Observations on the Victory Point Record

A rare early photograph of the Victory Point Record, dated about 1859, by John Powles Cheyne.  (Click pic for full resolution.)

It is so early that we can see letters of words that have rotted away since the note’s discovery.

Tasmanian Archives: Jack Thwaites Collection; NS1155/1/20 / © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

These letters are not new to us; they were carefully recorded at the time.  They were used to infer additional words that – even then – were missing from the VPR’s damaged lower left corner. 

Illustrated London News facsimile of the Victory Point Record, 1 Oct 1859, p. 327

This newspaper facsimile shows how the lost fragments reconstructed additional words.  With Cheyne's photograph, we can see the original James Fitzjames handwriting with which the Victorian searchers completed these sentences. 

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I received this early photograph after requesting that the Tasmanian Archives digitize their Cheyne Stereographic Slides set, as part of a series on Cheyne that I’ve been writing.  The Victory Point Record was #12 in Cheyne’s photography of the new McClintock relics from 1859.

At first I considered Cheyne’s VPR photograph to be of little interest, as Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum has published its own (modern, well-lit) photograph of the VPR.  

Recently I did a closer comparison, seeing that Cheyne’s photograph shows fragments of the Victory Point Record that have since been lost.  

“HMShips” has lost half of what had originally survived.  The upper portion of the “B” in Erebus is rotted away.  

Tasmanian Archives: Jack Thwaites Collection; NS1155/1/20 / © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In the corner, the “–tain” of Captain has completely vanished.  This was part of Fitzjames' first mention of Captain Crozier in the document, now as expedition leader:  “…105 souls under the command of Captain FRM Crozier…”

Below it, the downstroke on the first letter of “paper” is gone.  “This paper was found by Lt. Irving…”

D2184, F6214 © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Two little 'chimneys' near the damaged corner have gone missing.  The right chimney is only visible on certain Cheyne #12 slides (such as Greenwich’s, above).  But the left chimney is the important one.  

The 1859 Netherclift facsimile (courtesy Alison Freebairn)

During a comparison of VPR facsimiles last year, I noticed that the 1859 Netherclift puts a fragment of handwriting underneath that left chimney – a curved line.  No other facsimile records this.  If accurate, the word in that position would be “April.”  

And compared to all others, the 1859 Netherclift is extremely accurate.  The Netherclift was the VPR facsimile included in the first edition of McClintock's expedition book, The Voyage of the Fox (published in December 1859).  It is possible that this curved line was only legible immediately after McClintock's expedition returned to London.  [Indeed, Netherclift's own later 1869 facsimile omits this bit of curved handwriting.]

Was the handwriting lost when that 'chimney' piece broke off?  Could it still be hanging on?  I tried to see it in person at Greenwich, but the area is too dark.  A conservator at Greenwich would have to use a light from beneath, or some other method, to determine it if it’s still there.  [If it's ever found and recorded, there is an easy handwriting comparison available: Fitzjames writes the word “April” again later in the same line.]

Aside from the missing handwriting, Cheyne's VPR photograph also shows that the foxing/staining has increased since the document’s recovery.  Des Voeux’s rank of “Mate” is just shy of unreadable today, whereas in 1859 it was cleaner than Gore’s “Lieut”.   

* * *    

Considering this Cheyne photograph, one conclusion to draw is that there is no single “canonical” Victory Point Record image.  Facsimiles like the Netherclift make for easier reading, but they are still mere facsimiles.  The modern Greenwich photograph is very sharp, but illegible in places due to stains – and now we can see that it has lost some original handwriting.  The Cheyne photograph restores our view of that handwriting – but the more primitive photography renders the staining opaque, in addition to creating some apparently out-of-focus areas.  Finally, the document in Greenwich itself (and many facsimiles) still requires the reader to know the words missing from the lower corner in order to read it properly.  Anyone studying this single record therefore requires three versions on hand to see it from every angle.

When considering these missing fragments of handwriting, it's a blessing how intact this paper is.  McClintock had written in The Voyage of the Fox that the VPR was "much damaged by rust" and that "a very few more years would have rendered [it] wholly illegible."   Mentally scissor off any quarter of the document – or delete a line of text – and imagine the contortions that would be done trying to understand, e.g., fragments of the section on "Sir James Ross' pillar."  It's a good practical exercise to prepare for what might be coming if only fragments of papers are recovered from Erebus and Terror.

– LZ

[Note:  The careful reader will notice that the word "April" is almost fully extant in the Illustrated London News facsimile – which predates at least the printing of the Netherclift facsimile by several months.  This should be disregarded.  While the ILN facsimile is useful for showing the inferred words, it is extremely inaccurate as compared to the original document.]

– Originally published February 18, 2021, as Part 4 in my series on Cheyne's relic photography (link to Part 1).

