Melrose link to Arctic ghost ship mystery

Efforts are under way to restore a unique Melrose memorial to a local seafarer who perished on the doomed Victorian expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage.

In 1845, maverick Royal Navy captain Sir John Franklin sailed off the map of the known world with 128 men, to chart the elusive Northwest Passage. No trace of them was ever seen again. Until now.

Memorial to James Walter Fairholme at Holy Trinity, Melrose

Memorial to James Walter Fairholme at Holy Trinity, Melrose

Last week, Channel Four broadcast the documentary, Hunt for the Arctic Ghost Ship, which reported on last September’s successful quest in Canada’s freezing Arctic waters to locate the wreck of Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus.

The programme told of bodies in the ice, ghost ships and even cannibalism before the astonishing revelation that HMS Erebus had finally been found sitting upright and intact on the sea floor.

But what Borders viewers who watched the programme might not be aware of is that a Melrose graveyard contains a unique memorial to one of Franklin’s officers.

Located among the well-tended headstones in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church, the imposing cenotaph erected in 1860 commemorates Lt James Walter Fairholme RN.

Fairholme had been aboard HMS Erebus when it disappeared into the Arctic ice floes and was eventually listed as officially dead along with the rest of his shipmates after subsequent searches over the following 15 years found only bits of wreckage and abandoned supplies.

The recovery in 1859 of a record in a cairn said both ships became icebound in 1846 in Victoria Strait. It reported that Franklin himself had died on June 11, 1847.

Born in 1821 to George Fairholme of Greenknowe, Gordon, James Fairholme was brother to William Fairholme, who lived at Chapel-on-Leader, outside Earlston. It is assumed that it was William who arranged for the Melrose memorial to be erected in 1860 when it was legally acknowledged that his brother was dead.

As well as an inscription, the Melrose memorial bears an ornate metal plaque depicting two angels in relief hovering over an Arctic scene and the doomed Erebus.

Holy Trinity’s Mary Cuthbert has special responsibility for the graveyard and believes that with the success of the mission to find Franklin’s ship and on-going exploration work, interest in the ill-fated venture and those who took part will continue to grow.

“There is ongoing work on the wreck to bring up artefacts which is fascinating, and there’s a lot of interest,” Mrs Cuthbert told The Southern this week.

“I think it is definitely important to preserve such memorials.

“This is a private graveyard and so it is our responsibility to keep these special monuments in good condition and we have been worrying that this one needs some renovation – it’s just that we don’t know how to go about it and are seeking advice.

“The memorial could be in a bit better condition and we felt that some publicity might help us locate appropriate expert help and advice and perhaps lead on to any fundraising needed to pay for such repair work.”

Holy Trinity’s rector, Philip Blackledge, agrees.

He said: “It’s a bit of a mystery what the original lustre might have been like. The stone could also do to be cleaned up a bit so that the inscription is clearer.”

This summer also saw the Franklin expedition commemorated on a new silver coin from the Royal Canadian Mint and on new Canadian stamps.