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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.