By Katherine Bullimore, Record Assistant
Think of Arctic exploration in the nineteenth century, and chances are you think of the doomed Franklin expedition, of the three spookily well preserved bodies of dead sailors excavated in the 1980s, and the eerie underwater pictures of the expedition’s two sunken ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, revealed much more recently.
This post is about a Whitby man who was one of 128 crew members who sailed to the Arctic with Sir John Franklin and never returned. Thomas Blanky, who also spelled his name Blenky or Blenkey, was one of the most experienced men on the expedition: a veteran of three previous Arctic voyages and a man who had risen from able seaman to the senior and responsible position of ice master on HMS Terror.
Blanky’s Arctic career can be traced in published accounts, but it is the Whitby parish registers that fill in his family background, while also illustrating some of the pitfalls and frustrations that are typical of researching parish records. (Among those problems are the differing spellings of surnames in this period. Although this post uses the spelling Blanky, as it’s the version of his name that’s gone down in history, Blenk(e)y was the usual spelling in Whitby.)
Thomas Blanky’s first two Arctic voyages were a northwest passage expedition in 1824 and a seagoing attempt to reach the North Pole in 1827. He was an able seaman on both of these, but took a big step up when he joined Captain John Ross’ privately funded 1829 northwest passage attempt in the senior position of First Mate. At that time he was five feet seven inches tall, strongly built, with light hair and a fair complexion. Thanks to a potted biography written by John Ross, we also know that as a merchant seaman he had made voyages to Alexandria, Riga, Quebec and St. Petersburg; long journeys, although perhaps not so unusual for a man from a seaport.
Ross states Blanky was born in Whitby in the year 1800. Here we hit the first problem, as there was no Thomas Blanky or Blenkey baptised in Whitby in that year. However, a Thomas Blenkey, son of William and Margaret was born on 24th January 1804 and baptised the next day. His father was a labourer.
In the 19th century it was quite common for people to be out by a few years when giving their age, so this is probably the right Thomas. Another snag is there is no other mention of William and Margaret Blenkey in the Whitby parish records; however, a couple called William and Mary whose surname is variously given as Blenkey, Blencorn, Blenkhorn and Blakey appear many times, with William’s occupation always given as labourer, so very probably the name ‘Margaret’ on Thomas’ baptism is a clerical mistake, of the kind anyone who has spent much time doing family history will run up against from time to time. The record of their marriage shows both William and Mary were illiterate, which probably contributed to the differing spellings of their surname.
William and Mary, whose maiden name was Hebron, were married in 1799, and their eldest child Elizabeth was born later the same year. More children followed:
- John born and died in 1802
- William born 1806
- Mary Ann born 1808 and died 1812
- Charles born 1810
- Mary born 1812 (four months after the death of her sister Mary Ann)
- Sarah born 1815 and died 1833
- Ann born 1817
A large family then, which sadly, but typically for the time, suffered a number of early deaths. There was to be yet another when Mary Blenkhorn, aged 37, was buried in 1818. William outlived his wife by many decades, he was buried in 1857, aged 88, at which time Thomas Blanky had been missing in the Arctic for twelve years. Amazingly this was not the first time Thomas had been missing for years in the Arctic. That story, and the remaining parish register information on Thomas Blanky, will be told in the following post.
Our holdings of parish registers can be consulted on the subscription website Find my Past.
There is a good deal of information about the Franklin Expedition online. A good overview can be found on the National Maritime Museum website.
This Canadian website discusses the mysteries surrounding the Expedition, and includes quotes from some 19th century sources.