* * *    


There's a significant gap in the first two lines of the 1848 note.  This is the corner that is damaged and partially missing.  Might there have been additional words where the paper is gone?

Having started writing with a particular edge margin, it is improbable that Fitzjames would follow it for two lines, then switch to a different page edge margin for the next two lines.  We have to ignore the damage we currently see to the lower left corner, and imagine a clean sheet of paper when Irving/Fitzjames first broke the solder on the metal case.  (And, if there were already incipient corner damage, it would be even more improbable that Fitzjames would curl his edge margin to that damage.)

I suggest that "Tuesday" and "after" are the lost words.  Both sentence constructions are used elsewhere in the same document by Fitzjames:  "Monday 24th May 1847" and "after having ascended Wellington Channel".  The reconstructed first sentence would then read like this:

Tuesday 25th April 1848.  HMShips Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues NNW of this after having been beset since 12 Sept. 1846.  

The Victorians were at least visually aware of this gap.  The Illustrated London News' facsimile (seen above; Oct 1 1859, p. 327) added in the missing letters of the half-surviving words (not all facsimiles did; see the Netherclift in McClintock's The Voyage of the Fox).  From that printing, anyone picking up the newspaper could see the blank area.  Therefore it's possible that a "Tuesday"/"after" solution was suggestion long ago.  I would be interested if anyone finds evidence of that – or can suggest another word choice beyond Tuesday/After.  

I have only come across one alternate suggestion, such as it is.  Schwatka's and Gilder's books both reported that McClintock's VPR transcript left at Victory Point put the word "The" before "25th April".  However, merely the word "The" would not be enough to fill the blank area.  Further, if the word "The" had been extant at the time, the word beneath it ought to have been at least somewhat extant – yet no word is added.  I think this "The" suggestion can be dismissed.  The Schwatka/Gilder transcript contains a very high number of errors/deviations compared to the original note; while it's hard to say who created the errors, Schwatka or McClintock, it's notable that there are far fewer in the Shingleton transcript (link to Visions of the North) written aboard the Fox.

– Originally posted February 25, 2019 (link to private group):

– Note about the Gilder/Schwatka suggestion of "The" added on January 1, 2021.

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Alison Freebairn arranged for me to be able to photograph the Victory Point Record in London on February 5th, 2020. Blowing up my photos, I can see a fingerprint at the bottom of the note.

With the naked eye, it is difficult to see unless you know where to look and the light catches it. Even in my macro photos, it is just barely surviving. I’ve written the museum alerting them to the print.

It is incomplete. Unless some other type of examination revealed substantially more, there’s not enough here to get a full print.

It exhibits both the curved swirl area of a fingertip and – separated by a ridge in the paper – the horizontal lines nearer the knuckle. Given this orientation, the finger then goes off the bottom of the page diagonally.

I count 5 distinct lines in the horizontal bands, and at least 12 distinct lines in the circular-pattern area.

Notably, the fingerprint is in a blank area with no writing or printing.

I see nothing else resembling it, in color or pattern, anywhere else on the note. (Excepting the back of the note, which I cannot examine as the note is secured down.)

I had nothing to measure it, but I would estimate that from the top of the curved lines to the horizontal lines is about 1.5 inches. The size looked roughly reasonable, but that’s all the more I can say.

The color of the fingerprint is a very faint black/gray. When I separate the photograph’s colors by warmth, the fingerprint’s color temperature is as cool as the printed Admiralty text. It is not the handwritten ink color, and it is not the water/rust stains color; they are much warmer in tone.

A fingerprint could be anyone from the original expedition through to modern researchers.

However, knowing where to look, I can see that this print is still there in the museum’s photo that is available online. That pre-dates the Death In The Ice tour at least. Given that the 2015 Erebus documentary showed the VPR encased in glass, it should also pre-date that glass case. As a general guide, the last time anyone would have dared press a dirty thumb on the VPR is a quite a long time ago.

Notably also, it is alone and unsmudged at the bottom of the note. Based on the more severe water damage, this was the outermost rolled edge of the paper when the VPR was rolled up in its case. This fingerprint therefore might have been the anchor point for someone unrolling the note on a flat surface.

– LZ, February 8, 2020

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Victory Point Record   (Tasmanian Archives: Jack Thwaites Collection; NS1155/1/20)

“…the words 'All well' were not underlined.”
– Cyriax on the Gore Point Record (The Two Franklin Expedition Records, 1958)

I believe this remark by Cyriax was an error, causing an unnecessary amount of speculation on why the VPR's All Well is underlined while the GPR's is not.  Zooming in on the publicly available image of the Gore Point Record, I can see a faint underline there. It is very faint – but it is faint just like the letter “p” in “Expedition” above it.  The ink seems to have run out on the last letter “L” of “well”, just before Fitzjames drew the underline stroke.

