itself with life and character on board the
Erebus, goes on to narrate the various events
and changes of weather which accompanied the
progress of the ships on the fatal northward
voyage. On the 11th and 12th of June, the wind
is high – the colour of the sea is “a beautiful,
delicate, cold-looking green” — “long rollers, as
if carved out of the essence of glass bottles,”
swell onwards in grand procession, meeting the
vessels. The rate of sailing is so rapid, with the
high wind in their favour, that they get within
six miles of Iceland. On the 14th the rain
pours down and the fogs close round them. The
Erebus sails on through the dense obscurity
with the Terror on one side, and the transport
on the other, all three keeping close together
for fear of losing each other. On this day the
officers amuse themselves by arranging their
books, and find to their satisfaction that they
can produce a very sufficient library. Ice-master
Reid comes out in his quaint experienced
way with a morsel of useful information
on the subject of cookery. He sees the steward
towing some fish overboard to try and get a
little of the salt out of it ; roars out sarcastically,
“What are you making faces at there? That’s
not the way to get the sarlt oout;” and instructs
the steward to boil the fish first, and then to
take it off the fire and keep it just not boiling.
It is Saturday night when Reid sets matters
right with the salt fish ; and he and Purser
Osmar socially hob-and-nob together, drinking
the favourite sea-toast of Sweethearts and Wives,
and asking Captain Fitzjames to join them.
He, poor fellow, meets them with his light-hearted
joke, in return – says he has not got a
sweetheart and does not want a wife — and ends
the entry in his journal, for that day, by writing
“good night” to his dear friends in England.

On the 16th it is calm enough to allow of a
boat visit to the Terror. On the 17th the night
is cloudy, with a bright light on the horizon to
the north-east, which Gore thinks is the Aurora
Borealis. Practical Reid, with his old whaling
experience, calls it ice-blink. Captain Fitzjames
says it is the reflexion of sunset, and
likens the effect of it to a large town on fire
twenty miles off. On the 18th, they make a
catalogue of their little library ; and, remembering
that it is “Waterloo Day,” drink the Duke
of Wellington’s health at Sir John Franklin’s
table. On this day, also, the “crow’s nest” is
completed. It is usually “a cask, lined with
canvas, at the fore-topmast head, for a man to
stand in to look out for channels in the ice ;”
on board the Erebus, however, it is “a sort of
canvas cylinder, hooped.” Ice-master Reid is
to be perched up in this observatory, and criticises
it, with his north-country eye on the main
chance, as “a very expensive one.” At ten at
night – the time which, allowing for difference
of longitude, answers to half-past seven in London
— Captain Fitzjames takes a glass of brandy-and-water,
in honour of his own anticipated promotion
at the brevet of the 18th, which has been
talked of in England. He pleases himself with
the idea that he is taking an imaginary glass of
wine with Mr. and Mrs. Coningham, at that
moment ; and, while he is telling them this in the
journal, Reid comes in, and sees him writing as
usual. “Why, Mister Jems,” says the surprised
ice-master, perplexedly scratching his head, “you
never seem to me to sleep at arl ; you’re always
writin!” On the 21st the ships are in Davis’s
Straits ; bottle-nose whales are plunging and
tumbling all round them ; and tree-trunks, with
the bark rubbed off by the ice, are floating by.
The next day is Sunday : it is blowing hard, and
the ships are rolling prodigiously ; but they contrive
to struggle through the Church service on
the lower deck. The 23rd brings a downright
gale ; the dinner-party in Sir John’s cabin is
obliged to be given up, the host finding that
his guests cannot combine the two actions of
holding on and eating and drinking at the same
time. The next day is calmer ; and the Arctic
cold begins to make itself so sensibly felt, that
the ship’s monkey is obliged to be clothed in a
blanket, frock, and trousers, which the sailors
have made for her. On the 25th, they sight the
coast of Greenland, “rugged, and sparkling
with snow.” The sea is now of a delicate blue
in the shadows, and so calm that the Terror’s
mast-heads are reflected close alongside, though
she is half a mile off. The air is delightfully
cool and bracing, and everybody is in good
humour either with himself or his neighbours.
Captain Fitzjames has been on deck all day,
taking observations. Goodsir is catching the
most extraordinary animals in a net, and is in
ecstasies. Gore and Des Voeux are over the side,
poking with nets and long poles, with
cigars in their mouths, and Osmar laughing.
Captain Fitzjames is weary and sleepy with his
day’s work ; but he will not go to bed until he
has written these few lines in his journal, because
this is the memorable day on which the
voyagers have first seen the Arctic land.

