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The Underwater Archaeology Search for Franklin's Lost Vessels: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site

Stories of the Northwest Passage

Key Characters of the Past

Lady Franklin, a devoted wife

Lady Franklin Lady Jane Franklin

Jane Griffin, born on December 4, 1791, was a highly educated and tenacious woman; she became the second wife of John Franklin in 1828. She took the title of Lady Franklin when her husband was knighted the next year. In the early years of their marriage, she travelled extensively in the Mediterranean. Then, when her husband was posted to Van Diemen’s Land (today Tasmania), she went with him and developed a keen interest in his professional life. When Sir John Franklin was 58, he was appointed to lead the expedition of the two vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. These ships, under Admiralty orders, sailed in May 1845 in a quest for the Northwest Passage.

Three years after her husband’s departure, an anxious Lady Franklin offered a reward for anyone who would venture beyond his initial destination and bring back information about him. This was the first round in the tireless efforts of Lady Franklin, who gave her all to the search for Sir John. Because as a woman she could not join an expedition herself and go in search of her spouse, she resolved to use such means of pressure as were available to women of her day. Thus, she started writing numerous articles for publication in the press to raise public awareness of mysterious fate of Franklin’s expedition. These articles put her cause in the media spotlight of the day and succeeded in mobilizing resources for the search. Then, when she noticed a loss of interest in her cause on the part of the Admiralty, she became even more insistent in order to revive search efforts.

The press portrayed Jane Franklin as a woman of great dedication, and this image gained her the sympathy and support of the public. She displayed such dedication that the Quebec Mercury stated that it would be no surprise if she put her own life on the line on the snowbound shores of the Arctic Ocean to try to save her husband:

“… after which we shall not be astonished if this noble woman should cross the snowy regions of the North, […] and on the shores of the Arctic sea, peril her life in searching to rescue him [...]” (Quebec Mercury, January 19, 1850).

Her cause touched the public, for when she called for a day of prayer in honour of her husband, over 60 churches took part.

When government funding for the expeditions ran out, Jane Franklin found new backers like American businessman Henry Grinnell to finance sever al expeditions [link to the story on American Expeditions]. She also managed to convince powerful leaders such as US President Zachary Taylor and the Tsar of Russia to contribute to the search for her husband. In addition, Lady Franklin, supported by the public, pressured the Admiralty to intensify the search. Consequently, in 1849 this organization raised the amount of their initial reward, offering £20,000 to anyone discovering and coming to the aid of Sir John Franklin’s expedition.

Lady Franklin also contributed to the search for her husband by financing and organizing seven expeditions in the course of her life. Such expeditions were very expensive, but she declared that she would exhaust her entire fortune should that prove necessary. This determination led to serious rifts within the family and poisoned her relationship with Franklin’s daughter, Eleanor, and the latter’s husband, while her own father disinherited her in 1851. She was highly popular, however, and a number of people joined her expeditions voluntarily, while others underwrote her cause with financial contributions.

In 1854, nine years after her husband’s departure, Lady Franklin wrote to the Admiralty criticizing their decision to stop sending expeditions. In her letter, she described the decision as sounding the death knell and telling the public that these unhappy men were being abandoned to their fate: “Yet does it sound on the public ear, and more deeply in the ear of many heart-anxious listeners, as the knell of departed hopes, the warning voice that tells us we are to prepare for the abandonment of those unhappy men to their fate.” (letter to the Lords of the Admiralty, February 24, 1854).

A few months later in the fall, when Captain Rae [link], in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company, reported that some of Sir John Franklin’s crew had perished and that some survivors had resorted to cannibalism, Lady Franklin defended her husband’s honour, appealing to Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote a text published in his weekly Household Words in December explaining that this report could not be trusted and discrediting Rae.

When her husband’s death was confirmed, she spared no efforts in demonstrating to the Admiralty that Franklin had certainly found one possible passage through the Northwest, and she succeeded in proving it in 1859 thanks to the McClintock [link] expedition, which she had sponsored. Lastly, anxious to gain recognition for her husband’s achievements, she financed two identical memorials to Franklin and his men, one erected at Waterloo in London in 1866, and the other in Hobart, Tasmania. She also pushed for a bust of Sir John Franklin to be displayed in Westminster Abbey. In these ways, Lady Franklin promoted the story of Sir John Franklin in the public eye and defended his merits until the time of her own death on July 18, 1875.