Francis Crozier: The Irish explorer who disappeared 173 years ago

In 1848, the crew members aboard the aptly named HMS Terror were fighting for survival. The two ships that made up their expedition had been stuck in Arctic ice for nearly two years. Outside, blizzards lasted for weeks on end. But, inside, the conditions were even worse.

With ice grinding against the hull and the incessant shriek of polar winds, sleep could be elusive. According to History Hub Ulster, bangs like gunfire would also go off as bolts cracked in the intense cold.

The damp living quarters scurried with rats and each sailor’s hammock was squeezed into a space just 14 inches wide. This facilitated the spread of diseases, like tuberculosis. But the most pressing problem was food.

Although the pantry was still neatly stocked with provisions, many crew members suffered from lead poisoning caused by the tinned food – a new and unperfected invention at the time. Some men showed signs of scurvy too.

The expedition’s commander, Sir John Franklin, had died suddenly in June 1847. During the harsh winter that followed, another 24 men passed away. Leadership had fallen to second-in-command Francis Crozier and on April 22nd, 1848, he decided to abandon ship.

It was Good Friday when the 51-year-old led the weak and emaciated men onto the ice, optimistically dragging lifeboats on sledges behind them.

A life of ups and downs

Francis Crozier was born in Banbridge, Co. Down in September, 1796. He was the 11th of 13 children.

He grew up in Avonmore House, which his father built in 1792, and went to school locally. Two of his brothers became priests and one followed in his father’s footsteps to become a solicitor. But Francis was more adventurous.

Aged just 13, he left Banbridge to join the Royal Navy. He first served on the HMS Hamadryad, which escorted vessels across the Atlantic Ocean before landing at Lisbon with troops for the Peninsular War against France.

In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended and the navy turned its attention to exploration. At this point, Europeans had already mapped most of the world. But there was still work to be done at the earth’s poles.

The three most important objectives at this time were: navigating the North West Passage, reaching the North Pole and surveying Antarctica. During his lifetime, Crozier would attempt all three.

Sketch of Captain Crozier dressed in navy uniform jacket and hat

A highly regarded researcher and an underappreciated explorer

In 1821, Crozier joined Captain William Parry’s second Arctic expedition as a midshipman. The journey aimed to cross the Northwest Passage, which was thought to be a lucrative sea route above Canada that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Three years later, they returned to the Arctic to seek out the fabled passage once again. This time, the journey ended with the sinking of a ship.

In 1825, Crozier became a lieutenant and the following year he joined Parry one last time in an attempt to reach the North Pole. The backbreaking journey took Crozier and his shipmates over 1,000km. But the ice was drifting southward, so their attempts were fruitless.

However, Crozier’s 1839 expedition to map Antarctica with James Clark Ross was largely successful. As second-in-command and captain of HMS Terror, he helped discover large parts of the continent. They named the Ross Ice Shelf and Cape Crozier, which are now known for the Emperor Penguin. Every single crew member survived the four-year journey too, which was an unusual feat at the time.

Most of Crozier’s expeditions were undertaken to study geography and magnetism. On board the HMS Terror, he conducted important magnetic studies and, during his travels, he set up observatories all over the world. As a result, he was highly regarded by the scientific community.

In 1827, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society for research during expeditions with Parry. Then, in 1843, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on magnetism.

However, he never received the same recognition from the Royal Navy. While colleagues like Parry and Ross were rewarded, Crozier was often overlooked. Despite his experience on four expeditions to the Arctic and two to the Antarctic, he never rose above the role of second-in-command. At least, not until the death of a commander required Crozier to step up.

Drawing of ship called the HMS Terror stuck in an ice path, crew members are hacking away at ice below.

HMS Terror thrown up by the ice. Photo: National Archives of Canada

Heartbreak in Tasmania

In 1840, during their successful trip to Antarctica, Crozier and Ross stopped at Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land – or modern-day Tasmania.