On the 27th, they are all enlivened by an unexpected
visit at sea. The skipper of a Shetland
brig comes on board. He is up in these
high latitudes on a fishing speculation, and he
has presented himself to shake hands with the
little old man who went to visit his wife at
Stromness, and who had once been mate on
board the brig. On the 29th they pass some
grand icebergs, which do not look, as we all
suppose, like rocks of ice, but like “huge
masses of pure snow, furrowed with caverns and
dark ravines.” The 1st of July brings the ships
within a day’s sail of Whalefish Islands, at which
place the transport is to be unloaded of her
provisions and coals, and left to return to England.
On the evening of that day, there are
sixty-five icebergs in sight ; and the vessels sail
in “among a shoal of some hundred walruses,
tumbling over one another, diving and splashing
with their fins and tails, and looking at the
ships with their grim, solemn-looking countenances
and small heads, bewhiskered and betusked.”
On the 2nd, they find themselves in
fog, “right under a dense, black-looking coast
topped with snow.” This is Disco, a Danish
settlement. The scenery is grand, but desolate
beyond expression. At midnight, Captain Fitzjames
finds Purser Osmar on deck, cheerfully
dancing with an imaginary skipping–rope.
“What a happy fellow you are,” says Captain
Fitzjames ; “always in good humour.”  “Well,
sir,” answers cheerful Osmar, “if I am not
happy here, I don’t know where else I could
be.” The 4th finds them safe in their temporary
haven at the Whalefish Islands. The next
day, every man is on shore, “running about for
a sort of holiday, getting eider ducks’ eggs,
curious mosses and plants, and shells.” It is
warm enough again, now, for the mosquitoes to
be biting. During this fine weather, the transport
will probably be unloaded, either on Monday
the 7th, or Tuesday the 8th ; and on the
9th or 10th, the two Discovery Ships will perhaps
be on their way to Lancaster Sound. It
is reported that this is the mildest and earliest
summer known in those regions, and that the ice
is clear all the way through the coming voyage.
Guided by Sir John Franklin’s experience, the
officers expect to reach Lancaster Sound as soon
as the 1st of August; but this information
not to be generally communicated in England
from the fear of making the public too sanguine
about the season. Captain Fitzjames’s own idea
is that they have “a good chance of getting
through this year, if it is to be done at all;”
but he is himself privately inclined to hope that
no such extraordinary luck may happen to them,
as he wants “to have a winter for magnetic observations.”

With this little outbreak of professional enthusiasm
and with this description of the future
prospects of the expedition, the deeply–interesting
narrative draws to a close. Its few concluding
lines are thus expressed :
“Your journal is at an end, at least for the
present. I do hope it has amused you, but I
fear not ; for what can there be in an old tub
like this, with a parcel of sea-bears, to amuse a
lady fair? This, however, is a façon de parler, for
I think, in reality, that you will have been amused
in some parts and interested in others, but I
shall not read back, for fear of not liking it, and
tearing it up.”
Those are the last words. They are dated
Sunday, the 6th of July, 1845. Five days later,
on the 11th, Captain Fitzjames sends a letter
to his friend, with the journals, still dating
from the Whalefish Islands. The ships are expected
to sail on the night of the 12th for
Lancaster Sound. If no tidings are received in
England before the June of the next year, letters
are to be despatched, on the chance of reaching
those to whom they are addressed, to Petro
Paulowski, in Kamschatka. The closing sentence
in the letter is, “God bless you and every
thing belonging to you.” Those simple, warm
hearted words are the last that reach before
the endless and the awful silence that follows.
With “God bless you and all belonging to you”,
the two ships’ companies drift away from us
into the frozen seas. The little flicker of light
that we have viewed them by for a moment,
dies out, and the long night falls darkly between
us and them – the night whose eternal morning
dawns in the glory of another world.

