The gunner of the Franklin Expedition

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.

Part of Joseph Robinson’s service record from ADM 29 Piece No 15, showing HMS Erebus

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 RainbowRainbow’s captain for most of this time was Sir John Franklin. 

Part of Joseph Robinson’s service record from ADM 29 Piece No 24 showing HMS Rainbow

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.

Figurehead of HMS Vernon, the ship Robinson was discharged to, from Creative Commons

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

Transcription of the muster book of HMS Erebus on

Richard Wall: Proof from Greenwich

Before I begin, a quick note to say this posting schedule is not going to be kept up long term!  I started the blog to put up what I had learned about Richard Wall, and although I may make occasional other posts about the Franklin Expedition and related things, and intend to put up anything else I find out about Wall, this is the last in my initial posting marathon. 

My poking around in Richard Wall’s history was done from lockdown, and therefore entirely online.  The National Archives copying service finally reopening gave me a chance to access some material which had not yet been digitised. 

I therefore decided to splash out on ordering a copy of the Greenwich Hospital School records of Richard Wall the younger.  I hoped to see whether I was right in my hunch that the 1849 service record for his father, which was one of my first online finds, had been drawn up in connection with Richard the younger’s application for entry, and also whether Richard the younger had indeed joined the coastguard after leaving school. 

As it turned out the records didn’t help with the second question, as almost all the surviving records were about the application for entry, made by Hannah Wall on behalf of her son.  There was, however, further confirmation that the Richard Wall who sailed and died with Franklin was identical with the Richard Wall who had been on the 1829 Ross Expedition.  There was a scan of Hannah Wall’s application on behalf of her son, with a column to list the Royal Naval ships her boy’s father had served on.  Victory was listed at the top, with an explanatory note ‘Captain Ross Arctic Expedition’, then the two entries for Erebus followed.  The papers also included another copy of the same service check results I had seen before, with the same  ‘Victory | not found’ note, confirming that the check had been made due to Hannah Wall’s application for her son to be entered into the Greenwich Hospital School. 

Richard Wall’s service history. Copyright: The National Archives. ADM 73/370/52

That was all good to have, but the best part was something I had never expected to find, a letter supporting the application written to the Governor of Greenwich Hospital by none other than Wall’s old captain, Sir John Ross.  In the letter Ross stated outright that ‘Mr Richard Wall’ had been ‘a Petty Officer in my late voyage of discovery’ and went on to describe Wall as ‘one of the very best and most trustworthy men I had with me’.

Here then was clear cut proof.  I’d been building an elaborate case the two Richard Walls were the same man, and here was a letter from John Ross just stating it outright! The same statement also confirms that Steward Light had been right when he called Wall a Petty Officer, despite this not being stated in John Ross’ own official account.

Unlike his nephew James Ross (who was in the Arctic looking for the Franklin Expedition when Hannah Wall made her application to Greenwich Hospital School), John Ross lived in Scotland, and the letter was written from his home at Stranraer.  Hannah Wall, or someone acting on her behalf, must therefore have contacted Ross to ask for the recommendation.  In the letter Ross described Richard Wall jr as ‘a most promising youth’ .  How did he know?  Perhaps he did not really know anything about the younger Richard and simply wanted to do the Wall family a good turn. 

On the other hand, perhaps he had kept in touch.  In November 1849 John Ross wrote to the Admiralty about the ongoing Franklin Expedition search, and included a statement about ice conditions in Barrow Strait in 1832 which he said could be supported by ‘Serjeant Park of the E division of police, Robert Shreeve, of Lower Seymour-street and Thomas Abernethy’.   These were all veterans of the 1829 expedition.  Abernethy, the former second mate, had just got back from serving as ice master to James Ross on HMS Enterprise and would soon fill the same role for John Ross on his final, privately funded, Arctic voyage in the Felix so it is not surprising that Ross was apparently in contact with him.  However the other two men do not seem to have continued in the discovery service, nonetheless John Ross evidently had up to date information about them.  The 1851 census confirms that John Park, who had been a seaman on the Victory, was indeed a police sergeant, and though the address of former carpenter’s mate Robert Shreeve is given as Seymour Place rather than Lower Seymour Street in 1851 he could have moved the short distance between the two addresses. 

(Out of curiosity I followed Park and Shreeve up a little further.  Both men claimed their Arctic medals in 1857 and were still alive on the 1861 census.  Park retired from the police with a pension in 1858.  I haven’t found his death, but Shreeve died in 1864, and appears to have been buried in All Souls Cemetery, Kensal Green.)  

