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

First checks on Wall did not seem promising.  A transcript of the Muster Rolls for Franklin’s expedition, which another researcher had helpfully made available online, stated that Wall of the Erebus was 45 when he signed on for the voyage, indicating a birth date of 1799-1800, and his birthplace was Hull, Yorkshire.  John Ross included a short biography of the Wall of the Victory in the second volume of his account of the 1829 voyage, which stated Wall was born at North Shields in 1803, presumably the North Shields on the River Tyne that was then part of Northumberland.  The birthdate difference does not mean a lot in this period, even Captain Smith of the Titanic knocked a few years off his age when he signed on for his last voyage, but the different birth places are harder to explain. 

John Ross’ account does not have much to say about Wall of the Victory, although there is a description.  He was five feet five and a half inches tall, had small features, blue eyes, and a sallow complexion with dark hair.  Unfortunately I could not find a comparable description of Wall of the Erebus, as it seems the 1839 Erebus description book has not survived, and the 1845 one was lost with the ship.  John Ross did give some information about what had happened to Wall after the rescued expedition members arrived back in England in late 1833, saying ‘He is an excellent seaman, though not powerful; was one of the best men we had, and in consequence of his good conduct he obtained a good situation in his Majesty’s dockyard at Deptford’.

An article by Franklin researcher Ralph Lloyd-Jones confirmed Richard Wall of the Erebus had held the same position of ship’s cook on the Erebus on the 1839 Antarctica expedition under the command of James Clark Ross, who was John Ross’ nephew and had been second in command of the 1829 expedition.   James Ross’ own account of the Antarctic expedition has nothing in it about Wall, although Lloyd Jones notes Wall’s conduct on the expedition was rated ‘very good’.  An older article, this one by Richard Cyriax, suggested Wall may have been employed directly by James Ross after the expedition returned home in 1843.  Cyriax cites Robert McCormick, surgeon on Erebus during the Antarctic voyage as his source, and a book by McCormick, available online, confirmed that he called on Ross on 17th January 1845, and that ‘Old Wall, our old cook in the Erebus, opened the door to me’.   Ross was then living at Blackheath, less than three miles from the naval dockyard at Woolwich.   On March 18th McCormick met Captain Crozier, who was staying with Ross at the time, in the Strand and was told ‘old Wall of the Erebus’ was ‘going out with Sir John Franklin’.   (The ‘old’ part is amusing – McCormick was born in 1800 and therefore about the same age as Wall) These evidently strong links with James Ross were suggestive, but not conclusive, and Lloyd-Jones’ article further complicates the birth place issue by stating Wall was born in Staffordshire.

I was able to gather a little more information on Richard Wall of the Erebus from Gillian Hutchinson’s book on the Franklin Expedition, which has details of those crew members who made allotments of their pay, entitling family members to draw a portion of their wages while they were absent.  Wall’s allotment entry showed he married Hannah Morte at Plumstead, Kent on 19th December 1834, that his allotment of pay was made to his wife, that his pay was £5 and 6 shillings a month and that when he joined Erebus he signed on with an X, a likely indication he could not write. 

The Ancestry website helped me establish that Richard and Hannah Wall had three children.  The two eldest were born before Wall signed on for the Antarctica Expedition; Hannah in 1835 and Richard in 1838.  Both were baptised at Woolwich, next door to Plumstead, and on their baptism records the father’s occupation is given as policeman, a shore based occupation.   Richard Wall the elder naturally does not appear on the 1841 census, since he was on the Antarctica Expedition at the time, but Hannah Wall and her two children are there, still living in Woolwich.

Hannah Wall the younger’s baptism
Richard Wall the younger’s baptism

A few months after Franklin’s Expedition sailed in 1845, Richard and Hannah Wall’s third child was born at Woolwich and named William James.  Richard Wall can never have known of his birth.  The 1851 census shows Hannah Wall still living in Woolwich, with no occupation given.  Young Richard was not at home that night, but young Hannah and William both were.  By now any hope Hannah’s husband would return must have been fading, and she is listed as head of household, with no occupation given.  In 1861, still in Woolwich, and mistakenly named on the census as Anna Wall, she is listed as ‘Pensioner Franklin Fund’.  Both her sons were at home this time, Richard described as ‘Sailmaker at H.M. Dockyard’, and William as ‘Scholar’.  Less than a year later, in January 1862, Hannah Wall, widow, was buried at Woolwich.  

