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The Second Desk

March 2023
1min read

IN THE October 1981 issue, Terrence Cole traced the saga of President Reagan’s desk, which began life as part of the planking of the British ship Resolute . Abandoned in 1854 during the search for the lost Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, the Resolute was discovered intact by an American whaler and sailed back to the United States. There she was bought from her finders and, as the brass plaque on the President’s desk tells it, was “fitted out and sent to England as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the President and the People of the United States, as a token of good will and friendship. This table was made from her timbers when she was broken up, and is presented by the QUEEN OF GREAT BRITAIN & IRELAND TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES , as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the ‘Resolute.’ ”

Queen Victoria’s gratitude, however, did not end here. There is another desk.

In 1857, writing of America’s return of the Resolute —“this act of more than courtesy”—Charles Dickens hailed a “Mr. Grinnell, who had spent a large part of his fortune in the search for [Franklin’s] lost ships, when none knew where to look for them.” This was Henry Grinnell, a prosperous New York shipper, and Queen Victoria never forgot his private philanthropical endeavor. He had died by the time the ship went to the wreckers, but the Queen also ordered a lady’s writing table made from the timbers and sent it to Grinnell’s widow. The brass plaque it bears is similar to the one on the President’s desk, but it concludes: “This table … is presented by the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland to Mrs. Grinnell as a memorial of the disinterested kindness and great exertions of her late husband Mr. Henry Grinnell in assisting in the search to ascertain the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin, who perished in the Arctic regions.”

The writing table is still in the family, currently owned by Mrs. Peter Grinnell of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and destined one day to join the collection of the Whaling Museum in New Bedford. The existence of this second Resolute desk symbolizes the links of sympathy not only between the two nations, but also between two widows, one a New York City matron, one the Queen of Great Britain.

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