Regardless of whether John Ross had stayed in touch with the Wall family, Hannah Wall’s obtaining a letter of support from him suggests a determined woman, who knew what her family might be entitled to, and how to go about getting it. Greenwich Hospital School was a charity school, but it was also intended to train boys for the Navy, or if they were not admitted to the Navy, the Merchant Service. Boys admitted were supposed to be sons of navy sailors who had died while on naval service, or become incapable of serving due to wounds or long service, or whose fathers were actively in service on shipboard and whose mothers were dead, or whose fathers were actively in service on shipboard and the families were ‘numerous and in need’.  Richard Wall jr did not fall into any of these categories – three children was not a large family by Victorian standards and Hannah Wall would still have been collecting a regular allotment from her husband’s pay.  However the rules did allow the Governor to use discretion with boys who did not strictly qualify, perhaps John Ross’ letter, the public concern for the fate of the Franklin Expedition, or both, tipped the balance in young Richard’s favour.  The Principal of the school at this time was the Reverend George Fisher, who had himself been on two Arctic expeditions and would certainly have known Franklin. 

In 1849 there were in fact two schools at Greenwich, a Lower School and an Upper School, sharing a single site.  Boys admitted to the Upper School needed to be able to read, and a note in the papers records that as of August 1849 Richard Wall jr could not read.  He was therefore admitted into the Lower School, and another note records that by March 1850 he had learned to read, which allowed him to be admitted to the Upper School just before his twelfth birthday.  Unfortunately there seem to be no surviving records of his time in the Upper School.

Greenwich Hospital School Site, now the National Maritime Museum:

As the school was intended to prepare boys for the Navy conditions were Spartan and discipline strict, although the same was true for most boarding schools of the time.  In addition to general education the boys were taught swimming, music and some basic astronomy; they could also be instructed in trades such as sailmaking and carpentry.  Some were later selected for transfer to the attached Nautical School where they learned navigation, which could allow them to become naval Second Masters, and later ship’s Masters; the two Second Masters on the Franklin Expedition, Henry Collins and Gillies Macbean, had both been educated at Greenwich.  By 1849 some boys might also be selected as engineer apprentices.  As we have seen, Richard Wall jr did not become either a navigator or an engineer, but it is likely he learned his trade of sailmaking at the school. 

Richard Wall jr would have left the school by the time the carved memorial to the Franklin Expedition was dedicated in the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich in 1858, but he was probably still living nearby, as were his brother William and mother Hannah.  Perhaps they went to see it, although Richard Wall’s name does not appear as only the commissioned officers were individually named.* Today the memorial has been moved to the nearby chapel and was recently restored.  The remains of one of the expedition members, perhaps Assistant Surgeon Henry Goodsir of the Erebus, lie beneath it.

Franklin Expedition Memorial: from Wikimedia Commons

*Update: Peter Carney has correctly pointed out that the memorial does include the names of four of the six warrant officers, namely the two boatswains and the two carpenters. The two engineers, also warrant officers, are not individually named.


Richard Wall and the 1829 Ross Expedition

Having looked into the later history of Wall’s family, the next step was to see how much more I could find out about his own story.  The records of the 1829 Ross expedition don’t have much to say about Richard Wall, but John Ross did give a summary of his previous career. 

                He served his apprenticeship of seven years to the sea in the Mary and Joseph, in the Madeira, Gibralter, and coal trade, and after his time was served he went on a voyage to Archangel; he was afterwards both in the East India and West India merchant service.  His father was a sailor, and after being twenty-three years in the Navy, retired as a pensioner.

Continue reading “Richard Wall and the 1829 Ross Expedition”

Following the Wall family

The evidence that the Richard Wall who died on the Franklin Expedition had already been on both the 1929 Ross Expedition and the 1830 Antarctica Expedition gave me a real interest in Wall and his family.  Clearly Wall was a tough man, who brought a great deal of experience to the Expedition.  I therefore set out to find out as much about the Walls as I could from online sources. As noted in my previous post, Richard and Hannah Wall had three children: Hannah, born in 1835, Richard born in 1838, and William James born in 1845 a few months after his father left England for the last time.  Hannah the elder died in January 1862. I was not able to trace the younger Hannah after 1851, she may have died or married and changed her surname. 

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Looking for Richard Wall

This blog is to share the results of my lockdown hobby looking into the history of Richard Wall, ship’s cook on HMS Erebus during Sir John Franklin’s tragic 1845 expedition. 

What started me off was Roderic Owen’s The Fate of Franklin saying Richard Wall was not only a veteran of the 1839 Antarctica Expedition, but had also been on John Ross’ privately funded 1829 Arctic Expedition, which survived an extraordinary four years in the Arctic despite being forced to abandon their ship, the Victory.  John Ross’ own account is available online, as is a parliamentary report on the expedition made after his return, and from these sources I was quickly able to learn that there was a Richard Wall on the 1829 Expedition, he was listed variously as harpooner and seaman, and he survived.  Was he indeed the same Wall who perished on the Franklin Expedition?  Certainly there was one veteran of the 1829 Ross expedition with Franklin, Thomas Blanky the Ice Master of HMS Terror, but Owen was the only writer I had seen claim there was a second.  If Owen was right that would make Wall one of the most experienced men on the expedition, and perhaps a more important man after the abandonment than his rank of cook would suggest.  Owen’s book doesn’t have footnotes, so I went looking for myself

Continue reading “Looking for Richard Wall”