These four tantalising words next to the name Frederick Pilkington on an old family tree piqued my interest. There had to be a story there!
No other information about Frederick, my first cousin 3x removed, except that he was one of ten children born to Richard Pilkington, of Gower, co Clare, and his wife Maria Blood. No dates given, but research revealed Richard & Maria married in Limerick, Ireland in 1805. So, I set about investigating Arctic expeditions of the 19th century. No small task, as the mid-1800's was the golden age of Arctic exploration!
The driving force behind this exploration was the search for the fabled Northwest Passage, which it was believed would provide a navigable sea-route through the islands in the Arctic Ocean lying to the north of the North American continent, thus connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
They must have been hardy men, those polar explorers, to brave the freezing elements, never knowing when or even if they would see home again. My reading revealed tales of ice-bound ships, often trapped for several seasons at a time. Reliance on dried and preserved foods, supplemented with whatever fresh meat could be procured by hunting or trading with the local Inuit people, meant that scurvy was a constant problem. A ration of lime juice was the only alternative to the fresh fruit and vegetables which would have prevented this. The harsh reality of living in such close proximity in cramped and confined conditions for prolonged periods would have been a major issue too.
So then, where in this was our Frederick? Stories of the Arctic expeditions filled the newspapers of the day, and it was these that provided the framework for my search. Without an exact birth year for Frederick, I reasoned that based on his parents marriage date, and traditional naming patterns, the earliest I could expect to find him on any expedition would be mid-1820's. Royal Navy expeditions led by William Edward Parry in 1827, by John Ross from 1829-1833, and by Captain George Back from 1833-1835, were the earliest possibilities. One thing which became apparent as I read was that the number of men who died on these voyages was extremely small, and none of those who died had the name Pilkington.
A random Google search one day brought up the name William Pilkington in association with the voyage of Sir John Franklin in 1845, but there was nothing initially to link this name to the man I was looking for, or even to confirm whether he was Irish or not. Then a year or so later, another random Google search, following one link after another, brought me to an article "The Royal Marines on Franklin's last voyage", by Ralph Lloyd-Jones, published in Polar Record 40 (215): 319-326 (2004). And there was Private 3rd Class William Pilkington, Royal Marine on HMS Erebus, born in Kilrush, Ireland. Now this was a coincidence worth investigating further!
With a William Pilkington of the right period and location, I was beginning to think maybe the old tree had the name wrong, but nothing else on the tree was wrong, so I didn't want to believe this. The break-through came during my visit to Ireland this year. I spent a day in the Church of Ireland Library in Dublin, scrolling through the old Kilrush parish registers, and there he was!
William Frederick, son of Richard Pilkington and his wife Maria, baptised in Kilrush on 12 July 1816.
According to the article in Polar Record, at the time of his enlistment in Bath, England on 12 November 1834, William Frederick was described as being 5' 8" tall, with brown hair and hazel eyes and a sallow complexion. As a younger son, William would have had to leave home to make his own way in the world, and joining the British Army was a common choice at that time.
Sir John Franklin was a former Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's land, who reached the rank of Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy. In 1845 he led an expedition of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage, a voyage from which no-one ever returned. What happened to this expedition became one of the greatest mysteries of the 19th century, and it is only now, almost 170 years later that the mystery is gradually being solved. What followed the disappearance of the Franklin party was a long list of search expeditions, some sent by the Navy, others privately funded and organised by Franklin's wife, and still others from America. The book "The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock, Discoverer of the fate of Franklin" by David Murphy tells of the expedition led by Irishman Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859. (Murphy, David (David James) (2004). The Arctic Fox : Francis Leopold McClintock, discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Collins Press, Wilton, Co. Cork)
While some of these expeditions had a degree of success in finding traces of the missing men, some of the most compelling evidence was uncovered by Dr. John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company, who in 1854 made an overland search for the Franklin men. He heard stories from the local Inuit about a group of 30 or so white men and a boat near the north shore of King William Island in 1850. It seems likely that William Pilkington was one of this group. Other stories from the Inuit began to emerge too. These theories as to the fate of the Franklin expedition have been explored in the book "Unravelling the Franklin Mystery - Inuit Testimony" by David C. Woodman (Woodman, David C. (David Charles) & EBSCOhost (1991). Unravelling the Franklin mystery : Inuit testimony. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal ; Buffalo).
The British government officially pronounced Sir John Franklin dead on 31 March 1854, although later findings confirmed his date of death as 11 June 1847. In 1866, a statue of Franklin containing a memorial listing all those lost on the voyage was erected in Waterloo Place in London.
However, it was not until 1981, 130 years after the event, that the puzzle really began to be solved. Modern forensics testing of artefacts and human remains revealed that the crew had died from lead poisoning, starvation, tuberculosis and hypothermia. Evidence of cannibalism indicated the desperate situation the men had found themselves in.
And now, in 2014 comes the news of the recent discovery of one of the ships, lying on the sea floor in the waters off King William Island in remote northern Canada. Further investigation by the Canadian search team has confirmed that it is the wreck of William's ship, the Erebus.
While the exact details of the death of William Frederick Pilkington and his final resting place are not known, it has been somehow satisfying to follow this story and piece together the missing last 5 or so years of his life. The Franklin expedition and the numerous searches and investigations which followed contributed much to the knowledge of the Arctic region and in his small way, our man contributed to this. William and his ship-mates were posthumously awarded the Arctic Medal in 1857, for service in the Arctic between the years 1845-1854. I feel now that he is no longer "lost in the Arctic".
William Frederick Pilkington
born Kilrush, co Clare, Ireland in 1816
died in the Arctic circa 1850
May he rest in peace.