The Disappearance of Captain Francis Crozier – Frozen in Time

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Francis Crozier was an Arctic explorer of great skill and bravery. His disappearance with his ship and crew and the ordeal that followed has been a subject of mystery and fascination since Victorian times.

Captain Crozier - The Fateful Voyage (Banbridge Commemorative Artwork)
Captain Crozier – The Fateful Voyage (Banbridge Commemorative Artwork)

Francis Crozier Family Background

Francis was born on 17th September 1796 in the County Down town of Banbridge, 25 miles from Belfast. His father George, was a solicitor and had built the family home Avonmore House in 1792. It is situated at 15 Church Square in the town.

Family Home - facing the Crozier Memorial
Family Home – facing the Crozier Memorial

His mother was Jane Elliott Graham from Ballymoney Lodge, near Banbridge. Francis was the 11th of 13 children. Rachel, Martha, Elizabeth, Jane, Sarah, William, George, Thomas, John, Charlotte, Francis, Margaret and Graham. His full name was Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, after his father’s friend Rawdon-Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira.

Francis and his siblings attended the local school. Two of his brothers went on to become Presbyterian ministers, and another Thomas, joined the legal profession.

Career in the Navy

Early Years

However, Francis seems to have had a desire for adventure. Supported by his parents, at the early age of 13 he left home and travelled to Cork to enlist in the Royal Navy as a ‘first class volunteer’.

“It was the beginning of a lifetime of duty and devotion to the Royal Navy”

Michael Smith, Captain Francis Crozier- Last Man Standing? 2006

By 1817 Crozier had his certification as Ship’s Mate. He had already numerous voyages ‘under his belt’ including serving on the HMS Hamadryad, HMS Briton and HMS Doteral.

Captain Francis Crozier (Banbridge Street Artwork)
Captain Francis Crozier (Banbridge Street Artwork)

He had sailed to the Cape of Good Hope and to Pitcairn Island in the southern Pacific Ocean. Here he met the last surviving mutineer from Captain Bligh’s Bounty, John Adams.

The North West Passage

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty set its sights on exploration. Three areas of the world were still little known at the time – Antarctica, the North Pole and the North West Passage. The North West Passage was the sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Sea along the northern coast of Canada.

In 1821 Crozier joined Captain William Edward Parry’s expedition to traverse the North West Passage. This was Captain Parry’s second attempt at the journey. However, this and two more arduous journeys undertaken by Parry and Crozier were thwarted by atrocious weather conditions and the southward drift of thick ice sheets.

Charting Antarctica

The Ross-Crozier Mission

In 1839, now a lieutenant, Francis Crozier enlisted with James Clark Ross, on a four-year expedition to explore and chart Antarctica. Clark commanded HMS Erebus and Crozier as his deputy commanded the HMS Terror.

James Clark Ross was born in 1800 in London into a sailing family. His uncle Sir John Ross was already a noted Polar explorer. James entered the Royal Navy just a few days before his 12th birthday. His Antarctica journey [1839-1843] set to map the icy region and to conduct ‘magnetic research’. En route south, magnetic measurement stations were set up at St Helena, Cape Town, Kerguelen and Hobart.

James Clark Ross and Francis Crozier had met and worked together before and were firm friends.

On 1st January 1841, the Ross expedition crossed the Antarctic Circle. The teams were successful in exploring this unknown continent and were the first to produce accurate maps of the region. Their legacy is recalled in place names such as the Ross Ice Shelf and Cape Crozier.

Acknowledgement of Crozier’s Work

As second-in-command, Crozier was very involved with research and data collection. His experiments and discoveries were much plauded by the scientific community.

In 1827 Crozier was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society for his work carried out during the Parry voyages. In 1843, in recognition of the advances in understanding magnetism, Francis Crozier was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

“Throughout these polar expeditions Crozier experimented in magnetic observation, and by the 1840’s was recognised as an expert in this field”

David Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography

Return to the North West Passage

Participation in Sir John Franklin’s Voyage

In 1845 Crozier joined Sir John Franklin on a further attempt to explore and map a way through the North West Passage. This had the potential of being a highly lucrative trade route.

Controversy dogged the venture before it even departed. Many felt that Crozier, as the most experienced Polar explorer in the crew, should have been appointed commander. However, this role was given to 59-year-old John Franklin who had not taken a ship into ice in 27 years.

Captain Sir John Franklin - The Illustrated London News - 24th May 1845
Captain Sir John Franklin – The Illustrated London News – 24th May 1845

Usually the second-in-command, in this case Crozier, was in charge of the scientific work and in the selection of officers. Again, Crozier was by-passed and his junior James Fitzjames was given the role.

