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Immortalised in wood

3 November 2008 by stepheng

a small girl in pink is looking up at a large white figure head of a man in naval uniform

The figurehead. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

Lord Hastings is one of those larger-than-life characters I would have liked to have met – he had a very colourful career and seems, for his time, to have been rather a good egg.

I was amazed when I discovered how he literally had a hand in his wife’s funeral.

The massive wooden figurehead depicting Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 1st Marquess of Hastings, looks straight ahead with features nobly bland as befitting a governor-general of India. Lord Hastings (1754 – 1826), is depicted wearing a magnificent uniform with gold epaulettes, gleaming medal and foaming cravat. The figurehead, now at Merseyside Maritime Museum, once graced the bows of HMS Hastings named after this soldier who was born into the Irish aristocracy.

The 74-gun warship was built in Calcutta for the East India Company in 1818  and acquired by the  British Navy the following year. At this time Lord Hastings was enjoying a brilliant career helping to carve out the burgeoning British Empire by extending territories in India and the Far East.

HMS Hastings’ figurehead is typical of the type found on British naval ships in the early 19th century. It was probably English-made and fitted on her arrival here in 1819.

The warship travelled many thousands of miles as she plied the seas between Europe, the Mediterranean and East Indies. Eventually she came to Liverpool as a coastal defence vessel in 1857 before becoming a Royal Naval Reserve training ship in the port. After ending her days as a coal hulk in the south of England, she was broken up in 1886.

And what of the Lord Hastings who gave his name to the dependable warship? He was governor general of India from 1813 to 1823, a period marked with many military victories against peoples opposing British rule. However, things later turned sour with mud-slinging against Lord Hastings over financial issues. He resigned and left India exhausted by his labours.

Far from having enriched himself as governor-general, when he arrived back in England he had to seek employment. He became the popular governor of Malta and died at sea off Naples in 1826.

Lord Hastings married when he was 50 and fathered five children. On his death, he left a bizarre request – his right hand was cut off and preserved until the death of his wife, when it was placed in her coffin.

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).

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