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The Collation

The Royal Arctic Theatre and HMS Resolute

During the seemingly-endless heat waves of summer, I am drawn to reading about polar exploration. A few years ago I mentioned to a Folger colleague that I had just finished reading Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, and she replied, “Do you know we have a theatre bill from an arctic expedition?” I did not! I had not expected to find anything related to polar exploration in our collections, so I had to drop everything and look at the theatre bill. In what follows, I will provide some background on polar exploration, HMS Resolute, and printing at sea, before turning to the playbill itself.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin led HMS Erebus and HMS Terror1 on an arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Franklin was not new to expeditions; he was already known as ‘the man who ate his boots’ after his Arctic expedition from 1819-1822 did not go according to plan. He and his men tried eating their boots, among other delicacies (lichen, etc.), to avoid starvation.2

This Monday-morning quarterback is not sure she would have wanted to sign on for a new expedition under Franklin, even though he did have one successful expedition in the intervening years.3 However, the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, and it will likely come as no surprise that Franklin’s 1845 expedition is now known as the Lost Expedition. He and his men were never seen again.

Most polar expeditions lasted several years and ships were outfitted with provisions for multi-year voyages, so initially there was little concern when Franklin and his men did not return. It wasn’t until 1848, three years after the Franklin expedition set sail, that the first expedition was launched to search for Franklin, the ships, and his 128 crew members. Captain Henry Kellett led HMS Herald on that search in 1848, but they did not find Franklin.

During 1850-1851, HMS Resolute under Captain Horatio Thomas Austin went on another expedition to find Franklin. They returned to England in 1852, also sans Franklin, his ship, or his crew. Over the next decade, there were dozens of other expeditions that searched for Franklin, from several countries. But the British Admiralty launched one last major effort to find Franklin in 1852—a full seven years after Franklin’s expedition had launched—in what became known as the Belcher Expedition. Sir Edward Belcher led five ships on the expedition: HMS Assistance, HMS Resolute, HMS Intrepid, HMS Pioneer, and HMS North Star. On this expedition, the aforementioned Captain Henry Kellett was captain of the Resolute.

One way that officers and crew occupied their time during the long, dark Arctic voyages was by putting on theatre productions. This was common shipboard entertainment and they prepared for it in advance. This is evident from the following letter from the ship’s surgeon on the Resolute, William T. Domville, thanking actor Charles Kean for a gift of a wardrobe for the “Arctic Theatre”.4


Manuscript letter from William T. Domville to Charles Kean, Y.c.786 (1)

Her Majesty’s Ship Resolute

29th April 1852

off Cape Wrath


I am requested on the part of the officers and crew of this ship to acknowledge the receipt of the wardrobe for the Arctic Theatre, and to convey to yourself and Mrs. Kean their thanks for the very kind and liberal manner in which they were presented.

Yours very faithfully,

William T. Domville

It was not enough to put on theatrical productions; they even printed playbills while at sea. This was no mean feat in the Arctic. In her article “Publishing and Printing on Board Ship”, Vanessa Histon explains that the ink would freeze, so they would have to hold a candle under the inking plate to keep it warm enough. This resulted in uneven print quality.5 Histon quotes from a playbill for Hamlet and The Scapegrace, produced on board the Assistance on December 21, 1852: “N.B. The business of the Printing Office is considerably retarded, in consequence of the ink freezing on the rollers. – Printers Devil”6

As an armchair historian, I had been unfamiliar with the practice of printing at sea. As Elaine Hoag notes in “Caxtons of the North: Mid-Nineteenth-Century Arctic Shipboard Printing”, British vessels in the Revolutionary War sometimes had presses on board, while the French Navy systematically supplied presses and professional printers to its fleet so that they could produce administrative and tactical documents on board in both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.7

The expeditions sent to search for Franklin in 1850-1854 were outfitted with presses as part of their mission. One of the ways they hoped to find and aid any possible survivors was by dropping messages in the Arctic via small ‘fire balloons’. Histon explains how the balloons worked: “oiled silk balloons were filled with hydrogen (made by pouring sulphuric acid onto zinc filings) and to them were attached slow matches, about five feet long. Pieces of coloured paper and silk on which were printed details of the searchers’ position and intended routes, were attached to the matches with thread. As the balloon sailed along and the match burned, the papers were detached, and it was hoped that their bright colours against the whiteness of the snow would attract the attention of any survivor’s of Franklin’s party.”8

Some of these messages were printed before the vessel set sail with particular details supplied by manuscript just before the balloons were launched; others were entirely printed on board. Hoag explains that thousands of these messages were dropped in the Arctic, but to no avail; Franklin and his crew had died two years before the rescue missions started.9