The reason behind this snub is thought to have been Croziers backround, ‘his Irish pedigree was regarded as an impediment’. Although having dedicated his life to the English navy, Crozier wasn’t deemed worthy of commanding an expedition. His background as a country solicitor’s son was considered too lowly to be appointed to such a high rank. So while Crozier’s colleagues such as Parry and Ross were rewarded, Crozier was ignored by the naval authorities.

“He was a modest, unassuming man who received scant reward from his superiors and who was never asked to write a book about his adventurous life and great exploits. Alone among his renowned circle of friends and fellow explorers – among them Parry, Ross and Franklin – Crozier did not receive a knighthood or any notable commendation for his prodigious efforts”

Michael Smith, Captain Francis Crozier – Last Man Standing? , 2006

Crozier’s Reaction

Crozier himself was at a low ebb. At 48 he felt his chances of promotion were remote.

Unlike his contemporaries he had no personal fortune and when not on active duty was living on half-pay. He had also suffered an emotional blow, when his proposal of marriage to Sir Franklin’s niece Sophy Cracroft, was refused. He wrote to his friend Ross

“In truth, I sincerely feel I am not equal to the hardship. I am, in truth, still of opinion as to my own unfitness to lead”

Francis Crozier, 30th December 1844

The Journey Begins

On 22nd May 1845 the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror sailed down the Thames to begin their epic journey north.

While many of the newly appointed officers did not have much experience in Arctic waters the ships themselves were well equipped. The bows were reinforced with steel to break through the ice and they were fitted with steam-powered propellers.

The Ships set Sail - The Illustrated Evening News 13th May 1848
The Ships set Sail – The Illustrated London News 13th May 1848

The ships were stocked with provisions to last the crew of 129 for up to 3 years. Preserved meat and livestock, soup and 8,000 tins of food were taken on board. Also 930 gallons of lemon juice to prevent scurvy.

“The arrangements made for the comfort of the officers and crews are excellent. The quantity of stores taken on board is considerable, and consists of preserved provisions of various kinds, a large quantity of tea, and extra strong West Indian rum, 35 per cent, over proof. The consumption is thus provided for a prolonged expedition”

Illustrated London News 24th May 1845

In addition to the two-legged crew, we are told there was a cat to catch mice, a dog called Neptune and a clothes-wearing monkey, to provide light entertainment.

The two ships were last sighted at Baffin Island, between Greenland and Canada, in July 1845.

Concern for the Missing Ships

In early 1847, with still no word from the expedition, some began expressing concern as nearly two years had passed. Sir John Ross (James Clark Ross’s uncle) and naval physician Dr Richard King urged the Admiralty to send a rescue mission.

Dr King in particular, pleaded for a rapid overland force to be ordered to Great Fish River, where he had fearfully calculated the ships were trapped. However, neither of these gentlemen ‘had the ear of the establishment’.

The government preferred to listen to the more politically acceptable advice of men like Parry and James Ross. They insisted there was no need for alarm, and that HMS Erebus and HMS Terror would be sighted any day on their successful return journey.

Cutting out of the Ice - The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1849
Cutting out of the Ice – The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1849

Search for the Missing Ships

The Search Party

By the end of 1847 however, fears about the missing Franklin expedition led the Admiralty to appoint James Clark Ross to head a search party to find the disappeared ships. Over the next 30 years, 26 search missions were carried out from England, France and America.

The Search Expedition - The Illustrated London News, 22nd January 1848
The Search Expedition – The Illustrated London News, 22nd January 1848

The English government offered a reward of £20,000 ( £1,000,000 in today’s money) for anyone rendering assistance in finding the Erebus and the Terror.

The Ice Breaks - The London Illustrated News, 13th October 1849
The Ice Breaks – The London Illustrated News, 13th October 1849

John Rae’s Discoveries

Meanwhile in 1853 an experienced explorer, a Scot named John Rae, employed by the Hudson Bay Company to map the northern Canadian coastline, came across an Innuit tribe. He noticed one of the men was wearing a gold cap band.

The Innuits informed him that they had seen white men on the snow-covered plains and had later found various items. They were able to produce a gold watch, a fork, and a plate inscribed ‘Sir John Franklin’. Included in the hoard was a silver tablespoon engraved with the initials FRMC.

Frozen in Time

In 1859, an expedition partially funded by Captain Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, made some significant discoveries.

Led by Leopold McClintock from County Louth on board the Fox, the sailors were led by some local Innuit people to a stone cairn at Cape Herschel on King William’s Island. Inside were the remains of a wooden box and a handwritten note signed by Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames.

