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John Marshall and the Franklin Expedition

In 1850, John Marshall was taken on as mate on the Lady Franklin, commanded by William Penny, on a search which was headline news, to find the missing explorer Sir John Franklin and his expedition in search of the North-West passage.

John Marshall and the Franklin Expedition

By Ruairidh Greig

My Great Great Great Grandfather John Marshall was born in 1804 at Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Like many of his generation in the town he grew up to be a seafarer, occupied mainly in the whaling trade. His qualities as a seamen led him to often being employed as mate, second in command, and on at last one occasion, as Captain of a whaling ship. In 1850, he was taken on as mate on the Lady Franklin, commanded by William Penny, on a search which was headline news, to find the missing explorer Sir John Franklin and his expedition in search of the North-West passage.

John Franklin was born at Spilsby in 1786, one of twelve children to a long-established farming family. Although destined for a career in the clergy, he instead opted for the Royal Navy and served on the Bellerophon at the battle of Trafalgar. One of his earliest voyages, as a midshipman, was to sail with Matthew Flinders on the Investigator, commissioned to explore the coasts of Australia. This left him with a taste for adventure and exploration which led him to a number of difficult and dangerous expeditions in inhospitable parts of the globe. His main interest focused on the discovery of the North-West passage, the sea-route through the ice-fields of northern Canada which could dramatically shorten the journey to India and the Far East. Following a failed naval expedition led by Captain Ross in 1818, Franklin was appointed to lead an overland expedition in 1819. Surviving great hardships, hunger and privation, as well as conflicts with Eskimos, he was forced to turn back and returned to base in 1823. A second overland expedition met a similar fate in 1826. These expeditions attracted the attention of the newspapers and the general public and he became known, with factual justification, as “the man who ate his boots”.

Although expeditions continued under other Captains, Franklin’s career, after periods of inactive service, led him into the colonial service in 1837, as Governor of Van Dieman’s Land, soon to be re-named Tasmania. He remained as Governor until 1843, when he was recalled, the subject of unfounded accusations by a subordinate. After efforts to clear his name, the opportunity arose, in 1845, to lead a new Admiralty expedition to the Arctic. Although 59 years old, he readily accepted the commission and his reputation with the public was fully restored.

With two ships, the Erebus under Captain Fitzjames and the Terror, under Captain Crozier, the first sailing ships in Arctic waters equipped with auxiliary screws and engines, he set sail in June 1845. The last anyone heard of them was when they left their supply ship at Whalefish Islands, off the coast of Greenland. Two years passed with no news. Despite reassurances from experienced explorers like Sir John Ross, Lady Franklin suspected trouble and launched herself into the first of what were to be many attempts to find her missing husband and his expedition. It was the rescue expedition of 1850 financed by the Admiralty and Lady Franklin herself, that John Marshall joined as mate on the eponymous main vessel, the brig Lady Franklin.

The 1850/51 expedition, with the Lady Franklin and the smaller Sophia was led by an Aberdeen whaling ship master, Captain William Penny. As Mate, it was John Marshall’s duty to keep the ship’s log. He records being towed out of harbour, probably Peterhead, on Saturday 13th April 1850. He records the essential work of the ship until its return, to Woolwich dockyard, on Friday September 19th 1851, having over-wintered in the Arctic. When the vessels reached the ice, the experienced Marshall took on the role of Icemaster, guiding them through the treacherous pack-ice. When they could no longer navigate the dangerous waters, the expedition set up camp, and sledge parties were sent out in search of any traces of Franklin. John Marshall accompanied the ship’s surgeon, Dr Goodsir. Together they searched the shores of Cornwallis and Bathurst Islands. The chart on the report to the Admiralty records Goodsir and Marshall’s Farthest at 75° 36’ N, 98° 3’ W, now identified as the northern tip of Little Cornwallis Island. The report records the difficulties they encountered, including dealing with polar bears, but of Franklin they found no trace, except for a piece of weatherworn English elm wood, which could possibly have come from a wrecked ship. As they pursued their search, the various parties left cairns containing dried provisions, in case any of Franklin’s men happened to have survived.

Captain Penny wanted to stay a second winter to continue the search into the Wellington Channel, but Captains Austin and Ommanney, of other ships in the search were less enthusiastic. Bearing in mind his responsibility to his overall commander, Austin, and to his crew, he ordered the Lady Franklin and the Sophia to weigh anchor and return home to England. John Marshall records the details of the journey in his logbook. He was later one of the expedition members who testified to the committee appointed to Lords Commissioners to the Admiralty. A copy of the three volumes of evidence is in the possession of Wynkie Higginbottom, one of his Great Great Granddaughters. The Franklin rescue expedition was one of his last voyages. He died at Peterhead on the 8th March 1857, aged 53.

John Marshall’s eldest son, John, was, like his father, a seaman, serving in the whaling trade- as mate, and as spectioneer and harpooner. On one memorable occasion, according to family legend, he was able to save his ice-bound ship by locating one of the cairns, whose latitude and longitude his Father had made him memorise. The ship was the Queen, commanded by Captain George Brown. John Marshall junior was signed on the Queen from 31st March 1865 until 14th October 1866. The “Peterhead Sentinel” (19th October 1866) records that the ship was “beset off Charles Island” in the Cumberland Straits, for nearly 11 months, “during which time they saw no fish, nor had they any communication with any of the other ships”. The food left in the cairns was dried meat (pemmican) and dried pressed vegetables. Despite the rift between Helen Urquhart, my Great Grandmother, and her father, John Marshall, she kept the letter given to him by Captain Brown authorising the search for the cache of food. She also kept some of the dried pressed vegetables, shown in the accompanying photograph. This is still in the possession of my Uncle, David Miller of Grimsby.

Page 2 Red Cross Letter

Further Reading:

Sir John Franklin and the Romance of the North-West Passage,
Partridge & Co.

Arctic Breakthrough, Paul Nanton, William Kimber & Co, London, 1970

The Search for the North-West Passage, Ann Savours, Chatham Publishing, London, 1999

Ruairidh Greig
10th November 2008

Owner/SourceRuairidh Greig
Date10 Nov 2008
Linked toJohn MARSHALL

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