In her book, The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration, Hester Blum explains that Arctic voyages had significant ships’ libraries, highly literate crews, and a culture of storytelling and theatricals. When the weather interfered with the search mission and the launching of balloons, they used the presses for shipboard newsletters, almanacs, reports, and the like.10 Schools were set up on board which required the printing of educational materials. Of course paper was at a premium, which sometimes led to printing on a variety of media. Lieutenant Sherard Osborn, on the Resolute, remarked that:“so great a passion indeed did printing become among them that when at length their stock of paper was run out they printed on chamois leather, on shirts, and in one instance on a blanket.”11

This sets the stage [ahem] for the Folger’s very own Royal Arctic Theatre playbill.

Playbill for the Royal Arctic Theatre's 1853 winter season on board the H.M.S. Resolute, BILL Box G95 A67 1853

The playbill, printed on plain weave fabric, reads:




This fashionable place of amusement will be opened for the season on Wednesday November 30th. 1853 when the Ships Companies will perform Shakespeare’s much admired Comedy,


The Characters sustained by, Messrs Joy, Mumford, Gauen, Nelson, Evans, Farquharson, Griffiths, Weatherill, Hulett, Whitefield, Biggs, Northhouse, and Gibson

To be followed by the Officers performing the laughable farce of


Characters by Capt McClure, Messrs Haswell, Mecham, Pim, Krabbe, and Nares.

During the interval the audience will be amused with Comic songs, recitations, &c. in Character.

A Splendid Band will be in attendance, under the Chef d’Orchestre Sorg Woo R.M. and will consist of the following Performers: Messrs Cornelius, S Dean, Parr, Ganniclift, Humphrey, Bell, Morgan, Anderson, and Bonnsell.

Doors open 6 P.M. Performances to Commence at 6.30. precisely.


Resolute Press.


I cannot help but wonder if this playbill was once part of someone’s bedding.

Knowing the fate of the Resolute makes the current existence of this playbill all the more remarkable. This playbill was presumably printed in November 1853, by which time the Resolute had been frozen in the ice for four months.

While it was expected that ships would remain locked in ice all winter and that sailing would resume after the summer thaw, this was not always so. On a search for Franklin’s expedition that had launched in 1850, the Investigator was stuck in the ice. Captain Kellet found the Investigator, which was still icebound in spring 1853. Kellett ordered Captain Robert McClure and his crew to abandon the Investigator, so they were on board the Resolute that year. If you look at the playbill again, you’ll see that Captain McClure has top billing in the performance of “The Two Bonnycastles”.12

When the Resolute was still stuck in floe ice in spring 1854, Sir Edward Belcher ordered Captain Kellett to abandon ship. Kellett protested but obeyed orders. In May 1854, Kellett led his men, including the men from the Investigator, on a march to Beechey Island where they met with others ships of the expedition. Belcher also abandoned the Assistance, Pioneer, and Intrepid during the expedition. Belcher was preparing to board all the crews onto HMS North Star to return home in summer 1854, but the relief ships HMS Phoenix and HMS Talbot arrived and the men were divided to crew the three ships for the return voyage.13

In addition to the documents in the Folger’s collection, there is another local connection to the Resolute. The British Government printed notices in the press that the abandoned ships were still considered the property of Her Majesty, but they made no attempts to salvage them. The Resolute was found in 1855 by American whaler George Henry, captained by James Buddington of Groton, Connecticut. By right of salvage, he took possession of the ship and it arrived at New London, Connecticut on Christmas Eve of 1855. The US was nearly at war with Great Britain at the time, and Senator James Mason of Virginia thought it would be a good idea for the US to restore the Resolute and return her to England as a gesture of good will. Congress purchased the Resolute for $40,000, refitted the ship, and presented it to Queen Victoria on December 13, 1856.

The Resolute stayed in home waters until it was retired in 1879 and salvaged for timber. Three desks were commissioned from the timber, including the Resolute desk, which was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 as a gift from Great Britain. The desk was moved to different rooms in the White House during subsequent presidencies until Jacqueline Kennedy had the desk restored and moved to the Oval Office during John F. Kennedy’s administration. It was exhibited for several years after Kennedy’s assassination, but then it was returned to the White House. It has been used by most presidents since 1977, except by George H. W. Bush in his second term.

President Barack Obama sits behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office
President Barack Obama sits at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, 2009

Queen Victoria kept another desk made from timbers of the Resolute for use on her yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert. That desk is now in Kensington Palace.

