Out of the Frozen Deep — V

Lost and Found — 1860–2020

This is the story behind and beyond the facts and evidence in Ommanney v Stilwell (23 Beav 328) 53 ER 129, a case decided in the High Court in England in 1856. The court had to consider the unknown date of death of naval lieutenant Edward Couch, an officer of HMS Erebus, one of the two ships of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition of 1845, in order to determine who should inherit under Edward’s will. This dispute involved the surviving members of Edward’s family, and the will made by his father, Captain James Couch, who had died in England in January 1850.

In this series of blog posts, I trace the lives and naval background of Edward Couch and his father (part I), the departure of the Franklin expedition in 1845 (part II), the pre-1856 searches for Franklin’s ships and human remains and artefacts from them (part III), the evidence and judgment in the 1856 trial (part IV), and the discoveries made subsequently and the light they cast (or not) on the 1856 decision (part V).

Part I — A Trafalgar Veteran’s Death

Part II — HMS Erebus and Edward Couch

Part III — Declarations and Discoveries 1854

Part IV — Towards Victory Point 1854–1859

Part V — Lost and Found 1860–2020

I ended the previous instalment of this blog in 1859. In 1856, the Chancery case of Ommanney v. Stilwell between the two naval agents who were executors of the wills of father James and son Edward Couch had been heard, the Master of the Rolls had given judgment, and the judgment had been included in the series of law reports published by barrister Charles Beavan. The surviving members of the Couch family did not return to Chancery, and largely disappear from record after this. Of the eight brothers and sisters of Edward Couch, at least three were dead before the case was heard, including both the sisters who were beneficiaries of their father James’s will. Of the others, the only records I have traced are that James, the oldest brother, was, like his grandfather, a carpenter, and that a sister, Mary, who was twice-married and resident in Jersey, lived until 1881, and that Edward’s youngest brother, George, who was in the Royal Marines, later married, had five children and emigrated to Australia, where he died in the early twentieth century.

1859 was the year of the erection of the Franklin monument at Greenwich, and of the voyage made by Captain Leopold McClintock, memorialised at his death in a monumental stone added to the Franklin monument in Westminster Abbey, as the “Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin” in 1859.

This question remained unanswered in 1859:

Is it known, or ever likely to be known, with any certainty, where and when Edward Couch died, and whether before or after his father?

In 2020, the short answer to the question “Is it known where and when Edward Couch died” is “no”, and to the question “Is it ever likely to be known” is “perhaps”. As to whether he died before or after his father, it is impossible to be certain, but it seems unlikely that he was alive in January 1850, the date of his father’s death. In 1939, R J Cyriax, author of “Sir John Franklin’s Lost Arctic Expedition” thought that there was “little doubt” that none of the officers and men remained alive by the summer of 1849 — a year earlier than the last survival date suggested by John Rae in 1854. But given that the underlying evidence is the oral testimony of the Inuit people who did not measure time in European years, it is impossible to be certain.

The longer answers to these questions require a brief survey[1] of events since 1859.

Man proposes, God disposes

Image for post
Image for post
Man Proposes, God Disposes — Sir Edwin Landseer (1864) © Royal Holloway University of London — a painting which draws on the scene of discovery of human remains in a boat on King William Island described by McClintock in The Voyage of the Fox in Arctic Seas, the published account of his 1859 expedition in search of Franklin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jane Franklin refused to view the painting when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy

Even after the last possible hope of finding any survivors of the expedition was extinguished, and after the death of Jane Franklin in 1875, repeated attempts were made to search for evidence which might decipher the Franklin mystery. What had happened to the ships and men who had disappeared, and why? The incomprehensible failure of an expedition which had been confidently expected and equipped to succeed in its object, both technologically and in the quality of its leadership and men, was most acutely felt by generations living closer to those events in time. “The subject was uppermost in the minds of the Victorian public for much of the second half of the nineteenth century and captured the imagination in ways which are unimaginable now”[2]. Apart from the passing of time and loss of living memory, two events which took place only a few weeks apart in the spring of 1912: the heroic failure of Captain Scott to reach the South Pole before Amundsen or to return from it alive, and the loss of the Titanic, have in part displaced some collective memory of the failure of Franklin’s expedition. And since then, two world wars have taken place, and the space exploration programmes of the second half of the twentieth century have produced their own discoveries and disasters. And even more recently, the disappearance of commercial airliner MH370 in flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in March 2014, has given rise to a similar mystery and intense curiosity as to how it might be explained. But the Franklin mystery has nevertheless continued to attract the attention, even obsession, of many people in a number of different countries. Discoveries made since 1859 have both answered some questions and raised others to be determined. And in the course of a century and a half it has become a less British and more Canadian national story — even though the nation of Canada did not exist as such until 1 July 1867, twenty years after Sir John Franklin’s death.

Two aspects of these continuing explorations of the Franklin expedition are especially relevant to the question of further knowledge of the fate of Edward Couch. Firstly, advances in science which might lead to enlightenment from found objects and human remains which previously cast little or no light on their own past. In particular, the relatively new science known since the early 1970s as bioarchaeology (or as osteoarchaeology or palaeo-osteology) — the study of human remains from archaeological sites — has already given rise to some revisionism since first discoveries were made. The entire skeleton of one of the ships’ men, found, with the assistance of Inuit interpreters and guides, in a shallow grave on King William Island in 1869, was brought to England in 1873, identified as that of Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte and entombed in the Franklin monument at Greenwich. When the monument was renovated, moved and rededicated in 2009, the skeleton was exhumed and analysed and identified instead, on the basis of chemical analysis of tooth enamel and facial reconstruction, as more probably that of Harry Goodsir, the expedition’s assistant surgeon and natural scientist[3].

Earlier, in 1984, the first arresting photographs were published of the faces of the three young seamen of the Franklin expedition who died in its first winter, early in 1846, and were buried in marked graves on Beechey Island. The bodies of John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine were exhumed in the summer of that year and discovered to be in a remarkable state of preservation through their deep burial in permanently frozen ground, each face with its wide-open eyes a startling vision of a young man at the moment of his early death, over a century and a half ago. This was the work of the Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project led by Canadian professor Owen Beattie, and is recorded in the book Frozen in Time, which he wrote with John Geiger. Not only do the images of Torrington, Hartnell and Braine give an indelible immediacy to the faces of the men who left England with Franklin in May 1845, but their burial and grave markers, in some approximation of those that they would have had in consecrated ground in England at the time, are a stark contrast to the evidence of survival cannibalism and scattered unburied bones of the very last desperate survivors of the expedition. It is impossible to truly imagine the despair of a man who has nothing between him and starving to death but the severed hands of a shipmate, hands once clasped together in prayer at one of Sir John Franklin’s Sunday sermons to the men of Erebus and Terror. Charles Dickens thought no British naval seaman would ever resort to survival cannibalism, but he was wrong.

Secondly, with the hindsight of over a century and a half, it is now clear that John Rae was right and Dickens also wrong in his assessment of the value of the testimony of the people in their day called Esquimaux — now Inuit — whose lives and journeys in the Arctic long predated those of the Europeans seeking the north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean. A 1927 map prepared by Rupert Gould, Naval Assistant to the Hydrographer of the Admiralty, has this note made by him: ‘The information shown in red is based upon the personal observations of various British and American explorers in the region. The information shown in blue is based upon various Eskimo reports obtained by those explorers, and probably is not altogether trustworthy’. No Admiralty map would be annotated in these terms now.

