Robert Johns of Penryn & Sir John Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Expedition

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On the 19th May 1845 the greatest Arctic expedition ever planned set off from England, its mission – to find to elusive North-West Passage. This was the most technologically advanced and best-equipped enterprise of its age and, despite the failure of many previous attempts, the Admiralty and all those aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror felt confident of its sure and speedy success. Amongst Sir John Franklin’s crew of 133 men that day was one Cornishman, Robert Johns, a twenty-four year old from Penryn. Robert was an able-seaman on the HMS Erebus and we can only guess at his feelings as the coast of England receded from sight. Sadly, while he may have been filled with excited anticipation for the adventures he believed lay ahead, we know now that he would never see Cornwall again. In fact, the Franklin Expedition was to become Britain’s most notorious and most mysterious polar disaster.

Who was Robert Johns?

Robert Henry Johns was born in Penryn in 1822 and baptised at St Gluvias Church on 2nd June that year. His parents, Robert Johns and Ann Cutt, had married in St Mary’s Church in Truro in June 1819 and Robert Henry appears to have been their eldest child. He was followed by Henry, George, Jenifer Ann, Elisabeth, Amelia and Susan.

St Gluvias Church, Penryn

The family lived on Higher Market Street in Penryn where Robert Johns Snr was a dyer, presumably of cloth. But his son did not follow him into that trade, Robert Henry Johns obviously had his sights set on broader horizons and joined the Royal Navy as a teenager in the late 1830s. From October 1838 to January 1842 Robert served on the HMS Pandora. first as a cabin boy and then as an able-seaman.

During a spell at home he married Jemima Cooke, also at St Gluvias Church, she was from Penryn too, the daughter of a stonemason and a couple of years older than him. The register records Robert as a ‘mariner’ and he did sign his name, while Jemima made her mark. A year later, on 6th October 1843, the couple had their first and only child, a son that they baptised Robert Henry Johns, like his father. At this time, probably because Robert was at sea a great deal, Jemima seems to have been living with Robert’s extended family on Higher Market Street.

Higher Market Street, Penryn

It is unclear how Robert came to hear of the Franklin Expedition, or how he managed to secure himself a coveted position on the crew, but it must have seemed like an exciting and lucrative opportunity – the crew were all offered double pay for the entire duration of voyage, which they thought would last one or two years at the most. So sometime in early 1845 Robert Johns bid goodbye to his wife and family and left Cornwall to join HMS Erebus.

Onboard

As the ships prepared to depart Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Sir John, arranged for a photographer to come onboard HMS Erebus and photograph the officers. Fourteen daguerreotypes were captured by the photographer Richard Beard and today the surviving images are haunting mementoes, considering what was to follow. (Below is a selection.) They show the men that were in charge of our young able seaman, Robert Johns, faces he knew well, men he admired perhaps – but, of course, given his lower rank, we have no image of him.

Photography was still very much in its infancy, so it is also surprising to learn that a camera was part of the equipment onboard. As I mentioned HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were considered to be the best-equipped ships that had ever set out on an Arctic expedition, alongside the copious equipment for making scientific observations there were nearly 3000 books, costumes for putting on plays and a hand organ for entertainment. The ships themselves had been specially outfitted with reinforced hulls, locomotive-driven, retractable propellers and enough provisions to last them three years, longer if they rationed.

The expedition left with around 8000 tins of preserved meat, vegetables and soup, an ‘ample supply’ of tea and rum, 9450 pounds (4290kg) of chocolate and 7088 pounds of tobacco. There were also cattle, sheep, pigs and hens on board as well as a cat, a monkey and a dog called Neptune. Consequently, given all these supplies, conditions were very cramped for the men, only the officers had any privacy with their own tiny cabins. The ordinary crew members slept in shifts, half on, half off, in hammocks slung side by side from the deck-beams. They were supplied with some warm clothing however – seaboots, cloth boots with cork soles, warm jackets, wool-lined weatherproof trousers, wool shirts, wool drawers, scarfs. a ‘Welsh Wig’ (woollen cap with a long neck), fur cap and bearskin blanket. The ship’s doctor, Harry Goodsir, also reported being issued with sealskin gloves, a sealskin cap and a pair of deerskin trousers but that was probably only been for the officers.

