Terror in the Arctic: The Doomed Quest of HMS Terror and Erebus | History Hit

Terror in the Arctic: The Doomed Quest of HMS Terror and Erebus

Discover more on the story of HMS Terror: Cursed Arctic Expedition - as featured in our new podcast, After Dark, co-hosted by historians and broadcasters Dr Anthony Delaney and Dr Madeleine Pelling. 

Amy Irvine

20 Oct 2023
Engraving of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror departing for the Arctic in 1845, dated 24 May 1845.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Illustrated London News / Public Domain

Two handwritten messages, written almost a year apart on the same piece of paper. The first, dated May 1847, ends in high spirits: ‘Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All Well.’ The second message is a stiff scribble in the margins, added the following April. It tells of the death of 24 men, including Franklin, the abandonment of his expedition’s ships HMS Erebus and Terror, and a desperate plan to trek overland to safety.

Found in 1859 inside a cairn on King William Island, the Victory Point Record is one of the most evocative documents in the history of Arctic exploration. It is crucial evidence in unpicking the mystery of what happened to the Royal Navy’s failed 1845 attempt to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic, from which 129 men never returned.

What happened?

The Northwest Passage

In 1845, the aptly-named HMS Terror along with the HMS Erebus set off from Britain towards what is now Nunavut in Northern Canada in a quest to discover the fabled Northwest Passagea navigable Arctic route linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Its discovery held the promise of global trade, and heroism for the crew.

Having been sought for at least a century, previous explorations of the Arctic coastline had led to optimism that the Northwest Passage’s discovery was within reach. Britain was keen to be the nation that found, and thus controlled, the passage.

Was ever a ship more aptly named? In 1845, HMS Terror (and its forgettably named sister ship HMS Erebus) set off from Victorian Britain. Their quest was to discover the fabled Northwest passage through the Arctic ice. The crew were heroes in waiting. Yet by the end the rules that govern life on board Royal Navy vessels collapsed into chaos and cannibalism. Maddy tells Anthony this story about life in the Royal Navy, Arctic winters, badly written poetry, and the thin line that separates us from horror.
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The expedition took place during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, when Britain presided over the beginnings of an Empire that would become immense. Not only tasked with a mission of immense geographical significance, the crew also carried the weight of British hopes and ambitions – their success in finding the Northwest Passage would bring further glory, trade and wealth to the nation.

However, as the expedition unfolded, the once-optimistic mission turned into a harrowing nightmare. The strict rules that governed life on board Royal Navy vessels disintegrated, leading to what would ultimately become the worst disaster to hit Britain’s Royal Navy in its history of polar exploration.

The expedition and crew

The expedition was commanded by Captain Sir John Franklin, a seasoned polar explorer who had already led two prior attempts to find the Northwest Passage, and was keen to claim his prize. Under his command were 129 men. Franklin, a respected and well-liked figure, had served at the Battle of Trafalgar and was a household name in Britain. His quest to claim the Northwest Passage thus garnered significant public attention.

Francis Crozier, second in command, was a skilled sailor, yet had faced challenges in his naval career as an Irishman. At the time of the expedition, the Great Irish Famine was beginning, and Crozier, hailing from County Down, saw this mission as an opportunity to make his name.

Left: Captain Sir John Franklin in 1845 (expedition leader and commander of HMS Erebus); Right: Captain Francis Crozier, taken on 16 May 1845 on H.M.S. Erebus at Greenhithe, Kent (commander of HMS Terror)

Image Credit: Left: Wikimedia Commons / Maritime Greenwich Souvenir Guide, London 1993 / Public Domain. Right: Wikimedia Commons / Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier / Public Domain

Both ships, HMS Terror and Erebus, were relatively old, having been in service since 1812 as bomb ships. They had sailed all over the world, and whilst not specifically designed for polar expeditions, had been to polar regions before, and were considered powerful and luxurious for their time, with heating systems and space for vast food supplies. Many of the expedition’s crew, including Franklin, had served on these exact ships before – emblems of military might, colonial prowess, and imperial expansion.

The ships carried a substantial supply of provisions, including 3 years’ worth of tinned food, as well as livestock, 7,000 lb of tobacco, 2,700 lbs of candles, a cat, a dog called Neptune, and even a monkey gifted by Franklin’s wife.

The expedition’s early days

The ships made stops in Scotland’s Orkney Islands and Greenland before heading to Arctic Canada, and early letters written home describe Franklin as being a great commander.

As they ventured north, HMS Terror and Erebus were last seen by a whaler in Baffin Bay, waiting for ice to clear in the Lancaster Sound.

Soon they entered remote territory where Inuit rarely visited, and as winter set in, the ships froze in pack ice near Beechy Island. Expeditions were experienced at such events, yet unmoving, the crew battled boredom and hardship in the darkness. Conditions were severe, with the men at constant risk of hypothermia, frostbite, and other cold-related injuries. Temperatures could drop to -35C by day, and reach -48C at night, where sweat turned to ice.

Any naval ship would have been a concentrated microscopic version of society at home, and inevitably the intrinsic hierarchies that were a way of regulating the crew’s behaviour led to class tensions on board, exacerbated by the extreme conditions.

