The Great Arctic Explorer

Question: Who was the first person to cross Greenland on skis?
Answer: Fridtjof Nansen

Who?

Norwegian-born Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Although he gained fame in his home country for achieving the feat, Nansen also had a reputation in the fields of science, diplomacy and humanitarianism. Yet today, Nansen is fairly unknown, and his achievements no longer celebrated.

Nansen was born in Store Frøen, near Norway’s capital city, Christiania (now Oslo), on 10th October 1861. He was the second child of lawyer Baldur Fridtjof Nansen and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg, although his older sibling died in infancy. Despite living in Norway, his father’s family originated in Denmark, where his ancestor Hans Nansen (1598-1667) was a burgomaster and had close dealings with the Danish royal family.

Nansen in 1865 (age 4)

Store Frøen, despite being near the capital city, was a rural area and Nansen spent much of his early life swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. He enjoyed exploring the forests where he pretended to be the castaway Robinson Crusoe from the novel by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Through these activities, Nansen became self-reliant, as well as a proficient skier and ice skater. Sadly, at the age of 15, Nansen had to leave his idyllic countryside for the city following the death of his mother. Fortunately, he continued participating in sports at school and broke the world one-mile skating record at 18.

The following year, Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.” The zoology department at the university proposed a five-month voyage aboard the seal-hunting boat Viking to study Arctic animals. Nansen jumped at the chance to travel and spent the trip searching for seals in Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway. Before returning home, Viking became trapped in the ice near the unexplored territories of Greenland. Whilst he could not go ashore, Nansen envisaged a potential exploration journey across the Greenland icecap.

On returning to Norway, Nansen left university and started working as a curator in the zoological department of the University Museum of Bergen. He worked there for six years, except during 1886 when Nansen spent a 6-month sabbatical touring Europe. During this trip, Nansen met Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), the physician who discovered a leprosy-causing bacteria. This meeting encouraged Nansen to continue the research he had recently begun on the neuroanatomy of marine creatures. Nansen published a paper of his findings at the end of his sabbatical and, the following year, he completed his doctoral thesis, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System.

While working on his thesis, two men attempted to cross the Greenland icecap: Finland-Swedish aristocrat Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) in 1883 and American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1886. Both set out from the western coast and traversed approximately 100 miles before turning back. Nansen, who had planned to return to Greenland since his university trip, analysed these previous attempts. He believed he could do better by starting the trek on the opposite side of the land. There were a few settlements on the west coast, and Nansen thought it safer to travel towards them rather than away from them into the unknown.

Unlike the previous explorers who brought a large team and heavy equipment with them, Nansen planned his expedition for a small party of six and purchased lightweight sledges to carry their belongings. The team needed suitable clothing, sleeping bags and cooking facilities, many of which were hand made to suit the Arctic climate. Norwegian critics expressed negative views about Nansen’s plans and claimed he only had a one in ten chance of surviving the trip. The Norwegian government refused to support Nansen financially, but Danish explorer, Augustin Gamél (1839-1904), came to his rescue with a considerable donation.

Ravna, Sverdrup, Nansen, Kristiansen, Dietrichson, Balto

As for his team, Nansen needed experienced skiers and began advertising in newspapers. The first to respond was Oluf Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), a military officer skilled in plotting maps and determining distances. Soon after, Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), a proficient skier and sailor, was recruited as the ship commander. No one else came forward, but Sverdrup recommended his friend, Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), a cross-country skier.

Nansen still needed another two recruits and consulted Nordenskiöld, one of the previous explorers to attempt the crossing, about who he should ask. Nordenskiöld suggested contacting the Sami people in Lapland, Finland because they were generally reliable skiers and familiar with frozen landscapes. After sending a telegraph to the country, Nansen found two suitable candidates, Samuel Balto (1861-1921) and Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906). Finally, Nansen’s team was assembled.