With all stowed, it was time to depart. The expedition set sail from Kent on 19th May 1845 to great excitement, pomp and pageantry.

Iron Men in Wooden Ships

The quest to find the North-West Passage, a sailing route between the Atlantic and the Pacific across the top of North America, was considered hugely important in terms of the territory that could be discovered and the usefulness to global trade. Franklin’s Expedition was by no means the first to attempt it but this voyage was considered particularly well-planned and prepared.

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin had an excellent reputation as an explorer, having travelled to and mapped parts of the Arctic region before. Captain Francis Crozier, the captain of HMS Terror, was also very experienced, perhaps even more than Franklin, and had managed to learn some of the Inuit language because of the time he had spent in the frozen north.

After sailing up the coast of Scotland into the North Sea the ships anchored at Disco Bay, Greenland from where some of the crew sent last letters home to their loved ones. Did Robert Johns write to his family in Cornwall perhaps? It was also at this point that four men were deemed unfit to go any further and were sent home too. So there was now 129 men in total across the two ships.

Iceburg, Greenland – image: Annie Spratt

For the vast majority of the ordinary crew this would have been their first experience of the other-worldly, unforgiving Arctic environment. And I wonder how prepared they were for it, both physically and mentally. The last time that HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were seen by Europeans was when they passed the whaler, Prince of Wales, on 26th July 1845.

We know that the expedition sailed on across Baffin Bay and into Lancashire Sound, making excellent progress due to some unusually mild weather. The ships circumnavigated Cornwallis Island, (did Robert Johns know its name, did he think of home?), just before the seas began to freeze over.

Beechey Island

That first winter was spent at a camp they built on Beechey Island, the ground is littered with fragments of their tin cans to this day and stone banks they built to surround their tents are still visible. The most poignant reminders however are the graves of three of the crew who died there. Two of the three men, John Hartnell and William Braine, were crewmates of Robert Johns and given the cramped living quarters it seems likely that he knew them. John Hartnell in particular was an able seaman like Johns, one of only 20 on the Erebus. Excavations of these graves in the 1980s revealed that each of the men was buried with extreme care and respect, which given the unforgiving conditions is heart-warming. Digging a grave 6ft deep through solid permafrost in the pitch black of winter was no mean feat.

Despite these losses the ships had been very well prepared to overwinter, they had known that they would have to spend at least one winter on the ice, and besides taking care of their basic needs the officers would also have made sure the crews were kept occupied during the long months of perpetual darkness. Perhaps Robert Johns improved his literacy, acted in a play or took part in the hunting trips for fresh meat.

Then in spring 1846, when the sea had thawed sufficiently for them to continue, the two ships entered the labyrinth of ice and quite literally sailed off the edge of the known world . . .

Vanished

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I don’t believe that it is any secret that Franklin’s Expedition was a disaster and there are plenty of fascinating sources which detail the known facts and speculate the unknown. I will outline the story as best as I can, what is thought to have happened, but for more detail there are a number of excellent documentaries online and a couple of books I will list below.

Sir John Franklin had expected it to take two summers to complete the North-West Passage so it wasn’t until the winter of 1847 that concerns began to circulate back in England as to where the expedition party might be. Franklin’s wife Jane was one of the first to begin partitioning the Admiralty to send out search parties.

In all, between 1847 and 1859, twenty-three expeditions went in search of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, many of these experienced extreme hardship, some barely making it back at all, only to report that they had found no trace of Franklin or his men. We can only imagine what Jemima and the rest of Robert Johns’ family must have been thinking, cut off in Cornwall from any communication with the Admiralty, unable to act and relying on newspaper reports to try and understand what was happening.

