A rare flag flown from a polar sledge used to hunt for survivors of Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition has been saved for the nation thanks to a campaign backed by Michael Palin and Dan Snow.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) launched a last-ditch campaign to raise the £120,000 needed to stop the Kellet sledge flag from passing into the hands of an overseas private collector.
It succeeded thanks to £98,170 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and £40,000 from the Art Fund, with match-funding from the NMRN enabling the museum to buy the flag and put it on display at its sites in Hartlepool, Portsmouth and Belfast.
Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay had placed a temporary export bar on the flag in September 2022.
The flag was owned by 19th century Irish naval officer Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Kellett and flown during the third of a series of expeditions from 1852 to 1854 to look for survivors, or evidence of bodies, after Franklin’s expedition.
A NMRN spokeswoman said: “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.”
Professor Dominic Tweddle, NMRN director general, 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.”
He added: “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.”
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.
NMRN conservator Rachel Trembath said: “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 flag was made from silk in a rich green colour with an Irish harp embroidered in golden thread to reflect Kellett’s Irish heritage.
The museum spokeswoman said: “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.
“The maker is unknown but the motto Auxilium Ab Alto translates to Help From Above.”
Lord Parkinson 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.”