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Sir John Franklin (1786–1847)

by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

This article was published:

John Franklin (1786-1847), by unknown engraver (after Thomas Phillips), 1840s

John Franklin (1786-1847), by unknown engraver (after Thomas Phillips), 1840s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9579236

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), rear admiral, Arctic explorer and lieutenant-governor, was born on 16 April 1786 at Spilsby, Lincolnshire, England, ninth of the twelve children of Willingham Franklin and his wife Hannah, née Weekes. He was educated at St Ives and Louth Grammar School until he entered the navy at 14; he saw his first active service a year later in the battle of Copenhagen. He served as a midshipman under Matthew Flinders, his uncle by marriage, in the Investigator, during its voyage of discovery in New Holland in 1801-04 and said later that this voyage kindled his lifelong passion for exploration. He returned to naval duty and showed 'very conspicuous zeal and activity' as signal-midshipman in the Bellerophon at the battle of Trafalgar. For three of the years of peace which followed he was ashore on half-pay, and continued his studies of geography and navigation begun under Flinders. He was at sea again on routine duty until 1818 when, as lieutenant, he sailed as second-in-command of an Admiralty expedition sent in search of the North-West Passage. It had to return without accomplishing much because its advance was blocked by ice, but this voyage channelled Franklin's general interest in exploration into the particular one of Arctic discovery. He led an expedition across Canada to Arctic America in 1819-22, traversing over 5000 miles (8047 km) and enduring appalling hardships. In his absence he was promoted commander and on his return captain. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1822 and in 1823 married Eleanor Anne Porden, by whom he had one child, Eleanor. In 1824-28 he commanded a second expedition to Arctic America, less dramatic than the first but of great geographical importance, and was rewarded by the gold medal of the Geographical Society of Paris, an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford and a knighthood. His wife had died during his absence and in 1828 he married Jane Griffin. There were no children of this marriage.

Franklin returned to naval duty and in 1830-33 commanded the Rainbow off the coast of Greece during its war of independence. He was decorated with the Greek Order of the Redeemer, appointed K.C.H., highly commended by the commander-in-chief and, on his return to England, received by William IV. He applied to the Admiralty for further employment, pointing out that for thirty years he had led an active life 'and therefore could not look upon the prospect of inactivity with complacency'. As England was at peace and no naval employment suitable for him was available, he accepted the lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen's Land, after obtaining from the Admiralty 'an avowal that this Civil Appointment would not militate against my future employment in the active line of my profession, to which I am devoted'. In January 1837, accompanied by Lady Franklin and Captain Alexander Maconochie, R.N. as his private secretary, he arrived in Hobart Town as successor to Colonel (Sir) George Arthur.

Van Diemen's Land was a dual-purpose settlement, both a free colony and a gaol, and there was a necessary conflict of imperial and colonial interests. The free colonists profited by the convict establishment, which provided them with a market for their products and a cheap labour force, but they resented the arbitrary form of government by a lieutenant-governor and a Legislative Council of his chief officials and some government nominees. Arthur had given primacy to the penal purpose of the colony, but the free colonists held that their interests should come first. They interpreted Arthur's recall as a concession to their point of view and received Franklin warmly as the herald of a new order. His sentiments were liberal and he hoped that the convict colony would soon become free and self-governing, but he had no power to change its Constitution, and the elation of the anti-Arthurites soon turned to disappointment, which was aggravated by Franklin's cordiality to the officials he inherited from Arthur. The most important were John Montagu, the colonial secretary, and Matthew Forster, chief police magistrate and head of the convict establishment, both of whom owed their appointments to Arthur's recommendation, had received free land grants from him and had married into his family. Montagu was a cold, calculating, ambitious man and an extraordinarily able administrator; Forster was less able, less industrious and also less calculating, a man of coarse fibre, with a brutal attitude towards the convicts. Together with Sir John Pedder, the chief justice, and John Gregory, the colonial treasurer, these officials and their supporters were regarded by the anti-Arthurites as forming 'the Arthur faction'. Both they and their enemies expected Franklin to be hostile to them. But Van Diemen's Land was an isolated island, rather like a ship; it seemed to Franklin quite natural that the officers of his new command should look back with nostalgia to their old captain, but he hoped to make his government a happy ship and tried to make friends with them. They interpreted this as weakness, despised him for it, and determined to keep affairs in their own hands, while the anti-Arthurites felt that although Franklin was personally good and liberal he was dominated by bad and reactionary men. Both Maconochie and Lady Franklin warned him that the Arthur faction meant him no good, but he was slow to believe it.

