The Franklin Expedition: London Bridge, and the Fate of Two Victorian Steam Engines


Somewhere in the cold, dark arctic waters off the northern coast of Canada lie two early Victorian locomotive steam engines, perhaps still embedded in the crushed timbers of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the two ships of John Franklin’s tragic 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Little is known of the progress of the expedition, but by September 1848 the ships were trapped in ice somewhere off the north coast of King William Island. They remained there for two years, until April 1848 when the crew abandoned them and attempted to make their way south on foot. All 129 members of the crew eventually died of cold, hunger or disease. Although many scattered artefacts from the expedition have been discovered, as well as the remains of some of the sailors, it was only in September 2014 that the wreck of HMS Erebus was found in Erebus Bay at King William Island.


HMS Terror trapped in the ice

HMS Terror. An engraving after a drawing by Captain George Back from his 1836-37 Artic expedition.


What a strange resting place this is for the two steam engines, because once they had an active life of a very different sort, a kind of previous incarnation - as locomotives, one pulling up to the platforms of London Bridge Station, the first railway terminus to be built in London, and the second perhaps making it way to Birmingham's Curzon Street Station or to Brighton or Dover on the south coast.


The two engines had been sold second hand to the Navy by the early railway companies, but it not at all clear exactly which companies were involved and which engines were traded. It is said in an Illustrated London News report of the time that one engine formerly ran on the Greenwich Railway. This would have been the London and Greenwich Railway, which had in 1836 constructed the first suburban line in London – in fact, the first suburban line entirely on a viaduct in the world. After having rolled back and forth along a pioneering length of track from Greenwich to London Bridge, the wheels of the locomotive were removed and the engine fitted to HMS Erebus. It is possible that this locomotive was London and Greenwich Railway's Engine No. 4, and called Twells after John Twells, the deputy chairman and director of the company. By 1845 it was recorded as being sold in the company books. It was a Planet class locomotive of the type seen in the engraving below.


The second engine, destined for the Terror, would have been of the same class or similar, but may have been bought from either the London and Brighton Railway or the London and Birmingham Railway. A report from the Terror's captain, Francis Crozier, mentions it in relation to the Dover Line, which was an extension of the London and Brighton Line. However, the crew member, Lieutenant John Irving, says in a letter that it ran on the Birmingham Line. This statement has led some to suggest the engine was an Edward Bury bar-frame engine of the type known as "copperknob", because of the copper domed firebox. However, the short references are not specific enough to provide real proof of the origins of the engines.


A recent study by Peter Carney in his blog on the Franklin Expedition makes a good case for the engines being from the London and Croydon Railway, which operated out of London Bridge and which shared the viaduct tracks as far as Bermondsey with the London and Greenwich Railway. This idea is based on an attempt to match all known technical information about the ships and their design with the type of engines of the period that could be adapted for their new use. Two possible engines were called the Croydon, built by G and J. Rennie in 1838, and the Archimedes, also built by Rennie a year later in 1839.


The Erebus and Terror were both wooden three-masted sailing ships, very solidly built and typical of navy warships of the time. In order to prepare them for the artic expedition, they were fitted with the latest hot water systems to provide heat for both comfort and cooking. Each ship was given a steam generating stove for cooking, and on a lower deck a steam furnace that drew sea water from beneath the ship, heated it, and piped the steam generated around the ship for heating. The steam was then condensed to provide fresh water for drinking and cooking. In addition, the distilled water was used to supply the locomotive steam engines, which could not run on sea water. These engines were linked to propellers to supplement the sail power in calm weather or in making their way through ice. They were not expected to run all the time.


All these adaptions required extensive plumbing throughout the ships, and most of that plumbing was made up of lead pipes. It has been suggested that the lead plumbing contributed to the failure of the expedition, because hot water and steam coursing through lead pipes could have caused lead poisoning among the crew. Examination of the bodies of crew members revealed that they had serious lead poisoning, though such poisoning was common in Victorian England and the idea that it caused or added to the causes of the disaster remains speculation.


Setting sail from Greenhithe on 19 May 1845, the ships and their two early Victorian steam engines, perhaps both well known to the passengers on the platforms of London Bridge Station, never returned from their new pioneering adventure.


Engraving of Planet class locomotive

This is an engraving by William Miller after J. Kindar of a Planet Class Locomotive, showing side and front views. This is the type of engine that pulled the first trains into London. It was possibly an engine like this that was fitted to HMS Erebus.