As part of the redevelopment of Neptune Court, right at the heart of the National Maritime Museum, the iconic power boat Miss Britain III has been the subject of a great deal of attention from the conservation team.
Miss Britain III (BAE0064)
Miss Britain has always been of interest to me as she was built in my home city of Southampton. In 1933 she competed in the Harmsworth Trophy and later that year became the first boat to break the 100mph barrier. Despite approaching her 90th birthday she still shines in the sunlight and draws lots of attention from visitors.
During the first phase of the redevelopment Miss Britain was removed from her old stand, allowing better access for the conservation team, whilst awaiting her new stand. This allowed the Museum’s metals conservators to gain access and work on the gearbox which had been previously difficult.
Following on from this work, my colleague Fay, and I gave her the most thorough clean which has been possible for some years. Although she is cleaned nearly every week on the outside, the inside is usually out of reach. This clean largely consisted of removing dust, which was a loose covering outside, but thick and more compacted inside the boat. This is important to remove for several reasons. Firstly it affects the appearance of the object, making it dull and less eye-catching to visitors. Secondly, the dust can cause chemical or physical damage through abrasion or retaining moisture.
On the outside, the aluminium bodywork was cleaned with soft cloths and hogs hair brushes. This involved a detailed brushing out of every rivet and join. It is vital that this is carried out carefully, as any rough action can be abrasive and cause damage to the relatively soft surface. Although painstaking, the end result was excellent to see.
Once the outside had been cleaned it was time to turn our attention to the inside of the cockpit, and this was where the fun really started! Access was a tricky issue, with only two small openings, each with a fragile leather seat underneath. This meant that we had to lean head-first into the seating area, balancing on the wings of the boat and working as quickly and carefully as possible. To ensure that we did not cause damage through this process we had to first pad the wings with acid-free tissue and plenty of bubble wrap.
As the leather of the seats is so old it is quite dried and cracked, and so can only be gently dusted with our softest of goat hair brushes. This is done in conjunction with a low-suction vacuum cleaner to remove the dust leaving the surface of the object undamaged. The large ‘clumps’ of dust along the creases of the seat needed to be removed with tweezers as they were more robust than the surrounding leather at this point, and we found a number of stray sweet wrappers in the foot well as well! It was quite slow work due to the build-up of dust, but satisfying at the same time.
On the dashboard we were surprised to see not one, but two St Christophers, the patron saint of mariners. Seeing these small details on museum objects, although in this case it is something not visible to visitors, is always a pleasure. They give objects like Miss Britain a human story, bringing to mind a young man, unsure of how safe his journey was, placing his faith in the saint to bring him back from the journey.
The St Christophers inside Miss Britain III
Miss Britain III will be moving to her new stand in Neptune Court during May.
The National Maritime Museum holds information about more than 20,000 Royal Navy warships from circa 1500 to 1950 and is now making this data available through the Warship Histories Project. This project involves the NMM partnering with Wikipedia to enhance our records as well as theirs in order to produce more accurate records for everyone. This is where we need you help!
Our data was compiled by a variety of people here at the Museum over many years and as a result is incomplete. We are asking for help to look at our data and improve or even create records for these vessels on Wikipedia which we will then use to improve our records and help people search our collections by vessels that they are related to.
We recognise how knowledgeable our audience are and we want to take full advantage of that fact. Please visit our project page to find out more about how you can contribute.
In my job as Curator of Antiquities I have the great pleasure of looking after the Museum’s fascinating collection of flags. The museum’s collection includes part of an early US ensign, 1600.2 x 1676.4 mm in size. The fifteen star canton survives with two stripes still attached to it. Its construction would appear to be improvised, the bunting being a silk and cotton mixture, the stars linen and the hoist silk. It is all that survives of a flag believed to have been captured by the British in the famous action between Shannon and USS ‘Chesapeake’ on 1 June 1813. The ensign was sold by Debenham, Storr & Sons in 1900 and was said to have been handed down through the family of Lieutenant Samuel Grandy RN who died in 1856. Although Grandy was actively employed in the Navy in 1813, he was not on board ‘Chesapeake’ at the time of the action. After a period in a private museum run by T.G. Middleton at the Edinburgh Castle public house, Regent’s Park, the ensign appeared on the market again in 1908 when it was bought by anglophile American millionaire, William Waldorf Astor for 850 guineas and presented to the Royal United Services Institute Museum. It remained there until the museum closed in 1963 and was then transferred to the National Maritime Museum.
USS ‘Chesapeake’ ensign flag
The capture of ‘Chesapeake’, which took place during the War of 1812, ended a series of actions in which larger and more heavily armed American frigates had captured British opponents.
