Posted: 19th January 2021
As the Collections Curator for the museums service, working cross-service, dealing with collections care and documentation for thousands of historic (and often pre-historic) objects, I come into contact with a vast range of wonderful and interesting items every day.
One of my favourite objects from the two large storage warehouses I manage, is a ships figurehead depicting ‘Britannia’, usually shown on old coins or statues with a shield and trident, but in this case she is an enormous carved wooden torso and head, wearing scale armour, plumed helmet, and lions carved on her upper arms.
I first came across this object in our previous storage warehouse, and despite being so large it was difficult to study properly due to being half-hidden underneath one of our vintage vehicles. As such, when we moved stores it was wonderful to be able to bring it out into the light, to look at the carvings and take some better quality photographs.
We know that the figurehead came from HMS Albion, a sailing ship originally built and launched in 1842 from Devonport, at Plymouth Dockyard. The ship was involved in the Crimea War and dispatched to the Black Sea in 1854 to fight against the Russians, many crew members dying of cholera whilst on board. It also had a prominent role in the Siege of Sevastopol during the same conflict, providing vital artillery support to allied forces besieging the city. The figurehead itself is actually a replacement for a previous Britannia carving, ours dating to about 1860-61, the same time as the vessel was converted to steam. Unfortunately, this refurbishment work was never finished and the ship was kept in reserve for over twenty years, until finally being scrapped in 1884.
Thankfully the figurehead survived the scrap yard. An important object in its own right, made by the renowned craftsman Frederick Dickerson, who had created many fine carvings for naval ships of the day, his skilled ancestors having previously produced carvings for Nelson’s ships.
The figurehead appears to have no direct links to Hull, so how it came to be in our museum collections is a mystery still to solve, yet it is important to the city in other ways. It stood upright outside the Museum of Fisheries and Shipping in Pickering Park for many years (see image below), until 1974 when it was transferred with the rest of the maritime collection to the present Maritime Museum located in the city centre, although unlikely to have ever been on display there do to its size.
It is remarkable that the figurehead has weathered the storms of time for so long, considering it has been exposed to the elements for the majority of its life, which is why I was slightly concerned when we moved it to our new storage warehouse. There is always a risk when transporting museum objects, and I could see from closer inspection underneath, that the figurehead had been made up of lots of different sections slotted together, making it less robust than I would have expected. I needn’t have worried, as we had a great team of technicians and curators who worked together to ensure it got there in one piece.
There are some fantastic objects in the Hull Maritime Museums collections, and soon yet another chapter will open in this long history, when the building will receive a much needed refurbishment, to shine a spotlight on the maritime heritage of the city, through the Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City Project (https://maritimehull.co.uk). So watch out for more details as the project progresses.
Written by collections curator Caroline Rhodes
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