Maritime Tales - fascinating figureheads

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large, brightly painted head of a man in military uniform

The figurehead from the Indefatigable Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

They conjure up to me, Stephen Guy, images of a time when ships were like living beings sailing the seven seas. Ship figureheads evoke the age of sail when no ship was complete without a carved figure decorating her bows. They were brightly-coloured and skilfully carved to reflect the names and functions of the ships.

Figureheads have a long and fascinating history going back to ancient, pre-Christian times with their origins shrouded in the mists of time.  Ancient figureheads were looked on as the guardians of the ships they adorned as well as for frightening enemies. In modern times the golden age for figureheads was between 1790 and 1825.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there are several stunning examples of figureheads from this era when Britain ruled the waves. Among those on display is one from the training ship Indefatigable – originally a Royal Naval frigate launched in 1848. It depicts the famous “Sailor King” William IV when he was Duke of Clarence. He is shown (left) in naval uniform with gold epaulettes and medals across his chest.

TS Indefatigable was used on the Mersey between 1865 and 1912 to train boys for the Merchant Navy. The school went ashore and was at Plas Llanfair in Anglesey for many years, closing in 1996. The figurehead went along too but suffered from being out in all weathers. In 1994 four old boys of the school – Harry Traynor, Jim Clark, John Harrison and Alf Eady – began to painstakingly restore it. The figurehead was presented to the museum by the Old Boys Association in 1997.

The figurehead from the Verajean (see her on our Flickr page), a steel ship of 1891, shows a buxom redhead dressed in a red, blue and white formal Victorian dress. She clutches a bunch of red roses to her breast. In 1943 the figurehead was found abandoned in Preston docks and saved from destruction.

A massive white and gold figurehead came originally from the 76-gun warship HMS Hastings, built in 1818 (see him on our Flickr page). It represents the Governor General of India Lord Hastings. HMS Hastings was converted to screw propulsion and came to Liverpool as a coastal defence vessel in 1857.

When figureheads fell out of fashion with the end of sail, wood carvers who produced them turned to other things. Several figures that decorate Liverpool pubs are believed to have been carved by them.

The Verajean, Hastings and other figureheads can be seen on our Flickr page.
More on TS Indefatigable can be found in our archives section.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.