The Missing Toy Sledge from Erebus (The Last McClintock Relic)


This was a small toy sledge, made by the Inuit.  It was sketched while on display at the Royal Naval Exhibition, London – in 1891.  The wood was likely taken from the abandoned wreck of HMS Erebus.

The toy sledge had been lent to the 1891 exhibition by a man in his 70s, Francis Leopold McClintock.  He had picked it up in the Arctic when he was in his 30s.  His had been the first search team to reach the island where the Franklin Expedition had disintegrated and vanished.

McClintock with three recovered relics. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London  (detail)

The toy sledge was in fact the last Franklin relic that McClintock recovered – after he had ended his search for traces of “the lost ones.”  It was found just off shore on the ice as he was walking away from King William Island.  He was returning to his ship the Fox, racing to avoid the dreaded thaw.  He and his team accidentally discovered a strait and…

“In this strait we found a deserted snow village of seventeen huts … Strewed about on the ice or in every snow hut, were shavings and chips of fresh wood; in one of them I found a child’s toy – a miniature sledge – made of wood.”

As there are no trees near King William Island, such an abundance of fresh wood as late as 1859 gives away the source.  The Inuit had said one ship sank quickly, but the other was aground in shallow water – a massive source of tools and wood.  McClintock never learned the name of that harvested ship, never found Inuit to take him there.  It would be a century and a half before Parks Canada identified the wreck run aground as having been HMS Erebus.

Though he doesn’t say he kept the toy sledge – and did not list it in his inventory of relics – we know that McClintock put this Inuit toy sledge in his pocket.  We have a photograph of it soon afterward.

Cheyne photo of McClintock relics.  © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (detail)

After returning to London later that year, the Franklin relics found by McClintock were put on public display and photographed.  There at the back of Case #9 (behind some Franklin silverware) is a small toy sledge, small enough to hold in your hand.

That is the only existing photograph of the toy sledge.  It was last noted in 1913, listed in a catalogue for Greenwich’s previous naval museum.  At some point after this – roughly a century ago – it vanished.  It is not listed in Greenwich's National Maritime Museum collection today.

However.

I want to argue that if you have visited the Polar Worlds exhibit at Greenwich, you have seen McClintock’s lost toy sledge.  Obscured from view, not labeled – but physically present and just visible to the eye.

In the 1891 exhibition catalogue, the toy sledge was listed right next to a model of an Oomiak (a large craft for transportation, not a small vessel for hunting).

In Greenwich’s collection today, there are two such Oomiak/Umiak.  Here is one:  Umiak AAE0203.  [This may even be the same one from 1891.]

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Umiak AAE0203 survives with a number of oars and accessories.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Each accessory has its own catalogue entry.

If you click, you see the first one photographed alone:

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Notice the catalogue record AAE0203 is now given a “.1” suffix.

If you keep clicking, you’ll come to the “.7” accessory here:

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
This “.7” is an oar.

Notice what’s up in the top left corner.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
In the background is what looks like McClintock’s missing toy sledge.

Keep clicking and we see it has its own Umiak accessory entry, the last one:  AAE0203.9 – model of a sledge.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

AAE0203.9
Maker, unknown.
Date made, unknown.
No provenance is listed on the right (where it normally would be).
And though they do list it as being made in Labrador, I believe that is carried over from the Umiak's listing.

All of this missing information is an auspicious sign that this could be McClintock's Toy Sledge.  I don’t know how the item got associated with Umiak AAE0203, but it’s interesting that it didn’t make the ‘group photo’ of accessories (that we saw up above) – as if even the curator/photographer at Greenwich sensed something wasn’t right.

First we measure to verify if this is even close to the right size.

Tasmanian Archives: Jack Thwaites Collection; NS1155/1/20

In the 1859 photograph, we can set a ruler for the known Dessert Knife relic (Greenwich lists it as 95 mm long).  Using that scale, the 1859 sledge looks to be about 123 mm long.

Greenwich says their Sledge AAE0203.9 is 125 mm long.  So just gauging from a photograph, we’re within 2 millimeters.

And that 2 millimeters might simply be the sledge's greater depth in the photograph.  To try at home:  Close one eye and hold two objects (your hands will work) in front of your face, then slowly move one further away; it doesn't take more than a few inches for one to appear comically smaller.  A two millimeter shrink here might be about right.

We can see in Greenwich's Sledge AAE0203.9 that there are five crossbars, offset towards the rear.  That is also what we see in the 1859 photograph:  five crossbars, offset towards the rear.  [The same is true for the toy sledge in the 1891 sketch.]

There are also still the leather straps seen in the 1859 photograph – with the same extra-complicated big knot ties.  Additionally, the straps in each look to be affixed to the front crossbar of the sledge.

I wrote to Greenwich on July 28th 2020 to ask them to assess the possibility that this AAE0203.9 is in fact a Franklin relic, McClintock’s Toy Sledge, Inuit-made and likely sourced from HMS Erebus wood.


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Greenwich’s webpage adds the detail that this item is currently out on display, in Polar Worlds.  I hadn't seen it.  Where is it then?

This is the last display case at the end of Polar Worlds.  At the bottom right is that same Umiak AAE0203 we've been looking at.

Its accessories are lying on top – the oars, etc.

And underneath – where we should just see two large beams (like on its left side), we instead see five small bars that don’t belong.


I believe it is the toy sledge lying underneath the other accessories, inside the umiak and just barely visible to the eye.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The End.
– LZ, August 11, 2020


* * *  


Appendix:  Additional Notes.


1.  Might we know who this child was?  –

If we assume an age range of 4 to 14, then the child who unwittingly gave their toy sledge to Francis Leopold McClintock would have been aged 24 to 34 when the Schwatka Expedition came through (subtract 10+ to figure for Charles Francis Hall's investigations).  This child very likely saw Erebus and even went onboard her, and so might have been a source of information if anyone interviewed her/him.  I don't know those histories well enough to guess at who this could be.

I can think of one amusing history that fits the range.  McClintock keeping a toy sledge into old age is particularly touching, given his position in the Royal Navy as the best Arctic sledge traveller they had.  But at the young end of the age range (age 4 in 1859, born 1855), this Inuk child of King William Island would have been about 48 years old in 1903.  It's just possible that the child who left a toy sledge for McClintock would one day teach Roald Amundsen how to travel by sledge faster than the Royal Navy.


2.  Oomiak/Umiak –

After publishing, Kenn Harper sent me a note about the modern Inuktitut orthography for this word:  one umiaq (singular), two umiak (dual), and three umiat (plural).


3.  Missing pieces –

Notably not with the sledge model today are the three objects lying around it in the 1859 photograph:  left, center, and right.  These may have been figurative – say, a dog team and two Inuit – or they may have been mere samples of wood collected by McClintock.  One source for the 1859 exhibition says the latter (The Kelly Catalogue – see notes in the Appendix linked here).  [As an additional note, those pieces are not depicted in the 1891 sketch.]


4.  SPRI in Cambridge holds a very similar artifact from 1933, which they are calling a Ladder N:1092a (link).


5.  The Lost Ones –
The toy sledge was in fact the last Franklin relic that McClintock recovered – after he had ended his search for traces of “the lost ones.”
This phrase, "the lost ones," is McClintock's own.  Curiously, he edited it out of later editions of his book.

1860 vs. 1881 editions of Voyage of the Fox



– LZ, August 11, 2020

– Updated August 13, 2020, with Kenn Harper's note about the word Umiak.
– Updated September 29, 2020, with an appendix note about a very similar object at SPRI referred to as a Ladder, and with a link to the new Cheyne's Relics article regarding the Kelly Catalogue.