‘In the last letter written before he sailed, dated H.M.S. "Erebus", Greenhithe, 18th May, 1845, [Franklin] says to his father-in-law:
“I wish you could see the ship now; she is almost as clean as she will be at sea, and quite ready for sailing. The officers and the crew all fine men and in excellent spirits. This day we had the happiness of joining together on board in Divine worship to praise God for past mercies and to implore His guiding and protecting providence. In this spirit we all hope to begin, continue and end our voyage.”
From The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin 1792-1875:
DEPARTURE OF THE “EREBUS” AND “TERROR” ON THE ARCTIC EXPEDITION
A desart [sic] waste of waters lies before –
Behind, the anxious hospitable shore,
Which like a parent bird sees ye depart,
Bold wingéd messengers of daring art!
We know t hat sunshine always ’round your path
Cannot attend; that rain and tempest’s wrath
Will be your portion; but our pray’r shall be
You live their fury out right gallantly,
And after years you have perchance to roam
That science crown’d you safely seek your home!
On Monday [19 May 1845] H. M. sloops "Erebus" and "Terror" left Greenhithe, on their attempt “to penetrate the icy fastnesses of the north, and to circumnavigate America.
Greenhithe, on the shore of the River Thames, is, today, overshadowed by its near neighbours the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and the Bluewater shopping centre. In the 1840s, however, a pier erected in 1842 attracted Victorian day-trippers aboard pleasure boats from London; a fashion augmented by the opening of a railway link in 1849.
It may have been this fashionable status that caused Greenhithe to be selected, in 1845, for the launch of the nineteenth-century’s most anticipated and celebrated Arctic expedition; an expedition led by national hero, Sir John Franklin, whose previous exploits in the Arctic had earned him the epithet ‘the man who ate his boots’.
Franklin’s reputation had suffered during his time as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and he hoped to redeem it by discovering the North-West Passage. This long-elusive goal gave the expedition popular appeal, although “magnetic science dominated [its] genesis and direction”1.
Franklin’s ships, HMS “Erebus” and HMS “Terror”, were towed downstream from Woolwich – where they had undergone significant refurbishment and strengthening of the bows in preparation for their journey – on Monday 12 May 1845. Due to leave Greenhithe on 15 May, the expedition was delayed by “the late delivery of provisions … until the 19th”2, but then sailed first to Orkney, and thence toward the Arctic. Its crews exchanged greetings with a whaling fleet off the coast of Greenland on 12 July 1845 but were never seen or heard from again.
In 1859, after twelve years of searching, proof was found that everyone on the expedition had lost his life, and Franklin himself had died on 11 June 1847. Dickens among others vehemently opposed any suggestion that Franklin's crew had resorted to cannibalism before they died. The ships were not found until 2014 and 2016 respectively, and explorations continue in hope of finally resolving the mystery of the lost Franklin expedition.
In Greenhithe, Franklin is commemorated by a seventeenth-century pub re-named in his honour circa 2000; he would have known it as The White Hart. The village’s other pub, which Franklin would have known as The Admiral Keppell, became The Pier Hotel in 18473. Each of these establishments backs onto the river and each boasts a suitable wharf from which Erebus or Terror could have set sail.
Sir John Franklin, Greenhithe and Pier, Hotel Greenhithe camra, 2019. [Accessed 20 October 2019].
Illustrated London News, 1845. [Departure of the 'Erebus' and 'Terror' on the Arctic Expedition.] B [Online]
Available at: British Newspaper Aarchive. [Accessed 18 October 2019].
Lady Franklin, J. & Rawnsley, W. The Life, Diaries and Correspondence of Jane Lady Franklin 1792-1875. Cambridge Library Edition ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Lambert, A. Franklin; Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation. London: Faber and Faber, 2009.