Fired on by the British in 1807 and scarcely able to retaliate on that occasion, ‘Chesapeake’ already had a reputation as an unlucky ship. At Boston in May 1813, she had just been refitted and had a new commander, James Lawrence. Philip Broke, who saw his chances of promotion dwindling as the war progressed, detached his sister ship to even the contest and issued a challenge to Lawrence. In the event, Lawrence came out of port before he received it. He had been ordered to proceed to the mouth of the St Lawrence and intended to deal with that enemy frigate on the horizon en route.
Boarding and Taking the American ship ‘Chesapeake’ by the Officers & crew of HMS ‘Shannon’
‘Chesapeake’ was wearing three American ensigns in case one or more was shot away and a white flag with the words: “Free trade and sailor’s rights” – a reference to the grievances that had provoked the war.
A seaman asked Broke: “Mayn’t we have three ensigns sir, like she has?”
Broke replied: “No we’ve always been an unassuming ship”.
The 11-minute action ended with the capture of ‘Chesapeake’, not because of Broke’s enthusiasm for long range gunnery, but because of ‘Shannon’s’ superior rate of fire at close quarters and the successful boarding of the US ship by the British. The fact that ‘Chesapeake’ had an inexperienced crew may have decided the issue. Casualties were very heavy on both sides – both Lawrence and his second in command Augustus Ludlow were mortally wounded. Broke, left literally with a hole in the head, and surprisingly survived until 1841. Lawrence’s injunction: “Don’t give up the ship” was widely reported in the press and reproduced on a flag flown at the battle of Lake Erie a few months later.
The museum also holds ‘Chesapeake’s’ signal book, bound with a bar of lead in the spine so it could be thrown overboard and prevented from falling into enemy hands.
On 1 June there was no time to do this.
Signal book of USS ‘Chesapeake’.
Nasty, brutal and short (to misquote Hobbes), this dramatic confrontation between two ambitious commanders ended in personal tragedy. However it became a great focus of patriotism on both sides of the Atlantic during a war in which the United States Navy emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
Today, I’m pleased to say, sees the publication of a new book I’ve written on the history of the telescope. The book has been brought out in celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 and to mark the 400th anniversary of the invention (or at least the announcement) of the telescope in 1608.
I’ve tried to tell as broad a story as possible. So I’ve talked about the development of telescopes for astronomy and their huge impact in changing our conceptions of the universe but I’ve also looked at the more humble story of the hand-held telescopes and binoculars used for all sorts of things on land and at sea. If you think about it, after all, most of the telescopes ever made were for these more mundane purposes. Another aspect I’ve included is the cultural impact of the telescope, whether as a symbol in art and literature, or as an inspiration for science fiction and other writers and film-makers. So as well as Galileo, Newton and Hubble, you’ll find Alfred Hitchcock, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf. And don’t forget to look out for Tom Swift and his megascope space prober.
For those wanting to look even deeper into the telescope’s history, you may also be interested in a forthcoming conference, The Long View, this July.
Map of North America by Herman Moll, circa 1712 (DUF292:2/2)
One of the really special things about working in a historical museum, like NMM, is the way that collections can focus your attention in different ways. We have so many items and objects on display here that I am yet to look at in great depth. This is in spite of the fact that I have walked through the galleries almost every day for the last three years. This week my attention was drawn to this map. It is something that I have never stopped at before – even though it is on one of my regular routes through the museum.
Our next exhibition, as part of the ‘New Visions’ programme of contemporary art, will be with the artist Renée Green, opening in January next year. Renée is currently developing a newly commissioned artwork that will explore ideas of islands, focusing in particular on the islands of Manhattan, Majorca and California. Yes, California. Today we understand this location as a state, but for many years westerners viewed this area of land as an island. Renée is based in New York and San Francisco and this week she visited London to start working on the installation of her new exhibition. On Friday, while we were wandering around the galleries, she espied a map on display in our ‘Atlantic Worlds’ exhibition that clearly describes California as an island. This map of North America was published around 1712 by the Dutch map publisher and engraver Herman Moll (1654-1732). Moll moved to London in 1678, where he became one of the most prominent map publishers in the country.
The myth of California being an island is difficult to trace, especially as earlier maps than this show it as a peninsula. For around one hundred years it became an island – perhaps the characteristic fog of San Francisco created the idea. However, in 1747, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a royal edict that put a stop to this idea, declaring California as part of the mainland, and soon after it became firmly documented as a part of the larger continent. In Moll’s map here, the strait described as ‘Gulf of California or Red Sea’ separates California from the mainland – a place where New Mexico is bordered by the mysterious ‘Parts Unknown’.
Maps are inherently metaphorical as they cannot accurately represent or duplicate any place – they are fictions requiring interpretation. These maps in our collection, which we now know to be erroneous, are endlessly fascinating as they reveal belief systems from another time. These uncertainties are always interesting, indeed Lawrence Weiner, an artist who worked with us in 2007, has described the artist as a voyager who explores uncertainty and then tells others about it. This map makes me wonder how I might understand California – the Sunshine State that has filled so many fictions, films and pop songs – in a different way were it to be freed from its surrounding land.