Monday, August 24, 2015

The Tale of a Table leg ...

One of the more remarkable finds of the earlier dives upon HMS "Erebus" was a wooden element, found near the stern (where the "great cabin" was located), much resembling the leg and part of the side of a table shown in an early woodcut of Sir John Franklin's cabin, as published in the Illustrated London News shortly before his departure for the Arctic. The resemblance seems much more than superficial; though the table looks slightlymore squat in the woodcut the way the leg -- likely machine-made upon a lathe, given the date -- is turned, with two long segments separated by a rounded, shorter one.
This seems a good visual match for the leg seen in the underwater photograph from last year's dive.

Some commenters have observed that, had the damage to the stern of the "Erebus" taken place prior to or at the moment of its sinking, smaller bits of wood such as the table-leg would have had enough bouyancy that they might well have floated to the surface; that they did not suggests that the damage occurred long after the sinking, perhaps when the ship's superstructure was scoured by a passing iceberg. The Inuit certainly recalled that, after the sinking of the ship at Utjulik, they were able to recover casks, boards, and other pieces of metal and wood; these may well have been from material that had been stowed on the deck, while items below deck, such as the table, remained there and became more thoroughly waterlogged.

But we actually do have another leg to stand on: in 1949, Henry Larsen -- who had himself navigated the Northwest Passage twice as the captain of the RCMP vessel St Roch -- came to King William Island and searched its western coasts. There, among other objects, such as iron knees that doubtless came from a ship's boat, there was a turned wooden piece that appears very much like the leg of a similar, low table, about two feet four inches in length. It was apparently recovered from some point on the coast between Victory Point and Cape Felix; if indeed it came from a similar table abord HMS "Terror," then that vessel must have suffered a fairly catastrophic fate -- it would have to have been crushed in the ice severely enough that furniture from the great cabin would have broken free of the wreck and drifted to shore. And so, while I hold out some hope that the site of Terror's sinking may be found, this sort of evidence tends to give credence to fears that the wreck may be fragmentary -- what parts of it could be recovered, the Inuit surely took and make use of, leaving perhaps only a partial hull, or even just a field of d├ębris.

[Image of table leg courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel; with thanks to Ship Modeler for his thoughts on this artifact.]


  1. This interesting find of 1949 makes me nervous as to the condition of the HMS Terror, it would be an awful shame to think that it's been completely shredded when we have the "nearly" intact HMS Erebus to compare with.

    But maybe, if the Terror has been broken up into pieces, it'll make finding her all the more easier, after all it's the method that worked for Dr Ballard when he was searching for the RMS Titanic, looking for the debris field instead of the ship itself.

    But i would strongly agree that yes the Terror is in pieces, as we know now that the Inuit testimony is very actuate, especially useful in finding the Erebus so i am going to take their word for it, that one ship was crushed by the ice west of king William island and that the other (Erebus) ended up further south.

    By the way Russell, do you know if divers actually found a hole cut in the side of Erebus, could the damage to the stern even have something to do with it? The Inuit say they saw a dead mans body behind a locked door and that it took a number of them to lift this body, I'd like to share my opinion that this must have been Franklin's because had the expedition been a success they would have wanted to bring him home and have him buried with full honors as being the triumphant hero, just my thoughts.

  2. Thanks for your comment! As to a hole in the side of "Erebus," I'd be surprised if the Inuit were really able to cut through all that oak planking. My best guess is that they broke through some other part of the ship -- perhaps at the stern, into the Great Cabin, or some other place where the wood was thinner -- or, if not that, maybe widened a hole that had been opened up by ice pressure.

  3. As to the table leg, I've now made a side by side comparison, and it looks like a pretty close match!

  4. Yeah, you make a good point actually, i didn't think of it, how were the Inuit able to cut a hole in the side of a bombardment ship, I've read up a lot on the Inuit testimony.

