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Sir John Franklin (16 April 1786 – 11 June 1847)

Sir John Franklin was a British Royal Navy officer and Arctic explorer who mapped almost two thirds of the northern coastline of North America. He was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire on the 16th April 1786.

Royal Navy

Franklin entered the Royal Navy at age 14 and saw action in the Napoleonic Wars, serving under Admiral Horatio Nelson at both Copenhagen and Trafalgar, but it was in peacetime that he achieved fame as one of Britain's leading explorers.


Franklin was chosen to lead an expedition overland from Hudson Bay to chart the north coast of Canada eastwards from the mouth of the Coppermine River. Between 1819 and 1822 he lost 11 of the 20 men in his party. Most died of starvation, but there was also at least one murder and suggestions of cannabalism. The survivors were forced to eat lichen and even attempted to eat their own leather boots. This gained Franklin the nickname of "the man who ate his boots".

The final expedition

By 1845 further explorations of the Arctic coastline had led to great optimism that finding and charting the final part of the North-West Passage was now within reach and Franklin was eager to claim the prize. He sailed for the Arctic in May with the ships Erebus and Terror. By previous standards the ships were powerful and luxurious with heating systems, vast supplies of preserved foods and large libraries. In late July the Erebus and Terror were seen by a whaler in Baffin Bay, waiting for ice to clear in Lancaster Sound – and to begin their journey to the Bering Strait. It was the last time any of the 129 crew members were ever seen alive. 

Searching for Franklin 

The loss of this British hero, and the efforts to find him (championed and often funded by his second wife Lady Jane Franklin) captured the public imagination. Over 30 subsequent expeditions searched for Franklin but with scant success (ironically more people died looking for Franklin than those who perished on his final voyage). Following clues gathered from Inuits by John Rae in 1854, an 1859 expedition led by Francis McClintock found relics and human remains on King William Island where it transpired the Erebus and Terror had become stuck in the ice, apparently on the brink of success in navigating the North-West Passage.