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Naval Figureheads: Removing Devonport's Figureheads Part Three

Removing Devonport’s Figureheads

For years, Devonport’s figureheads had stood proudly in the old dockyard fire station at Devonport Naval Heritage Centre.

A main attraction, visitors would be led into the building where they would walk between the figureheads, gazing up at them in their magnitude as sailors would have once done as they walked along the quayside, some 200 years ago.

Devonport Naval Heritage Centre had done all they could for them with limited money and resources. But ultimately, the conditions for these ornate wooden carvings that had already been subjected to years of being battered by rolling ocean waves and the often treacherous elements at sea, were poor. Ranging between 150 to almost 200 years old, the figureheads had begun to rot.

But a multi-million pound venture in the heart of the City of Plymouth offered them a chance to be saved. Plymouth City Museum was being renovated into what would go on to become The Box in 2020, with a collection of thirteen restored figureheads suspended from the ceiling.

Devonport’s figureheads had remained in the fire station for years, unmoved and largely untouched. Then came the difficult and potentially damaging task of getting them out and transported for restoration.

Conservators had no idea of the true condition of the figureheads and wouldn’t know just how saveable or useable for the project they were until a series of tests could be carried out on each one individually.

With the help of Mtec – an art transportation and installation organisation – the figureheads were able to begin the next phase of their journey.

Mtec navigate the figurehead of HMS Basilisk through the doors of the fire station, 2018. Image supplied by The Box

King Billy

The largest figurehead, affectionately known as ‘King Billy’ consumed the fire station at a staggering 4 meters tall, from base to crown.

The hardest to remove, he, along with the others going to The Box, was mounted on a custom made base and eased from the back of the fire station, with the support of Mtec, by a lorry mounted crane.

‘King Billy’ was then slowly tipped forward, until he lay horizontal, and eased out of the fire station doors.

‘King Billy’s is tipped onto his front and guided through the doors of the fire station. NMRN; Devonport Collection

Protection and Conservation

Several figureheads were wrapped in plastic to protect them from the elements before they were loaded onto lorries and made their way to various parts of the country for conservation.

HMS Topaze is wrapped in a protective plastic as she prepares to leave Devonport. Image supplied by The Box

Conservation was split between Hugh Harrison Conservation in Devon; Orbis Conservation in London and Mainmast Conservation in Cornwall.

After extensive conservation work, including careful deconstruction and repainting that took over two years, the figureheads returned to Plymouth and were installed into their new home at The Box, alongside several from within Her Majesty’s Naval Base in Devonport, and HMS Calcutta from the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Hartlepool site, preserved for future generations.

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