KEVIN GORDON - The ladies who protect our shipping

Kevin Gordon
Kevin Gordon

Ships’ figureheads have been used for thousands of years – the Greeks, Vikings and Romans all found the need to personalise their vessels with a carved figure on the prow.

In England it appears that figureheads were used from the 16th century, sometimes to personalise or identify the ship (for in those days people could not read).

Kevin Gordon

Kevin Gordon

So a ship called the eagle was likely to have a large bird of prey on the front. It seems however that the subject of Navy figureheads was a lion and one of the earliest examples can be seen at the Star Inn in Alfriston.

British lions tended to be gilded, but Dutch ones were generally red. The lion at Alfriston probably came from a Dutch ship sunk at the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690.

Last week one of the two accredited world experts came to Seaford Museum to tell us about his work as a figurehead restorer.

Richard Hunter is from Sheffield (not well known for its maritime history!) and not only restores figureheads but has amassed a collection of about 60,000 photographs of them.

Women were regularly represented on figureheads, often baring their breasts as it was thought that this would calm an angry sea.

The figureheads were intricately carved and the skill of the woodcarver is apparent.

Strangely not many figureheads were ‘signed’. Richard has identified certain features of figureheads, such as the way a hand is carved, to help identify individual wood-carvers.

Some figureheads had an outstretched arm that could be removed for safety when the ship was at sea, and fixed back on when the vessel was berthed. Richard has even found some with glass eyes fitted.

The figurehead was the responsibility of the ship’s captain and he would ensure that when a ship docked, that the figurehead was cleaned or maybe repainted.

Richard told of one figurehead that, when restored, had 60 layers of paint on it.

By Victorian times, figureheads were carved for trading ships and they would often be in the form of a young girl (usually depicting the daughter of the owner of the shipping line).

If he had several ships, they would also be carved to depict his other children, wife and even himself. Figureheads on British warships were abolished in 1894 although some smaller vessels had them until the First World War.

By this time sailors were not so superstitious.

After figureheads went out of favour many simply rotted away.

Some people however realised their beauty and collected them as curiosities.

At Tresco on the Scilly Isles (site of many a shipwreck) there is a large collection. In Seaford the Crook Family had at least two in the garden of their home Telsemeure, at the sea end of Dane Road.

There were also some at the Litlington Tea Gardens. Richard also tells me there was once one at Lewes installed into the side of a house and that she was known as the Lewes Lass. Does anyone know where she has got to?

After the war there was a renewed interest in marine art in the USA and museums sent historians to the UK to root out and buy figureheads. Just one museum (Mystic Seaport in Connecticut) is believed to have purchased over 70 figureheads from the south of England and they were all taken stateside.

Seaford Museum has two figureheads, one from the front of the ship Peruvian which was wrecked at Seaford in 1899, the other from an unknown vessel.

She has been nicknamed ‘Phoebe’ and is currently with Richard who is in the process of restoring her.

The Peruvian figurehead was ably restored by museum member David Taylor who is something of a figurehead expert himself, having once worked at the National Maritime Museum.

The museum is open this Bank Holiday weekend so why not pop along to see a fine example of maritime art.