The vanished ships became a mystery that gripped the entire nation. Then in August 1850, five years after they left England, the first signs of the missing men were discovered, the three graves and the winter camp on Beechey Island were found. And, as the years passed, fragments of the story surfaced mostly in the form of found objects connected to the expedition, some of which had been picked up by Inuit and recovered by the searchers. But in 1853 something else began to emerge – some extremely disturbing reports.

One of the men looking for the crew, Captain John Rae, met Inuit on King William Island who claimed they knew the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

“Groups of white men had been seen travelling southward and many corpses had been found. It appeared that some of the men had resorted to cannibalism as many bodies were mutilated and body parts were found in cooking pots. Inuit showed Rae items which had belonged to the expedition and he bought some of them, particularly those marked with names or crests that could be linked to individual expedition members, including Sir John Franklin himself. Rae arrived in London with his devastating news . . . It had to be accepted that the men were dead and the idea of their heroism had been tainted by the horror of cannibalism.”

Gillian Hutchinson, Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition, 2017

The shocking news was published in the newspapers in England in October 1854 and the public was horrified. Not only did it now appear certain that all the men were lost but it had happened in such a scandalous and appalling way, which was, at the time, unthinkable. The Admiralty and Franklin’s family quickly moved to suppress and discredit the idea that British officers would ever have resorted to cannibalism. The prejudices of the era allowed the reports to be hastily disregarded as horrid lies told by barbarous natives. But whatever the exact circumstances it now seemed irrefutable that something had gone terribly wrong and the Admiralty decided to suspend all further searches for Franklin.

McClintock’s Discoveries

“Ghastly secrets awaited both M’Clintock and Hobson as they trudged over the ice-covered land.”

Owen Beattie & John Geiger, Frozen in Time, 2004

The Admiralty may have given up and the general population’s attention shifted to the Crimean War, but Lady Jane Franklin was still determined to find her husband. Indeed she didn’t just want to find him, she wanted to return to him his good name and reputation. And it is really due to her unswerving perseverance and sizable fortune that we know more of the details of this doomed expedition and therefore what happened to our Robert Johns of Penryn. Lady Jane hired a ship, captained by Francis Leopold McClintock, a Royal Naval Officer, to make one more journey to the Arctic. From the information that John Rae had gleaned from the Inuit they now knew that they must look further south, on King William Island.

Lady Jane Franklin

In early April 1859, fourteen years after the last known sighting of the Franklin ships, McClintock and his lieutenant, William Hobson, set out overland on King William Island, in two separate expedition parties. Within days McClintock had made contact with two Inuit families who not only had ‘Franklin relics’ in their possession but had also seen the ice-bound ships and the ‘white men’. They told him that they knew where the ships had sunk and some of the older members recalled watching the crew walking across the ice. One old woman told McClintock:

” . . . many white men dropped by the way as they went to the Great River; that some were buried and some were not.”

Meanwhile Hobson had found a stone cairn built on a headland called Victory Point on the northeast coast of the island which contained perhaps the most important clue yet – the only written evidence ever found of what happened to the Franklin Expedition. The document had been added to on at least two occasions, meaning that some of Franklin’s men had returned to it more than once. The first entry was written by Lieutenant Gore after their overwintering at Beechey Island and he declared “All Well”, the second additional entry, written roughly two year later on 25th April 1848, was far more ominous. This time James Fitzjames describes how the two ships have been ice bound since September 1846, that 24 of the crew are already dead and that Sir John Franklin himself had died on 11th June 1847.

From this document and the testimony of Inuit we know that on 22nd April 1848 the last remaining 105 crew members abandoned their ships. In a desperate effort to escape overland they were dragging their lifeboats to the Great Fish River, hoping to reach a trading station around 1000 miles away. It was an impossible feat, and they probably knew it.

Inuit reported having face to face contact with them at least once, that one white man had spoken their language, probably Crozier, and that they gave them seal meat but were unable to help them more as there were too many of them to support.

franklin expedition
Hobson and his men find the cairn

Rather strangely the crew took with them a huge amount of seemingly unnecessary stuff with them, all packed into the small lifeboats which had been mounted on sledges so that they could be more easily dragged across the ice. We know this because Hobson found one of these boats with two skeletons inside and was “amazed” by the amount of bizarre goods surrounding the dead men.

