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Naval Figureheads: A Brief History Part One

Naval Figureheads: A Brief History Part One

From the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, figureheads adorned the bows of British naval ships. Often related to the ship’s name, they were believed to embody the spirit of the vessel and were steeped in superstition, historical and religious significance. It is estimated that throughout this period some 5,000 figureheads were carved and installed. 

Superstition

Maritime superstition was woven into the very fabric of figureheads, and sailors would go to great lengths to protect them. The popular choice of a topless woman, such as Aurora pictured below, was believed to act as an offering to the oceans.

Figurehead of HMS Aurora, 1855. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection

Such carvings were contradictory to the belief that women aboard ship would be a distraction to the crew.

Sailors also feared the existence of mermaids and sirens who they believed could lure a ship to be wrecked upon a reef or rocky coastline.

The semi-nude figure, however, was thought to appeal to the ocean spirits with its beauty, thus granting them safe passage.

In 1796, the Admiralty attempted to abolish figureheads due to their extravagance and extortionate costs, dismaying many a superstitious sailor. But they possessed a practicality too; with most sailors illiterate, identifying a ship by its name in a busy port would have been extremely difficult. A large, symbolic figurehead was much easier to spot.

Carving figureheads

Yellow pine replaced too-heavy elm and oak in the eighteenth. Chisels, mallets, sandpaper, gouges, dowels and glue were used to turn solid blocks into a decoration.

The Dickerson family became renown in this field of work from 1770 – 1871 as carvers to the Royal Navy, designing and producing work for over 100 ships.

Affectionately nicknamed ‘King Billy’, the HMS Royal William figurehead was carved in Plymouth in 1833 by Frederick Dickerson; master carver at Devonport dockyard. In 1856, Dickerson carved Topaze for the price of £28 10s (around £3,035 today.) Both can now be seen at The Box in Plymouth.

Front: HMS Royal William, 1833. Behind: HMS Sybile, HMS Tamar and HMS Centaur. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection. Image supplied by The Box


Front figurehead, HMS Topaze, 1861. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection. Image supplied by The Box

The fate of figureheads

The popularity of the figurehead ended as wooden vessels made way for iron and steam. Removed as ships were broken up, they found their way into private collections, commercial and royal dockyards.

Today, many figureheads are brightly painted; certainly, royal dockyards were known for painting an acquired figurehead to smarten them up. Many figureheads, however, were originally painted white – entirely or dominantly.
Approximately 200 figureheads survive today, almost all from the nineteenth century.

You can see some fantastic figureheards preserved and conserved at both The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool and in Portsmouth at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

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