Going Back to my Roots - Harry Goodsir, HMS Erebus and the Lost Franklin Expedition
In recent days, I have had the great good fortune to visit the wonderful National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see the Polar Worlds exhibition curated by the exceptionally kind and informative Jeremy Michell. The National Maritime Museum must be one of London’s best kept secrets. It is fascinating. You certainly don’t have to be a navel or nautical expert to enjoy all that’s on offer there. It has something for everyone from a map of the world covering an entire floor over which you can stroll from sea to sea, to an astronomical photography exhibition, a lighthouse, to scale replicas of great wooden ships, a royal barge, royal portraits, beautiful ship’s lanterns swinging from the ceiling not to mention a cafe with a view up the hill to the Royal Observatory and all housed in a building of grandeur that forms part of the awe inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site of Maritime Greenwich.
In my case, it was my curiosity to find out more about my distant cousin, Harry Goodsir, that propelled me from West to South East London. I had learned that the Polar Worlds exhibition had a section on the 1845 Franklin Expedition that was set within the historic context of polar expeditions to both the Arctic and the Antarctic. I wanted to see images and artefacts from those times to get a glimmer of how it must have felt to be an early polar explorer, to feel something of the lure and of the ordeals that these exceptional men experienced. Travel, exploration and appreciation of the natural world is in my blood too but we have maps, phones and every conceivable safety net beneath us. Theirs was the uncharted, the unknown and in the case of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the fatal.
I was not to be disappointed. Amongst the many exhibits, I saw an Inuit scraping tool with a blade made from a discarded expedition tin can, the doctor’s kit used on HMS Terror, clothing, crockery and most poignantly, a note first dated May 1847 in which Franklin reported his ships being stuck in the ice but says, “All well”, added to a little later in another hand stating that Franklin and 23 others were dead and that the surviving men had abandoned ship and were striking out across land…
But it was in a locked room in the museum office wing that my heart stopped for a moment. Here I was shown a spoon and fork bearing the initials H.D.S.G. The spoon had been found in an abandoned sledge on King William Island in May 1859, the fork was retrieved during an earlier expedition in 1854 from Inuit who had found it at a camp where a party of Europeans were purported to have died of starvation. Both belonged to Harry Goodsir.
I returned to Greenwich the following weekend, this time to visit the Old Royal Naval College. In the doorway of the Chapel I gazed up at the 4 metres high marble memorial dedicated to the lost Franklin Expedition. To one side a proud young naval officer studies a chart, to the other a broken man sits in the frozen Arctic awaiting death. Between the two figures and side by side, there are two short lists of the officers, petty officers, carpenters and doctors of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror who perished. Under Erebus, I saw his name; Mr. Harry D. S. Goodsir, Acting Assistant Surgeon.
At the base of the memorial are the words, “Beneath lie the remains of one of Franklin’s companions who perished in the Arctic regions 1848 discovered and brought away from King William’s Land by Captain Hall, the United States Arctic explorer 1869.”
The body beneath the Franklin Memorial was, until very recently, believed to be that of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on Erebus. In 2009, restoration work in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College necessitated the relocation of the memorial to the entrance of the Chapel. The remains were carefully disinterred giving archeologists the chance to examine the skeleton using 21st century technology. Isotopic evidence from the teeth revealed a young man most likely born in East Scotland, a facial reconstruction from the skull bore an almost exact resemblance to the daguerrotype taken in 1845 of Harry Goodsir.
By some incredible twist of fate, it seemed that beneath my feet lay my cousin. Then it struck me, Harry and his siblings had all died unmarried and childless. His line discontinued with no one in his immediate family knowing what had become of him. There has never been a direct descendant to visit his grave. There are just a few cousins dotted around the world and I’m the only one (that I know of) in London. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m perhaps the first member of his family who has knowingly visited his grave? I was profoundly moved.
I'm no historian but from all I have read about Harry, several things come across consistently. He was bright, curious, meticulous and deeply compassionate. In his youth he spent hours combing the Fife beaches for marine creatures which he studied and drew. Friend and naturalist, Professor Edward Forbes, wrote of him that he was a most promising doctor and naturalist. He had papers published in both with his drawings and descriptions of marine invertebrates later catching the attention of Charles Darwin.
His passion for the natural world contributed hugely to his volunteering to join the Franklin Expedition where he was assigned the dual duties of Assistant Surgeon and Expedition Naturalist. In fact, it was in his last letter home in June 1845 from Disco Island, Baffins Bay that he included his paper, ‘On The Anatomy of Forbesia’. He became the librarian on Erebus, started to compile a dictionary of Inuit words and was purportedly ship's photographer too. So much promise, so much fulfilled and so much lost.
I felt myself sink little roots into the floor of the Chapel to connect with my distant cousin whose interests and curiosity I relate to. There is strength to be had in roots, a continuum to be anchored in. Despite all the uncertainties, there’s one thing we can be sure of; Harry was in love with the natural world and it is there that I too draw my inspiration.