Now that Regina Koellner has located the '3rd Note' or Disko Bay Record (link), we can see that this All Well did not have a Fitzjames underline.  On the other hand, this All Well is (unlike the other two) already sitting on a printed line, being several lines higher on the Admiralty form.

Since writing this, I have been able to examine a more recent and much higher resolution image of the Gore Point Record (December 2019).  Again I observed a faint underline beneath the GPR's All Well.

– Originally posted February 13, 2019 (link to private group):

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For some time, Greenwich considered AAA2229 to be the canister that had held the Victory Point Record.  Recently that was changed to AAA2344.  Their site notes that when the VPR is rolled up in such a way as to align its rust stains (a clever trick I saw Regina Koellner do in Nov 2014), then the diameter of the rolled paper matches the diameter of AAA2344.  

Regina Koellner's VPR rolled to align the (cut out) water/rust stains.  2014/11/4

I’m not sure why AAA2229 was previously considered the VPR canister, or how far back into the past that notion goes.  However, I think it’s possible that both answers are correct:  the smaller canister may simply have been inside the larger one.  The sizes seem to allow for this, and it may explain why Greenwich originally thought AAA2229 was correct.

One reason to use both canisters is to protect from the outside a watertight balloon or bladder that may have covered the inner canister.  I’m aware of no evidence for this having been done with the VPR.  However there is evidence of it from just a few years later: when Mecham found the Investigator’s note in a copper cylinder, he said, “I drew out a roll folded in a bladder” (12 Oct 1852).

It's possible that just such a Victory Point Record bladder is what is shown in Illustrated London News Oct 15 1859 p. 363 (the open tube above AAA2344).  That tube may merely be the canister that held the Gore Point Record.  However, that Gore Point canister is on display at SPRI today (Y:54/20/2), and shows none of the significant damage to one end visible on the mystery tube in the 1859 ILN sketch.

There’s a further possibility:  that the larger AAA2229 was put over AAA2344 by James Fitzjames.  In order to add the 2nd note to the VPR, he had to break open the soldering on AAA2344.  Adding AAA2229 may have been his way of compensating for that break.

AAA2344  (Author photograph.)

I take no position on any of these canister ideas.  They are all possibilities but as yet I see no way to prove or disprove them.

– Mostly originally argued August 22nd, 2018, at RtFE (link).

– Possible bladder sketch noted October 8th, 2020 (link).

– Possibility that AAA2229 was added by Fitzjames to compensate for breaking the solder, October 12th 2020.

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LZ notes:  
All words in parenthesis are the standard suppositions regarding the missing lower left corner.  The opening date "25 April" is assumed given that Crozier's handwritten line states, "start on tomorrow 26th." 
For simplicity I have typed Fitzjames' ordinal number suffixes (22nd, 11th, etc) as normal text, whereas in the document he wrote them as superscript and put a dot underneath them.  
I am omitting three characters (a caret and two curly braces) used by Fitzjames to insert text from one line into another.  Those three characters appear in the original document at the following points.
1st note:  {Wintered  
2nd note, right margin:  1831‸  
2nd note, upper margin:  HMS}

[The 2nd/Final Note, around the margins:]

[Left margin:]
(25th April) 1848 HMShips Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues NNW of this 
(having) been beset since 12th Sept 1846.  The Officers & Crews consisting of 105 souls under the command 
(of Captain) FRM Crozier landed here in Lat 69º.37’.42” Long 98º.41’
(This) paper was found by Lt. Irving under the Cairn supposed to have

[Right margin:]
been built by Sir James Ross in 1831 4 miles to the Northward – where it had been deposited 
by the late Commander Gore in May June 1847.  Sir James Ross’ pillar has not
however been found and the paper has been transferred to this position which 
is that in which Sir J. Ross’ pillar was erected –  Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June 1847 and the total loss

[Upper margin:]
by deaths in the Expedition has been to this date 9 officers & 15 men.

FRM Crozier
Captain + Senior Offr
and start on tomorrow 26th
for Backs Fish River

James Fitzjames Captain HMS Erebus

[The 1st Note:]

H. M. S.hips Erebus and Terror
28 of May 1847
Wintered in the Ice in 
Lat. 70º.5’ N  Long. 98º.23’ W
Having wintered in 1846–7 at Beechey Island
in Lat 74º.43’.28” N.  Long 91º.39’.15” W  After having 
ascended Wellington Channel to Lat 77º._ and returned 
by the West side of Cornwallis Island.
Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition
All Well

Party consisting of 2 Officers and 6 Men
left the ships on Monday 24th May 1847
GM Gore Lieut
Chas F Des Voeux Mate

[The pre-printed Admiralty message:]

WHOEVER finds this paper is requested to forward it to the Secretary of
the Admiralty, London, with a note of the time and place at which it was 
found : or, if more convenient, to deliver it for that purpose to the British
Consul at the nearest Port.

[Repeated (with some variation, e.g. "Gravenhage") in: 

– LZ