    From what i remember of this particular account ( the one containing the lifting of the dead man) the Inuit couldn't find an entrance to the ship, if the ship was abandoned like they said, there must have been a gangway or something, anyway from what i read, the dead man in locked room ( officers cabin?) cutting down a lifeboat that splinters on the ice, it sounds to me that they began a very cautious investigation at the stern of Erebus, looking again at those windows in the photo of the great room, it gives me the impression of easy access, provided the ship was forced up by the ice and tilted upwards maybe.
    Forgive my being a novice at this, discovered the Franklin expedition back in 2012-13 and it's had my attention ever since, it's the mystery and missing information that draws me into this story.

  5. The other leg has more spindles than the leg in Erebus, so it is not from the same design of table. I wonder if it is from a table at all. A chair or two might have been brought ashore before the final abandonment. However, it looks like there might have been a caster on the bottom, so maybe it was not used as furniture on a ship, but was from a HBCo. trading post.

  6. It is different from the one in the etching, which isn't surprising, but similar to the one found with Erebus.

  7. One of the ships was pushed up onto the shoreline according to M'Clintock's informants, where it sat for at least a decade. However ships on the shore can be taken back into the sea by the ice, as happened to the wreck of the whaler Wildfire in Greenland. It now sits on the bottom of an inlet several miles from where it had once been. The same might have happened to Terror.

  8. The woodcut from the Illustrated London News is, I'm sure, accurate in a general sense -- not sure how precisely it would show a detail such as this. The leg found by the divers and the one found by Larsen do look similar, though. I'm no furniture expert, but given that the leg is straight relative to the square corner piece a table seems likelier than a chair.

  9. I have never heard of the "Larsen Leg"! I wish there was not so much sediment on the "Erebus" leg though! However, the top of the Erebus leg has what appears to be the remnants of a double mortise which would have at one time housed the tenons of the table's side piece. The Larsen leg shows this joinery too. The apron board still attached to the table leg seems to indicate a table of some length since it runs under the plank at the top of the photo. Fascinating.....
    The Illustrated London News sketch shows a very low table to work at, despite the fact it seems to show instruments and charts on it. I'd rather have a higher table to work at if it were me. Guessing so would the officers of the Erebus too. Just a guess though, and not a highly educated one at that!!!

  10. Thanks, Don, I very much appreciate your comment! -- I agree that all these parts add up to a very significant whole ... I'm currently working to track down the leg found by Larsen, and hoping a more direct comparison can be made!

  11. When I look at the picture, what I think is there is the side piece for the table, a leg, and little else. The broken mortise/tenon joint visible on the squared section of the leg would have housed the end piece of the table (i.e. the "head" of the table). But where is the top? The heavy plank/beam laying across the side piece might indicate it fell heavily on the table which was on its side at the time, breaking off the end piece and coming to rest where it presently is. That would indicate a less than gentle sinking.
    Of course it is late at night here and at times I think I can see two pocket screw holes along the top of the side piece who knows. But it may well be that Franklin sat at the head of this table, making the leg we see, the one which would have been at his left side. Where is Ryan Harris when we need him???

  12. Much enjoyed this, thanks. Two comments: the ILN image is generic, not from life, and the table I'd say was a general representation of a table of the period, and so perhaps not to be taken literally. Crucial is the question of material, likely mahogany, which does not float: 'Builders consider mahogany a medium-weight wood, with density ranging from just over 454 kg (1,000 lb) per cubic meter to nearly 862 kg (1,900 lb) per cubic meter, according to the Simetric website's listing of wood densities. Wood with a density greater than 454 kg (1,000 lb) per cubic meter does not float.' Not sure how if and how this effects things.

    1. Thanks for your note, Jonathan. It's true, the table in the illustration may well be generic -- but even if so, a table of this sort, rather shorter than a dining table (it seems to have been meant for spreading out of charts and such, with the idea of people leaning over it from above) does seem to have been a common fixture in the "great cabin" of ships of this era. That's very useful information about the density of mahogany -- I hope that, before too long, both the leg recovered by Larsen and that seen by the divers can be more directly examined!