The story of HMS Terror

By Andrew Wallace, NMB Curatorial Assistant

History | May 12, 2021

Reading time: 11 minutes

Not all ships earn fantastic stories filled with intrigue and mystery, in fact, most ships live rather dull lives. However, the story of HMS Terror is rich, lengthy, and tragically full of misfortune for her crew. From her early start as a siege vessel based out of Bermuda during the War of 1812 to her ill-fated polar expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, the story of HMS Terror illustrates the evolving function of the Royal Navy and Bermuda’s role within that history. HMS Terror‘s story also connects two diametrically opposed locations: warm and sub-tropical Bermuda and the harsh climate of the arctic tundra.

HMS Terror, Bermuda + Siege of Baltimore

The Royal Naval Dockyard, which is now home to the National Museum of Bermuda, was a crucial location for the British Royal Navy’s control over the Atlantic in the 19th century, especially after the British lost their North American holdings during the American Revolution. Bermuda’s proximity to the North American East Coast made it the perfect staging location for the War of 1812. The Island was close enough to easily stage military campaigns against the US mainland while was also far enough to ensure that there was no threat of invasion from a then non-existent US Navy and provide a safe haven for the hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors to call home.

In 1814 HMS Terror was established as an integral part of the fleet in Bermuda, where she participated in raids and sieges on American East Coast cities. Built in 1813 with the specific purpose of laying siege to coastal forts, HMS Terror had strong decks of the Vesuvius class Bomb Ketches, which provided the foundation for large mortars to fire up and over enemy defences. Terror’s time in Bermuda culminated in one of the major engagements of the war, the Chesapeake Campaign and the siege of Baltimore.

A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet taken from the Observatory under the Command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn on the morning of the 13th of Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours & thrown from 1500 to 1800 shells in the Night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch but were repulsed with great loss.”

The Chesapeake campaign ended in a 24-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, and is familiar to most Americans as it inspired arguably one of the most recognisable anthems thanks to its recital at major American sporting events: The Star-Spangled Banner. Written by Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and amateur poet, the original poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” was composed after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by HMS Terror and her sister ships that had resided in Bermuda. The campaign ultimately ended in British defeat and British troops returned to Bermuda to prepare for the next phase of the war. Several months later, on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed signalling peace between the two sides.

Transition to Polar Explorer

In 1815, as peace was signed with the Americans, the well-funded Royal Navy turned its eyes to the prize of exploration and mapmaking. This endeavor would investigate the fabled Northwest Passage, a viable commercial shipping route North of Canada which could extend the economic reach of the empire. Many of the Vesuvius and larger Hecla class vessels were converted to survey ships due to their strong hulls, versatility, and ability to hold heavy navigation equipment.

The Terror would be twinned with the Erebus, a ship of the Hecla class built in 1826. Throughout the 1830s and 40s survey ships traversed the ends of the Earth, mapping, exploring, and investigating nature in the uninhabitable territories both North and South. The legacy of this period of exploration can be seen in areas across much of Northern Canada and the Arctic, which take their names from the ships or crew on board: Ross, Crozier, Franklin, Boss, Baffin, Back, Fury, Terror, and Erebus.

Although there was no active enemy, these expeditions were incredibly dangerous. Instead of mortar fire and combat, crews onboard these exploration ships faced the harsh and punishing realities of the Arctic landscape. The Terror had participated in failed attempts to find the Northwest Passage before its fateful final voyage, notably with explorer George Back. Back had seen Terror half-crushed by the ice, escaping and limping across the Atlantic only to run aground off the coast of Ireland.

Franklin Expedition

To mitigate the dangers of an arctic voyage, both Erebus and Terror were “upgraded” with steam engines designed to provide central heating and additional power. However, the ships were only supplied 12 days of coal, making the heavy-hulled ships effectively floating paperweights. Weighty equipment, from early diving suits to navigational aids and meteorological instruments were crammed into the vessels. Additionally, iron sheeting was added to the hulls to help with ice-breaking, an improvement that further slowed the ships.