Postcard featuring of the members of Nansen’s Trans-Greenland Expedition

Nansen initially considered using dogs or reindeer to pull the sledges but rejected the idea because neither he nor his team had used animals before. By redesigning the Norwegian skikjaelke (low hand sledge), Nansen made several sledges from ash wood, which is both lightweight and strong. The six explorers boarded a boat with their sledges, skis, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tents, woollen clothing, cooking stove, pemmican (dried meat), biscuits, tea and coffee, and sailed to Edinburgh in Scotland. They then boarded a Danish mail boat to Iceland, where they awaited their ship to carry them to Greenland.

On 3rd June 1888, the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason picked up the team and their equipment from the Icelandic port of Ísafjörður. After a week of sailing, they finally spotted Greenland in the distance, but the number of icebergs made it impossible for the Jason to sail to the coast. Using several small boats, the men set out to traverse the remaining 12 miles. Unfortunately, severe weather conditions made it difficult to navigate, and they spent more time sitting out storms on icebergs rather than sailing. After two weeks of battling the waves, Nansen and his team eventually reached Greenland on 29th July, having travelled approximately 240 miles, 20 times further than intended. Too far south to begin their expedition, Nansen ordered his men to rest then return to the boats. Over the following 12 days, they fought their way north up the coastline, stopping to rest at an Eskimo encampment along the way. They eventually reached their intended destination, Umivik, on 10th August.

After resting for a few days and making their final preparations, Nansen and his team set off in a north-westerly direction on 15th August. They aimed to traverse 370 miles of frozen land, eventually reaching the town of Christianhaab on the other side of the island.

“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.”

The last ship was due to leave Christianhaab by mid-October, and Nansen feared they would not make it in time. Crevasses made skiing dangerous, and progress was slow. Several snowstorms also delayed the teams and made pulling the sledges difficult. Eventually, Nansen proposed taking a shorter route to the capital Godthaab, now known as Nuuk, on the western coast. The team readily agreed to the new plan, which shortened their journey by 93 miles.

Nansen was the first explorer to bring a camera on an expedition. He managed to take about 150 photographs, which documented their journey across Greenland. These images reveal the size of the sledges the men dragged along with them and the types of clothing they wore. They harnessed themselves to the front of the sledges and allowed the wind to help push them in the right direction. Going uphill was always difficult, but downhill was just as dangerous. They had to be careful they were not mown down by the falling sledges.

Despite the snowy weather, the men were blinded by the sun, which reflected off the white ground. Nansen devised some snow goggles with a narrow slit for each eye. Whilst this prevented direct sunlight and reflections from obscuring their sight, it stopped the men from seeing their feet. When wearing the goggles, the men needed to be extra careful to avoid crevices and uneven ground.

The men faced many trials during the journey, including snowstorms that buried them inside their tents. Fortunately, on 11th September, they reached the highest part of their journey, approximately 8,921 ft above sea level. From here on, the route was downhill, and the team were able to put their skiing skills to good use. They still needed to cope with freezing temperatures, which reached as low as −45 °C, but the quicker pace helped keep them warm, and they enjoyed skiing while the northern lights shone overhead. This leg of the trip was by no means less dangerous. They still had crevices to navigate and fresh snowfalls to dig through, but their spirits rose as they neared their destination.

On 26th September, Nansen and his team reached the Ameralik fjord, 50 miles away from Godthaab. The men rejoiced at seeing water again, but they looked warily at the mountains separating themselves from the capital. Nansen decided the remaining journey would be easier by sea, alongside the edge of the fjord. Using the sledges, the men built a boat, using a tent as sails. Unfortunately, it could only carry two people, so Nansen and Sverdrup left the others sheltering in the remaining tents and set off on 29th September, navigating around ice flows and other obstructions. Finally, on 3rd October, the two men reached Godthaab, thus ending their 49-day journey across the land.

