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Frozen in time

PUBLISHED: 15:19 27 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:45 25 August 2010

DESPERATE: A depiction of an Arctic expedition.

DESPERATE: A depiction of an Arctic expedition.

A DESPERATE crew of explorers stranded on a desolate ice-sheet are forced to watch their adventurous ambition fall to grim demise as their friends gradually all die from exposure.

A DESPERATE crew of explorers stranded on a desolate ice-sheet are forced to watch their adventurous ambition fall to grim demise as their friends gradually all die from exposure.

One of the greatest disasters of Arctic exploration, Sir John Franklin's Victorian expedition to the North Pole is documented with tragic artefacts in a free exhibition at Greenwich's National Maritime Museum.

North-West Passage charts the European obsession with the frozen northern hemisphere, fuelled by the desire to discover a new trade route to the Pacific.

Following the stories of Royal Navy explorers in pursuit of this fabled passage, the exhibition centres on Commander James Clark Ross, Sir William Edward Parry, and Sir John Franklin - a generation who would later inspire the likes of Shackleton and Scott.

Exhibition curator Jude Holland, from Blackheath, said: "All of these men were all very brave and heroic, and also quite mad to want to go to the Arctic. Conditions were harsh with temperatures dropping to minus 32 degrees, unpredictable ice that could trap your boat and no waterproofs.

"The only contact with home was to give letters to whaling boat crews when you encountered them."

The grizzliest of the tales belongs to Sir John Franklin, a Trafalgar veteran who was commissioned to take two Navy ships to the Arctic to find the North Pole in 1845.

The commander's ships became trapped in the ice and for years the crew were left stranded with early tinned meat that gave them lead poisoning.

As the 129-strong crew began dying from scurvy and exposure, a party set off on a desperate and unsuccessful hike with lifeboats to the ice's edge.

A dramatic letter shows the crew's record that all was well in 1847 - a shaky addition in 1848 notes that Franklin was dead and the ships had been abandoned.

Miss Holland added: "They displayed great leadership skills and were able to manage expeditions whilst putting on entertainment for officers as well as men

"A lot hung off their character and spark, so the explorers were well known to each other and had a strong sense of camaraderie."

Demonstrating this close bond, Ross lived with Franklin's second-in-command, Francis Crozier, in a house near the Hare and Billet Pub in Eliot Place, Blackheath.

Captain Crozier would later write the addition to the famous letter reporting the crew were to try and escape the ice by foot.

His former housemate Ross later led an expedition to discover what had became of Franklin's expedition in 1849.

It's also worth noting that many of the ships used by the naval explorers were built in Deptford, however you won't find this local detail on display.

Curators finally added information on modern arctic exploration and global warming - the ice that once trapped the likes of Sir John Franklin is now melting alarmingly quickly.

The exhibition is brief and should only take 30 minutes to wander around.

Whilst it bustles with artefacts ranging from tinned meat to letters discovered among frozen corpses, a well-read Arctic enthusiast might find some of the detail limited.

The North-West Passage opened last Saturday and will run on until January 3, 2010.

jules.cooper@archant.co.uk

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