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When I arrived at this lecture at the Royal Geographical Society it was obviously proving popular. I narrowly escaped having to sit outside the room on strategically angled chairs. It’s not surprising that this was the case given the recent media interest stemming from the discovery of Franklin’s second ship, the Terror, on the floor of the Canadian ocean. I’ve been fascinated by the Franklin expedition for a while, so was glad to get the chance to attend this talk.

Organised by the Society of Naval Research, the talk was delivered by Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History, King’s College London, who has published a book on Franklin (Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber London, 2010)). He argued that the main purpose of Franklin’s expedition was not to find the North-West Passage, as searches for this elusive route over Canada had been taking place since the sixteenth century and by 1845 when the exhibition set sail, it was generally accepted that even if the passage did exist, it was impractical; in addition, the settlement of the Alaska border meant there was no obvious reason to go looking for the passage.

HMS Terror

Crew of the HMS Terror, stuck in the ice and commanded by the British admiral George Back (1796-1878), salvaging lifeboats and provisions east of the Frozen Strait, during the Frozen Strait Expedition, 1836-1837. Yellowknife, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

The large-scale rescue mission to find Franklin found that the crews of both ships had marched south, leaving a pile of equipment behind. There was evidence of cannibalism, which was hastily suppressed. Both wrecks were found further south from where they were originally abandoned in 1848. No logbooks or reports or medical records were found on either ship: the only written evidence is a 263-page note. However, a non-magnetic cannon and a broken sextant were found on Erebus, further evidence of the real purpose of the expedition.

Lambert argued that the real purpose of the exhibition was to explore the new science of magnetism: looking for evidence of the earth’s magnetic field. The search for the passage was inspired by big science, but in order to get funding, going to the high Arctic needed a purpose. It was thought that magnetism could help with navigation: Sir Edward Sabine’s work gave Britain a leading role in big international scientific project and Franklin became a magnetic scientist, building a magnetic station during his time as Governor of Tasmania. He was a scientist, not an explorer: he was 59 and in poor health, he would not have been sent to the Arctic as an adventurer. Fourteen officers were all trained in magnetic science; the aim was to collect magnetic data on or near the magnetic pole, something that explorer James Clark Ross understood as his search for Franklin took him close to the magnetic north, and in fact the Erebus and Terror made it closer to the magnetic north than any ship until Amundsen’s.

The expedition did not go well. Three men died from tuberculosis during the first winter on Beechey Island; in early 1846 an opening was found into Peel Sound, formerly ignored and blocked, but the ships later became locked in the ice. In 1847 and 1848 the weather conditions grew worse: by 1848 the men had decided to try marching over 1000 miles to the nearest Hudson Bay post. Several were abandoned on the way as they grew weaker and died; the last man is believed to have perished at the appropriately-named Starvation Bay.

During the search for the lost expedition, the state and Lady Jane Franklin – who was instrumental in organising rescue missions and preserving her husband’s reputation and memory – created a narrative about the North-West Passage that has endured to this day. His statue stands at Waterloo Place, a reminder of the place he still holds in the history of Arctic exploration.

Read Andrew Lambert’s fascinating article Finding HMS Terror: the Franklin Expedition and making sense of the past online at BBC History Extra