By Fabiënne Tetteroo
7 May 2022


[Images of original letters reproduced for educational and non-commercial purposes.]

James Fitzjames’ original letters: National Maritime Museum, Caird Library, Greenwich. Microfilm reel 1 (MRF/89/1).

Printed booklet ‘The Last Journals of Captain Fitzjames, R.N., of the Lost Polar Expedition’, National Maritime Museum, Caird Library, Greenwich (MCL/47; MS1958-024)

James Fitzjames: Volume of letters to John Barrow Junior, Royal Geographical Society Archives, London

The Leader (1850-1860) all issues digitised here
Fitzjames’ letters:
Leader, Town Edition January 10 1852, pages 32-33
Leader, Town Edition January 17 1852 pages 52-53
Leader, Town Edition January 24 1852 pages 76-77
Leader, Town Edition, February 7 1852 page 127
Leader, Town Edition, February 28 1852 page 199

The Nautical Magazine March and April 1852

All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal conducted by Charles Dickens, Volume 1, July 30 1859, pp. 318 – 323

Further reading:
Kasten-Mutkus, K., (2021) ““A Fine, Sunshiny Night”: The Authorial Afterlife of Captain James Fitzjames of the Third Franklin Expedition”, Authorship 9(1)


  1. Hutchinson, Gillian Sir John Franklin‘s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found 2017 pp. 100-102.
  2. Hutchinson, 2017 p. 109
  3. House of Commons, Question regarding reward for M’Clintock debated on Friday 2 March 1860
  4. House of Commons debate on Preserved Meats (Navy) on Thursday 12 February 1852
  5. Barr, W. (1992). Franklin in Siberia? — Lieutenant Bedford Pim’s Proposal to Search the Arctic Coast of Siberia, 1851-52. Arctic, 45(1), 36–46.
  6. Inglefield, E.A. A summer search for Sir John Franklin; with a peep into the polar basin 1853. Introduction
  7. Hutchinson, 2017 p. 121
  9. Dickens Journals Online – Houshold Words
    2 December 1854 The Lost Arctic Voyagers: Dickens refutes John Rae’s findings regarding cannibalism.
    9 December 1854 continued.
    23 December 1854 John Rae addresses Dickens’ criticism.
    30 December 1854 Dickens responds to Rae.
  10. House of Commons, The Franklin Expedition debated on Tuesday 24 February 1857
  12. House of Commons, The Franklin Expedition debated on Tuesday 24 February 1857
  13. M’Clintock, Francis L. The Voyage of the Fox in the Arctic Seas: A Narrative of the Discovery of the Fate of Sir John Franklin and His Companions 1860 p. 315 Appendix: List of subscribers to the ‘Fox’ Expedition  In 1860 £100 was equivalent to about 16 months worth of wages for a skilled tradesman. Chesney’s £2 was worth considerably more than it is today; in 1860 it was worth 10 days of wages for a skilled tradesman.
  14. The Leader cost 5d (pence) while All the Year Round cost only 2d (pence).
    Huett, Lorna Among the Unknown Public: “Household Words”, “All the Year Round” and the Mass-Market Weekly Periodical in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: 2004 Van Arsdel Prize Essay, Victorian Periodicals Review , Spring, 2005, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), pp. 61- 82,  p. 69
  15.  The Last Leaves of a Sorrowful Book
  17. John Barrow Sr: “Commander Fitzjames has been distinguished in the Euphrates, on the coast of Syria, and in China ; and by his zeal and alacrity, his good humour and ever cheerful disposition, he has made himself an universal favourite in the navy […]”
    Voyages of Discovery and Research Within the Arctic Regions, from the Year 1818 to the Present Time 1846, p. X
    William Francis Ainsworth: “We had by this time become acquainted with one another. […] Fitzjames was the life of the party—ever on mischief bent—”
    Personal narrative of the Euphrates Expedition, 2 Volumes, 1888 Volume 1, pp. 2-3
    Edward Philips Charlewood: “Fitzjames, as usual, was the life of our mess, and out of working hours, always up to some practical joke.”
    Passages from the life of a naval officer 1869 p. 59
  18. House of Commons, Question regarding reward for M’Clintock debated on Friday 2 March 1860