Nansen and Sverdrup were warmly welcomed by the Danish town representative who invited them into his home. They were overjoyed to wash off the two months worth of black grease and dirt from their bodies whilst some of the natives set off to rescue the remaining four explorers. Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna finally reached the city on 12th October. “The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” Unfortunately, they were still 240 miles away from their original destination and had no way of making it to the final ship home. A skilled kayaker managed to send news of their success to the ship before it embarked, along with letters from the men to their families and friends. With no more ships due until the spring, the team spent the next seven months living with the Inuits. Eventually, on 15th April 1889, the Danish ship, Hvidbjørnen arrived to take them to Copenhagen. “It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Nansen reached Copenhagen on 21st May 1889, where crowds greeted him and his companions as heroes. News of their landing spread quickly, and by the time they reached Christiania a week later, almost forty thousand people lined the streets. This was approximately one-third of the city’s population. The university offered Nansen the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, which he accepted, but spent the majority of his working hours writing up an account of his expedition. In the summer, the Royal Geographical Society invited Nansen to London, where he met the future King Edward VII (1841-1910). The society awarded him with the Founders Medal “for having been first to cross the inland ice of Greenland … as well as for his qualities as a scientific geographer”.

Fridtjof Nansen and Eva Nansen in autumn 1889

On 11th August 1889, Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars (1858-1907), a mezzo-soprano singer and pioneer of women’s skiing. They married the following month, on 6th September. Eva, like her husband, was a competent skier and became the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway on skis in 1892. She also campaigned for the right for women to participate in winter sports on equal terms with men.

Nansen had not been home for long before he started planning his next expedition, this time to the North Pole. He presented his ideas to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890, arguing that recent failed attempts were due to starting the trips from the west rather than the east. His proposition received similar reactions to his plans for crossing Greenland. Many members of the society were involved in the search for the missing Franklin expedition and viewed the potential trip as “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”. Nonetheless, Nansen’s fame worked in his favour, and he secured a grant from the Norwegian parliament.

For the journey, Nansen needed a suitable ship to navigate the icy waters. He commissioned the Norwegian naval shipbuilder Colin Archer (1832-1921) to construct a fast and manoeuvrable vessel, which he christened Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward”. Nansen advertised for people to join his expedition team and received over 1000 applications. From these, he selected a party of twelve, including Otto Sverdrup, who Nansen appointed as second-in-command.

Thousands lined the harbour to watch the Fram launch on 24th June 1893. The plan was to sail the ship as close to the North Pole as possible, after which they would complete the rest of the journey with dog sledges. They stopped for some time on the Norwegian island of Vardøya, which they eventually left on 21st July. Unfortunately, fog and ice made sailing difficult, and occasionally they came to a complete standstill. It was not until 10th September that they passed the most northerly point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Chelyuskin.

Despite their determination, the journey became tediously slow. The Fram began to drift in the wrong direction, and it took four months to turn the ship back on course. By 22nd March 1894, Nansen had predicted it would take the ship five years to reach the North Pole. The Fram barely travelled more than a kilometre per day, so Nansen felt compelled to devise a new plan. Using the dogs to help pull the sledges, Nansen suggested travelling over the icy sections on foot and use kayaks to navigate the stretches of water. Over the next few months, the men practised dog-driving on the patches of ice they passed while the ship made her painstakingly slow journey through the icy water. By November, Nansen was sure of his plans, and the crew spent the remaining winter months building kayaks and preparing clothing and equipment. Only Nansen and dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) planned to travel overland. The rest of the team were to stay on board until the ship broke through the ice into the North Atlantic Sea.

Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895

Nansen and Johansen began their journey on 14th March 1895. They had a 410-mile trip ahead of them, which Nansen predicted would take 50 days. Unfortunately, uneven surfaces made progress slow, and Nansen considered turning back. On 4th April, they decided to turn south and travel to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, instead of the pole. Progress was still slow, but they felt safer travelling towards civilisation rather than into the unknown.

After several stops and starts to repair equipment, they reached the edge of the pack ice on 6th August. By then, all their dogs had died, either from injury or necessity (i.e. food). “At last the marvel has come to pass—land, land, and after we had almost given up our belief in it!” To reach the distant land, Nansen and Johansen needed to travel over water in their kayaks. As they approached, Nansen identified it as Cape Felder on the western edge of Franz Josef Land, but they were still many miles off. The weather gradually turned colder, and Nansen decided to make camp on an uninhabited, small island for the rest of the winter. They erected a small hut from stones and moss, where they lived on bear, walrus and seal meat for the following eight months. Finally, the weather conditions began to improve, and they resumed their journey on 19th May 1896.