Soon after Franklin's arrival a British parliamentary committee under Molesworth began its investigations into convict transportation. The system of convict discipline then in use, assignment, was severely criticized. Under this system those convicts considered safe to be at large, and not required for public works, were assigned by the convict authorities to work for the colonists. The system was arbitrary and capricious in principle and in practice open to many abuses, and Maconochie, having observed it in action, thought it wrong and was openly critical of it. For the time being, however, it was the system in force, which Franklin had to administer, and as he believed some of the evidence against it tendered to the Molesworth committee to be prejudiced and partial, he was its moderate apologist. He felt compromised by the activities of his secretary and dismissed him in 1838. The separation was inevitable but unfortunate, for it deprived Franklin of a friend who, however indiscreet, was an educated man of humane sentiments with no private axe to grind; for the remainder of his term he had only his wife to confide in.

Franklin's period of office spanned difficult years. When transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1840 it was increased to Van Diemen's Land, and hopes of self-government faded as the proportion of convicts in the population rose. The system of convict discipline was changed from assignment to probation, which was based on the principle of segregating the convicts instead of dispersing them through the island and the free population. This involved a complete reorganization and Franklin was given very inadequate means for the purpose. Towards the end of 1840 an economic depression of great severity, which was to last five years, struck the hitherto prosperous community. Banks failed, shop-keepers, merchants and landed proprietors went bankrupt and free immigrants, brought in to replace the convict labour force, could not find employment. In an autocratic system of government its head is blamed for whatever goes wrong, and from the latter part of 1840 nothing went right.

At the best of times the nature of the Tasmanian community caused tensions and frictions. The free colonists resented the officials, appointed in England, who ruled over them and who looked down on them, or were felt to do so, as colonials. The military establishment, necessary for security in a convict settlement, was irked by civil control. The convicts resented government, soldiers and colonists alike, and nearly everyone despised and feared the Aboriginals. Maconochie reported that 'the selfish feelings everywhere predominate; their expression everywhere runs riot; and as everyone, from highest to lowest, appeals directly to the Governor, the turmoil in which he lives is incessant'.

Franklin believed that lack of education and impersonal interests and of a sense of community were remediable causes contributing to the state of inflamed feelings, suspicion and bitterness in which the Tasmanians lived, and his most constructive work was in attempting to foster culture and to fabricate social cement. Although a measure of state aid had been given to education since 1817, Franklin was the effective founder of the Tasmanian system of state primary instruction. He would have preferred a religious system, but as that proved impracticable he established a secular one, despite the denunciation of his 'Godless' schools by the Church of England, of which he was a devoted member. He imported teachers from England to staff the new schools. He was the founder of Christ's College, an institution for higher education, to which the new secondary schools, the Launceston Church Grammar School and the Hutchins School, Hobart (neither of which, however, was opened until after he left) were to act as feeders. His government established scholarships to enable Tasmanians to study at English universities. He founded the Tasmanian Natural History Society, some of whose members later formed the first Royal Society outside the British Isles, and he subsidized the Tasmanian Journal of Natural History. He took an active interest in every cultural agency in the colony, showed marked respect to teachers of all ranks and furthered the work of scientists such as John Gould and Strzelecki. He advocated exploration and made an expedition through the wild country between Lake St Clair and the West Coast. He founded the Hobart Anniversary Regatta in the hope that on at least one day in the year the people of the contentious little capital would be brought together in harmony by a common love of sailing and of their beautiful harbour.

In February 1839 Montagu went to England on leave and did not return until March 1841. Having carried on the government so long in his absence, Franklin probably felt more independent of him than in the past and showed it, and Montagu probably felt that his power was, to some extent, slipping from him and tried to regain it. From the time of his return there was a series of disputes between the governor and the colonial secretary, none of them of major importance, but ceaseless and harassing. Finally Montagu wrote Franklin an insolent letter, insinuating that his mind was failing, and Franklin suspended him from his office in January 1842. He later deprived Forster of one of his offices, that of director of probation, because he was dissatisfied with his conduct of the new method of convict discipline. Montagu went to England to appeal against his suspension; he was successful and Franklin was censured and recalled in 1843.

