A story of incredible Irishmen and the Donegal Link to their Arctic Expeditions

HMS Terror and HMS Erebus

A story of incredible Irishmen and the Donegal link to their Arctic expeditions


Dearn Mc Clintock shares the incredible tale of the legendary vessel HMS Terror, which travelled to the frozen north and once sought refuge in Lough Swilly. 

During the 19th Century there was a series of explorations of the Earths’ Polar Regions in the quest for scientific research and Imperialism. In particular the search of the North Polar Region had as its holy grail the North West Passage across Northern Canada, which if found would significantly shorten the shipping lines from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as well as extend the British claim into the vast wilderness of the Arctic north.

At the forefront of these events were a number of prominent Irishmen, who led both a series of expeditions and subsequent rescue attempts when things eventually went wrong. But central to this story were two ships specially fitting out for Arctic exploration, namely HMS Terror and HMS Erebus that even today have a story to tell.

The First Explorers.

In the early 1800’s Irishman and scientist Edward Sabine set out to the Arctic regions to conduct a series of experiments to terrestrial magnetism, astronomy and ornithology first in 1818 and back again in 1819 to seek the Northwest Passage.

In 1819 Englishman John Franklin began his Arctic adventures, which would cast a long shadow over Polar exploration and ultimately result in great tragedy, but on this occasion he conducted an epic overland trek when his ship HMS Trent could no longer progress through the pack ice.

1821 saw the introduction of another Irish explorer Francis Crozier from Banbridge, Co. Down, Croziers fate will be linked to Franklin in later years.

The Ships

There were many ships involved in Polar explorations during this period but two are central to this story, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus.

In 1837 the introduction of these ships to the Arctic saw extremely strong ships specially fitted to protect them in the event they were beset by ice and these ships had indeed to be special as the demands on them became more arduous as the expeditions continued.

Terror was a bomb vessel built in Topsham Devon in 1813, just at the end of the Napoleonic wars. It was an especially strong ship, 31 metres long and 8 metres in width, sailing with a ships complement of 67 men and officers. Initially she was sail powered but later was further strengthened, heated internally and cork lined, in 1845 she had a steam engine added producing 30 hp to her propeller, all done to assist in navigating the elusive Northwest Passage.

Erebus was also a bomb vessel, built in 1826 and was of similar strong construction as Terror. She was slightly bigger at 715 displacement tonnes, 32 metres long and over 8 metres wide but had a similar complement of men and officers.

Also similar to Terror the Erebus was retro-fitted with cork lining and heating and subsequently had a 40hp steam engine fitted prior to her last voyage on the Franklin expedition.

However before this Artic strengthening Terror narrowly escaped sinking in 1837 when she was damaged by ice in Repluse Bay, North Canada and further battered by Atlantic gales, Terror barely made it safely back to the sanctuary of Lough Swilly, where she was beached by her Captain George Back.

From 1839 to 1843 Terror and Erebus sailed to Antarctica, where Crozier as the Captain of Terror met John Franklin when Franklin was the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. The two ships were back in Arctic action again in 1845 when Franklin led his ill-fated expedition to seek the Northwest Passage as Captain of Erebus, with Crozier commanding the Terror.

The Franklin expedition was last observed on the 26th June 1845 in Baffin Bay and from there sailed into oblivion, which introduced two other Irishmen into the story, namely Mc Clintock and Mc Clure.

The Search Commences.

By 1847 concerns began to be raised about the whereabouts of Terror and Erebus and in 1848 a rescue mission under the command of James Clarke Ross was sent out to search for the Franklin expedition.

As part of this expedition was a second lieutenant on board HMS Enterprise, Francis Leopold Mc Clintock from Co Louth, who would become synonymous with the Franklin searches. He now began his distinguished Polar career with a series of overland treks that established his reputation with regard to the use of sledges for transportation across the pack ice. However no evidence of the Franklin expedition or their fate was found.

In 1850 Horatio Austin was dispatched to the Atlantic side of Canada as the commander of a squadron of ships, with Leopold Mc Clintock now promoted to the post of first lieutenant of HMS Assistance.

By then 12 ships were searching for the Franklin expedition and Austin’s squadron found remains of a camp and graves of Franklin expedition but no records of what had happened. Over the winter of 1850 – 51 Austin’s’ expedition overwintered safely and made plans to conduct seven search parties across the ice when conditions were more favourable.

Mc Clintock was at the centre of this activity and when the sun returned his party were away for 80 days and covered 1,232 km in the process. However despite all the resources deployed no further sign of Franklin was found, despite begin tantalising close as discovered in later years to where Terror and Erebus had been lost.  In August 1851 Austin’s ships broke through to open water and returned home by October of the same year.

Simultaneously in January 1850 another rescue expedition was sent out, this time to search from the Pacific coast eastwards and this saw the introduction of Robert Mc Clure from Wexford as commander of HMS Investigator. While Mc Clure did not find Franklin he was credited with the discovery and first completion by sea and land of the Northwest Passage.

However Mc Clure’s ship Investigator became trapped by ice and over the next four years he was involved in a desperate attempt to keep his crew alive until help arrived for these unfortunate would-be searchers.

In 1851 another search for Franklin was put together and this time instructions were given to look for Mc Clure’s ship, as concerns for their safety were also growing. This search was under the leadership of Edward Belcher and he had four ships divided into two divisions under this command.

