High Times in Hobart

John Hagan chronicles the lavish exploits of Banbridge mariner Francis Crozier in Tasmania, prior to his doomed voyage into the Arctic

'Erebus' and the 'Terror' in New Zealand, August 1841, by John Wilson Carmichael

When Captain Francis Crozier and Sir James Clark Ross sailed in to Hobart Town in 1840, their primary tasks were to establish a magnetic observatory to assist navigation in the southern hemisphere, and to make preparations for an attempt to discover the South Magnetic Pole.

Considered by many to be the nineteenth century’s leading polar explorer, Crozier was to spend only a short time in Hobart, where, according to best-selling author and polar historian, Michael Smith, he became 'hugely popular', enjoyed 'celebrity status', and during his sojourn of two three month periods, made valuable contributions to the social, educational, artistic and maritime life of the colony’s capital.

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in Banbridge on September 17 1796. He was the fifth son of a local solicitor, and was just 14 years old when he enlisted in the Royal Navy.

He experienced his first taste of the Arctic with the legendary explorer Commander W E Parry in 1819, and was to make three subsequent Arctic voyages over the next nine years before turning his attention to Antarctica and Van Diemen’s Land – now Tasmania.

The Admiralty had traditionally shown little curiosity in Antarctica, based on Cook’s information that it was just a useless frozen wasteland. This mindset radically changed during the mid-1830s when, in order to combat French and American expansion in the southern hemisphere, Crozier and Ross were dispatched to Hobart Town in the ships Erebus and Terror on September 25 1839.

Here they were warmly greeted by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Franklin, an old friend, and a noted veteran polar explorer. 'The arrival of Captains Ross and Crozier added much to Sir John’s happiness', recorded his wife, Lady Jane Franklin.

The citizens of Hobart were also pleased to welcome Erebus, Terror and their crews, and it was not long before Crozier and Ross were swept up in its social whirl. Talks, dances and dinners all became part and parcel of their routine while ashore. According to Smith, 'Crozier and Ross were feted everywhere they went'.

To mark the establishment of the observatory, Lady Franklin requested artist Henry Mundy 'to paint a picture for me of --- the Ob [observatory] --- & Capn Ross & Crozier & Sir John in the foreground'.

Unfortunately Mundy was unable to accept the commission, and, rather than see Lady Franklin disappointed, Crozier asked John Davis, second master of Terror, to make a sketch which he then presented. 'It is one of the prettiest thoughts that ever entered into Captn Crozier’s head to send me this memorial', Lady Franklin later wrote to Ross.

This sketch formed the basis for ex-convict Thomas Bock’s famous work, ‘Rossbank Observatory’, depicting the recently constructed buildings, together with Ross, Crozier and Franklin. This painting is now a prized part of the collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Rossbank Observatory

Rossbank Observatory by Thomas Bock

An extravagant ball, to honour Crozier and Ross, was held in Hobart on the evening of October 29 1840. Charles Napoleon, the best French chef in the colony officiated, and the walls and windows of the Customs House (now Parliament House) were bedecked with flags, lights and ferns.

Local delicacies were washed down with fine champagne with the 300 invited guests dancing the night away until dawn. Before departing for the Antarctic, Crozier was involved in two other important functions.

On November 5 1840, he was invited to attend the laying of the foundation stone of the current Government House, and a description of the proceedings acknowledging his presence was buried under the building.

Two days later, he was present at another ‘foundation event’, this time in New Norfolk where a secondary college for boys was to be established. Following the official ceremony, the guests retreated to the Bush Inn where Crozier was toasted with great enthusiasm.

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Hobart Town 1840 by E. Buchner

On November 12 Crozier and Ross left Hobart Town for Antarctica, where they charted a considerable amount of the frozen continent, discovered Mount Erebus and set a new record for the extent of southern travel. Unfortunately they were unable to discover the magnetic Pole, and in April 1841, following some epic feats of seamanship, especially by Crozier, Erebus and Terror returned to Hobart. 

Hobart was again in party mood to welcome them. To mark their arrival, the Royal Victorian Theatre – now the Theatre Royal – staged a ‘grand nautical drama’ entitled The South Polar Expedition. The Hobart Town Courier (May 14 1841), sardonically observed that the drama 'was evidently much better written than it was played', while Robert McCormick, surgeon on Erebus, described it as 'rather indifferently got up and not much better acted'.

Apparently, because of the seedy surroundings of the theatre, and at the urging of the Franklins, neither of the two captains attended the production.

The return to Hobart allowed Crozier more time to woo Sir John’s pretty niece, Sophy Cracroft, with whom he had fallen deeply in love. But despite his best efforts it was a relationship which was doomed from the start.

Sophy was a flirt who had her eye on the dashing Ross, considering the plain spoken, and reserved Crozier as 'poor Irish' and an 'indifferent speller'. She twice rebuffed his offer of marriage.

On June 4 1841, Hobart’s Archdeacon Hutchins died suddenly, and following the funeral a meeting was held to raise money for a public memorial in the form of a Church of England school. Crozier generously donated £10 and remains a founder of Hutchins School; still one of Tasmania’s leading grammar schools.

Hutchins School

Hutchins School, Hobart, Tasmania

Undoubtly, the highlight of their return visit to Hobart was the Grand Ball, which Crozier and Ross staged to thank the Franklins, and the citizens of Hobart, for all their hospitality. It was the biggest naval ball in Tasmanian colonial history with Erebus and Terror lashed together in the Derwent Estuary, about 35 yards offshore from Government House.

Prior to the ball, Hobart was agog with excitement and the town’s dressmakers and milliners were kept busy fitting and making new finery. To host the 350 guests, the decks of Erebus were transformed to resemble an elegant ballroom, with the introduction of red baize, chandeliers, mirrors and flowers. Music was provided by the band of the 51st Regiment and the Hobart Town Quadrille Band.

In keeping with the quality of decorations, Terror’s dining tables groaned under the weight of French, English and local dishes, accompanied by the colony’s finest hock, claret, champagne, port and sherry.

According to the Hobart Town Advertiser (4 June 1841), it was 'quite impossible for any fete to have been more elegant and tasteful than the ball and supper which took place on Her Majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror on Tuesday last'. The whole event, staged before leaving Hobart, is known as ‘the Glorious first of June’.

Four years later, Crozier, and the two ships, renewed their acquaintance with the former Van Diemen’s Land Governor. While Franklin was almost sixty years old, had not set foot in the Arctic for seventeen years nor had commanded a ship for over a decade, he was chosen by the Admiralty to lead a prestigious expedition into Arctic waters in an attempt to discover the legendary North West Passage.

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Erebus and Terror, specially upgraded for the voyage, were fitted with retractable screw propellers powered by locomotive engines. Their bows and bottoms were purposefully reinforced and internal heating and insulation systems installed.

Staffed by 129 hand-picked sailors, Crozier was appointed as Franklin’s second-in-command. This expedition, in search of a new western trade route, was the Apollo mission of its day, yet it vanished without a trace – the worst disaster in the history of polar exploration.

Who could have forecast that Erebus and Terror, which had so elegantly hosted Hobart’s ‘Glorious First of June’, would be involved in a maritime catastrophe of such magnitude, with Franklin, Crozier, and their entire crews, disappearing completely in the Arctic.