The Arctic Medal was granted by the Queen in 1857 ‘to all Persons, of every rank and class, who have been engaged in the several Expeditions to the Arctic Regions, whether of discovery or search, between the years 1818 and 1855…’ (The London Gazette, 5 May 1857), the present medal awarded posthumously to Irving, the first identifiable victim of the most dreadful and famous of all Arctic expeditions.
‘Whatever happens it is the will of God. I hope you do not think me so weak as to labour under any presentiment of evil; but remember this is no common voyage … Two years is a long time without any tidings, and perhaps we may be three years at least. Do not give up on us if you hear nothing.’
John Irving to his sister, Woolwich, 18 April 1845
John Irving was Third Officer on HMS Terror on Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition of 1845-48. A Scot born in Edinburgh, the son of a lawyer and close friend of Sir Walter Scott, he joined the navy at 15 and soon became an evangelical Christian. Disillusioned, he left the navy in 1836 to emigrate to run a sheep station in Australia, an unsuccessful and shortlived enterprise, and was back in Scotland, and in the navy again, in 1843. After a brief period at Portsmouth in HMS Excellent, he was selected for Arctic service and joined Captain Crozier’s HMS Terror.
Franklin’s expedition sailed for the Arctic in May 1845. His ships the Erebus and Terror were seen for the very last time by a whaler awaiting an opportunity to get into Lancaster Sound in July. Records found subsequently show the expedition overwintered in Beechey Island, sailed west in the summer but were beset by ice north of King William Island in September, and drifted in the ice near Victory Point through their second winter of 1846-47. After Franklin’s death in June, twenty officers and men died from food poisoning and starvation through the second winter, and the ships were abandoned the following spring, 105 men setting out with their boats on a 250 mile march south to the mainland. All the men were lost on the march, the last reaching Montreal Island. Forty search expeditions were sent out in search of the lost expedition over the following 30 years.
John Irving’s grave was discovered by Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka’s American search expedition in June 1879: ‘At the place now known as Camp Crozier, they found much evidence of the presence of Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier’s men, left three decades earlier when they had abandoned the ships. Amongst ‘several cooking stoves, with their accompanying copper kettles, besides clothing, blankets, canvas, iron and brass implements’ (Gilder 1881: 124), they found human remains in a grave built above ground, which had once been covered with flat slabs of sandstone, but had since been opened for a search (Klutschak 1987: 83) … Near these lay:
A silver medal, … on the reverse a laurel wreath surrounded by ‘Second Mathematical Prize, Royal Naval College’, and including ‘Awarded to John Irving Mid-summer. 1830.’ This at once identified the grave as that of Lieutenant John Irving, third officer of the Terror. … The skull and a few other bones only were found in and near the grave. (Gilder 1881: 125)
The discovery of the tarnished silver medal enabled identification of the human remains around the shallow grave, which may have been disturbed by polar bears. … These bones are therefore unique amongst the skeletal remains of Crozier’s men found during the last 150 years, in being positively identifiable. …
Having gathered Irving’s bones for reburial in his native Scotland, Schwatka … and his party built a cairn on the site of the grave. … On 7 January 1881, some 33 years after his death at the age of 33, John Irving was accorded an elaborate public funeral and was reinterred in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.
… From the arrival of the last letter from Upernavik, dated 10 July 1845, until the discovery of his skeleton in 1879, Irving’s fate remained unknown. By the location of the grave and other indications, it has been conjectured that in 1848 he bravely led a return group back to where the ships had been abandoned, possibly to fetch supplies that had been left at ‘Crozier’s Camp’. Having reached the camp, Irving succumbed, the cause of death almost certainly being starvation induced by the advanced stages of scurvy. … Some of his men were still fit enough to wrap the body in canvas, in the style of a burial at sea, as described when found by Schwatka’s party. So far as their remaining strength and the permafrost would allow, they were able to dig a shallow grave. A simple Christian burial service was certainly performed, and the medal was interred with the body.’
(R. Lloyd-Jones, ‘An evangelical Christian on Franklin’s last expedition; Lieutenant John Irving of HMS Terror’, Polar Record, 33 (187), 1997, pp. 327-31)