Uniquely one division had two Irishmen as ships captains, Leopold Mc Clintock in HMS Intrepid and Henry Kellett from Co. Tipperary in command of HMS Resolute. While no trace of Franklin was found the Belcher expedition rescued Mc Clure’s party, after what can only described as an extraordinary coincidence had occurred.

For in the autumn of  1852 another Irishman , George Frederick Mecham from Co. Cork discovered a record engraved into a sandstone rock at Winter Harbour,  Meville Island – in the centre of the vast Polar Region – that been initially left by Leopold Mc Clintock in 1851.

This record had been subsequently added to by Mc Clure in April 1852, which gave the location of the trapped crew from the Investigator and from this a party from HMS Resolute finally rescued them from the starving conditions that had overcome them.

The odds that two Irishmen travelling separately from the Arctic east coast would rescue another Irishman who had travelled in from the west have to be beyond imagination; certainly fact was stranger than fiction in this case.

After another winter in the Arctic the Belcher expedition eventually returned home in 1853 with the rescued crew from the Investigator and into some degree of controversy.


This was due to the instruction by Belcher to abandon two ships because to their ice bound nature, only to find that one of them eventually drifted free on its own accord and was subsequently boarded and claimed by a whaling party. 

However what was emerging as the main controversy regarding the Franklin expedition was the informed comments that the few human remains found had evidence of cannibalism. This was of particular anguish to Franklins’ wife, who continued to lobby for further searches to be commissioned.  

But from this stage on the British authorities had given up on finding any Franklin survivors and with the outbreak of the Crimean war did not have either the interest or the resources to mount any further searches.

The Last Search.

As a result of the authorities unwillingness to deploy any further searches Lady Franklin purchased the 177 tonne Fox, a hybrid sailing and steam ship and commissioned Leopold Mc Clintock to return to the frozen north one more time to search for the truth as to the fate of her husband and his ships’ crew.

Mc Clintock set sail on the 30th June 1857 and between then and February 1859 he prepared for three sledge parties to trek across the ice in search of evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition.

In May 1859 the Mc Clintock search party found skeletal remains and shortly after that a written record from the Franklin expedition was at last found.

This consisted of one page of paper that briefly explained the sad fate of Franklin and his remaining crew of 105, as they abandoned their ice bound ships and attempted to trek south to Canada in search of rescue.

Apparently when Franklin died in 1847 Crozier took overall command, however all died on the trek, the reason for the deaths are not evident even to this day, especially when compared to how Mc Clure, Austin, Belcher and later Mc Clintock were able to keep their crews alive and well until circumstances changed.

Mc Clintock returned home from the frozen north for the last time in September 1859 and was honoured for his achievements, ultimately reaching the rank of Admiral in the Royal Navy.

Arctic Travel

In the mid 1850’s travel across the Arctic was initially to discover an open waterway that would allow ships to traverse freely the Northwest Passage but no such obvious clear channel was found until the early 1900’s.

Exploration travel in the region was a combination of sailing into the pack ice with specially adapted ships, followed thereafter by trekking across the ice using sledges to carry essential survival equipment.

The preferred type and loading of man-drawn sledges involved either a 13 foot sledge drawn by a 10 men team or a 9 foot sledge drawn by a 6 man team. The sledge was made of a combination of Elm and Ash, with iron on the runners to prevent wear.

Each 6 man sledge weighted 56kgs and carried a waterproof tray or boat to ferry across over open water, which itself weighted a further 56kgs. Additionally there was an 8ft tent, sleeping bags, groundsheet, buffalo skin, spirt stove and spare clothing, which came to a total of 184kgs per sledge. Food for 40 days weighted another 398kgs making a total of 694kgs or 115kgs per man.

As the summer sun melted the pack ice it made travel during the day perilous and instead the explorers slept during the day and travelled during the night, staying away from the ship for as long as provisions and health allowed.

During the winter months preparations were made to increase the range by placing depots of stores at strategic sites across the pack ice, which allowed on one occasion Leopold Mc Clintock to make a journey that last 105 days, during which he covered 2,252 km and discovered 1,228 km of new coastline.

However the primary means of transport was the ships, which once free of the grip of winter ice allowed them to move to another search location and if possible overwinter and then commence a new search next summer when the conditions allowed.

Wrecks Found.

In the intervening years the wrecks of Terror and Erebus were not found, until that is the Canadian authorities mounted a search in 2008.

In 2014 the Canadian authorities announced that they had discovered the remains of Erebus near King William Island, this was followed in 2016 with a further announcement that the remains of Terror were found some miles away in the appropriately name Terror Bay

Both wrecks were found in shallow waters and some 50 km apart, Erebus in a depth of 11 metres and Terror in over 21 metres and in good condition. Terror was identified from the unique smokestack from her steam engine and was set up in a condition that would suggest that the last survivors may in fact have tried to sail her home, rather that trek out across the ice.

Without doubt it would be a diver’s dream to dive on a pristine wreck such as one of these, but the exact location of Erebus and Terror is kept secret and the site is a National Historic Site of Canada, to protect the wrecks from interference.

But by all accounts the wreck of the Terror is in excellent condition and remains a time capsule for contemporary examination of the conditions that the mid-19th Century Polar explorers endured.