Everything from boots and silk handkerchiefs to curtain rods, silverware, scented soaps, sponges, slippers, toothbrushes and hair combs were found. Six books, including the Bible . . . The only provisions on the boat were tea and chocolate.”

Owen Beattie & John Geiger, Frozen in Time, 2004

Without being too graphic further exploration revealed a trail of broken boats, discarded possessions and bleached bones littering the route across the south-west of the island as far as the aptly named Starvation Cove. And tragically a study of the human remains, conducted by a scientific team led by Owen Beattie in the early 1980s, confirmed that the Inuit reports of cannibalism were true.

Jemima Johns & Robert Johns Jnr

Robert Johns had made sure that he did not leave his wife and young son wanting in Penryn. The Admiralty allowed crew members to elect to have a proportion of their wages, an allotment, sent to their loved ones while they were away. The Muster Records show that Robert chose to do this, Jemima is noted as the recipient and would have received the double pay rate for a seaman, which was £3. 8s per month. But, after those first reports of cannibalism from John Rae in January 1854 the Admiralty decided that the crew should be assumed dead and their wages would be paid to their relatives until that March, then no more. It is unclear whether the families were informed why the payments had stopped.

Then in late October 1854 both The Cornish Telegraph and the Royal Cornwall Gazette printed details of Rae’s horrifying discoveries and the awful truth must have become clear to Robert’s family. Did someone read the articles to Jemima and the rest of the family? At that point both of his parents were still living and his son was ten years old.

“The fate of Sir John Franklin and his companions is no longer a matter of doubt or uncertainty. They all perished miserably in the inhospitable region that they were sent to explore and perished too of cold and starvation. Dr Rae, the officer commanding the Hudson Bay Arctic expedition . . . has discovered the remains of the gallant band of explorers . . . It is a melancholy satisfaction to know the end of these brave men who died in the discharge of their duty. The state owes them a debt of gratitude and should provide for their widows and orphans.”

The Cornish Telegraph, 25th Oct 1854

While Sir John Franklin’s wife came to be seen as something of a romantic heroine for still refusing to except that her husband was dead and continuing to urge that more searches be made, Jemima’s was a less public grief. But in 1856, eleven years after saying goodbye to Robert Johns, she did remarry. The Royal Cornwall Gazette printed a notice of her wedding to Samuel Jennings, a cordwainer and shoemaker in Penryn. Then a few years later the 1861 census shows her running a bakehouse with two small children, John and Morris. Her first son, Robert Henry Johns Jnr, now 17 years old, is living with the family too. Later they have another daughter named Alberta and Jemima continued to live in the Penryn area for the rest of her life.

In February 1877, thirty-two years after Robert Johns had set sail, Jemima received a parcel from the Admiralty in the post. It contained a silver ‘Arctic Medal’ which had been posthumously awarded to all of the crew of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Her name appears on a list of recipients. A grand but ultimately useless token of respect.

The Arctic Medal

Jemima Jennings died on 11th November 1893 in the Union Workhouse in Budock aged 76 years, she was buried in a common grave (somewhere in the plot below) in Falmouth Cemetery. What happened to the medal isn’t clear, they were not individually engraved with the crew’s names, so it is impossible to known whether it has survived.

As for Jemima and Robert’s son, Robert Henry Jnr joined the Royal Navy in 1861 when he turned eighteen. He had already spent a year on HMS Russell, working for the coastguard in Falmouth. Like his father the sea was in his blood. His record describes him as 5’7″ with dark hair and hazel eyes, he had a tattoo of a ship on his right arm. Robert Henry served on a number of different ships before leaving the navy after twenty years in 1891. After that I believe, but I can’t be sure, that he married a woman called Charlotte and settled in Plymstock as a ‘waterman’, I was unable to find any record of them having children.

But one has to wonder whether he thought about his father, whether he told people what had happened to him, whether he was proud . . .

The Fate of Robert Johns

“Not only had they died, they had perished, and they had not just perished, they had perished miserably.”