Staged photo of the Nansen–Jackson meeting near Cape Flora, 17 June 1896

The two men had to stop again on 17th June after being attacked by a walrus, an event that turned out to be serendipitous. They hauled their kayaks onto an island and were shocked to hear voices. They were surprised to come across British explorer Frederick Jackson (1860-1938), the leader of an expedition to Franz Josef Land, who revealed Nansen and Johansen were reported lost, presumed dead.

After taking a few days to recuperate at Jackson’s camp on the nearby island of Cape Flora, Nansen and Johansen boarded Jackson’s supply ship Windward and sailed to Vardøya. They hoped to hear about the safe return of the Fram but there was no news. Crestfallen, they began to make their way south, eventually reaching Hammerfest, the most northerly town on the Norwegian mainland on 18th August. Whilst they were there, they finally heard some news about the Fram. She was sighted heading towards Tromsø in north Norway, having failed to reach the pole. Nansen and Johansen immediately set out to reunite with their crew.

Despite failing to reach the North Pole, Nansen and his men were hailed as heroes at every port they stopped at on their homeward journey to Christiania. When they arrived in the capital, the harbour was packed with the largest crowd they had ever seen, and they were greeted by King Oscar II (1829-1907), who invited the men and their families to stay at the palace for several days as special guests. Although they had not achieved what they set out to do, the Fram expedition was deemed a success. No one had died during the journey, and Nansen had made “almost as great an advance as has been accomplished by all other voyages in the nineteenth century put together.” (Edward Whymper, 1840-1911)

During the months after his return, Nansen wrote 300,000 words about his journey, which was translated into English and published as Farthest North in January 1897. After this, he started accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University and became the director of the International Laboratory for North Sea Research. He also helped to found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and his recently published book helped some Italian explorers reach the North Pole.

Fridtjof Nansen Institute at Polhøgda

Before Nansen set out on the Fram expedition, his eldest daughter Liv was born. In the years after his return, Nansen and his wife had three more children, Kåre (1897), Irmelin (1900) and Odd (1901-73). To accommodate his growing family, Nansen used the profits from his expedition to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital and designed a large house. The building, which Nansen christened Polhøgda (“polar heights”), featured a mix of styles, including Italian renaissance and English manor house. The family began living there in 1902, and Nansen’s fifth and final child, Asmund (1903-1913), was born the following year. The house is now the location of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Although he was not a politician, the Norwegian government respected Nansen’s opinions. In 1905, Norway voted to become independent from Sweden, which was ruled by King Oscar II. Subsequently, Norway needed a new king and ally, so Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade a Danish prince to take up the seat. Nansen’s quest was successful, and on 22nd June 1906, Prince Charles of Denmark became Haakon VII (1872-1957) of Norway.

Due to his success, the government appointed Nansen Norway’s first Minister in London. This involved spending considerable time in England, where he was popular with the people and the king. His main task concerned the Integrity Treaty, which would guarantee Norway’s position among the major European powers. The Treaty was passed on 2nd November 1907, and believing his work was complete, Nansen resigned from his post. At the invitation of King Edward VII, Nansen stayed in the country for a couple more weeks, but after receiving news that his wife was seriously ill with pneumonia, he rushed back to Norway. Sadly, Eva had passed away before he reached home.

Following a period of mourning, Nansen resumed working at the university but decided to focus on oceanology rather than zoology. Nansen participated in several oceanographic voyages, exploring the north Atlantic ocean, the North Polar Basin and the Kara Sea. He continued these trips until the outbreak of World War One when he declared his neutrality and became the president of the Norwegian Union of Defence. After the war, Nansen arranged for the repatriation of around half a million prisoners, of which 300,000 were in Russia, where civil war was rife. When seeing the physical and mental state of these people, Nansen said, “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.”