A third desk was given to Sarah Minturn Grinnell, the widow of American merchant and philanthropist Henry Grinnell. This desk was given in recognition of his financial support for the two “Grinnell expeditions” that went in search of Sir John Franklin and his ships, as well as his role in having HMS Resolute purchased, refitted, and gifted to Queen Victoria.

Henry Grinnell had befriended Lady Franklin, who spent years pleading with governments and individuals to launch expeditions to determine the fate of the Franklin expedition. Explorer John Rae had learned the fate of Franklin’s expedition in 1854 through contact with several Inuit families who came to trade relics. The Inuit families reported meeting the last forty or so survivors several years previously and then came across their corpses the following spring; those corpses showed evidence of cannibalism. Rae traded with the Inuit for a silver plate which was engraved on the back with “Sir John Franklin, K.C.H.” Rae returned to Great Britain and prepared two reports: one for the British Admiralty, and a public one that made no mention of cannibalism. The Admiralty sent the wrong report to the press, and there was public outrage over the idea of Englishmen resorting to cannibalism.  Lady Franklin enlisted the help of Charles Dickens to publicly attack Rae and his claims. Lady Franklin continued to hope that a hidden cache of documents in the Arctic would explain what happened to her husband and the crew.

Henry Grinnell played an instrumental role in having the salvaged Resolute restored and given to Great Britain because he had hoped that this would prompt the British Admiralty to launch another search for the fate of the Franklin expedition, even though it was a full eleven years since the Franklin expedition had set sail. This did not happen.

Lady Franklin was able to join forces with master mariner and explorer Allen Young to purchase and outfit the former HMS Pandora to attempt one last search in 1875, thirty years after the Franklin expedition set sail. However, the Pandora had to turn back because of ice, and Lady Franklin died that same year.

The Grinnell desk is now at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

  1. This is the best name for a ship. Full stop.
  2. See Anthony Brandt, The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage (London: Cape, 2011).
  3. He also served as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, from 1837 to 1843.
  4. Charles Kean gained acclaim for his performance as the lead in Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1838. He was the son of actor Edmund Kean.
  5. Vanessa Histon, “Publishing and Printing On Board Ship”, Nineteenth Century Short Title Catalogue Newsletter no. 3 (Dec. 1985). (Author’s note: Apologies, but my very dog-eared copy of this article lacks pagination so I will not be able to cite page numbers.) See also Vanessa Histon Roberts, “Publishing and Printing on Board Ship,” The Mariner’s Mirror 74:4 (Nov. 1988): 329-334.
  6. Quoted in Edward Belcher, et al., The Last of the Arctic Voyages, vol. 1. London: L. Reeve, 1855, p. 188.
  7. Elaine Hoag, “Caxtons of the North: Mid-Nineteenth-Century Arctic Shipboard Printing,” Book History 4 (2001): 82. Fun fact: the British ship Phoenix manufactured counterfeit Continental currency off the coast of New York in 1776, in an attempt to disrupt the American economy. Hoag, 81.
  8. Vanessa Histon, “Publishing and Printing On Board Ship”, Nineteenth Century Short Title Catalogue Newsletter no. 3 (Dec. 1985).
  9. Hoag, 83. See Hoag, 84, for a photograph of one such exceedingly rare surviving balloon message. For more on the discovery of the fate of the Franklin expedition, see Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The True Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002; Ken McGoogan, Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005; and David Murray, The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock, Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin, Cork: The Collins Press, 2004.
  10. Hester Blum, The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration, Durham: Duke University Press, 2019: 49-50. See also Hester Blum, “Like Twitter But Cold: On the Literary Culture of Arctic Expeditions”, April 26, 2019.
  11. Quoted in Vanessa Histon, “Publishing and Printing On Board Ship”, Nineteenth Century Short Title Catalogue Newsletter no. 3 (Dec. 1985).
  12. Both the Investigator and the Enterprise had been sent to look for Franklin by sailing eastward from the Bering Strait and Alaska. While Captain McClure and the Investigator were stuck in the ice, Captain Richard Collinson and the Enterprise stayed out of the ice during their Arctic voyage. After several years of searching, the Enterprise returned home. See William Barr, Arctic Hell-Ship: The Voyage of HMS Enterprise, 1850-1855, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2007.
  13. One other relief ship to the Belcher expedition, HMS Breadalbane, was crushed in the ice on 21 August 1853 and sank within minutes. The 21-man crew was rescued by one of the other relief ships, HMS Phoenix. It’s a wonder anyone made it out of the Arctic alive.