HMS Unicorn and the Terror connection

The Franklin Expedition

To coincide with the broadcast of AMC’s The Terror, based on Dan Simmons’ book of the same name (24 April on BT Channel 332/381 HD or Sky channel 192) we take a look at the remarkable connection between HMS Unicorn and the Franklin expedition of 1845.

The Terror, produced by Ridley Scott and Dave Kajganich, tells the story of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic expedition but with an added supernatural twist.

Franklin’s lost Arctic exploration was a British voyage led by the experienced explorer Captain Sir John Franklin. On 19 May 1845 two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, departed from Greenhithe in Kent. Their aim was to traverse the unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage – the sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The Franklin Expedition of 1845

Last seen by whalers off the coast of Baffin Island in July 1845 the ships became icebound by 1846 and were finally abandoned in the Canadian Arctic in 1848. All 129 men including Franklin perished however the exact circumstances of their deaths remain a mystery.

There were a few Scotsmen on the expedition. On Erebus they included Quartermaster William Bell (35) from Dundee and Able Seaman Robert Ferrier (29) from Perth. Whilst on Terror, the crew included Quartermaster John Kenley (44) from St Monans, Quartermaster David McDonald (46) from Peterhead, Able Seaman William Shanks (29) from Dundee and Able Seaman Alexander Berry (32) from S. Ferry, in Fife, now known as Tayport, near Dundee.

John Weekes and Unicorn

Photo by Dylan Drummond (Son of the Sea – Video and Photography: http://www.sonofthesea.co.uk)

So how does this connect to HMS Unicorn, launched in 1824? Well, carved into the hold of Unicorn are the most noteworthy letters J.W. which have been identified as belonging to John Weekes who was Second Assistant to the Master Shipwright at Chatham between 1813 and 1822. These initials would have been cut to show that the timber was of proven quality and had been inspected by the Master Shipwrights.

That John Weekes was the father of a son of the same name, born in October 1805, in the very week of the Battle of Trafalgar, who consequently followed in his father’s footsteps and became a high-ranking Warrant Officer, Carpenter on HMS Erebus.

Gordon Morris as John Weekes

By a strange coincidence, the actor Gordon Morris, who plays Weekes Junior in The Terror, often visited HMS Unicorn as a child growing up in Dundee. It is very probable that that John Weekes, the Master Shipwright’s son, also visited Unicorn while she was being built at Chatham, therefore the actor must have unwittingly trodden the same decks as the tragic ship’s carpenter he was destined to bring back to life some two centuries later.

Finally J.W. is not the only marking on Unicorn though. Over 300 such markings can be found on Unicorn’s many timbers, particularly on the lower decks, and they provides some exciting insights into the people and organisations responsible for the construction of Royal Navy ships of the period. In fact, Unicorn provides both the most extensive and the best-preserved collection of timber markings from any ship of her era. Check out our blog post on these marks coming soon!

For more information on Franklin’s crew see Ralph Lloyd-Jones ‘The Royal Marines on Franklin’s last expedition’, Polar Record, 40 (215): 319-326 (2004) and ‘The men who sailed with Franklin’, Polar Record, 41 (219): 311-318 (2005).

Ralph Lloyd-Jones, Arctic Historian
Billy Rough, HMS Unicorn, Learning and Engagement Officer