Banbridge's Forgotten Hero

Ian Maxwell pays tribute to seaman, astronomer and explorer Francis Crozier

Anyone passing through the town of Banbridge cannot fail to be impressed by the magnificent monument erected in tribute to one of the town’s most illustrious sons.

Constructed in 1862, it was designed by WJ Barre with carvings by Joseph Robinson Kirk. The monument carries a colossal statue of Captain Francis Crozier, and on the weathering of each of the buttresses at the base of the statue stand grieving polar bears.

Few will know who he was or why he was honoured so lavishly by his home town.

Francis Rawdon Moria Crozier was born in September 1796, the fifth son of a local solicitor. At the age of thirteen he volunteered for the Royal Navy and by 1817 had received his certificate as mate.

He later joined Captain Parry as a midshipman on the Fury for an Artic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, the legendary route which joined the Pacific to the Atlantic. The expedition, which lasted more than two years, ended in failure.

Crozier was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1826 and in 1827 joined Parry’s failed attempt to reach the North Pole.

Base of the Francis Crozier monument, BanbridgeWhile Parry and a party of men had set off with sleds over the ice, Crozier remained in command of the ship. He put his time to good use, carrying out magnetic and astronomical observations for which he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

By 1841, and after several other expeditions, Crozier had risen to the rank of Captain and two years later was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his outstanding work on magnetism.

Crozier was offered overall command of a further expedition in search of the Northwest Passage but declined opting instead to serve as second-in-command to Sir John Franklin.

They departed on May 22, 1845, and reached Greenland six weeks later. Crozier wrote to his family on June 3, and was in high spirits.

‘All is prosperous; therefore all in high spirits. I like the officers very much; the first lieutenant is really a very superior fellow and the doctor – our only married man – again is a very nice proper man.’

He promised to write again. The expedition was last spotted on July 26 but vanished shortly afterwards - their fate was to remain a mystery for many years.

More than 40 search parties were dispatched. One expedition, led by Dr John Richardson and Dr John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company, found a few graves of Franklin’s party on Beechie Island.

In 1853, Rae met a party of Esquimaux who had some belongings of the last expedition, including a silver tablespoon with Crozier’s crest and the initials 'FRMC' scratched on it.

The Francis Crozier monument, BanbridgeHe was told that four winters earlier they had met white men dragging sledges, and four months later found their bodies.

Rae later established that both ships had been frozen in, between Victoria and King William islands, and the remnant of the expedition had left Beechie island in the summer of 1846.

Scurvy had seriously depleted crew, and when Franklin died of heart disease, Crozier had assumed command.

Lady Franklin financed an expedition in 1857, under the command of Captain McClintock of Dundalk, in one last effort to discover the truth about her husband.

In May 1859, a sledge party discovered under a cairn in the extreme north west of King William Island, a document dated 25 April 1848.

The document ended: ‘Sir John Franklin died on the 11 June, 1847, and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date nine officers, and fifteen men. FRM Crozier, captain and senior officer. Start on tomorrow for the Backs Fish River’.

Rae discovered that some reached this river on the mainland, but all had finally died. Much to the horror of Victorian Britain, the men had resorted to cannibalism in the end.

The search for the truth about the fate of Crozier and his colleagues continues to this day. In 1985, the graves from Franklin's first winter camp were opened, revealing three remarkably well-preserved bodies, looking not much different from the way they did when first buried.

The Francis Crozier monument, BanbridgeOne, John Torrington, his eyes open, was remarkably preserved for a man who had spent nearly 140 years buried in the ice.

Scientists took the opportunity to measure the lead levels in the soft tissue and hair from these bodies, as well as from bones recovered from King William Island, and found that at least some of the Franklin crew-members had suffered from lead poisoning, brought about by their canned foods.

There are no less than eight separate points in the world named after Francis Crozier, acknowledging his contribution towards exploration and science.

These include three Cape Croziers, Crozier Strait which lies between Cornwallis and Bathurst Islands and the Crozier River which is found near Fury and Hecla Strait.

The loss of the Franklin expedition caught the Victorian imagination, and a song about it became popular at the time which was usually sung to an old Irish folk tune. It finishes:

'In Baffin's Bay where the whale fish blow,
The fate of Franklin no man may know.
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell,
Lord Franklin among his seamen do dwell.
And now my burden gives me such pain,
For my long lost Franklin I would cross the main,
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To know that on earth my Franklin do live.'