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NAVAL FIGUREHEADS: DEVONPORT PART TWO

Devonport Figureheads: stories and decline from the bow

As wooden vessels were broken up and figureheads removed from the bow of the ship, many were absorbed into the Royal Navy collection. In Plymouth, several were housed at Devonport Naval Heritage Centre on public display.

But while protected from the coastal elements inside the old Fire Station, the building was not fit for purpose. Gradually the figureheads began to degrade amid growing concern that they and their stories, some of which feature below, would be lost to the collection forever.

HMS Topaze


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

In 1868, HMS Topaze journeyed to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), where her crew found and removed two large moai heads: Moai Hava and Hoa Hakananai’a, which was found buried up to its shoulders in the ceremonial village of Orongo.

When Topaze returned to Plymouth the following year, the Admiralty offered Hoa Hakananai’a to Queen Victoria as a gift. The Queen chose to donate the head to the British Museum, alongside Moai Hava, where they have been displayed ever since.

Today, the British Museum is working with Rapanui community after a written request for the return of the heads was made in 2018.

HMS Sybille


Sybille, National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection. Image supplied by The Box


Designed and created by Hellyer in 1846 for the sum of £18 (around £2,000 today), the figurehead is based on mythical sibyls of Ancient Greece. The Delphic Sibyl was said to be “born between man and goddess, daughter of sea monsters…” and was perhaps favoured as the depiction for a figurehead in order to appease sea spirits for the sake of safe passage.

It is believed to have been carved from a painting of Lady Hamilton – the mistress of Lord Nelson - dressed as a sibyl.

HMS Rattlesnake (replica)

Rattlesnake, replica. National Museum of the Royal Navy; Devonport Collection

At the request of marine Hydrographers, HMS Rattlesnake was sent to survey Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and New Guinea in 1846. The purpose of the voyage was to chart safe passage between the two in order to open up the new colony to East Indies trade.

It was not uncommon for naturalists to join ships bound for tropical countries, where they could study and collect samples of never before seen flora and fauna.

Among the three naturalists aboard the Rattlesnake was John Macgillivray, who famously documented more than 41 marine species previously unknown to science and recorded the aboriginal languages he encountered on his voyage. His vast collections can be found at numerous institutions, including the British Museum and Kew Herbarium.

In a bid to save the figureheads and preserve their stories, the NMRN formed a partnership with Plymouth City Museum in 2017. The figureheads were offered on long-term loan as part of its redevelopment to become The Box where they would undergo significant conservation work before their public unveiling in 2020.

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