Margaret Atwood, Introduction, Frozen In Time, 2004

We will probably never know exactly what happened to our Cornishman, Robert Johns. He may have died on his ship the Erebus, or fallen beside the tortuous trail while walking across King William Island, or perhaps he was one of those who made it as far as Starvation Cove, where according to Inuit witnesses at least ten members of the crew died.

franklin expedition

And so, we are left with the ultimate question, where did it all go so wrong? How did this seemingly unstoppable expedition fail and not just fail to find the passage but fail so utterly, so disastrously. Other ships had run into serious trouble in the Arctic but most had still managed to limp home. There are, of course, many theories as to what may have happened.

One idea is that the unusually mild weather at the start of the voyage allowed the Franklin’s ships to go further south towards the American mainland than ever before, but ironically this was then followed by unusually bitter weather which effectively trapped them forever in the ice – as the note left in the cairn describes there had been no thaw for two summers. Recent studies have shown that those years were actually the worst climatic period in the Arctic for 700 years. Then there is the sickliness of the crew, so many deaths before they had even left the shelter of the ice-bound ships is considered highly unusual given the supplies at their disposal. Some put this down to scurvy, others believe that the tinned provisions were poisoning the men with lead and causing them to make strange, possibly fatal, decisions or just weakening them beyond help. (These ideas and more are discussed in detail in books and documentaries.)

Found.

An amazing discovery in 2014 however may yet give us some answers. The well-preserved wreck of HMS Erebus was finally found following incredibly accurate information handed down through Inuit oral history. HMS Terror was also found in 2016. This fascinating film shows divers retrieving artefacts.

The painstaking excavation of these ships continues and may still yield important clues. Items recovered so far include guns and ship’s bell but also crockery, clothing and personal items. One of the most enduring mysteries however is what happened to all the ships’ logs. Theoretically they should have been found either with one of the lifeboats or the crew, or perhaps deposited in a cairn as was common practice but no trace of them has ever come to light.

Scan of HMS Erebus on the seabed.

Could you be related to Robert Johns?

The story of Robert Johns has been a little bit of an obsession of mine for a while now. I am not afraid to admit that I have become fairly attached to him and his story. So I was very pleased and surprised to see the Franklin Expedition appear in the news again just as I was putting this article together.

A few days ago, in early May 2021, an academic team made up of researchers from the University of Waterloo, Lakehead University and Trent University published an astonishing piece of research. Using DNA analysis they have positively identified some of the human remains from the expedition by matching a sample collected from bones in the Arctic in 2013 with a descendent of one of the crew. The skeleton was identified as John Gregory, an engineer from HMS Erebus. Another crew mate of our Cornishman. The study has samples from 26 other members of Franklin’s crew and the team continue to search for living relatives so that more identifications can be made. Could Robert Johns be part of your family tree?

Robert Johns’ home town, a view he would recognise.

Final Thoughts – A Memorial

Next year, 2022, marks 100 years since Robert Johns was born in Penryn. How wonderful it would be to be able to confirm his final resting place, but given the circumstances and the passage of time even I have to admit that seems highly unlikely. But his fate still plays on my mind. Somehow Robert’s connections to Cornwall make the events of doomed Franklin Expedition seem that much closer, more real, more personal, for me. So, seeing as we will probably never be able to bring him home perhaps we should think about having a memorial to him placed at St Gluvias Church. Something to mark his life and his loss. After all, it was the place where he was baptised and married, and where he and Jemima brought his only son for his baptism before Robert left Cornwall for the last time to meet his tragic end in the freezing Arctic.

Update (23rd May 2021)

Since publishing this article I have had a couple of people contact me with further information. The first was Glenn Stein, a writer and researcher of all things Franklin and the Arctic. He told me that Jemima applied to the Admiralty for the Arctic Medal herself, probably on behalf of her son. And then in June 1895 the Scottish Geographical Society had a Franklin Commemoration display, which featured the following: “BY MR. ROBERT HENRY JOHNS Arctic Discovery medal granted in virtue of the services of his father, who perished with Sir John Franklin.” So Robert Jnr was in possession of the medal then and as Glenn points out, must have been very proud of his father. (You can see Glenn’s full comment below.)

