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Pieces of Franklin Expedition ships found - Publication date unknown

Updated: Jan 1, 2021

Now here's some really significant news. 

CBC tell us that a team led by Doug Stenton, the Director, Heritage at the Government of Nunavut, has found what looks like two pieces of debris from either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.  One piece is apparently the iron fitting from a davit, the mechanism used for lifting ships' boats in and out of the ship, and the other described as 'possibly a plug for a deck hawse, the iron pipe through which the ship’s chain cable would descend into the chain locker below'.  These finds were made close to the shoreline on Hat Island, which is located here.  You can see CBC's report here.

This is highly significance because, while perhaps thousands of relics from the Franklin Expedition have been found since people started searched for the ships and their men back in 1848, almost everything is material which the men carried themselves - not part of the ships.  So if you look at the National Maritime Museum collection of Franklin Expedition remains, which must be the largest in the world, it's a bewildering range of material from clothes to spectacles to guns - all poignant and having personal associations with the lost men - but not a single item was directly part of the fabric of the lost ships. 

So remains of the Erebus and Terror themselves are extremely rare.  I am only aware of three earlier finds of material which we can reasonably have formed part of the ships:  On 20th August, 1851, when the great Dr. John Rae was exploring the Victoria Strait coastline of Victoria Island, he found a piece of pine wood 'resembling the butt-end of a small flag-staff' which had white rope attached to it by two copper nails.  The wood was marked with the 'broad arrow' and the rope contained a red worsted thread.  Both of these were marks which the British government used (and in the case of the 'broad arrow', still uses) to mark its property.  Half a mile further on Rae found a 3' 8" piece of oak, partly squared, which he interpreted as a ship's stanchion.  It is interested that Rae reported the rope as being nailed to the staff.  Nailing a flag to the mast is typically an act of defiance on going in to battle to ensure that the flag cannot be lowered.  Had Franklin's men nailed their colours to the masts when they 'deserted' the Erebus and the Terror?Two years later a party from HMS Enterprise under Captain Collinson found two apparently more substantial pieces of fragmented wood in the same area, apparently on the coast of Victoria Island.  Both had on them the 'broad arrow', and they were interpreted to be two pieces of a broken door frame or hatchway from a Royal Navy ship. One piece even had on it the remains of the latch.  The pieces were apparently brought back to Britain although they seem now to have been lost.  As with Rae's find, it's difficult to account for these unless they had formed part of the Erebus or Terror.In 1954 Paul Cooper found a 7.5 cm thick piece of pine planking on the coast of King William Island, of exactly the type use in the decking of the Erebus and Terror.  This is held in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History - details here.And now Doug Stenton's team have made what looks like the fourth find of material directly from the Erebus or the Terror - a huge achievement. 

What might we learn from these remains?  With the possible exception of the door frame, all these fragments come from the upper works or external parts of the ship or ships.  Presumably these scraps were part of the debris left on the surface of the ice after one of the ships was crushed and sank under the ice, taking its more substantial components down to the seabed.  It's interesting also that these remains are so widely dispersed.  What might their locations tell us about where the ship or ships went down?  My 'back of the envelope' estimate from google earth places Hat Island at least sixty nautical miles away from the likely location of the Collinson and Rae finds and perhaps eighty nautical miles from Franklin Point.  So we now have four sites where ships' remains have been found, forming a triangle roughly 60 by 80 nautical miles.  For someone who understands the pattern of ice flows and currents in that part of the world, this triangle must help narrow down the position where at least one of the ships sank. 

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