March 17, 2021 12.03 pm This story is over 37 months old

‘The Terror’ TV drama tells the tale of Lincolnshire explorer Sir John Franklin’s doomed voyage

Famous Lincolnshire explorer gets own BBC show

‘The Terror’ is a new BBC drama based on the doomed Arctic expedition headed by Spilsby born Sir John Franklin in search of the fabled North West passage – a route around the top of Canada connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific.

It is an epic tale of hardship and is the worst disaster in British polar exploration. The fate of the 129 men has been a matter of speculation for 170 years.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set out from Greenhithe, Kent in 1845. Both were state of the art craft: extremely strong, with sophisticated heating systems and steam driven propellers, ideal for Arctic conditions.

HMS Erebus in the ice. | Image: National Maritime Museum archive

With sufficient provisions for three years, this was the expedition which should not fail. They were led by a man who was a seasoned Arctic explorer. So what went wrong?

Franklin had not been the first choice to lead the expedition. It was a demanding undertaking for anyone, let alone a 59-year-old.

In his favour was a distinguished naval career – he joined the Royal Navy at 14, had served in the Battle of Copenhagen, Battle of Trafalgar and at New Orleans during the War of 1812.

Hauling supplies in boat sleds. | Image: National Maritime Museum archive

He had exploration credentials from a surveying mission to the south coast of Australia and three previous Arctic expeditions.

However, each of his previous Arctic ventures had ended in failure – the first turned back as one ship was damaged, the second had been an unmitigated disaster, with more than half the crew dying of starvation before rescue. His final attempt in 1825 had come within 160 miles of success before it was abandoned.

Despite the inability to identify the North West passage, valuable surveying and scientific research had been undertaken and in 1829 Franklin was rewarded with a knighthood.

Franklin and Amundsen’s routes as they searched for the North West Passage.

Fifteen years passed, during which time Franklin became the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). His standing with the Colonial Office was undermined by a disgruntled former employee and he was recalled and censured in 1844.

Humiliated, he sought command of a proposed new Arctic expedition to restore his reputation. The desire to repair his standing and determination to succeed where he had previously failed may have driven him on when he should have sought shelter.

The expedition was flawed from the outset by the incorrect assumption of John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty, who had proposed that there was relatively open sea along a south-westerly line from Barrow Strait to Bering Strait.

A perfect storm of misfortune compounded the error: unseasonably cold summers which did not allow the ice to melt; tainted provisions and becoming stranded in an area known as Tununiq (‘The Back of Beyond’) by the Inuit for its lack of game.

The series accurately portrays the known facts: the ships were ice-bound; many men suffered lead poisoning; the last desperate men resorted to cannibalism.

Franklin died relatively early in the saga, in June 1847, nine months before Captain Crozier ordered the ships be abandoned. Lady Franklin campaigned tirelessly for rescue missions and 30 were sent out over the ensuing years.

The encounter with the Inuit shaman is fictional, as is the beast, perhaps a metaphor for the fear and horror experienced by the crew.

The birthplace of Sir John Franklin in Spilsby. | Photo: Lyn Gould for The Lincolnite

The story captured the public imagination and Franklin, a hero in his lifetime, became a legend in his tragedy.

The discoveries of the wrecks of The Erebus in 2014 and The Terror in 2016 offered clues as to their final months.

The North West passage was eventually navigated, with relative ease, by Roald Amundsen 50 years later, in a fishing boat with a crew of six men.