Image for post
Image for post
1927 chart of King William Island showing discovery of relics of the Franklin Expedition © Royal Museums Greenwich, object ID G285:4/9(1)

Inuit oral history has informed further discoveries from as early as the 1860s, when American explorer Charles Hall travelled with two interpreters, Too-koo-li-too and Ebierbing, who had learned to speak English well through being exhibited as curiosities for the Victorian public, right up to the momentous discovery of the wreck of HMS Erebus in September 2014, and of HMS Terror in 2016. HMS Erebus was found in the very area south-west of King William Island where an Inuit man named In-nook-poo-zhu-jook had drawn a sketch of it for Hall in 1869.

Since 2014, it is not only the ships themselves that have become apparent, where they lie on the seabed off King William Island, but their contents which have begun to yield to discovery and research in successive short summer seasons of archaeological diving. On 20 February 2020, the state agency Parks Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust, joint owners of the Franklin Expedition artefacts, unveiled some of the finds from their fieldwork in 2019. These included personal items such as a hairbrush, crockery and a set of officer’s epaulettes, their shoulder pads and gilded wire rusted, but still distinctive in their appearance. These artefacts not only provide a tangible link with the lost lives of the expedition but may yet be identifiable as individual property which sheds light on the fate of its owner. One of the more surprising discoveries on the wreck of Erebus is a small Chinese coin. Did it come from the pocket of Lieutenant Edward Couch, or one of his other shipmates who had fought in the Opium Wars in China a few years previously? Amongst the artefacts discovered in previous expeditions is a silver tablespoon (held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich ref AAA 2476) that belonged to Edward Couch, found by the Inuit of the Boothia peninsula. In many disputed inheritance cases such objects are no more than posthumous clutter, but here, each is a clue, a piece of an incomplete jigsaw of ownership and loss, and the only substitute for any other material record of the death and last resting place of their owner.

Image for post
Image for post
The wreck of HMS Erebus visible like a ghost ship, in shallow water off the coast of King William Island, with the dive platform and Zodiac boat and divers on the surface above it © Parks Canada — still image from video here and see also the National Maritime Museum senior exhibitions curator Dr Claire Warrior’s blog on these discoveries here

Although it is known that some books and papers taken from the ships had long ago been discarded as useless by the Inuit, it is still tantalisingly possible that there are as yet unfound ships’ logs and other records kept on board, preserved by the freezing water, and which may one day be recovered, legible and shed light on individual fates of those officers and men who died before each ship was abandoned and sank.

The change in the law

One intangible memorial to the death of Edward Couch is the change in the law that took place in 1925 to introduce a presumption (in s184 of the Law of Property Act 1925) that “In all cases where . . . two or more persons have died in circumstances rendering it uncertain which of them survived the other or others, such deaths shall (subject to any order of the court), for all purposes affecting the title to property, be presumed to have occurred in order of seniority, and accordingly the younger shall be deemed to have survived the elder.”

This change gives the reasoning which the Chief Clerk and the Master of the Rolls adopted in Ommanney v. Stilwell statutory force. Before then, many nineteenth century cases of families lost in shipwrecks turned on highly distressing evidence and tendentious assumptions about male and female physiology (textbooks of forensic medicine suggested that women’s breasts and flowing dresses made them more buoyant in water, for example) and psychology (women being more retiring and possessing less physical courage than men would shrink from leaping into the sea) in trying to determine whether a husband or a wife would have succumbed to drowning first.

Conclusion

This is the end, as far as it can be told for now, of the story of Edward Couch, an “active strong young man”, in the words of the Master of the Rolls, “with no remarkable point in his character”, in the words of his superior officer James Fitzjames. His fate, like that of many men in the armed forces, before and since, was to die young and far from home, having experienced both naval war and peacetime exploration. Like both his father, James, the veteran of Trafalgar, and his grandfather, also James, who died in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1792, his life was shaped by service in the Royal Navy, in a period where it had far greater power and influence than it does today. And by coincidence, both the older James and his grandson Edward met their deaths in the north Atlantic, in parts of what were not then but are now the nation of Canada. Edward Couch’s death, and his afterlife “in Chancery” are also closely intertwined not only with his journalism but the fiction and drama written by Charles Dickens in the 1850s. Dickens was born in Portsmouth, the son of a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and would have grown up knowing large naval families like that of Edward Couch. His description of the sitting room of retired naval purser Bill Barley in Great Expectations

