Week 222 – Lord Franklin

'They forged the last links with their lives': Sir John Franklin's men dying by their boat during the North-West Passage expedition. 1895 painting by William Thomas Smith. Copyright National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

‘They forged the last links with their lives’: Sir John Franklin’s men dying by their boat during the North-West Passage expedition. 1895 painting by William Thomas Smith. Copyright National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Another song introduced to the folk revival by A.L.Lloyd. Lloyd claimed to have learned the song in November 1937 on his famous whaling trip (although, like much else about his early life, the exact circumstances surrounding that trip – such as what his role was on board – seem to be a little vague). Dave Arthur, in his excellent biography, Bert, writes on page 89

Another song he submitted to Sing (August/September 1957) was a version of ‘Lord Franklin’ collected, so he said, from Edward Harper, a whale-factory blacksmith from Port Stanley in the Falklands.

Later, on page 192, he comments on songs such as ‘Lord Franklin’ and ‘Farewell to Tarwathie’, which Lloyd claimed to have collected in 1937, but which he kept to himself until twenty years later. Why, Dave Arthur asks, was there no mention of them in The Singing Englishman (1944) where he specifically says says that the whaling ship workers didn’t have their own repertoire, but sang the same songs as in factories ashore?

If Bert did indeed collect them he was remarkably fortuitous. If not, he was remarkably talented. Either way they are fine songs and deserve their popularity.

Amen to that last sentence.

In fact songs about Lord Franklin have been collected in oral tradition, in Canada, Scotland, and Ireland – there’s a version in Sam Henry’s Songs of the People which shares some verses with the Bert Lloyd version. And needless to say there were numerous broadside printings – see the Bodleian’s Broadside Ballads Online site, for example.

Lady Franklin's lament for her husband, from Broadside Ballads Online.

Lady Franklin’s lament for her husband, from Broadside Ballads Online.

I first heard this song on the Pentangle LP Cruel Sister, where the arrangement featured a rather tasteful electric guitar solo from John Renbourn, and Bert Jansch playing chords on the concertina (was this the only sighting of Jansch playing the instrument, I wonder?). At the time I had never heard of Lord John Franklin or his ill-fated Arctic expedition of 1845, but this song captured my imagination, as it has many others’. In the 1980s I read Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, in which they suggest that lead poisoning, from the lead used to seal tinned foods in those days, was a significant contributory factor to the deaths of all of Franklin’s crew members (although, obviously, getting stuck in the ice in the first place was the greatest contributory factor!). That argument is supported by an article in the journal Arctic in 1997, The final days of the Franklin expedition : new skeletal evidence.  However I seem to remember that in a question on QI a few years back, about the eccentric behaviour of members of the Franklin expedition in their final days, “lead poisoning” was the wrong answer, and in fact it was an opportunity for panel-members to play their “Nobody Knows” cards. I wasn’t sure if I’d made this up, but this Guardian article from 2014 reports that “New research suggests that ice, not contaminated food, killed Sir John Franklin and his crew in 1845”. I love the fact that “the fate of Franklin and his gallant crew” is still exercising scientists as well as folk singers.

The mummified remains of John Hartnell, a 25-year-old member of the Franklin Expedition who died on January 4, 1846 and was buried at Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic.  Image copyright University of Alberta.

The mummified remains of John Hartnell, a 25-year-old member of the Franklin Expedition who died on January 4, 1846 and was buried at Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic. Image copyright University of Alberta.

Lord Franklin

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