175 years ago today, one of the greatest voyages of British naval exploration set off down the Thames, heading for glory.
“At half-past ten in the morning of 19 May 1845 anchors were weighed, the ships swung through 360 degrees to make sure their compasses were working, and the Franklin expedition to the Northwest passage finally got underway with twenty-four officers and 110 men aboard. Crowds cheered from the dockside. Sir John waved vigourously to his family as they receded into the distance. The sight of HMS Erebus, freshly painted black, with a distinctive white band around her hull, leading the best-supplied expedition ever to leave British shores must have given them all confidence that the best that could be done had been done.
To this day there is a pub by the river at Greenhithe called the Sir John Franklin, where you can have a pint of beer and steak and chips and stand at the spot where Franklin’s family saw him for the last time.”Extract from ‘Erebus: The Story Of A Ship’
Alas, thanks to coronavirus, no crowds will be at Greenhithe today to celebrate the 175th anniversary. The wrecks of the two ships who set out that day were discovered 170 years later beneath the Arctic waters. I followed in their footsteps in 2017, and I salute their bravery in unimaginably desperate conditions.