These were all considered to be massive improvements to the expedition, and thanks to the advancements in the canning process the ships were stocked with enough canned food to last three years, five with rationing.

Sending two ships ­– one named after the Greek deity of darkness Erebus and the other named ominously Terror ­– to the unknown may have provided a bit of foreshadowing for the trials the crew would face. Nevertheless, the pair sailed into Baffin Bay with confidence, though woefully underprepared for the three years they would spend in the uncharted Arctic.

Captain of HMS Terror, Francis Crozier was a seasoned Arctic explorer having participated in several previous polar expeditions including the Ross expedition (1839-1843) where he was second in command to Sir James Clark Ross. The Franklin expedition, led by Captain Sir John Franklin, was meant to finish the work of the previous Ross expedition which had until then been the most significant penetration of the Arctic.

View in the Arctic Regions; a ship probably HMS Terror, with sails set, upon a calm sea, passing a huge iceberg, walruses in the water in the foreground, two further icebergs in the distance, by Admiral Sir George Back. British Museum.

In May 1845, the expedition set sail from Kent, and by late July 1845, Terror and Erebus were spotted in Baffin Bay by whalers on board the Prince of Wales and Enterprise. Both ships were waiting for good conditions to continue on through Lancaster Sound.

This was the last time the expedition was seen by Europeans. Despite no communication from the expedition, the Admiralty in London was not remotely worried. In their eyes, the crew was well equipped and expected to spend multiple years on the ice. Britain was stunned when in 1859, search crews had found no trace of the expedition, excluding a note written in a Cairn on King William Island. It reads:

“May 27th, 1847. H.M.S ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ wintered in the Ice in lat. 70 05′ N., long. 98 23′ W. Having wintered in 1846–7 at Beechey Island[a], in lat. 74 43′ 28″ N., long. 91 39′ 15″ W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77°, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.”.

However, gaunt, scribbled handwriting along the margins revealed another, far darker story. Large thick icebergs, known as ‘Pack Ice’ arrived from the north and quickly locked the two ships in place in September 1846. However, the following Summer saw no thaw, nor did the year after that. Trapped on the ice for years and having lost two dozen men, the ships were abandoned in hopes that the crew could walk across the ice and make way for Back River.

Sketch of the situation of the H.M.S. Terror at Sunrise July 14, 1837, by Owen Stanley.
Library and Archives Canada.

“H.M. ships ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’ were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37′ 42″ N., long. 98˚ 41′ W. This paper was found by Lt. Irving under the cairn supposed to have been built by Sir James Ross in 1831–4 miles to the Northward – where it had been deposited by the late Commander Gore in June (May is scratched out by the writer) 1847. Sir James Ross’ pillar has not however been found and the paper has been transferred to this position which is that in which Sir J. Ross’ pillar was erected – Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.

(Signed) JAMES FITZJAMES, Captain H.M.S. Erebus.

(Signed) F.R.M. CROZIER, Captain & Senior Officer.

and start on tomorrow, 26th, for Back’s Fish River”.

The famed “Victory Point Note” is the only first-hand account of the voyage and provides vital clues to the expedition’s final location and fate but it has also left us with more questions than answers. How did Franklin die? Why did a disproportionate number of officers die first? Why did they not leave more detailed notes after 3 years? Why were the logbooks not brought with them? And perhaps most importantly; why is the tone of the letter so calm after three years?

“Victory Point Note”

Abandoning the stricken vessels on April 26th, the crew dragged rowboats on sleds through the frozen wasteland, heavy with canned food, survival essentials, and a growing number of ill and wounded. Unfortunately, the canned food which was meant to be a vital lifeline on the expedition only further weakened the crew when they contracted lead poisoning from poorly canned food and poor water collection; an affliction known to degrade mental state.

Tests have been conducted on the exhumed remains of several sailors, which suggest that the crew also came down with a form of botulism that thrives in the arctic which when combined with a lack of accessible water may have been responsible for their deaths.

If that was not enough, the landscape itself provided them no resources, causing malnutrition and gangrene. Lack of vitamins and spoiled food lead to every sailor’s nightmare – scurvy. Bad enough on the open seas; in the frozen wastes of -48C the disease would re-open old wounds, and cause immense pain in the joints that had already been overworked by heaving sled-boats for hundreds of miles.

For an expedition that lost so much, their humanity was one of the final things to go. It is highly suspected due to evidence found on later expeditions that the Franklin Expedition did resort to cannibalism. Tents and skeletons imply those too weary to travel were killed, eaten, and left behind. Botulism, exposure, cannibalism, and eventual starvation are the leading likely causes of death.

Shipwreck hunting

As years went by, and after much pleading to the Admiralty from Lady Jane Franklin, many expeditions were ordered to search for remnants of the ships. It seemed impossible that the largest power in the world could lose her most technologically advanced ships. Ironically, their disappearance triggered a massed response in the form of search parties, who in their attempts to find the ships actually charted the majority of the area.

Witness reports of dishevelled men eating one another by the native Inuit tribes were discounted as lies in Victorian England. Notably Charles Dickens wrote their testimony off as impossible as “British men would never succumb to such acts”. Unfortunately this negative and colonial thinking meant time-sensitive clues and evidence were almost entirely ignored, and lost. Small traces were found, but no breakthrough was made until a century later. In September 2014,  a Canadian expedition discovered Erebus off the southern coast of King William Island. Two years later, the Terror was found lying close by.

Frozen at the bottom of the arctic waters for 170 years, the ship was found in impeccable condition leaving an intact wreck and its contents including the crew’s porcelain plates. The ships had shifted from their last known position, by pack ice, water current, or by the few sailors who remained with the vessels after April 26th of which we have no account.

Teams of researchers have been uncovering more evidence since the discovery, with modern technology being the key to unlocking previously inaccessible information about the expedition. Although all descendants within living memory of the expedition have since passed on, connections are still being made through DNA evidence.

Most notably, efforts are being made to confirm the identities and cause of death of the crewmen from Terror and Erebus. As recently as May 2021 the remains of Warrant Officer John Gregory were identified, making him the first officially identified sailor from the expedition—although John Torrington’s remains were uncovered earlier, he passed of illness before the expedition began.

Gregory was originally found in 2013 with two other sailors at an abandoned campsite seventy-five kilometers south of the ship’s position, on the southern shore of King William Island. Discoveries and breakthroughs like this keep me and many others around the world glued to our screens, hoping to uncover any fragment of information that will add to the thousand-piece puzzle.

Influence & Conclusion

The influence of the expedition is profound. The group most likely stumbled upon the passage by accident on their death-march south without knowing. The crew of 129 officers and men achieved their goal of pushing the boundary of the known mapped world but left behind no known journals or logbooks of their three years in the ice.

The resulting speculation, myths, and stories are incredibly popular in Canadian and British popular culture, resulting in a burst of literary creativity. Canadian Musician Stan Rogers’s “Northwest Passage”, creative historical fiction, and even Chamber Operas have been inspired by the loss of the two ships.

If new groundbreaking evidence survives and is uncovered, then this may fill in the gaps. Parks Canada has suggested that some of the waterlogged paperwork may be salvageable, but no attempt to recover these items has been made yet due to weather and a lack of resources. However, part of me enjoys the mystery, speculation, and “what if” questions. Like all good mysteries, the Franklin saga will never be completely solved, but perhaps that’s for the best.

Further Reading:

The TerrorDan Simmons – A historical fictional account of the Terror, taking the real characters and events and combining it with a sci-fi twist.

Erebus: The story of a ship – Michael Palin – A humorous telling of the Erebus’s journey, from beginning to end.

Frozen in Time: The fate of the Franklin Expedition – Owen Beattie, John Geiger – A scientific-heavy exploration of the expedition, discussing the exhumations of bodies found in the 1980s, laying the foundations for the modern theory of the crew’s fate.

Franklin expedition: DNA test identifies member of 1845 Arctic voyage –

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