“I looked at the corner-cupboard with the glass and china, the shells upon the chimney-piece, and the coloured engravings on the wall, representing the death of Captain Cook, a ship-launch, and his Majesty King George the Third in a state-coachman’s wig, leather-breaches, and top-boots on the terrace at Windsor”

may not have differed greatly from the room in which retired captain James Couch and his wife read their dutiful son Edward’s last letter, written from the Whalefish Islands in the autumn of 1845.

And since the death of both the Franklin expeditionaries and Dickens himself, the Arctic has become significantly less the “Frozen Deep” of Victorian imagination and exploration, as global temperature has risen and some of its ice melted into an expanding ocean.

Postscript

I first came across James and Edward Couch and the doubt about the sequence of their deaths, when writing a blog about a contemporary case of uncertain order of death, as between the husband and wife of an elderly couple found dead in 2016 in their suburban bungalow, a setting which could hardly be more different than the unexplored frozen regions of the Canadian Arctic. I started reading and writing about Edward Couch whilst in Cumbria over the 2019/2020 New Year holiday, and published the first four instalments of these blog posts between mid January and early March 2020. During that period, the novel coronavirus, first found and reported in Wuhan in central China in the last days of 2019, came to dominate the day to day news as it spread from Asia to Europe, Australia and America. At around the time coronavirus reached England, over school half-term in late February 2020, I visited the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, where there are some Franklin artefacts on display. These include a set of officer’s epaulettes, near-identical to those first revealed to the public from the wreck of Erebus only a week before. These decorations and status symbols appeared almost as if a mirror reflection of each other, save that the Cambridge epaulettes still have their shine of gilt, and are embroidered with a crown and anchor on each shoulder.

As our lives became subject to the restrictions and anxieties imposed by the consequences of the pandemic during an otherwise cloudless English spring, I found it difficult to give my attention to the terrible fate of Franklin’s men in one of the most remote and desolate places in the world. Meanwhile, the consequences of coronavirus spread far and wide. On Friday 26 June 2020, the authorities in Canada announced that there would be no fieldwork on the wrecks of Erebus or Terror in 2020 because of the increased risk of transmission of the virus. Instead there will be a temporary shift of focus to advancing research, in collaboration with Inuit, on the many artefacts recovered during the 2019 research season. Until that field work resumes, and perhaps indefinitely afterwards, there will be no less tentative answer to the question of the individual fate of Edward Couch, one of the untold lost lives and unburied deaths of the Franklin expedition.

Image for post
Image for post
Franklin memorial, Waterloo Place, London
Image for post
Image for post
Franklin memorial, Waterloo Place, London, showing the names of the officers and men of HMS Erebus

Footnotes

[1] I have not attempted to include or summarise all of the expeditions of discovery, or their findings, or the various hypotheses of the movements of surviving members of Franklin’s expedition after the abandonment of the ships in 1848. There are many full-length books on these subjects, in addition to film and TV dramatisations. Russell Potter’s “Visions of the North” blog is a very useful source for new developments and overlooked aspects of the story.

[2] Andrew Moore: Sir Edwin Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes and the Fate of Franklin — British Art Journal 2009 vol 9 no 3 pp 32–37

[3] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/07/skeleton-may-help-solve-mystery-doomed-franklin-expedition and see also https://www.livescience.com/13280-arctic-expedition-franklin-identification-skeleton.html

There is an interview with one of Harry Goodsir’s last living relative in this November 2019 article in The Scotsman https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/family-scots-doctor-killed-doomed-arctic-voyage-mired-death-mystery-and-cannibalism-speaks-out-1403216

Written by

English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store