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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

Sir John Franklin Expedition has strong Victoria, B.C. link

So they’ve finally found Sir John Franklin. Well, his ships anyway. 170-plus years after he and all of his 128 men vanished in the Arctic while searching for the legendary Northwest Passage.

This is what legends are made of: The most expensive scientific expedition to that time in history, which sailed…into oblivion. Not a single survivor. Not, for years, a single clue!

Ever so slowly the puzzle has been unraveled through the efforts, often heroic, of numerous explorers and, in recent years, repeated underwater searches by Parks Canada. All these efforts have been crowned with the confirmed discoveries of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, and her sister ship HMS Terror.

Vancouver Island has several strong links to the Franklin saga

Let’s begin with Herald Rock in Beaver Harbour, ‘twixt Fort Rupert and Port Hardy. It’s named for the 500-ton, eight-gun ship with which Capt. Henry Kellett, RN, (later Vice Admiral) surveyed B.C. waters. So are Victoria’s Herald Street, Haro Strait’s Kellett Bluff and Sooke’s Kellett Point.

In the summer of 1846, HM Ships Herald and Pandora had just begun a survey of B.C. waters. Kellett received orders to make haste to Bering Strait: the Sir John Franklin expedition hadn’t been heard from and the Admiralty was concerned. Perhaps Kellett could learn something in the western Arctic.

They picked the right man. Capt. Kellett’s 24 years in the Royal Navy had been spent as a surveyor and pilot in South American, Asian and African waters. His service in China had earned him several mentions in dispatches and promotions.

Although Herald was no icebreaker, Kellett completed three summer cruises in 1848, ‘49 and ‘50 before sailing for home after six years at sea under extreme conditions. It wasn’t recognized at the time for its significance, but he’d glimpsed a previously uncharted Wrangel Island. In passing, Herald lent her name to Herald Island, now a Russian domain.

Capt. Bligh– er, Belcher–takes up the hunt

Capt. Henry Kellett had clearly demonstrated his abilities aboard HMS Herald. But his superiors chose Capt. Sir Edward Belcher (Belcher Mountain, Belcher Point) to head a search expedition.

Belcher had proved his abilities as a surveyor and in wartime service. But he had an uncanny ability to antagonize his juniors. Something like the infamous Capt. Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. An admiral once said of him that he’d never achieve greatness with such a narrow mind.

Yet it was the “coarse, meddling tactless, and fearfully egotistical” Belcher who was given command of the Sir John Franklin relief expedition in 1852. Of the four ships comprising the squadron, Capt. Kellett’s was the Resolute.

Kellett was a good sport
They soon parted, Resolute being so seriously damaged in Barrow Strait that Kellett had to winter in Melville Sound. Kellett seems to have appointed himself the ship’s morale officer and was ‘elected’ chairman of the theatrical committee. This offers us an intriguing insight into his personality. In an age when a naval captain had almost godly powers, and often abused them, he shows himself to have been a good sport and a commander who was truly concerned for his crew’s well-being.

Resolute managed to make good progress before being trapped for a second time. Belcher was having his troubles, too, with ice and with his officers. Unlike Kellett, who’d demonstrated his humanity, Belcher found himself alone on his own ship.

Abandon Ship

Ultimately, rather than face another Arctic winter trapped in the ice, he decided to abandon ship. He ordered Kellett and his other commanding officers to do likewise. Kellett, who’d ordered his consort Investigator to be cast off, protested. Belcher insisted. The Resolute, Intrepid, Assistance and Pioneer were abandoned by their crews, who camped on Beechey Head until evacuated by a supply ship.

For this ignominious end to the relief expedition, Belcher faced a court-martial. He was acquitted on the grounds that his concern for the safety of his men, although smacking of haste and setting a poor precedent, was within his mandate and wasn’t to be second-guessed.

Capt. Kellett was court-martialed, too. But his was only as a formality as he’d had Belcher’s written order to abandon ship. When handing back his sword the president of the court said he was pleased to do so to an officer who’d worn it with honour in his nation’s service.

History wasn’t finished with Belcher
Swept along by wind and current, Kellett’s Resolute drifted into Baffin Bay. There, 16 months after, she was taken in tow by an American whaler. The U.S. Government bought her, refitted her–and gave her back to Britain.

Kellett’s conduct had been exemplary but a parliamentary slight in favour of a junior officer left him slightly bitter. He remained on active service and attained a vice admiralty and a knighthood before his death in 1875.

He’s also honoured on Arctic maps three times besides the four British Columbia geographical features noted above.


  1. What an interesting story, I had no idea there were ties to this old tale and our very own Victoria! I really hope one day we find the sister ship, the HMS Terror. Great post, TW, I enjoyed it immensely from beginning to end!

  2. Hi Tom,

    Good read as always, Tom. Thanks for your reply regarding Grace Islet blog post. I have an unrelated query which will be sent you by email soon.

    In all the media publications regarding the failed Franklin expeditions no one has ever mentioned the most successful arctic explorer: Dr. John Rae. Here’s what Peter St. John (pronounced Sinjun) wrote in McGoogan’s book.

    “Ken McGoogan’s book, Fatal Passage (2001), is like a bolt of lightning that dramatically illuminates a part of exploration history that has been shrouded in ambiguity, uncertainty and inaccuracy. McGoogan has brought John Rae to life as a giant figure in the not-so-distant Canadian past, a man of great achievements, brilliant intellect and bold, adventurous spirit — a modest man who discovered both the fate of the Franklin expedition and the final link in the Northwest Passage.” — Peter St. John, 9th Earl of Orkney

    I made a profound study of this book and published some remarks at Dr. John Rae — arctic explorer

  3. There is another link between Sir John Franklin and Victoria, and it also relates to your Wentworth Villa article in the Cowichan Valley Citizen, Aug. 21, 2013.

    Before he came to manage Captain James Cooper’s Bilston Farm in Mechosin, Thomas Blinkhorn, was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for stealing Martha Cheney’s grandfather’s horse. (crazy stuff, I know! I think he must have been drunk!) Martha was my great, great, grandmother.

    My research indicates that, while serving his time as an appropriated labourer on Captain Ritchie’s Scone estate, just south of Launceston, Thomas probably served on a convict search party that searched for the Franklins, who had managed to get lost while on an overland trek. Although the Franklins were ultimately rescued by other searchers, Lady Jane was genuinely grateful to all who had risked their own well-being to help. She is said to have visited Mrs. Blinkhorn when she came to Victoria on two occasions in the mid-1800’s. The story of Thomas Blinkhorn’s involvement in the rescue was referenced by Captain John T. Walbran in his 1909 book, British Columbia Coast Names, although it exaggerates a little by claiming he was “instrumental” in saving the Franklins.

    In case you haven’t heard, I’m sure you will be happy to know that Wentworth Villa has been saved from the developer and is being restored as a museum of Pacific Northwest Architecture. One room will be reserved for the history of the house and the Ella family.

    Thank you for your efforts to bring our history alive!

    • Wow! Wentworth Villa saved from development as a museum! No, I hadn’t heard that; thank you for the update.
      Thank you, too, for the great anecdote re: Thos. Blinkhorn. You’ve proven yet again that history is multi-layered; every time you scratch at it you find something ‘new’.
      I must look at my copy of Capt. Walbran’s classic book to reacquaint myself with this particular story.
      I’m particularly glad that the Ella family connection is being maintained in the Villa. This is as it should be, but we modern Canadians are sadly amiss in our acknowledgements of our forefathers and foremothers.
      Again, thank you for taking the time to comment. Please call again. –TWP

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