Lady Jane Franklin


Among the most notable signatures in William Bradford’s scrapbook is that of Lady Jane Franklin, the second wife of Sir John Franklin, a woman of indominable will and spirit, who through her efforts to find traces of her husband’s lost Arctic expedition, became the sponsor of several, and the inspiration for many other, Arctic expeditions in the period from 1850 to 1875, on both sides of the Atlantic. It was her 1849 letter to President Zachary Taylor that led to the First Grinnell Expedition, and her continuing zeal in finding her husband’s fate led her to endorse Kane’s Second Grinnell as well.

Her search for Franklin inspired songs and ballads, and the Times of London dubbed her “our English Penelope,” but Jane Franklin had little time for such public laurels.  She continued to travel, once undertaking a trip from San Francisco to Sitka, Alaska, on the hope that some records of her husband’s expedition might have found their way into the archives there. Whenever an explorer returned from the Arctic, she wrote to him in hopes that he would forward whatever he had found.

By the time she and her niece Sophia Cracroft — her constant companion — signed their names into Bradford’s studio book, she was nearly eighty years old, but her passion for discovering her husband’s fate, and for further exploration generally, was undimmed. By then, however, she had spent her entire fortune, somewhat to the distress of Sir John’s daughter Eleanor Gell (who also, on a different date, attended Bradford’s London studio), and had to be content with inspiring others to take up her cause.

In 1873, after her visit with Bradford, she managed to help launch one final expedition, commanded by Allen Young aboard the “Pandora.” An engraving of a photographer from the “Pandora,” perched with his tripod atop a massive ice-floe, can be seen in the Arctic Visions exhibit. Alas, by the time Young returned, Lady Franklin was dead; in the words of the Franklin memorial at Westminster Abbey:

After long waiting, and sending many in search of him, herself departed to seek and find him in the realms of light.

 Russell A. Potter has been fascinated with the Arctic regions for many years, and has written and lectured extensively on many different aspects of its history. His book Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875, is required reading for anyone interested in our Arctic Visions exhibit. In addition to contributing to this blog he is providing critical guidance as Curatorial Consultant, and has authored the Introduction to our re-publication of Arctic Regions

One thought on “Lady Jane Franklin

  1. My initial impression of Lady Franklin was a woman tenacious and unrelenting in her search for her missing husband, Sir John Franklin, and the lost crew of the ill-fated Arctic expedition. Readers can only imagine the angst she endured for 25 years not knowing her husband’s fate or not discovering his remains.

    Today, we take for granted various types of radio and other means of communications to reach Arctic research teams. However, this was not the case for Sir John Franklin. Lady Franklin was acutely aware that her husband and his crew were stranded, desolate, and less likely to survive as time and miserable Arctic winter(s) took their toll. Courageous to the end, she continued a lifetime effort on his behalf. Even today if not adequately prepared, the Arctic offers few second chances for survival.

    ~Frances Hennessey

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