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‘HMS Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters’ [Shelfmark: 1781.a.23] – See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/americas/2014/08/coming-up-lines-in-the-ice.html#sthash.vtgbSXaQ.dpuf

Recently I attended a talk at the British Library, The Search for Franklin’s Lost Ships, an event designed to coincide with the current exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage which runs until 29 March 2015. The talk involved Ryan Harris, a marine archaeologist, in conversation with Robin McKie from The Observer: the original subject of the talk was the search itself, but after the talk was scheduled, it emerged that one of the ships had actually been found – tremendously exciting news. Harris actually introduced his presentation by apologising for the slight change in tack – though I don’t suppose for a minute that anyone actually minded!

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of explorer and Royal Navy officer Captain Sir John Franklin, left Greenhithe on 19 May 1845, setting sail for Canada in a bid to find the last stretch of the fabled Northwest Passage. Both ships became trapped in ice in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic. The entire crew was lost, and their ultimate fate became one of the Victorian age’s greatest mysteries. Franklin’s wife, Jane, and others launched numerous expeditions to try and find out what had happened to them, but none were successful, though rumours of cannibalism, poisoning and scurvy abounded. Oral history and Inuit testimony was collected during the nineteenth century, suggesting that at least one ship had sunk, but their testimony was distrusted.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, as they appeared in Illustrated London News. Source: Getty Images via BBC News

Earlier this year, the Canadian Government initiated the biggest search yet to find the lost ships. As Canada has the largest coastline in the world, this would be no light undertaking. A previous “Project Franklin” run by the Department of National Defence ended in failure in 1967 when the divers performing the search had to be evacuated owing to hypothermia. However, modern technology has enabled new methods of searching.

Marine archeologist Ryan Harris, who took part in the search, explained how the ship – later determined to be HMS Erebus – was found. On 1 September, a piece of iron and a piece of wood were found: cross-section plans of Erebus provided by the National Maritime Museum proved that these artefacts came from that ship. Erebus itself was discovered with sonar imaging, relatively intact on the sea floor: it was possible to match up the plan of the ship with the undersea image to prove it was what they were looking for. Exciting as the discovery was, it was kept under wraps for a while so the “right” people could be informed first – the Canadian and British governments, for instance. The find was formally announced on 9 September.

The most exciting part of Harris’s talk was hearing about, and seeing pictures of, dives to the near-intact ship. Despite the covering of kelp, archaeologists were able to find cannons, anchors, decking and beams, and a table leg that, judging by a picture of Franklin’s cabin published in the Illustrated London News, came from a table belonging to Franklin himself. Particularly exciting was the discovery of the ship’s bell, still with the year ‘1845’ embossed on it. The plan is for the bell, probably made at the Whitechapel foundry, to be conserved and displayed publicly while further archaeological work continues at the site.

Further examination of the ship could lead to some important questions being answered. For instance, who were the last survivors of the crew, and when did discipline break down? How was the ship rigged – for sail, or for steam propulsion? The discovery should prompt a re-examination of the Inuit testimony which was distrusted at the time, and could shed new light on the technology of nineteenth-century British polar exploration.

A question and answer session at the end of the talk offered further insight into what might happen with the ship in the future. It seems certain that the project will go on for years, uncovering further details about the ship and the expedition as a whole. In reply to one question, Harris said that they are “optimistic” about finding some documents on board – linen-based paper can survive for centuries underwater, and it is possible that records may be found inside. The aim is to get into the middle of the ship: it is possible that it could be raised, as although it is generally preferred to leave things in situ, the significance of this one could mean that it is removed from the water at some point. Artefacts will be removed from the wreck so that they can be conserved and learned from, and in the meantime, the search for the other ship, HMS Terror, will continue.

I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating talk and intend to keep an eye out for more news relating to the search and the Franklin expedition. I also intend to visit the exhibition at the British Library early next year.