The Wall family on the 1861 census

All this was interesting, but did not answer the question of whether Richard Wall of the Victory and Richard Wall of the Erebus were the same person.  Wall of the Victory was, according to John Ross, in Deptford in 1833-4, and Wall of the Erebus could be traced to Plumstead, which is less than ten miles from Deptford in 1835, but that did not prove they were the same man. 

I went looking in the Arctic medal records, available on the Ancestry website, and found Hannah Wall claimed her husband’s medal in 1857, like her husband she signed with a mark.   The medal claim was listed under HMS Erebus, and there was still nothing to say whether this Richard Wall was or was not the Richard Wall who sailed with John Ross. 

Fortunately Ancestry came up with another piece of evidence, found by searching under digitised naval service records.  It was only a few written lines in a large book, but Ancestry links and cross referencing to The National Archives supplied some context.  The book was part of a series compiled by the Naval Pay Office in respect of applications for, amongst other things pensions, gratuities, and admittance of children into Greenwich Hospital School.

The entry for Richard Wall is dated 1849 and is only three lines long.  The first line reads: ‘Victory | | not found’, then there follow brief lists of Wall’s two spells on Erebus, with the words ‘1st Entry’ written above the line showing his Antarctica service. 

Richard Wall’s naval service record. Copyright: The National Archives. ADM 29/43/20

What this showed was that someone had told the Navy Richard Wall of the Erebus had previously served on a ship called the Victory.  The Navy had not found confirmation of this, but had found him noted as a first entry man when he signed on Erebus for the Antarctica expedition.  This would fit with his being the Richard Wall who sailed with John Ross in 1829, as that expedition was privately funded, and Ross’ Victory was not a naval ship; although Ross did manage to persuade the Admiralty to pay the men’s wages after the expedition returned (Ross had only budgeted for 15 months pay, and the men were away over 4 years), so Hannah Wall could believably have hoped her husband’s time on the Victory would count as naval service.  I can’t help but wonder if whoever was processing the application had mistakenly checked the pay records of HMS Victory for Richard Wall’s name. 

This strongly indicated Wall of the Erebus had indeed sailed on the Victory, but I was glad to find one more piece of evidence, in the account of the 1829 Ross expedition that was ghosted by Robert Huish based on information from Steward William Light.  It’s generally thought that the Light / Huish account should be taken with fairly large pinches of salt, but there was no reason why either of them should have invented this statement, made when describing the aftermath of the expedition: ‘Richard Wall applied to be received into the police at Woolwich, and obtained the situation’. 

Since I’d already found that Wall of the Erebus was a policeman at Woolwich when his two older children were born, this statement was enough for me to conclude Richard Wall who perished on the Franklin Expedition had been with John Ross in 1829. 

Why did he go back to Polar exploration after he, and all the other men on the 1829 Expedition had very nearly died?  He had a shore job, and a young family.  Was it the double pay of the Discovery Service which attracted him, or the thrill of exploration?  There is no way of knowing.  Nor can we know what Hannah Wall thought of her husband’s choice.  Perhaps her claiming of his Arctic medal is a hint she was proud of him, but the long uncertainty over the fate of Franklin’s men must have been hard to bear. 

There is more to the Wall family’s story, which will be continued in future posts.

References for this post:

  • References for this post:
  • Erebus and Terror Muster list, https://erebusandterrorfiles.blogspot.com/2016/03/roll-call-of-doomed.html
  • Roderic Owen, The Fate of Franklin
  • John Ross, Narrative of a second voyage in search of a north-west passage, and of a residence in the Arctic regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833, and Appendix (2 vols)
  • House of Commons Report from the Select Committee on the Expedition to the Arctic Seas Commanded by Captain John Ross R.N.
  • Ralph Lloyd-Jones, ‘The men who sailed with Franklin’, in Polar Record vol. 41 issue 4
  • Summary of HMS Erebus allotment numbers 1839, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C15944701
  • Summary of HMS Erebus allotment numbers 1845, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C16347943
  • Gillian Hutchinson, Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found
  • Richard Cyriax, ‘Sir James Clark Ross and the Franklin Expedition’, in Polar Record vol. 3 issue 24
  • Robert McCormick, Voyages of Discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, 2 vols
  • Robert Huish, The last voyage of Capt. Sir John Ross, R.N. Knt. to the Arctic regions : for the discovery of a north west passage; performed in the years 1829-30-31-32 and 33

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