HMS Terror. The Design, Fitting and Voyages of the Polar Discovery Ship


HMS Terror. The Design, Fitting and Voyages of the Polar Discovery Ship. By Matthew Betts. Published by Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2022. ISBN978 1 5267 8313 4

Reviewed by David Hobbs

Dr Matthew Betts is Curator of Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of History and he has established an international reputation as an expert on the polar exploration ships Erebus and Terror.

He worked with Parks Canada as a consultant both prior to and after the discovery of the ships’ wrecks in 2014 and 2016 respectively, having come to their attention when he discussed building a scale model of Terror that was as accurate to be as it could possibly be.  The resulting model has been displayed in both the UK and Canada.  He was the historical advisor for a major television drama series called ‘Terror’, a fictional account of events during the Franklin Expedition which was produced by AMC and broadcast in the USA and Canada.  It was also broadcast by the BBC in in the UK during 2021 and, although the basic story was fictional,  it won considerable acclaim for the accuracy with which the ships, uniforms and equipment were reproduced.

This is the biography of a remarkable ship that had a long career in different roles.  It is divided into four sections, the first of which describes her design as a bomb-ship armed with 13-inch and 10-inch mortars and her construction in Robert Davy’s shipyard at Topsham in Devon from 1812.  It then follows her career in operations against America during the Napoleonic Wars; her conversion to a polar exploration vessel in 1835 and her eventual loss as part of the Franklin Expedition seeking a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1848.  In 1814 she was one of five bomb ships that attacked Fort McHenry near Baltimore which fired more than 1,500 rounds between them.  The bombardment was watched by an American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, who wrote a lyric poem about it in which he described the ‘mortar bombs bursting in air’ during the night and illuminating the ‘star spangled banner’, the American flag flying over the fort.  It was subsequently set to music and became the de facto American national anthem long before it was officially recognised in 1931.  Terror’s part in the expedition led by James Clark Ross to the Antarctic between 1839 and 1843, during which period she visited Australia, is described at length.  The narrative ends logically with a description of the part she played in the Franklin Expedition from 1845 having been fitted with a state-of-the-art steam plant using a locomotive boiler and a propeller that could be retracted into the hull to prevent it being damaged by ice.  The machinery gave her the potential to move without using sails and may have played a critical part in her last movements.

The second section describes how Terror was fitted out for polar exploration in 1835 and again in 1845.  The strengthened hull and its fittings are illustrated with coloured reproductions of original Admiralty drawings from the collection held by the UK National Maritime Museum at the ‘Brass Foundry’ in Woolwich.  Part Three describes how the author made his model of the ship and how he helped AMC Television to build an accurate life-size replica for filming its series about the Franklin Expedition.  Photographs of the latter appear strikingly realistic and look as if they are images of the real thing.  This section also includes the author’s drawings of every detail from sash windows, through belaying pins to capstans, galley stoves and the ship’s wheels.  Planking, boats, davits and rigging are also described in intricate detail.  There are colour photographs of the author’s beautiful model under construction.

The final section is an epilogue that describes how the ship was discovered and there are colour photographs showing Parks Canada divers examining her.  The wreck was found well to the south of the position where her ship’s company first deserted her and is in an exceptional state of preservation, sitting upright on the seabed in Terror Bay.  She had not been crushed by the ice and into the living memory of the Inuit living on nearby King William Island one of her masts continued to stand clear above the surface.  Further dives by Parks Canada archaeologists are expanding our knowledge of the critical part the ship played in the expedition.  She was deserted by her ship’s company after more than a year trapped in sea ice but appears to have been re-manned later by a scratch crew that was too small to work the sails but sufficient to move her to her final location under steam power; her propeller can still be seen lowered in its operating position.  Remotely operated vehicles deployed into the hull show plates still stacked on shelves, guns in their racks and bottles in their storage frames although some bulkheads appear to have collapsed, presumably as the hull finally sank to the bottom with water rushing in.  The book is beautifully illustrated with paintings by Owen Stanley and James Ross to complement the drawings and illustrations from the contemporary Illustrated London News showing individuals and the interior arrangements of cabins.

In summary this is a fascinating book that would appeal to a broad readership, not just those with an interest in the Franklin Expedition.  Those with a wider interest in nineteenth century warship design can read about how a Moxon and Fraser galley stove worked, how Admiral Belcher’s patented system of watertight bulkheads were worked into the design and how Phillips’ patent capstan worked.  There are, no doubt, still many secrets to be revealed before Terror’s wreck undergoes its final forensic analysis but this book describes a unique vessel with considerable insight and an impressive level of research.  We may never know what happened in the last months of Franklin’s expedition but Matthew Betts gives a clear account of the part played by this  ship’s design, the constructors and the dockyard work forces that added to it over the years.  They gave her the ability to withstood storms and crushing sea ice that would have destroyed the majority of her contemporaries.  In 1845 Terror was at the cutting edge of technology and the descriptions of how her systems operated within this book add significantly to the historiography  of that era.

In summary, this is a very well-researched, beautifully-illustrated book that draws the reader into the ship and helps us understand how people lived in it and operated its systems.  It will continue be a valuable reference work that puts new discoveries by the archaeologists into context when they are found; it is written in a very readable style and, as you may have gathered, I found it to be fascinating.  I highly recommend it.


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