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Sunday, 18th May 2008

I suppose I should not have been surprised, a simple throw away comment about Ships Figureheads has prompted rather more interest than I had anticipated. So for this reason I introduce you to the entire set.

A mighty colourful series of cards it had two distinct print runs although only the real purist need worry about this as it does not actually affect anything of importance. Printed in 1912 the set was made up of 25 cards.

The cards are dripping with grand victories and heroic failure

I am not entirely sure on what basis the figureheads were chosen but I suspect Edwardian decency was to the fore. Because despite the sailing tradition that storms could be quelled by a woman revealing herself to the elements there is a distinct lack of storm quelling going on in this set. Oh well, you just cannot have it all. The cards follow a familiar format. 24 are vertical and 1 (why is there always one) is horizontal, although it can be viewed vertically at a push, so good and bad news for the framers there. In fact that particular card has some other interesting facets, Card 23, HMS Eurydice. It is one of the few cards which depicts a woman 'quelling a storm.' It is also the only card where the figurehead is shown under the water (!) Built in 1843 she sank in 1877 off the Isle of Wight in a squall. She was later raised and towed back to Plymouth to be broken up.

It is very difficult to get into the mindset of the sailors that used to float about in the 'wooden walls' but suffice to say it was rather unpleasant in terms of space. A naval catchphrase which dates from the 19th century goes, 'Ashore, it is wine women and song, aboard it is rum, bum and concertina.' Shall we move on?

It is also tricky to get into the mindset of the compilers, I am not aware of any catchphrases belonging to this occupation. The world of 1912 was very different and the UK certainly was. The cards are dripping with grand victories and heroic failure. There is no real mention of ships which took part in actions that were not exactly victories and not quite heroic failure. I suppose it is not a great secret that Britain, once the most powerful nation on this planet whose Empire was often held together by gunship diplomacy, no longer has a naval fleet which could pull the skin of a rice pudding. I am of course being a little harsh but there would be no chance of mounting another Falklands type campaign. What's worse we have not even got the ability to build them if we needed to.

Details from Card
HMS Colossus
Among all the ships under Nelson's command at Trafalgar, none fought more brilliantly than the 74 gun Colossus. Having been under fire in the very hottest part of the engagement, the Colossus was the hardest hit of all Nelson's ships. She captured a French seventy-four, and silenced a Spanish ship of eighty guns. One man in every three was killed or wounded.

However whilst on the topic of heroic deeds you cannot pass card 3 HMS Colossus and whilst we are discussing Trafalgar we cannot miss card 17 HMS Victory.

Building boats was an expensive business and if there was any possibility you could get your enemies to build them for you that was great. Of course your enemies were not to happy to hand them over so usually the 'exchange' took place in heated battle.

Card 10 remembers this tradition with the naming of Sybille, the card notes: 'The original vessel of her name was a French prize, which was added to the Naval List.'

The set is of interest as it straddles the shift from sail to steam. It is sometimes a surprise to think back and realise just how late sail was making an impact in the navy. Card 24 illustrates this fact HMS Calcutta was built as a line-of-battle ship weighing 3590 tons and was built in Bombay in 1831. It is of interest as Britain's heart of oak in this instance was made of teak. After serving a good many years in Gunnery School at Devonport she was only broken up in 1908. Card 13, HMS Formidable had only just gone before her in 1906-7.

It was not that there were not developments going on, as can be attested by card 16 of the set HMS Warrior which in 1860 had been built in the Thames Ironworks and represented Britain's first armoured ship. By 1906 the Dreadnought class of ship had come into being and that is another story. So head there to read a bit about it.

Details from Card
HMS Victory
Nelson's famous flagship had four different figureheads at various periods of her career. That illustrated is believed to be the one carried into the Battle of Trafalgar. The figure-head represents a shield surmounted by a crown, and supported by a marine on the port and a sailor on the starboard. At the present time the Victory still carries the shield and crown but the supporters are two cherubs.

Now whilst I am on the subject of figureheads you may well know Players could not resist returning to the theme with a large card issue of Ships Figureheads in 1931. Now this is an 'odd' set indeed which I cannot quite pin-down stylistically. Actually this is being liberal with the truth and if forced to nail my colours to a mast I would say I do not like this set.

Please though before those mouse buttons head for the email button or even worse you are heading for the medicine cabinet to see if you have anything for shock (brandy poured liberally down the throat is good) I better qualify my alarming statement.

If it was the only set Players did on the theme then all would be well, the cards are large and the information on the reverse reflects this state of affairs with plenty of trivia for me to dig into. However the art work is most peculiar. There is no background so immeadiately the effect is two dimensional. The artist has also created a very odd lighting effect which further flattens the image. There is also no real sense of size to these things, most look like scale models. I know this is a strange thing to say about cigarette cards but the images on this page are given so you can make up your own mind and not trust my excuse for a brain.

Card 2, The 'Great Harry 1514' might old some of the answers on the reverse of the card. Obviously photography was not an option during this period and the ship was accidently burnt long before it was an option. However the card notes there is a model of the ship in the Royal Naval Museum at Greenwich. In fact a good many of the cards make this observation.

Card 11, HMS Boyne also managed to burn four years after being built in 1790. The text tells us it was started because of gunpowder being left lying on the desk. The loaded guns went off when the fire reached them killing several men in nearby ships and hampering rescue attempts.

These criticisms behind the set does add to our knowledge of Ships figureheads. Card 24, The Terra Nova, 1884. We learn that it was an auxillary whaler which by the time this card issue was compiled was doing service as a sealer. It notes the figurehead had to be carved on a budget in many cases and as such was not created by the best of craftsmen even going so far as to explain they were carved by old men who just kept returning to the same themes. I cannot imagine an old man returning to the same theme again and again and I refute any similarity I may have to salty old beggars chewing on tobacco twists.

Card 6, HMS Achillies 1757. Apparently this was a time when the Admiralty wanted ships and their figureheads to be more appropriate for the ship so Lord knows what this is telling us about the ship. The Admiralty were also asking for the figurehead itself to be lighter so they would do less damage to themselves and the ship when crashing bow first through heavy seas. Just before the launching of the Achilles there was also a demand that the amount of money spent on the figureheads was cut back. The ship was sold for scrap in 1784.

So there you go and there they went. The history of naval craft is absolutely fascinating and well worth a readin about on a wet Sunday afternoon.