The 19th century was the age of discovery and exploration. Africa was opened up, Australia developed, the northern reaches of Canada traversed for the first time. But above all, people were fascinated by the polar regions. After all, who knew what riches might lie there and an easy route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Northwest Passage, was always possible.
In order to explore these snow-filled regions a number of different ships were converted or equipped. And one of them – perhaps the most famous of them all – had been built in Wales.
James Clark Ross expedition in Antarctic. Image: De Agostini/Getty Images
The Erebus was a Hecla Class bomb vessel, armed with two huge mortars and a number of smaller guns, launched from Pembroke Dockyard on 7 June 1826.
Designed by Sir Henry Peake with a specially strengthened hull, she was the 25th vessel launched from Pembroke Dock but served for only two years in her intended role in the Mediterranean. Then she was brought back to Britain for conversion into an exploration ship.
In 1839, under the command of Captain James Clark Ross, she left Britain bound for Tasmania, one of the original penal colonies in the continent. On 21 November 1840, now fully equipped and supplied and ready for a voyage into the unknown, she sailed out of Hobart to explore 'the great ice barrier' of Antarctica. It was to be a successful voyage.
By the end of January 1841 members of her crew had landed on Victoria Land and Mount Erebus on Ross Island had been named after the ship. Mount Erebus, standing at over 12,000 feet, is still the second highest volcano in Antarctica. The ship returned to Tasmania but was back in the ice fields the following year, this time in company with another exploration ship, the Terror.
The Admiralty intended this pattern – six months in Antarctica during the 'exploring season' followed by six months recuperation in Australia - to become a regular programme. With this in mind, at the end of 1842 both the Erebus and Terror sailed across the Pacific to the Falkland Islands where they were due a refit. Then the plans changed.
The ships were brought back to Britain to be fitted with steam engines and on 26 May 1843 the two vessels left Greenhithe on the Thames, bound this time for northern waters in the Arctic. Under the command of Sir John Franklin, the aim of the voyage was to collect scientific data and samples but also make an attempt to force a crossing of the Northwest Passage.
The Erebus and Terror were last seen entering Baffin Bay in the August of 1845 and, after that, they simply disappeared. It was the Victorian equivalent of Mallory and Irvine being lost on Everest or Livingstone going to earth in Africa. The ships had vanished and as the months went by with still no news of their fate, the public became morbidly fascinated with the story.
A massive search and rescue operation was mounted but it drew a complete blank. It was nearly 10 years before the full story was known. The Erebus and Terror had become icebound and, as the ice flows closed in, the strain on their wooden hulls grew immense. Eventually, the ships were simply crushed by the power of the ice and their crews were left with no alternative other than to abandon ship.
Neither ship has ever been found and their shattered hulls now rest below thick pack ice. Small wonder that the search parties were able to find no trace of the ships which, in the best traditions of sea mysteries, seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. It was, people thought, a tragedy and a mystery akin to the story of the Mary Celeste.
With his ships destroyed, Sir John Franklin had no alternative but to order that the sailors should try to trek overland to safety. Conditions, however, were desperate, the intense cold, and the men's clothing and health were hardly fitted for such an ordeal. One by one they dropped from exhaustion and hypothermia. Eventually all 130 men died during the attempt to reach safety.
Reports by local Inuits stated that the last surviving crew members resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to stay alive. Victorian sensibilities were offended and the reports strenuously denied. However, when the remains of the crew were found in the early 20th century, cut marks on some of the bodies actually supported the theory, unpalatable as it might be.
The story of the Erebus and her companion vessel certainly caught the imagination of the Victorians. It has continued to fascinate, a tale of tragedy and heroism that has been used many times in works of fiction. Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea refers to the disaster and the story has even featured in the Doctor Who episode Terror of the Arctic.
A tiny vessel of just 372 tons, the Welsh-built Erebus was no match for the Arctic ice. But the courage and fortitude of her crew remains to inspire anyone with a sense of history.