Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Hartnells of Nelson Street

As an avid fan of classic films, I could not resist alluding to one of my favorites for the title of this post: "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1934, MGM). Though not as famous as the Barretts, the Hartnells of Nelson Street (Road, actually) are a truly noteworthy family and, in my humble opinion, just as illustrious. This post will attempt to introduce the family that lost two promising lives to the Arctic's avaricious grip.

Thanks to a website called, I found out that John and Thomas (born 1820 and 1822, respectively) were the first two children of Thomas Hartnell, a shipwright, and his wife Sarah, who was born in 1796. They had three other children: Mary Ann (born 1826), Charles (born 1828), and Betsey (born 1832). They lived in Gillingham, Kent, which is in the very southeastern UK and in close proximity to the Chatham Dockyards on the River Medway. All three sons followed the call of the sea; two (John and Thomas, Jr.) would perish thousands of miles from home in one of history's greatest maritime tragedies: the lost Franklin Expedition.

A few Google searches later, I came across a fascinating article from the "Medway Messenger" dated October 10, 2011. In it, Brian Spenceley, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, reminisced about witnessing the autopsy of his ancestor, John Hartnell. Spenceley had accompanied Dr. Owen Beattie and his team to Beechey Island to photograph the proceedings. Even more importantly, the article stated that Hartnell lived on Nelson Street (presumably with the rest of the family), and that eight other seamen from the Medway towns also took part in the Franklin Expedition. Further research could uncover the identities of the other eight men.

With the help of Google Maps, I was able to take a virtual "drive" down Nelson Road. I hope to visit in person one day and take a tour of the Chatham Dockyards where Thomas Hartnell, Sr. probably found employment in the construction and repair of ships. The loss of two sons must have dealt a terrible blow to this hardworking family.


  1. Thomas Hartnell, Able Seaman, HMS "Erebus" - The Arctic Medal Roll states that his medal was sent on May 29, 1857, but as of 1986 his descendants had no knowledge of its receipt or whereabouts.

    John Hartnell, Able Seaman, HMS "Erebus" - The Arctic Medal Roll states that he was discharged dead on Jan. 4, 1846, but with no indication of the issue of a medal. On Jan. 6, 1986, the Hydrographer of the Navy, Rear Admiral R.O. Morris, RN, presented an Arctic Medal 1818-1855 to Hartnell's descendant, Mr. Donald Bray. The award of the medal may have originally been withheld because of the outstanding debt to the Crown of £117 4s. 8d.

    1. Thank you for your informative comment (the first one on this blog)! It is an honor. I often wondered if Thomas Hartnell's Arctic Medal was ever sent; now I realize it's another Franklin mystery yet to be solved!
      I remember reading about the very late issue of John's medal in your most excellent paper, "Scattered Memories and Frozen Bones". There used to be a photo of Mr. Bray receiving John's medal on the forum; it has since disappeared. Mr. Mark Sellar, who is the proprietor of Aberdeen Medals, was the original poster of that photo, which he took from the Autumn 1986 issue of "The Journal of the Orders and Medals Research Society". It is interesting to note that Mr. Bray appears rather tall (at least compared to RADM Morris), much like his ancestors!

  2. Congratulations on your new blog - looking forward to reading more and I thoroughly recommend a visit to Chatham dockyard.
    All the best.

    1. Thank you, Peter! I hope I can post information that is both relevant and exciting for all the Franklin followers. Chatham Dockyard looks like a wonderfully well-preserved place!

  3. When I was in Greenwich visiting the National Maritime Museum, walking down the ´King William Walk´ watching the masts of the Cutty Sark ship at the bottom of the street, I was expecting to find Jhon Barrow turning the corner.

    If Chatham Dockyard is so well preserved as Greenwich is, it has to be a wonderful place to visit.

    It had to be very hard for the surviving brother to deal with the events that followed in that expedition.

  4. Yes, it looks like a place largely untouched by time! You were very fortunate to visit the NMM.

    One can only imagine how terrible Thomas Hartnell felt after the loss of his older brother so early into the expedition. His ordeal on KWI is one of many mysteries shrouded on that bleak island.