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Rare polar sledge flag used in hunt for Franklin’s doomed expedition is saved for the nation

Date published 22/05/2023
  • Polar sledge flag used in hunt for Franklin’s doomed expedition has been saved from leaving the UK and passing into the hands of a private buyer thanks to the export bar system

  • Last-ditch campaign by the National Museum of the Royal Navy raised funds with support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Art Fund which was match funded by National Museum

  • Flag will go on national tour to National Museum sites in Belfast, Hartlepool and Portsmouth with dates to be announced shortly

The National Museum of the Royal Navy is proud to announce that the last-ditch campaign to raise £120,000 to save a rare polar expedition sledge flag, one of the earliest in existence, from passing into the hands of an overseas private collector has been successful.

The Kellett sledge flag was secured thanks to two essential grants of £98,170 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and £40,000 from Art Fund which was match-funded by the museum. Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay placed a temporary export bar on the flag in September 2022 in a bid to save it for the nation.

Well-known TV documentary presenter and actor Michael Palin, author of Erebus, The Story of a Ship and Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster publicly backed the campaign prompting much-needed public support too. The museum not only secured the £120,000 to save the sledge flag from leaving the United Kingdom but managed to exceed the amount. This will enable it to be put on display across three of the museum's regional sites in Hartlepool, Portsmouth, and Belfast, ensuring audiences are afforded rare access to a remarkable artefact. 

The flag was owned by notable 19th century Irish naval officer Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Kellett and flown during the third of a series of expeditions (1852 - 1854) to look for survivors, or evidence of bodies, of Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition.

Mystery surrounding the fate of the Franklin expedition and the 129 crew, ignited public debate and intrigue for decades until the discovery of his two ships, HMS Erebus in 2014 and HMS Terror in 2016. Franklin’s failed expedition takes on a symbolic place within Arctic exploration, especially within the British Isles and Canada, leading to the successful mapping of the Canadian archipelago and northern mainland coastline.

Measuring 595 by 885mm within a frame of 710 by 995mm, the flag is in a fragile condition and is being assessed by the museum’s conservation team for recommended treatment. 

National Museum of the Royal Navy conservator Rachel Trembath explained: 

“Treatment decisions will be based on previous experience and testing to ensure the right processes are used. The flag will be sent to a specialist textile conservator, who will remove the metal pins securing it to the backboard. It will need to be stabilised and issues particularly around the fragile right-hand edge will be addressed. The decision to clean the flag will have to balance the long-term preservation needs with the historical significance of the staining and ingrained dirt. The flag will undergo testing for light sensitivity so we can display it safely.”

The maker is unknown but the motto Auxilium Ab Alto translates to Help From Above. The flag was made from silk in a rich green colour, with an Irish harp embroidered in golden thread, all to reflect Captain Kellett’s Irish heritage. The green colour has faded over time due to exposure to light, but the flag remains in fairly good condition with a small crudely sewn repair that was likely done by a member of the search party whilst on the ice. 

Plans are now underway to display the sledge flag, alongside artefacts from HMS Erebus, and dates will be announced soon. 

Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy said:

“Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Kellett’s sledge flag and Franklin’s expedition represent courage and fortitude in the face of adversity - core elements of our national identity that echo through our history. They also reflect the British and global obsession with finding and navigating the Northwest Passage, as well as the Royal Navy’s role in expedition and exploration from Captain Cook to Darwin and HMS Beagle, to HMS Challenger in 1872, and continuing today with HMS Protector – the ice patrol ship in Antarctica and the Southern Hemisphere. The Kellett flag will be displayed in Belfast, Hartlepool and Portsmouth as part of exhibition featuring artefacts from Erebus that are being transferred to the National Museum of the Royal Navy by Canada National Parks. The National Museum is proud to have stepped forward to save the Kellett flag from being exported overseas and to continue our work linking navy to nation.” 

Stuart McLeod, Director, England, London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: 

“It’s fantastic news that the Heritage Fund have been able to support the acquisition of Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Kellett’s sledge flag and ensure that it is saved for the UK. The flag represents a fascinating time in the UK’s maritime history in which explorers sought to chart the Northwest Passage, in order to advance science, trade, and geographical exploration. It is also linked to one of the great maritime mysteries of our heritage, being flown during Kellett’s search expedition to look for survivors, or evidence of bodies from Franklin’s failed expedition.

“As well as the acquisition, we are delighted to be supporting the accompanying exhibition and activity with our funding, made possible thanks to National Lottery players. We hope that many of them will visit the museum, and its regional sites in Belfast and Hartlepool, to explore and discover these riveting stories of our maritime heritage.”

Jenny Waldman, Director, Art Fund, said: 

“This rare polar sledge flag was flown during Sir Henry Kellett’s valiant search over 150 years ago for survivors of Sir John Franklin’s fated Arctic expedition. An object of great cultural significance like this tells important stories about our history and we’re thrilled that Art Fund has been able to support the National Museum of the Royal Navy to acquire it for their permanent collection.”

Arts and Heritage Minister, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, said: 

“I am delighted that this flag – an important link with our past, and a symbol of courage and curiosity – has been saved for the nation."

"The export bar system and a tireless fundraising campaign spearheaded by The National Museum of the Royal Navy means this inspiring item will now be on public display for generations to come."

The National Museum has a track record of leading the efforts to save national treasures from leaving our shores notably the campaigns to secure 10 incredibly rare Armada Maps, and the personal fighting sword of Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. The Armada Maps will go on display in Portsmouth for a very limited period from 24 June 2023.