Whenever I look at Merseyside Maritime Museum’s collection of miniature ship models I marvel at these wonders created without the aid of plans or drawings. I could manage plastic construction kits of HMS Hood and the Bismarck but when I see these beautiful sailings ships – some little more than and inch long – I’m amazed. They are the ship model equivalents of beautiful humming birds – tiny vessels built by French prisoners-of-war.
Many of these models have - comparatively speaking - as much detail as those at the other end of the spectrum in the museum’s collections, such as the 20 ft-long model of the Titanic.
The Pilkington Collection of French Prisoner-of-War Models illustrates a vanished art when prisoners used materials such as wood chips or shavings, bone and straw to create wonders of model building. This collection of 39 miniscule warships and boats is one of the museum’s outstanding treasures.
Little is known about the captives who honed their skills to create masterpieces which they could sell or barter to improve their poor food, illustrating that hunger is a great motivator. The talents of the model-makers indicate that they may have been trained as jewellers or watchmakers. The prisoners were held in Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which lasted between 1790 and 1815.
Many French prisoners were held in Liverpool as well as other places around Britain. There is no evidence that the models in the Pilkington collection were made in Liverpool. They were discovered in Dublin and brought to England on behalf of Sir George Pilkington in the early 20th century. The models were in poor condition and they were skilfully restored by renowned model-maker AW Kiddie, of Southport. He used hair from the heads of his wife and daughter to repair the rigging – a very unusual practice at that time.
Kiddie (born 1844) had had an extraordinary life, serving three years on sailing ships when he was regularly beaten and flogged. He jumped ship and trained as an engineer which no doubt sharpened his eye for detail and trained his nimble fingers.
The collection was bequeathed to Liverpool Museum in 1921 by Lady Dame Mary Elizabeth Pilkington, of the St Helens-based glass-making family.
The models on display are built to different scales. Some are in miniature wooden glass cabinets, others under glass domes.They range from men o’war and other ships of the line bristling with cannons to two-masted brigs and rowing boats.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).