The letter was dated 25th April 1848. It described how the Erebus and the Terror had been stuck in the Arctic ice for nearly two years. Captain Franklin had died on 11th June 1847 and Crozier had taken over command. Food supplies were running dangerously low. Twenty-Four crew members had died and most of the others were ill from scurvy or lead poisoning from the tinned food. Stuck in this bleak, white, hostile environment for months on end, morale was at rock bottom.

“The Eskimos have a word for the depression that often afflicts humans during the perpetually dark months of winter in polar regions: ‘perlerorneq’. It means to feel ‘the weight of life’ – a sentiment with a special resonance for Crozier and his beleaguered men”

Michael Scott, Captain Francis Crozier – Last Man Standing? 2006

The Trek For Survival

On Good Friday, 22nd April 1848, Crozier led the starving men onto the ice in a desperate journey to reach the Great Fish River. Here they hoped to find an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company. Abandoning their frozen vessels, the men took with them lifeboats on sleighs and whatever meagre rations that were leftand set off on a desperate walk for survival.

The 900 mile trek became a death march. The emaciated men struggled against the fierce elements but were unable to cover more than 2 miles a day.

“…but in this their last brave attempt to reach civilisation, hunger, weariness, and death overtook them, and, as an old Eskimo stated ‘they fell down and died as they walked along”

Belfast Telegraph 10th September 1933

Campsites, graves and human remains marked the route of their despairing journey. At the river 30 skeletons were discovered, the last of the crew of 129. These men had miraculously made the journey but there was no-one there to rescue them.

Francis Crozier - Frozen in Time
Francis Crozier – Frozen in Time

Crozier Stories

As is often the way in such cases, stories grew up around the ill-fated voyage. One was that Francis Crozier was the last man to perish. Another that the Innuits spoke of a man fitting Crozier’s description, who lived among them in the 1850’s and was a great hunter.

Another tale, which is borne out by cut marks on the bones, was that the desperate men resorted to eating the remains of their dead crew members.

Crozier Memorial
Crozier Memorial

Memorials & Recognition

In 1862 a memorial to Francis Crozier was erected in Church Square in his home town of Banbridge.

It is a statue of Francis in full naval uniform standing on a pedestal supported by four polar bears. The monument was designed by W J Barr of Newry and sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk. It is composed of Armagh limestone and polished red granite and stands at a height of 17ft.

Crozier Memorial Close-Up
Crozier Memorial Close-Up

In Seapatrick Parish Church in Banbridge is a touching plaque placed by Francis’s brothers and sisters. It is inscribed

‘Far from this spot, in some unknown but not unhonoured resting place, lie all that was mortal of Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier’

Memorial Plaque Inscription
Seapatrick Parish Church, Banbridge
Seapatrick Parish Church, Banbridge
Seapatrick Church Crozier Memorial
Seapatrick Church Crozier Memorial

A small collection of the relics found by John Rae are held in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

In remembrance of the tradgedy, the most western point of King William Island is called Cape Crozier. Even further from his native land, the lunar sea of Mare Fecunditatison on the eastern side of the moon, contains the ‘Crozier Crater‘.

Discovery of the Ships

In 2014 the wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered at the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf, a stretch of water between mainland Canada and Victoria Island.

In 2016 HMS Terror was found in nearly pristine condition in the waters of Amitruq Bay off the southern coast of King William Island. The bay had been officially renamed Terror Bay in 1910, even though the shipwreck was not discovered for another 100 years.

Francis Crozier Memorial View
Francis Crozier Memorial


“Captain Crozier was of an amiable and cheerful disposition, and his unbending integrity and truthfulness, won the affection and respect of those he commanded, as well as the admiration and firm friendship of all those officers under whom he served… And we doubt not that his Christian faith – always simple and sincere – was his comfort and source of peace in the last sad moments of his existence”

James Clark Ross, best friend of Francis Crozier


Polar Bear on Crozier Memorial
Polar Bear on Crozier Memorial with Family Home in the Background
Francis Crozier - Last Man Standing (Book Cover)
Captain Francis Crozier – Last Man Standing (A Book by Michael Smith)
Stern of the 'Terror' Crushed by Ice - Image published in the Illustrated London News - May 13th 1848
Stern of the ‘Terror’ Crushed by Ice – Image published in the Illustrated London News – May 13th 1848
River Bann - Source of the Banbridge Town name
River Bann – Source of the Banbridge Town name
Crozier Family Home
Crozier Family Home
Captain Crozier Blue Plaque
Captain Crozier Blue Plaque

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