The Nansen passport allowed stateless persons to legally cross borders

Horrified by the suffering of Norwegian prisoners of war, Nansen determined to help other people in similar situations, particularly Russian refugees. Many of these people had no documents or passports, so Nansen devised the “Nansen passport”, which permitted refugees to cross borders. The passport was a success and adopted by more than 50 governments. He also helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In 1922, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace”. He donated all the prize money to international relief organisations.

Before winning the prize, Nansen married his life-long friend Sigrun Munthe in 1919. Unfortunately, his children resented this, and the marriage became strained. Throughout the 1920s, Nansen spent most of his time abroad, partly avoiding his wife but mostly helping victims of the Armenian genocide. Nansen also hoped to travel to the North Pole by airship, but the war resulted in a severe lack of funding. Instead, he kept his hand in politics, becoming a member of the anti-communist Fatherland League. This also involved many trips away from his hometown, speaking at rallies around the country.

In 1925, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold the honorary position. The students chose him from a list of candidates to replace the previous Rector, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Rectors were invited to serve for three years, so Nansen held the position until 1928. At his inaugural address, Nansen encouraged the students to go out into the world. “We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler.”

Nansen remained a keen skier for the rest of his life and took several trips into the mountains in between his various duties and events. In February 1930, at the age of 68, he struggled to keep up with his friends on the slopes and tired easily. He returned home and spent several weeks in bed battling influenza. He had many visitors during this time, including King Haakon VII.

The illness left Nansen weak, and he never fully recovered. On 13th May 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack, resulting in numerous tributes across the world. British lawyer Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958) remarked that Nansen rarely put his interests and health first. “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.” Nansen received a non-religious state funeral, and his children spread his ashes under a tree in the garden of their childhood home, Polhøgda.

Nansen’s trips to Greenland and the Arctic helped shape future expeditions. He devised new methods of travel, for instance, the “Nansen sledge” and new cooking methods, the “Nansen Cooker”. His experience on the ice led to improved clothing and lightweight equipment, which made it easier for explorers to travel. Nansen also influenced the science world and is recognised as one of the founders of modern neurology and oceanographical science.

Due to Nansen’s work with refugees, he repatriated and found homes for around 1 million people. Those who continued with his work under the “Nansen Office” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Since 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is given by the United Nations to an individual or group “for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.” Winners include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the “people of Canada”, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Greek Volunteers of the Hellenic Rescue Team.

Many organisations have honoured Nansen by giving his name to several geographical features, including the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean, Nansen Island in the Kara Sea, Nansen Land in Greenland and Nansen Island in Franz Josef Land. Unfortunately, outside his home country and Arctic areas, Fridtjof Nansen is not a well-known name, and his achievements are largely unrecognised. Yet, he is certainly a man worth learning about; not only was he the first man to cross Greenland, but he also helped save so many refugees. Nansen did not set out to become famous, his actions were usually selfless, and that is what makes him such a commendable individual.


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Lady Jane Franklin

Last year, money was raised through a crowdfunding campaign called “Lady Jane’s Museum“, which provided the Derbyshire Record Office with the funds to photograph and catalogue objects in the Gell collection. The Gell baronets of Hopton Hall, Derbyshire, had become important and wealthy through lead mining and as Members of Parliament for the county, however, it was not this family that interested the Record Office. The Reverend John Philip Gell (1816-98) was married to Eleanor Franklin, whose step-mother, Jane, was the focus of this project. Married to the English explorer John Franklin (1786-1847), Lady Jane Franklin was “probably the most travelled woman of her time”.

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Copy portrait of Jane Griffin at the age of 22 – Amélie Munier-Romilly

Born Jane Griffin on 4th December 1791 to a family of Huguenot ancestry, Jane grew up in Bloomsbury, London with her sisters Frances and Mary. Her father, a silk merchant, was a wealthy man and made sure his daughters had the best education available, which involved travelling to countries on the continent. This included Switzerland, where Jane had her pastel portrait made at the age of 22 by Swiss painter Amélie Munier-Romilly (1788-1875).

