The Life and Times of Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847)

Born on 16th April 1786 at Spilsbury, Lincolnshire, England and was the ninth of twelve children.

 He entered the navy at 14 and saw his first active service a year later in the battle of Copenhagen.

His uncle was Matthew Flinders, and he served with him as a midshipman and chartmaker on the Investigator during its voyage of discovery and circumnavigation of Australia in 1801-1804.

 Franklin assisted in charting the Great Australian Bight and the Gulf of Carpentaria. He was to say later that it was this voyage that kindled his interest and passion in exploration.  After this voyage her returned to naval duties as a signal-midshipman on the Bellerophon, the most heavily engaged ship at the battle of Trafalgar.

 For the three years after this event he studied geography and navigation ashore under the guidance of Matthew Flinders. He later served in the invasion fleet that carried General Sir Edward Pakenham from Jamaica to America and was slightly wounded at the Battle of New Orleans

 The First Arctic Expedition

In 1818 he sailed as lieutenant and second in command on an Admiralty expedition to the Arctic.

The ships encountered permanent pack ice and the expedition returned without success. Appointed to lead an expedition across Canada and the North West Territory in 1819 -22, to search for the North West Passage, he became famous, not because of success, but for an amazing overland journey of 5000kms. Nine of his men perished and the remainder endured appalling hardships, including temperatures that dropped to 57 below freezing, starvation where he and his men were forced to eat lichen from the rocks and the leather uppers from their boots, scurvy and disease.

 It was also suggested that the expeditioners resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. On his return to England Franklin was hailed as a great explorer and made a fellow of the Royal Society.

He married Eleanor Porden in 1823 by whom he had one child - Eleanor.

His wife died six days before Franklin departed on his second expedition to Arctic America in 1825. This expedition was eminently successful - he mapped another 600 miles of Arctic coastline and was close to finding the elusive passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

He was knighted on his return to England, awarded the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Paris and an honorary doctorate from Oxford.  This was the height of his career.

Soon after he married one of his wife's closest friends - Jane Griffin - a 36 year old vivacious intellectual, feminist. After a command on the Rainbow to Greece in its war of independence, his career stalled.

England was at peace, the coastlines of Australia and Africa had been charted and the Government - after eight attempt to find the north west passage had failed, were loathe to embark on any more. 

After several years of inactivity, Franklin was offered the governorship of Antigua. He refused, presumably hoping for something better. Finally at the age of fifty he was offered the governorship of Van Dieman's Land - present day Tasmania.

There can be little doubt that the years spent with Flinders on the Investigator led him to accept the return journey to Australia.

Franklin in Tasmania

Franklin was assured that by accepting the appointment in VDL that his future employment in admiralty service would not be jeopardised.

In August 1836, Sir John Franklin sailed from Southampton in the ship Fairlie to take up his appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of VDL. This voyage was to take four months and was both uncomfortable and overcrowded.

The party arrived in Hobart Town in February 1837

His family party consisted of himself and his wife, aged 45, his daughter Eleanor, and two of his nieces, Mary Franklin and Sophia Cracroft. As Private Secretary, Franklin took with him Capt. Alexander Maconochie, R.N. who was accompanied by his wife and six children. Henry Elliot, son of Lord Minto, went as ADC and James Hepburn a trusted and devoted seaman who served under Franklin in his Arctic explorations. Miss Williamson, Eleanor's governess and other personal servants together with Archdeacon Hutchins and Lieut.Thomas Burnet R.N.made up the party.

 Burnet drowned while surveying the D'Entrecasteaux Channel in 1838 and was buried in St David's churchyard (now Park).

Franklin had succeeded George Arthur as Lieut Governor, and from the beginning of his term of office, this was to prove a burden and a handicap.

 Van Diemen's Land had served as both a free colony and a gaol. The colonists had done well by the system that had provided them with land grants and free labour, as the convict system worked on an assignment system.

 Convicts considered safe to be at large and not required to help with public works and maintenance, were assigned to work for the colonists. Soon after the arrival of Franklin, a British parliamentary committee investigated convict transportation, as the assignment policy was open to abuses. Franklin's Private Secretary, Alexander Maconochie, was openly critical of the system and as a result Franklin felt compromised by the intrusion and dismissed him in 1838.

 Transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1840 and more convicts were sent to VDL. With the result that the proportion of convicts in the population rose. Assignment gave way to the

Although his career proved him to be a hardy adventurer,

Franklin was a courteous, sensitive and gentle man. He loathed the often barbarous system of flogging that seamen were often subjected to.

 He was considerate of his officers and men and known to be scrupulously honest. He had a special interest in science and scientists and a love of learning, literature and education together with. a broad and tolerant faith.


Information has been sourced from the following:


The History of the Rossbank Observatory, Tasmania - A Savours and A McConnell - June 1982 Annals of Science, 39(1982) 527-564

Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843     Kathleen Fitzpatrick Melbourne University Press 1949

Search for Franklin - Leslie Neatby     A Barker Ltd.  1970

Frozen in Time O Beattie and J Geiger    Bloomsbury  1993

For. the Advancement of Science - the Royal Society of Tasmania 1843 - 1885  Gillian Winter  BA (Hons) Thesis - Uni of Tas 1972

Souls and Minds - P W Boyer BA (Hons)  Thesis - Uni of Tas 1972

Hobart Town - Peter Bolger  ANU Press 1973

Ice Blink - Scott Cookman  John Wiley and Son Inc. 2000

Australian Dictionary of Biography  Volume 1 1788-1850 (A-H) Ed. D. Pike   Melbourne University Press 1968

The Victorian Visitors   Alfons Korn University of Hawaii Press 1958

Recollections of Sir John and Lady Franklin in Tasmania - J.E. Calder Sullivans Cove Adelaide 1984  (Reprint)