Sir John Franklin, who was a Navy officer and the town’s governor, helped Crozier build an observatory there. During this time, Crozier fell in love with Franklin’s niece – Sophia Cracroft. But when he proposed to her, she refused his offer.

In 1844, after mapping the Antarctic, he returned again to pursue her. But, according to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, Cracroft was in love with Ross.

To recuperate, Crozier took a year’s leave from the Navy and went to Italy. But his holiday was cut short when he was asked to join Franklin for another expedition to the Northwest Passage. Crozier may have hoped that serving her uncle would win over Cracroft’s heart.

Crozier’s final adventure

Although Crozier was one of the most experienced polar explorers of the day, it was Franklin who secured command of the new expedition.

According to biographer Michael Smith, Franklin was 59 years old, overweight and hadn’t taken a ship into the ice for 27 years. But he had a powerful lobby behind him, so Crozier was appointed second-in-command.

However, adding insult to injury, both the scientific work and the selection of officers was handed over to Crozier’s junior – James Fitzjames. This unusual decision may have been the result of prejudice against Crozier’s Irish roots, Presbyterian religion and lower class.

But one final blow awaited Crozier before the ships departed. He proposed to Cracroft again and was rejected once more. So, when the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror sailed away from the Thames, it’s no surprise that Crozier was unhappy – despite the lavish farewell party.

Biographer Michael Smith says his last letter home read: “In truth I am sadly lonely.” But he also had considerable concerns about the expedition. He didn’t trust Franklin’s abilities and only five of the men chosen by Fitzjames had any Arctic experience.

Yet, their two veteran ships were highly advanced. They featured central heating, steel-enforced bows, desalinators and a steam-powered propeller.

On-board, there were 129 crew members, a cat for catching mice, a dog called Neptune for company and a clothes-wearing monkey for entertainment. There was an accordion and plenty of stationery for writing too.

At Greenland, the crew loaded soup, cooked beef and other preserved meats from a supply ship. According to the Royal Society of Medicine, they had 8,000 tins of food, as well as 930 gallons of lemon juice. Loaded with enough provisions to last three years, the two ships were last sighted at Baffin Island in July, 1845.

The Death March

By the end of 1847, the Royal Navy became concerned about Franklin’s expedition. Over the next 30 years, 26 search operations were carried out, but the two ships weren’t found until 2014.

In 1859, however, a party funded by Franklin’s widow and led by Leopold McClintock from Co. Louth found evidence of the men’s fate. Hidden under a stone cairn on King William Island, they found a scribbled note signed by Crozier and Fitzjames.

Dated April 25th, 1848, it stated their intention to set out for the Great Fish River on foot. Here, the men hoped to come across an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which hunted for fur in the area.

Covering less than two miles a day, many of Crozier’s ill and emaciated men proved unable for the 900 mile journey. One elderly Inuit later recalled how she had seen men collapse as they trudged through the snow. Others reported seeing camps with tents, graves and cannibalised bodies.

At the time, these reports were disregarded but the discovery of relics, graves and remains scattered across the region would later confirm them.

Painting of the ship the HMS Erebus at sea surrounded by glaciers. Crew members work on small boats on top of ice sheets.

HMS Erebus in the Ice, 1846. Photo: Royal Museums Greenwich

Crozier’s mysterious legend

The bodies of 30 men found at the river confirm that some of the crew reached their destination. But it is assumed that they all died eventually.

However, various stories surround Crozier’s legacy. Some simply say he was the last to perish. But, according to the Encyclopaedia of the Arctic, some Inuit interviews suggest that an officer fitting Crozier’s description was seen much further east in the 1850s.

Cambridge also reports that American search expeditions of the 1860s brought back tales of a survivor, who was so skilled at hunting that he shared his food with local Inuits.

Although Francis Crozier’s work was often overlooked, it is remembered today at EPIC. Discover the stories of inspirational Irish emigrants with our virtual museum tour or check out our explorer activity pack with your children.