The Medallion on Irving's Tombstone


The 1881 monument to John Irving, Lieutenant on HMS Terror, at Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland.  One of only two men from the lost Franklin Expedition to return to the British Isles; the other one hundred and twenty-seven remain in the Northwest Passage.


At the base of his cross – at about eye-level where you can examine it – is a representation of the two sides of John Irving's Mathematics Prize from the Royal Naval College in Greenwich.  The original small medallion was discovered alongside an unmarked tomb in the Northwest Passage, by an American search expedition arriving four decades afterwards.


Written on the original's obverse side:  "GEORGIUS IIII D:G: BRITANNIARUM REX.  1820.  W. WYON F. MINT" (that last bit under the spine of the neck)


Written on the original's reverse side:  "SECOND MATHEMATICAL PRIZE.  ROYAL NAVAL COLLEGE.  Awarded to John Irving.  Midsummer 1830"


    Close-up of the tombstone math prize.  What does that say?  This is supposed to be a replica – but that writing looks different from the writing on the math prize's reverse side, particularly the outer edge.  It would have been good enough to not put any words at all, and just depict the wreath – that is exactly what the other side does, with King George's head.

    If the original inscription was deemed too lengthy, but you are nonetheless going to the trouble of choosing letters to carve into stone, why not just write Irving's name, and the date?

    It's entirely possible these letters were chosen at random.  But this is a representation of a known Franklin relic, a medallion that had its text printed in newspapers.  Now it is carved into a tall monument after a funeral that made national news.  The sculptor was a family business that wrote their name onto the side of the monument (see photo further below) – and they put this Irving math prize carving right at eye-level when you walk up to the monument.  It would have been significantly more distinct at the time than now after a century of erosion.

    I've made a lot of attempts at this.  If reading this looks impossible from the photo – it's not (see video below).  There are distinct, orderly letters there.  Those letters are not sometimes upside down or sideways, they are not mixed with numbers and symbols: they are regular and orderly letters, spaced into definite words.  But I've never gotten the words to form anything but gibberish, or a foreign language I don't recognize.  Or a Latinization of a foreign language.


(Click the gear icon and set Quality to 1080p if you want to have a prayer at this.  Get yourself on a big screen not a phone.)

    The stumbling block is – this carving being more than a century old – is that it's very hard to come up with a definitive transcription of the letters.  And until then, I can never quite accept that this is gibberish, when I know I probably still have a few letters incorrect.  Having just two letters wrong can make a word almost unreadcblo.


The 1881 burial of Irving's remains.  (Illustrated London News, Jan 11, 1881, page 61)


Back view of the Irving monument.  Almost the same perspective position as the newspaper sketch above (which faced south), but I am turned more to the left/east (and, the Irving monument wasn't yet there in the sketch – it should be right about where the coffin is).


Tombstone by McGlashen (but by the son not the father – this would be a few years after he had died), name carved on the east side.

Inscription on the cross.


Lower inscription:  DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI.
   [rough translation: "It is proper/decorum to die/mori for one's fatherland/patria"]

N.B. –
It's important to read this with the correct context – to not apply the standard analysis this epitaph would get on a Victorian war memorial.  This was a mapmaking expedition.  Not a charge into machine gun fire:  no expedition by the Royal Navy to the Northwest Passage had ever failed to return.  Here it's the word "Decorum" that matters most, not the Death & Fatherland part.
The Franklin Expedition was expected to succeed nobly, even easily.  Then it vanished without a trace – and then at last came reports of horrific mass death and cannibalism.  Even after this monument was built, one of the principal search captains would question whether the expedition should be commemorated at all.*  The purpose of this epitaph would be to frame the disaster as something not shameful, by associating their deaths with the accepted nobility of dying in defense of one's country.  Horace aside, the second half of the epitaph could have been been anything – they died for science, for truth, they gave their lives for exploration, for the study of geography and magnetism, they died expanding human knowledge, etc.  If it were written in our era, that is probably what it would say.
     So while Victorians choosing a war death comparison for naval men is unsurprising, viewing this epitaph through a militaristic lens is to miss the real intention.  The British Franklin Expedition resembled something closer to a scientific mountaineering trip, with this epitaph setting a frame of reference after that trip turned into mass death and humiliation at the top of the mountain.  Such was the disastrous scale of it that here lies one of only two men that ever made it home.**

*  Erasmus Ommanney, London Evening Standard, 29 Nov 1894.  "With regard to your suggestion, would it be wise to commemorate a disastrous Expedition?"

**  Both returned by American expeditions, oddly enough – and both Scots who had lived in Edinburgh (unless, that is, a modern study of these remains changes the attribution away from John Irving – that study is now being planned).


Dean Cemetery photos by Logan Zachary.  Except this last one by Alison Freebairn, of me using the flashlight to try to read the math prize inscription.  This is about the time I was realizing the replica's words did not match the original medallion.

Special thanks to Alison Freebairn, who has now introduced a number of Franklinites to Dean Cemetery.  She organized this visit for me and knew the graveyard like the back of her hand, with anecdotes along the way about other graves and their relationship to the Franklin expedition.  She also knows a good place nearby for Hungarian goulash.

– LZ, May 9, 2020