A Dashing Young Frenchman

By Bernie Bell

Ah-ha ……. that caught your attention.  Now, here’s the tale………….

Jean-Claude and Nadine Forestier visited Clestrain, in Orphir, some years ago and became friends of Ivan and Jean Craigie, to whom they have given copies of two of their books L’Arcticque Canadien  and  Le Passage Du Nord-Ouest: le sacrifice de Joseph-Rene Bellot a la recherche de Sir John Franklin.  Since then they have joined the John Rae Society https://www.johnraesociety.com/  and have asked for help in finding out if there are any stories handed down of a young French sailor visiting Stromness at the end of May and beginning of June 1851.

Joseph Rene Bellot  courtesy of Jean-Claude Forestier

Joseph Rene Bellot courtesy of Jean-Claude Forestier

Joseph-René Bellot (then aged 25)  had been a lieutenant in the French Navy,  volunteered to join in the search in the Arctic for Sir John Franklin and sailed from Stromness in the Prince Albert, commissioned by Lady Franklin, on 3rd June 1851. He travelled with her from Aberdeen, was a great favourite of hers and will have met Rae’s family.  This was when the Franklin and Rae families were still good friends. https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/07/31/the-two-johns-a-personal-perspective/

He stayed in Stromness for about a week, and describes visiting several houses in Orkney and specifically mentions Mr Steinger (sic), a builder in Stromness, a Dr Wolff, a Mr Beckie and a Mr Robertson, County Sheriff’s lieutenant. He reports that everyone spoke French! He also refers to dancing the ‘scottische’ with some very attractive ladies — Miss H, ‘the white lily’, Miss W, ‘the bright rose’ and Miss D.L.

He is reported to have been a  very capable young man of whom a superior wrote ‘In promise I have rarely seen his equal, never his superior’.

He  went on a second expedition, also organised by Lady Franklin, on the Phoenix in 1853.The exact details of his death are unknown.  He and some companions were on a piece of ice which broke away from the main sheet, forcing them to camp on the ice floe; Joseph-Rene went ‘to have a look around’ and was never seen again; his ice pole was found floating in the water. He was 27 years old. Lady Franklin was devastated by the news of his death: she is said to have regarded him almost as a son.

The Forestiers have written a biography of Joseph-Rene,  hope to come to Orkney in September and will be visiting the Hall of Clestrain, Clestrain Farm and meeting members of the John Rae Society. They have asked the JRS if anyone has any information about Joseph-Rene’s stay in Stromness in 1851; in particular they are wondering if there are descendants of people whom he visited.  If anyone has any stories or information they can contribute, please contact  the JRS via Facebook or email at info@johnraesociety.com .

With acknowledgement, and thanks,  to the JRS for the information presented in this article – BB

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