Greenhithe and Sir John Franklin’s fateful expedition into the unknown

Arriving at ‘Greenhithe for Bluewater’ you could be forgiven for thinking that this station on the Kent side of the Thames estuary provides access to the sprawling shopping centre and nothing more. As soon as you get off the train, successive signs usher you to shuttle buses that take shoppers to the mall itself, situated nearby on the site of an old chalk quarry.

But if you persevere and carry on along the road to a small roundabout, you will soon find that Greenhithe is actually a little village. Although you won’t (unsurprisingly, given the proximity of Bluewater) find a bustling parade of shops on the high street, there are two pubs. One of these establishments, the Pier Hotel, overlooking the estuary, reminds us by its name that there was once a (now lost) pier, built in Victorian times when Greenhithe enjoyed some popularity as a resort for day trippers.

The tourist industry was however only a brief entry in the village’s history and it enjoyed far more success from its wharves from where everything from corn and wood to chalk and lime were once shipped. And as a large information panel today now testifies, from 1862 Greenhithe was also the site for the new Thames Nautical Training College, which trained Merchant Navy cadets. The institution used the Ingress Abbey buildings and grounds (where many new homes now stand), as well as various ships were moored off the coast, including the HMS Worcester and the Cutty Sark (now a popular visitor attraction in Greenwich). It closed in 1968.


Many ships have departed from Greenhithe over the years, but there is no contender for the pair that attracted the most column inches. In May 1845 the Illustrated London News reported on the departure of two state-of-the-art vessels, with 128 men on board, on a voyage that has become infamous in world maritime history. “On Monday HM ships Erebus and Terror left Greenhithe, on their attempt to ‘penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America’,” the newspaper announced.

Unfortunately the reason why the trip is so well known is because neither ship returned. The vessels vanished without trace and it is only in recent years that the wrecks have been found. Some evidence for the crew’s moments have also been discovered and it doesn’t make for happy reading, given there are claims that the men resorted to cannibalism.

There are still unanswered questions, but much of what we do know has been assembled in a well-curated exhibition – which runs until January 2018 – at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is a fascinating show to explore.

Searching for the North West Passage

By the early 19th century most of the world’s oceans had been explored, but there was one glaring gap for the Royal Navy – the North West Passage. This sailing route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via North America would provide quicker access from Europe, to China, the west coast of America and territory held by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Others had tried to find the North West Passage but had been unsuccessful in their efforts. Captain James Cook, for example, attempted to discover it on his third voyage, but was killed in Hawaii in 1779. Things were then put on hold as the Navy was focused on fighting in revolutionary wars against Napoleon.

After series of further frustrating voyages, Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition with the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was an attempt to make a final breakthrough and find the fabled passage.

Lincolnshire-born Franklin, joined the Navy in 1800 and 18 years later, aged 32, he was put in charge of his own ship for an Arctic expedition. He became known as “the man who ate his boots” after surviving on scraps of leather during his travels just a few years later. It was all useful training for the infamous expedition that followed.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were refitted in Woolwich and then on 19th May 1845 Franklin’s vessels set off from the Kent port of Greenhithe, accompanied by steamers for the first leg of the journey to Stromness in Orkney. Transport ship carried stores and equipment to Greenland before the items were transferred over to two main expedition vessels. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set off alone for Baffin Bay, but they then mysteriously disappeared.

The letters sent home from those who decided to join HMS Erebus and HMS Terror makes for poignant reading. The Admiralty awarded double pay for expedition members, but some just signed-up for the thrill of it and the excitement they believed the trip would bring. One officer wrote: “It would give me a chance of promotion, on returning, after two or three years, and would, at all events, be a change of scene and, if one came back something to talk about.”

From the deck plans, which are on display at the exhibition, it is clear that conditions on board were cramped. And as well as humans, the vessels also set out carrying cattle, sheep, pigs and hens – and, on Erebus, also a pet monkey, donated by Lady Franklin (a letter home even said that clothes had been made for the pet). The captain’s large cabin – with space for entertaining officers and a separate cabin for sleeping – dwarfs the series of smaller cabins down the side of the ship. Crew had to sleep in hammocks, hung on deck beams.

There was a cook on each ship who prepared meals using tinned food, as well as fresh produce, such as birds, fish and even polar bears. Officers enjoyed plenty of wine. And despite the cramped conditions, a range of activities took place on board. Many books were loaded, as were slates, pencils, pens and ink paper. Sunday was a rest day and services were held twice a day to allow crew from both shifts to participate.

Search parties and discoveries

John Richardson, Franklin’s old friend, launched in the first attempt to find the expedition in 1847, while the Admiral sent out its own search ships the following year. Both these trips – and others that followed – found nothing. Franklin’s wife also took a prominent role in the campaign to find her husband and his crew; she even contacted the US president and tsar of Russia, and sent out her own rescue ships.

“You must always have felt sure that I would never rest till we had tidings of you,” Franklin’s wife wrote in a later to him eight years after his disappearance. “My own dear husband, it is for you I live.”

Traces of the missing expedition then started to emerge at Beechey Island, where the crew had spent the winter of 1845. The graves of three men who died in early 1846 were found here, in 1850, along with range of items that would have been used by Franklin’s men, including gloves and dishes.

But the true horrors of the downfall of the expedition became apparent at King William Island, where surviving members of crew had fled to in 1847 after abandoning their ships. Corpses were found and the local Innuit people said members of the party had resorted to cannibalism. Other possessions, including clay pipes for smoking tobacco were also found.

The Admiralty decided in January 1854 that all members of the expedition should be assumed dead. But while the Times newspaper said any further searches would be “wasting time upon a search for dead men’s bones,” Lady Franklin wasn’t prepared to give up hope of finding her husband and other members of the crew alive.

It was on one of these privately commissioned search voyages – commanded by Leopold McClintock – that grim details of the expedition emerged. Skeletons of the crew were found at King William Island, along with a range of other personal items, including snow goggles, a surgeon’s medical kit and cutlery engraved with the initials of their owners (some names were scrubbed out, presumably when they died, and replaced by those of others). Tents, which had been abandoned quickly as the expedition had become trapped by ice, were found at the northern end of the island and at a play called Erebus bay they uncovered a boat.

Perhaps the most significant discovery was a written account, hidden away under a cairn, which reported on the expedition (although it must have referred to the winter of 1845-46 that they were at Beechey Island): “28th May 1847, H.M.S.hips Erebus and Terror wintered on the ice in Lat. 70 05′ N, Long. 98 23′ W Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat. 74 43′ 28” N. Long. 91 39′ 15” W after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat 77, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island, Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.”

But reading on, after the two ships got stuck in ice in 1846 the account describes how the two ships were “deserted on 22nd April” (1848), with the “officers and crews consisting of 105 souls under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier”. And then there was news about Franklin himself: “Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.” Then the year after the he died the ships were abandoned – probably because they were running out of supplies.

Claims of cannibalism by John Rae’s 1854 report were criticised by the author Charles Dickens. He wrote that “no man can, with any reason, undertake to affirm that the sad remnant of Franklin’s gallant band were not set upon and slain by Inuit themselves.” Dickens, in other words, doubted the accounts of the Innuit people and thought it was more likely that they were killed by savages.

Rae was probably correct in his assumptions and the exhibition includes thigh bones which to academics are characteristic of “defleshing”. What is particularly surreal with this episode however is that hundreds of cans of food were found at King William Island (there’s an uneaten, preserved tin of ham on display at the museum). The exhibition asks visitors to decide for themselves how the men died, with lead poisoning, tuberculosis, starvation, hypothermia and scurvy among the possible causes proposed.

But what of the Erebus and Terror? Although it was not known whey were, the wrecks were designated as a National Historic site of Canada in 1992. Finally, remains of the Erebus were found in September 2014, 11 metres below the surface. Parts of the ship were found scattered nearby on the seabed, while fittings, dinner plates and personal items were recovered from inside. Meanwhile the Terror discovery came in September 2016 in a place called (by coincide) Terror Bay. The ships were recently given by Britain to Canada.

Back in the village of Greenhithe, the high street has seen considerable change in recent years. Many of the houses are modern, but some older properties do remain, including the two pubs. As well as the aforementioned Pier Hotel, there is also the Sir John Franklin. The great captain deserves a proper memorial in the village that he set out on his fateful village, but at least his name here has not been completely forgotten.

Sir John Franklin pub, Greenhithe

High Street

Ingress Abbey

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