Jane was good friends with the British Romantic poet Eleanor Anne Porden (1795-1825) who was the first wife of John Franklin. On 3rd June 1824, Eleanor gave birth to Eleanor Isabella, however, the stress of childbirth harmed her delicate health. Less than a year later, she passed away from tuberculosis. Her husband was away on an Arctic Land expedition and when he returned to England in 1828, he proposed marriage to Jane Griffin. They were married on 5th November 1828 and the following year John was knighted. During the first few years of marriage, however, Jane barely saw her husband while he served in the Mediterranean. Yet, this did not prevent Jane from doing some exploring of her own.

During the first half of the 1830s, Sir John Franklin was the Naval Captain aboard the HMS Rainbow. Left to her own devices, Jane decided to do some travelling of her own, presumably with a companion, visiting several Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Palestine, Syria and Egypt. From these countries, Jane brought back many souvenirs, including fragments of mummy clothes that are labelled “from Thebes”. This was Thebes in Egypt, known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, rather than the more famous Thebes in Greece.

Records reveal Lady Jane brought home sizeable objects from her travels, however, she also accumulated small, seemingly worthless items, such as nuts and acorns. According to the cards to which the nuts have been secured, Jane took two from St Catherine’s Garden and the Monastery Garden at Mount Sinai. Officially known as the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, the Eastern Orthodox monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. Built between 548 and 565, it was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria (287-305) who was martyred at the hands of Emperor Maxentius (276-312).

The two acorns, however, came from the garden of Christ’s College, Tasmania from trees that Jane had planted. In 1836, Sir John Franklin was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, which would be renamed Tasmania twenty years later. After a long journey by sea, Jane and her husband disembarked from the Fairlie and began their life in Van Dieman’s Land.

From 1800 to 1853, Van Diemen’s Land was the primary penal colony in Australia during which over 73,000 convicts were transported. Male convicts served their sentences as labourers and the female convicts were either assigned to households as servants or sent to a female workhouse.

Lady Jane accompanied her husband on several tours of the island, often crossing over steep terrain. Her step-daughter Eleanor, who would have been around 16 years old, had also come to the island. When John was busy, Jane and Eleanor had the opportunity to meet the locals and acquaint themselves with the female convicts. Appalled by the living conditions at the female workhouses, Jane began a correspondence with Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), an English prison reformer who was considered to be the “angel of prisons”. With advice from Fry, Jane tried to ameliorate the women’s situation, providing them with sewing materials so that they could make clothes and quilts for themselves or to sell.

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Mathinna – Thomas Bock, 1842

Whilst living in Van Diemen’s Land, the Franklins adopted a young indigenous girl called Mathinna (occasionally spelt Methinna). Mathinna, originally named Mary, was born on Flinders Island, Tasmania to the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe. Her parents, Towgerer, and his wife Wongerneep were still alive when the Franklins adopted their daughter, however, the tribe had been “captured” by George Augustus Robinson (1791-1866), Chief Protector of Aborigines. Some historians argue Mary was unfairly taken away from her parents, however, John and Jane, who renamed her Mathinna because they liked the exotic sound, probably thought they were providing her with a better way of life.

Mathinna was six years old when she became the adopted sister of Eleanor, who also acted as Mathinna’s teacher, teaching her to read, write and sew. A pincushion made by Mathinna was brought back to England by either Jane or Eleanor and has been preserved ever since. An aboriginal doll is also part of the collection, which may have once belonged to Mathinna. Eleanor had recorded in her diary that Mathinna had been given a doll with a petticoat. Aside from these two items and a painting by Thomas Bock (1790-1855), only a scrap of paper remains with a couple of sentences written by Mathinna that give any indication of what her life was like with the Franklins:

I am good little girl, I have pen and ink cause I am a good little girl . . . I have got a red frock like my father. Come here to see my father. I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad.