Amazingly I have also been contracted by a relation of Robert Johns, who now lives in Australia. Lisa Grund tells me that Robert’s brother Henry was her 3x great grandfather and that her uncle has submitted a DNA sample to the study but as yet there has been no match to Robert Johns remains. The family would also love Robert’s memory to be commemorated in some way . . .

Further Reading:

Sir John Franklin’s Erebus & Terror Expedition – Lost & Found by Gillian Hutchinson is a richly illustrated and engaging account of the expedition. I also enjoyed Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger which looks in detail at the exhumation of the frozen bodies found on Beechey Island and tries to unravel what caused the failure of this voyage.

For more similar stories of Cornish folk in strange parts of the world try:

Bobby Leach – Cornish Daredevil goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel

The Murder of Billy Kinsman – Cornishman shot dead in Tombstone

Charles Carkeet James – Cornish Quaker & Innovator in India

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10 thoughts on “Robert Johns of Penryn & Sir John Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Expedition

  1. Thank you for these writings, to which I would like to add a few thoughts. Someone would have had to apply to the Admiralty for Robert Johns’ Arctic Medal 1818-55. Given it was issued to his remarried widow on Feb. 21, 1877 (Arctic Medal Roll, ADM 171/9), she may have applied for it at the suggestion of her son, who by this date was a ship’s corporal in the RN (service record, ADM 139/396). As an aside, it’s interesting that by March 15, 1880 he was promoted to acting master-at-arms onboard HMS Terror. The Arctic Medal certainly meant a great to him, since the Scottish Geographical Society’s Franklin Commemoration display, beginning June 4, 1895, featured the following: “BY MR. ROBERT HENRY JOHNS Arctic Discovery medal granted in virtue of the services of his father, who perished with Sir John Franklin.” (“The Franklin Expedition 50th Anniversary Commemorations: Arctic Veterans and Medals from the Frozen Zone,” by Glenn M. Stein, FRGS, OMRS Journal, June 2010, Vol. 49, No. 2).

    1. Dear Glenn, thank you so much for this information, brilliant to hear that the medal was with his son, I wonder where it is now! I would love to read your article from 2010, is there any way I can get hold of a copy? Thank you again for taking the time to add these interesting details, I will add them to the article as soon as I can. E

  2. This is fantastic- I live in Penryn and am an artist making a body of work about the Arctic. My studio is the one in the photo of Higher Market Street- do you know which number the family lived at? I had no idea there was a link to the expedition- this has really made my day!

    1. Hi Camilla, well, that’s very serendipitous! What a coincidence! No, the census doesn’t give a house number unfortunately, but a great link to your work. I’ve been thinking I should contact St Gluvias Church to see if we could mark the anniversary of his birth somehow . . .

  3. Thank you Elizabeth for such a detailed article! Robert Johns is my 3 x great uncle. We are hopeful one day his final resting place is uncovered.

    1. Hi Lisa, thank you so much for getting in touch! Wow, amazing to know you’re connected to Robert! Have you considered contacting the study I mention to see if they could match your DNA? Also what are your thoughts on a plaque at St Gluvias Church?

  4. We have been involved in the DNA study. My uncle submitted his DNA a few years ago (had to be a direct male ancestor and he was the closest living one). Unfortunately there was no match to the remains found so far. Never know what they may uncover in the future though. The Canadian Government has contributed extra funding to the help preserve and document more items from the wrecks etc.

    I think a plaque at St Gluvias is a wonderful idea. Our family has a long history of baptisms/marriages there. I would love to help further but live in Queensland, Australia so not sure if I am much of a help.

    1. That’s so interesting! A pity there’s no match but as you say who knows what they might find in the future. Do you mind if I add in the info you have told me as a kind of postscript?

      1. That’s perfectly fine. My great-grandfather was Henry Johns the second eldest child of Robert Snr and Ann.

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