When he was appointed to the lieutenant-governorship of Van Diemen's Land, Franklin was nearly 50 and without any previous experience of a civil appointment. He worked extremely hard and appears to have been a conscientious and adequate if not brilliant administrator. The volume of vituperation against him in the Tasmanian press, at least after 1840, suggested that he became as unpopular as Arthur had been. It was not really so. Despite the discontents about which they were so vocal, the colonists were aware of his goodwill and grateful for his efforts, and his statue in Franklin Square, in the heart of Hobart, is a symbol of his place in their affections. Life in the navy and the Arctic had habituated him to danger, discomfort, arduous work and the self-sacrifice proper to a leader, but had insulated him from the ways of the world. He knew nothing of situations in which men were not all working towards one end, nothing of politics and politicians, nothing of intrigue and chicanery, and they all flourished as rankly in Van Diemen's Land as trees in a rain-forest. The misery of the convicts and the hopeless plight of the Aboriginals weighed heavily on Franklin's spirits; he could do little for them but had the temperament which must suffer with the suffering. A convict colony was no place for a sensitive man and his wife said that he was sensitive 'beyond conception' and added that Van Diemen's Land was a country 'where people should have hearts of stone and frames of steel'. Franklin was not the imbecile that Montagu supposed him, but he knew no evil and his innocence was, no doubt, a standing temptation to Montagu to try to manipulate him. So too was Montagu's own expertise; in his subsequent career in South Africa he again distinguished himself for efficiency and again fell foul of his governor.

Montagu stated that the whole case he put against Franklin in London had turned on Lady Franklin's interference in the business of government; he alleged that he had been suspended for expostulating against it to Franklin. It was true that Franklin habitually discussed business with his wife and welcomed her assistance; she was a very intelligent woman, as devoted to the colony as he was, and the only person he could trust. But he did not always take her advice and there is no evidence of her improper interference in government business. He returned to England smarting under a sense of injustice. The charge of petticoat domination was peculiarly humiliating for a man who, almost from childhood, had fended for himself with great distinction in the womanless worlds of the navy and the Arctic. He besought the British government to reconsider its judgment on his service in Van Diemen's Land and his friends exerted themselves on his behalf, but in vain: it seemed likely that his career would end in dishonour.

A naval expedition was once again being organized to search for that North-West Passage for which Englishmen had been seeking since the days of Queen Elizabeth. Franklin reminded the Admiralty of its promise that his having held a civil post should not debar him from further naval service. When James Clark Ross, the only officer with superior claims to the leadership of the expedition, declined it, the Admiralty kept its word and offered it to Franklin. At 59 he was too old for Arctic exploration, but so desperately anxious to vindicate his name that Sir Edward Parry said Franklin would die of disappointment if he were not allowed to go. He died on this expedition, in the Erebus, which was beset in the ice-pack off the coast of King William's Land, on 11 June 1847, in sight of the North-West Passage which he had first set out to find nearly thirty years before, and of which he was officially recognized as the discoverer. The wound received in Van Diemen's Land had been the spur to the achievement of his heart's desire.

Franklin wrote two books: Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819-22 (London, 1823) and A Narrative of Some Passages in the History of Van Diemen's Land During the Last Three Years of Sir John Franklin's Administration in the Colony (London, 1845). There is a memorial to him in Westminster Abbey with an inscription by Tennyson, a statue by Matthew Noble in Waterloo Place, London (of which the Hobart statue is a copy), another by Charles Bacon at Spilsby, a bust by A. C. Luccesi, a brass medallion signed 'David, 1829' (Mitchell Library, Sydney) and a bas-relief profile made during his time in Tasmania (Royal Society, Hobart). There are portraits by Thomas Phillips (Birmingham Art Gallery), W. Derby (Greenwich Hospital) and J. Jackson, R.A., a miniature by the French court painter Negelin, and a lithograph signed 'T. N. Hobarton' (Mitchell Library).

Select Bibliography

  • K. Fitzpatrick, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania 1837-1843 (Melb, 1949), and for bibliography
  • F. J. Woodward, Portrait of Jane (Lond, 1951)
  • J. V. Barry, Alexander Maconochie of Norfolk Island (Melb, 1958)
  • A. G. L. Shaw, ‘The Origins of the Probation System in Van Diemen's Land’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 6, no 21, Nov 1953, pp 16-28.

Citation details

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, 'Franklin, Sir John (1786–1847)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Franklin (1786-1847), by unknown engraver (after Thomas Phillips), 1840s

John Franklin (1786-1847), by unknown engraver (after Thomas Phillips), 1840s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9579236

Life Summary [details]


16 April, 1786
Spilsby, Lincolnshire, England


1847 (aged ~ 60)
at sea

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