Unfortunately, when John Franklin was recalled to England, he was advised that Mathinna would not survive the British climate, therefore, they had to leave her behind. They left her at the Queen’s Orphan School in Hobart, however, reports state that she had great difficulty adjusting to her new situation and was sent back to her birthplace, Finders Island. At 16, she moved to Oyster Cove in southern Tasmania where she lived in poverty and died from drowning aged 17 or 18. Rumours claim she died in a puddle where she lay in a drunken stupor. A small town in the north-east of Tasmania has been named Mathinna in her memory.

Before her husband’s recall, Jane undertook some exploring on her own. In 1839, Jane became the first European woman to travel between Port Philip (Melbourne) and Sydney. Whilst in Melbourne, she encouraged the founding of secondary schools that both boys and girls could attend. A letter signed by 63 members of the new settlement in Melbourne referred to Jane’s “character for kindness, benevolence and charity”.

In 1841, without her husband, Jane travelled to New Zealand. Whilst there, she met the German physician and naturalist Ernest Dieffenbach (1811-55), who was the first trained scientist to live in New Zealand. Jane also met William Colenso (1811-99), a Cornish Christian missionary and botanist who was responsible for the printing of the New Testament in the Māori language. Colenso also made a detailed record of native flora and named a rusty filmy fern Hymenophyllum frankliniae in Lady Jane’s honour.

Before returning to Van Diemen’s Land, Jane visited South Australia where she persuaded the governor Lieutenant-Colonel George Gawler (1795-1814) to erect a monument to Matthew Flinders (1774-1814). When James Cook (1728-79) had circumnavigated the land in 1770, he had named it New Holland. Flinders was an English navigator and cartographer who led the second circumnavigation of New Holland and proposed that it be renamed “Australia or Terra Australis” and identified it as a continent. Flinders and his crew also confirmed that Van Diemen’s Land was an island, which would later be Tasmania after Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603-59), the Dutch seafarer who was the first European to discover Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand and Fiji.

Back in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin proposed the building of a temple, which she hoped to serve as a museum that would focus on the colony’s cultural aspirations. Unfortunately, although the temple was built, there was a reluctance to open a museum and the building was used for some time as an apple shed. In 1949, it eventually became the home of the Art Society of Tasmania who rescued and repaired the building, renaming it the Lady Franklin Gallery.

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Sir John Franklin

The Franklin’s left Australia in 1843 and made their way home to London. Before the family could settle down, however, Sir John Franklin was assigned his next position as leader of an Arctic exploration. Setting off from Greenhithe, Kent on 19th May 1845 aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the expedition headed towards Canada to explore the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage.

Rather than sit around waiting for her husband to return like a modern-day Penelope waiting for Odysseus, Jane was keen to go on an expedition too. Firstly, she took her step-daughter Eleanor to France, then went on to the West Indies and the United States of America. In hindsight, it may seem odd that Jane decided to travel abroad whilst her husband was on a dangerous expedition, however, there was nothing she could do for him whether she was at home or not. The expedition was due to take at least two years, so there was no need for Jane to stay in England.

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The Arctic Council planning a search for Sir John Franklin – Stephen Pearce, 1851

It was not until 1847 when Jane had not received word from her husband for some time that she began to worry a disaster had occurred. Once again, Jane did not sit around like Penelope, she actively urged the Admiralty to send out search parties for the expedition and travelled to Out Stack or Ootsta, an island in the Shetland Islands considered to be the “full stop at the end of Britain”, to be as close to her missing husband as she could. The Admiralty was oftentimes reluctant to send out a search party, however, with Lady Jane’s sponsorship, at least seven search expeditions were launched between 1850 and 1875.

When the Australian colonies found out about Sir John Franklin’s uncertain fate, they provided support through monetary donations. Over £1671 was raised in Van Diemen’s Land alone, which helped to launch the steamship Isabel in 1852.

On one of the first search expeditions that took place in 1850, Erasmus Ommanney (1814-1904), the captain of HMS Assitance, called in at Greenland where he met a young Inuit man named Qalasirssuaq who offered to guide Ommanney to the rumoured sight of Franklin’s massacre. The rumour turned out to be false and the ship returned to England in 1850 with Qalasirssuaq still on board. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel suggested Qalasirssuaq be placed in St Augustine’s Missionary College, Canterbury, to be taught to read and write and learn about the Gospel. Whilst there, Qalasirssuaq also trained to be a tailor.

