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Copper bottomed

17 January 2011 by stepheng

model sailing ship in a display case

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

Many years ago I splashed out and bought some expensive copper-plated saucepans which are still used regularly. I’m told these are the best because the copper distributes the heat evenly – an important factor even with a meat and two veg man like me.

A lot of people swear by copper for all sorts of things, including warding off the effects of arthritis and other aches and pains. However, it was in the seafaring world that the metal took on almost magical qualities and literally speeded up progress.

Until the middle of the 18th century wooden ships fell foul of barnacles and other sea life infesting the hulls, delaying voyages and making the vessels difficult to manoeuvre. Huge clusters of hard, heavy barnacles would cling to the undersides of ships which had to be regularly put into dry dock or beached so the growths could be removed. Marine worms were another hazard as they burrowed into ship’s timbers, creating leaks and encouraging rot.

Speed was increasingly important as Britain’s empire and trade expanded. Anything attached to a ship’s hull caused excessive drag.

It was discovered that sea creatures could not settle on copper and more ships began to sheath their hulls in the metal. It was first used by the Royal Navy in 1761 and over the next 20 years became regular practice. At first iron nails were used but became corroded by the copper, resulting in loss of sheathing. Copper nails were expensive but solved the problem.  

There are examples of original copper sheathing on display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum including a small section from the Black Ball Line ship Lightning.

Another display also features copper recovered from the hulk of the Jhelum. She was built in Liverpool by Joseph Steel & Son in 1849. By the standards of the day she was rather old-fashioned with bluff bows and a box-like hull. In 1870, overloaded and leaking following a passage around Cape Horn, she put into Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands where her hulk can still be seen.

Other items on display include iron and copper nails and a wooden treenail recovered during an expedition to the hulk by museum staff in 1987. There is a small 1:144 scale exhibition model of the Jhelum (pictured).

The phrase copper bottomed, meaning genuine or trustworthy, developed following the successful use of the metal. It was first used to describe ships but soon entered everyday language.

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 and bookshops.

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