In spring, the ships sailed south down Peel Sound, but were soon trapped again by ice near King William Island near the McClintock Channel. In spring 1847, a group of crew members travelled across the ice to Point Victory and left a written record of their expedition.

The ships continued to drift south down the Victoria Strait, marking their last recorded position just northwest of King William Island. In April 1848, Captain Crozier, who by now had taken command, ordered the crew to abandon the ships.

What had started as a great royal naval expedition had turned to disaster.

Map of the probable routes taken by HMS Erebus and HMS Terror during Franklin’s lost expedition

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Hans van der Maarel / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Public Domain

Search parties

Of the 105 men who set out across the ice under Captain Crozier, none would survive the march south. Weakened by starvation, scurvy, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and lead poisoning, they split off into smaller groups as supplies dwindled.

Back in Britain, Lady Franklin had become increasingly concerned. Knowing the expedition carried only 3 years’ worth of supplies, by 1847, she petitioned for a search party, even reaching out to the Tsar of Russia and US President. After two years without communication, the Admiralty sent out a search party but without success.

It wasn’t until 1854 that the first search parties reached the Arctic. What they found was shocking.

What happened?

The exact circumstances of the men’s deaths remain a mystery, but among the scattered remains of the crew were mutilated body parts, some hacked with knives, and others placed in cooking pots. It appears that for around 30 of the crew, cannibalism had become a last, miserable resort.

One of the search party, Dr John Rae, reported his findings, having found artefacts and gathering word from local Inuit, writing:

From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life. A few of the unfortunate men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl, say until the end of May as shots were heard and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event.

Bodies were found underneath an upturned rowing boat, indicating an attempt at shelter. Due to the conditions, the men were found preserved; all had their clothes still on, along with objects brought from the ship. Their tent was still standing, and some bodies were found near a former campfire. Bodies from earlier parts of expedition had been buried, and when exhumed, were found to be almost completely preserved.

The discovery was shocking. Initially Rae’s integrity was called into question, especially by Lady Franklin, yet skeletons found by later search parties confirmed Rae’s conclusions, proving catastrophic for the Royal Navy’s reputation.

Victory Point Note

For a crew to abandon a ship, something had gone significantly wrong. Unfortunately there are no detailed written records, as most documentation from the ships has been lost. The sole surviving piece of information is the Victory Point Note – discovered in 1859 a search expedition sent by Lady Franklin.

The note, left in a stone cairn built by a previous expedition in 1831, was used twice on two separate dates. The first, dated 28 May 1847, initially appears positive, with ‘all well’ underlined several times. Potentially a few people would have already died by this point, but this was somewhat to be expected on such an expedition with threats of disease and scurvy. Interestingly Captain Franklin didn’t sign the paper himself, but was still in charge.

However, by the second entry on 25 April 1848, it’s clear a dire situation had unfolded. Written in the margins around the form, in a more scrawled hand, the note explains the Erebus and Terror had been abandoned for 3 days, having been stuck in the ice since 12 September 1846. Captain Franklin had died on 11 June 1847, along with a further 9 officers and 15 men. The survivors intended to walk to a remote fur-trading outpost, hundreds of miles away.

The “Victory Point” note – found by Francis Leopold McClintock’s Expedition team in a cairn on King William Island in 1859, detailing the fate of the Franklin Expedition (written on a standard Admiralty form)

The decision to abandon the ships would have been a last resort. Understandably causing great fear, this was undoubtedly a heartbreaking decision for the crew.

In 1981, forensic anthropologist Dr Owen Beattie analysed some of the human remains collected from sites on King William Island using modern forensic techniques, and found high amounts of lead, leading to the theory that lead poisoning may have played a role in the expedition’s tragic end.

Beattie and a specialised team also exhumed and autopsied three exceptionally well-preserved crewmen who had been buried during the expedition’s first winter in the Arctic. Examination of DNA provided further evidence of lead poisoning, likely by contamination via lead solder used to seal the expedition’s tinned food.

The wrecks

Numerous expeditions were launched to locate the shipwrecks, and finally, in 2014, HMS Erebus was discovered off King William Island. Two years later, in 2016, HMS Terror was found in a bay 45 miles away off the coast of King William Island, in Canada’s aptly-named Terror Bay. Both wrecks were far south of where they were initially abandoned.

HMS Terror’s wreck is exceptionally well-preserved, with crockery, glasses, furniture, and scientific instruments still in their original positions. The Parks Canada team also found sediment covering the ship which, along with cold water and darkness, created an anaerobic environment ideal for preserving delicate items like textiles and paper. This means journals, charts, maps and photographs still on board could all potentially be preserved and salvageable.

Chinaware from the HMS Terror. On display at the Canadian Museum of History.

There is also a long, heavy rope line running through a hole in the deck suggesting an anchor line was deployed before HMS Terror sank. Given the location of the find, this has led to a theory that the remaining crew may have closed down HMS Terror and re-boarded HMS Erebus, in a desperate attempt to escape south. 

Underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada in collaboration with the Inuit Heritage Trust now have joint control of those sites, and are recovering artefacts from the wrecks, many of which are now on display in museums. Although evidence of what happened is scattered and subject to changing landscapes, further melting of sea ice through climate change may yet reveal more of this fateful expedition in future.


This story is featured in History Hit’s Miscellany: Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds, published by Hodder & Stoughton, on sale now.


Amy Irvine