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Wood and metal

24 May 2010 by stepheng

ship's figurehead

Beatrice figurehead. Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

I find old carved wooden ships’ figureheads have a curious allure – their eyes seem to be fixed on an ever-elusive horizon.

Figureheads often survive long after the ships they once graced have been broken up – they are totems of a vanished way of life.

The Beatrice was a two-masted wooden schooner built on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1860. In Victorian times many British-owned ships were built in Canada where large supplies of timber were readily available. Beatrice survived for more than 50 years and her last owner was William Cooper of Widnes.

Her small figurehead is on display in the Art and the Sea gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum. It depicts a woman with a huge gold cross hanging from a chunky necklace while a gold tiara adorns her lustrous brown hair.

Nearby hangs Robert Dudley’s remarkable painting ‘Canada timber docks, Liverpool, towards close of day’. This large artwork features a fascinating array of figureheads on sailing ships lined along the docksides.

Painted in the 1870s, it shows timber being unloaded and carried away in horse-drawn carts. The dock was opened in 1858 when Canada was Britain’s major source of timber.

By 1700 several shipyards had been established in the vicinity of the Pool, the tidal creek that gave Liverpool its name.

The early decades of the 19th century brought competition from Canada’s newly-established shipyards. These were situated close to forests supplying the raw material. This, combined with the availability of cheap labour, enabled them to undercut the Liverpool shipbuilders.

By 1840 it was estimated that almost half of Liverpool-owned ships were Canadian built. However, the advent of iron and steel ships as the steam age developed meant that shipbuilding surged on the Mersey.

Wooden ships, like all vessels, are made up of hundreds of different pieces and the frames are not single pieces of timber. Assembling these ships is a complex and time-consuming process requiring many different skills and procedures.

Small sections of wood were jointed together and these could work loose as the ship was subjected to all the stresses and strains of ploughing through many varying sea-states. This is why the ship’s carpenter was such an important member of the crew and was often paid more than the captain. The fate of a ship could sometimes rest with the carpenter so he was very highly-regarded.

A contemporary print from the 1830s shows a wooden ship about to be launched on the site where the Albert Dock now stands.  

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 p&p UK).

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