Who was the gunner of the Franklin Expedition? That’s not a trick question, although it may sound like it as nobody holding the rank of gunner sailed with Erebus and Terror. However the expedition did have a gunner attached to for just over a month – between 4th March and 7th April 1845. This man’s name was Joseph George Robinson.
I first heard of Robinson on Alison Freebairn’s blogpost about another man who was assigned to the expedition, but did not sail with it – clerk George Frederick Pinhorn. ‘G.F. Pinhorn’ and ‘J.G. Robinson’ were both named as crewmembers in 1845 periodicals. I briefly considered investigating Robinson, concluded his surname was far too common, and promptly forgot about him, only remembering when I happened to be looking at Edmund Wuyts’ very useful transcript of the expedition muster book for HMS Erebus on the Arctonauts website and found ‘Joseph G. Robinson’ listed there as ‘Gunner 2 Class’. He had joined Erebus from HMS Herald, a ship which would later play a part in the long searches for the Franklin Expedition.
With a full first name to go on, a search for Robinson suddenly seemed more promising, and Ancestry turned up two copies of his service record – a long one which spilled over two pages. From this and other poking around the web, I put together a bit of basic information on Robinson. He was born in Kent about 1797, which if he’d stayed with the expedition would have made him one of the oldest members with only the two captains, Franklin and Francis Crozier, known to have been older. He first joined the Navy in 1808, when he was only about eleven. It was a time when boys that young serving aboard ship, even at the height of the Napoleonic war, was quite normal. There’s a gap in his naval career between 1814 and 1824, after which he was more or less constantly employed in the Navy down to 1850, receiving his gunner’s Warrant in 1835.
Perhaps Robinson’s return to the Navy was connected with his marrying Mary Ann Marks in Deptford in 1824. They had at least four children: George Joseph b. 1825, Mary Ann b. 1843, Louisa Hannah b. 1845 and Albert Thomas b. 1849. The long gap between George and Mary Ann may mean there were more children I haven’t picked up, or it might be that Joseph’s naval service was severely limiting opportunities for conception. However the younger Mary Ann was born in Malta, so her mother must have followed Joseph overseas on one occasion at least. Some captains in the age of sail did allow warrant officers to bring their wives aboard, although the examples I’ve found date from rather earlier than the 1840s.
I scanned the list of ships Joseph Robinson served on with interest, wondering if he had previous ice experience. At least two previous expeditions had appointed gunners who had been on ice expeditions before, and made good use of their knowledge. On the 1839 Antarctica expedition Erebus’ gunner was the redoubtable Thomas Abernethy, who had already been on three Arctic expeditions, including the 1829 Ross expedition where he was second mate, and who would go on to take part in three Franklin search expeditions. Surgeon McCormick referred to him ‘our gunner and ice-master’ (there was no official position of ice-master on the Antarctica expedition) and ‘one of the most experienced ice men of our day’. He also described Abernethy ‘lying full length on the ice plank’ keeping lookout during one particularly hair raising encounter with ice bergs. Abernethy’s counterpart on HMS Terror, John Lumsden, had been on Parry’s North Pole expedition in 1827, he was invalided home on the expedition’s second visit to Hobart in 1841. On George Back’s 1836 expedition in HMS Terror the gunner was Thomas Donaldson, who had been on at least one of Parry’s expeditions and is described by Back as sharing ice piloting duties with the ‘ice-mate’ George Green. Sadly Donaldson died of scurvy in February 1837.
Joseph Robinson, by contrast, does not seem to have had ice experience. However it’s clear from his service record that he was not chosen at random. From August 1830 to January 1834 he was gunner’s mate aboard HMS Rainbow. Rainbow’s captain for most of this time was Sir John Franklin.
A note in the muster book records that Joseph Robinson was discharged to ‘HMS Vernon Per Order BA96’. I’ve found no evidence of why he was discharged, or what the meaning of the BA96 reference was, whatever the reason for the discharge it clearly did not prevent Robinson taking up a new post. There is, however, a cryptic passage about the discharge in a letter from Franklin to the expedition’s third-in-command James Fitzjames dated 5th April.
I am glad that you have entered an Armourer & Carpenter’s Mate and to hear your opinion of our men. The one exception we must part with.
Sir George Cockburn immediately acquiesced in my opinion that a new Gunner should not be appointed – & gave instruction to reduce our Complement accordingly. We have therefore no further inconvenience about the Cabins to fear.
The cabin problem was presumably a consequence of the decision to add engines to Erebus and Terror. Engines needed engineers, and engineers, like gunners, were Warrant Officers. Choosing not to reappoint a gunner made room for the engineer. I’ve found no evidence that a gunner had been appointed to HMS Terror, so there would have been no difficulty making room for the engineer there.
Joseph Robinson ended his career in a home posting aboard the training ship HMS Excellent and was superannuated – that is retired due to age – in December 1850. He applied for, and received, a pension and died in Tower Hamlets, Middlesex in January 1855, less than a year after the Admiralty officially gave up all hope for the men of the Franklin Expedition. Did he talk about his lucky discharge, or was he just quietly thankful for it? I’ve found no evidence.
Postscript: After writing this up I found the late William Battersby had noted Robinson’s first name in a blog post dating from 2011. I’m giving the link below in case anyone wishes to follow up on any of the other ‘survivors’ from the Franklin Expedition.
Glenn Stein, “The Arctic Medal 1818-55 to Members of the Antarctic Expedition of 1839-43”
George Back, Narrative of an Expedition in HMS Terror, Undertaken with a View to Geographical Discovery on the Arctic Shores, in the Years 1836–37
Robert McCormick, Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, 2 vols
R. Potter, R. Koellner, P. Carney, Mary Williamson, (eds), May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition
‘The mystery of the missing Erebus clerk’ on finger-post.blog
Transcription of the muster book of HMS Erebus on arctonauts.com