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Restoring HMS Trincomalee's 1845 figurehead

In December last year we received the great news that the Art Fund and the Friends of HMS Trincomalee had agreed to fund the conservation and display of HMS Trincomalee’s 1845 figurehead. After some delays caused by lockdown the work is now going ahead and in this series of blogs we will give the history of the figurehead and trace the progress of the project.

Background and early history

Figureheads are the carved sculptures that decorate the bows of wooden sailing ships. In the past they were often thought of as the soul of a ship, offering good luck and protection from the perilous journeys it made. As such, they were often lovingly cared for by a superstitious crew.

Image 1. Figurehead before conservation

HMS Trincomalee was built in 1817, and was one of several teak ships built for the Royal Navy in Bombay (modern day Mumbai).  Records show that Trincomalee’s first figurehead needed to be replaced in 1845, and this was when our figurehead was ordered. It then remained in place on the ship for over 150 years.

Preparing the Ship for Figurehead
Image 2. This image from 1999 shows the ship prepared for a new figurehead.

When HMS Trincomalee was brought to Hartlepool for restoration in 1987, it was intended to keep the figurehead in place but internal decay was discovered so it was removed and replaced with a modern copy which remains on the ship today.

Modern Figure head replica

Image 3. Modern replica in place on the ship

The 1845 figurehead was carved by Hellyer & Son, the best known and most prolific ship carvers of the Portsmouth dockyard. It depicts a turbaned man, believed to represent a native of Sri Lanka where Trincomalee is a port. This kind of turbaned figure was a commonly used design for ships built in India which were often named after regions of the subcontinent.

Figurehead sketch

Image 4. 1845 design drawing for the figurehead. © National Archives

The original design drawing and paperwork for the commission survives in the National Archives in London. The drawing is surprisingly small and intricate, and bears an approval signature from the Surveyor of the Royal Navy. Another document which survives is the quote for the carving; it cost £12 which is about £1500 in today’s money – not bad!



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