In 1853, Qalasirssuaq was baptised Erasmus Augustine Kallihirua and Sir John Franklin’s daughter Eleanor Gell was invited to be his godmother. Eleanor had married Reverend John Philip Gell in 1849 and there are a couple of letters in the Lady Jane Museum addressed to Eleanor Gell from her godson, along with a couple of drawings of ships and polar bears. In 1855, Qalasirssuaq travelled to Newfoundland, Canada to further his religious studies at Queen’s College at St John’s with the intention of starting a missionary career. Unfortunately, he passed away the following year.

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The Victory Point Note ©Derbyshire County Council 2020

Meanwhile, ships were still being sent in search of Franklin and his crew. In 1959, Francis Leopold McClintock (1819-1907), aboard the steam yacht Fox, found evidence for the death of Sir John Franklin in 1847. McClintock unearthed a written document frozen in the ice at Victory Point on King William Island that stated:

H.M. ships ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’ were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37′ 42″ N., long. 98˚ 41′ W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.

The letter also stated the surviving men would try to make their way to North America, however, they were never seen again. A couple of skeletons wearing European clothes were found in the area but their identity remains unknown.

Lady Jane Franklin was finally able to grieve for her lost husband but she was convinced there was more to discover about their fate. She publicly scorned rumours that Franklin and his crew had turned to cannibalism in their final days and wished to find further documents or diaries about their expedition. Jane was not the only one interested in the failed polar expedition; Henry Grinnell (1799-1847), an American merchant who had funded the first rescue mission, was equally keen to know the facts. In 1860, Jane travelled to America to meet Grinnell in New York. Whilst there, she sought support for a final expedition before travelling the world herself. After the United States, Jane visited Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii, Japan, China and India, returning to England in 1862.

The final Arctic exploration in search of Sir John Franklin’s body was not ready until 1875. Meanwhile, Jane, aged 70, continued to tour the world, stopping in Spain, France, Switzerland, India, the Canary Island, north-west Africa, Alaska and Portugal. Due to her celebrity status as the widow of a famous explorer, many hotels waived her fee and treated her as an honoured guest. Jane finally stopped travelling when she reached the age of 80 and spent the rest of her life at home where she passed away on 18th July 1875, aged 83. The final expedition had set off the same year but she did not live to discover it had been fruitless.

Not all the objects in Lady Jane’s Museum belonged to her but rather the Gell family with whom she was connected via her step-daughter. Items include fans, medals, letters and coins, such as two commemorative world’s fair medallions, one from 1862 and the other from 1882. Whilst the early could have been Jane’s, the latter medallion was produced after her death.

The Gell’s had a small collection of decorative fans, which may have been purchased on trips abroad or received as presents, potentially from Jane. One painted oriental fan dating to the early 18th century shows a possible representation of the story of Dido and Aeneas. The woman seated on a divan may be Dido, the Queen of Carthage, who is being crowned by two putti in the company of a female attendant and two children. In the distance is a sailing ship, potentially carrying Aeneas, the Prince of Troy. Another fan, this time from early 19th century Europe, is made from intricately carved ivory.

Thanks to the successful crowdfunding campaign by the Derbyshire Record Office, these items and more have been preserved in individual containers – they were originally jumbled up in one box – and photographed so that the world can experience them. Not only has this project saved fragile items, but it has also saved a bit of history about a woman who would otherwise be forgotten. Whilst Sir John Franklin remains in the history books due to his fateful journey to the Arctic, Lady Jane Franklin would have disappeared without the preservation of these artefacts. She may not have done something as remarkable as captain a ship – women were not allowed anyway – but she was certainly the most travelled woman of her time.

Photo credits © Derbyshire County Council 2020
This blog was based on an exhibition by the Derbyshire Record Office

[Disclaimer] not all photographs in this article belong to the 
Derbyshire Record Office. Some have been sourced via Wikipedia.

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