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Castles Shipbreaking Company

Any visitor to the museum will most likely remember the large, gold eagle in our lobby as it is eye-catching and right in the path of the entrance. But close to the eagle are two other impressive figureheads, those from HMS Formidable and HMS Edinburgh.

Figurehead from HMS Formidable
Figurehead from HMS Edinburgh

These figureheads (and one carving) came from a place called Castles Shipbreaking Company in London (to learn about the history of the company go HERE). This company was known for breaking up ships (as their name implies), but they also had a furniture business. While many figureheads, and carvings, were taken off of the ships before they came to Castles, many others were left on the ships and taken off by Castles.

The front of Castles, showcasing a number of figureheads and a carving taken from ships

These pieces were then displayed as the picture above shows. People were allowed to visit the showroom to view the figureheads and carvings, which is exactly how The Mariners’ Museum buyers came across them. After going and back and forth many times with Castles (the original letters and paperwork are quite interesting) we decided on three pieces; the figureheads from HMS Formidable (84 gun warship launched in 1825, broken up in 1906) and HMS Edinburgh (74 gun warship built 1811, sold in 1866), and a carving from HMS Alexandra (twin screw ironclad warship built 1875, sold 1908). This is after being offered the entire collection of figureheads at their London office for less £2000 (oh, if only we had accepted this offer!). Unfortunately we declined as that was too costly (shipping would have been horrible) and just purchased the three pieces.

HMS Edinburgh and HMS Formidable figureheads, removed from London and at one of the other properties owned by Castles along with garden furniture.
Images sent by Castles to the museum when we were considering figureheads. The figurehead in the center we passed on because of its condition. The images on the left and right show the figurehead from HMS Formidable, although he is quite obscured in the left image.
Bow ornament from HMS Alexandra
Bow ornament on HMS Alexandra

After many months of communication, our pieces were shipped and finally arrived to the museum in late August of 1939. A little over a year and a half later, on April 16, 1941 the offices and showroom where many of the Castles’ figureheads were displayed was bombed, destroying a great number of them. Four hours later, on the 17th, two more bombs hit the area, destroying most of what was left. This is another reason I lament our not purchasing the whole collection when we had the chance, for then these pieces would have not been lost. And it wasn’t just figureheads that were lost, the company collected a number of pieces off the ships they broke up, including carvings, wheels, etc.

And there is one other way in which we connect to Castles. In 1935 we purchased a lot of figureheads from England, including lovely Pallas Athena, attributed to the ship HMS Pallas (armored corvette launched 1865) We did not purchase her from Castles, but her ship was acquired by the company in 1886 for breaking up. It is possible that the figurehead went through Castles and was sold by them to someone else, but it is also possible that she was taken off before they acquired the ship, as that seems to have been fairly common. Whatever the case, I’ve yet to figure out where exactly we purchased Pallas from.

Figurehead attributed to HMS Pallas
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