Lady Jane Franklin

Adventurer and early agitator for women's rights

In an age when women of her class were expected to tend to needlework and domestic duties, Jane Franklin broke the mould. An insatiable traveller, she sailed the seas, climbed mountains, organised expeditions and set about creating great social change in the Tasmanian community in which she lived.

Born in England in 1791, Jane married Arctic explorer John Franklin in her late twenties. In 1836, she accompanied him to Van Diemen’s Land, when he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the colony. She at once took an interest in everything including exploration. She became the first European woman to climb Mount Wellington, and travelled overland to Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s wild, west coast.

On the mainland, Franklin travelled from Melbourne to Sydney, which in 1839 was considered an arduous trip, and probably became the first woman to do so. In 1841 she visited South Australia and New Zealand, all the while taking reams of notes on everything she observed.

In Tasmania, she set about bringing social change and was lampooned by a chauvinistic media, which wanted her to play the passive role of governor’s lady. Despite this, she founded a museum, a scientific society that became the first Royal Society for the advancement of science outside of Britain, fought for more humane treatment of convicts, and became a champion of the arts and women’s education.

When her husband’s tenure finished in 1843, they returned to England. He set out on another polar expedition in 1845, from which he didn’t return. Lady Franklin spent many years financing and fitting out five further expeditions in attempts to discover his fate. In 1859, one of the expeditions finally found evidence that he had achieved his aim of discovering a north-west passage.

Forever the explorer, Jane Franklin travelled widely during this time, visiting the United States, Hawaii, Japan and India. She was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal in 1860 and her name is remembered at Jane Franklin Hall – an independent residential college in Tasmania – and on the Lady Jane Franklin II, a sleek 32-metre catamaran that carries tourists into the World Heritage–listed Gordon River area on Tasmania’s west coast.

From a cave 2,000 metres under the Earth, wooden huts in the Antarctic, to the heat of the Australian sun, Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 greatest explorers will take visitors across Australia, around the globe, into outer space and back.

Created by the Australian Museum and curated by Antarctic adventurer and author Howard Whelan, the exhibition brings together 29 historic and 21 modern adventurers and explorers. Learn more here.

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit