Collingwood Society Lecture 2020: The conservation of wooden ships

This year’s Collingwood Society lecture – back in the days, earlier this month, when you could still have such a thing – was on the conservation of wooden ships, given by Clare Hunt, the curator at HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool. She started off by saying that wooden ships are all a conservator’s nightmares come at once – the materials and the surrounding and the visitors – but they seem to bring compensations as well.

Like several other sites, Trincomalee was once an independent trust but is now part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, a much larger organisation, and therefore able to centralise resources – but national rather than local.

The museum has a variety of people in different roles working on conserving the ship – or ships. A team of shipwrights and carpenters are based in Portsmouth and move about to the various ships under the museum’s care. There are also riggers and painters – both traditional trades. A more modern role – museum rather than shipyard – is that of the conservators – often found, apparently, in protective clothing, or at least shown to us that way on screen. On site, each ship also has its own ‘shipkeepers’ – the equivalent of housekeepers – who work with the conservators to look after them more generally.

Because the ship is a historic object – some kind of equivalent of the listed building – very detailed records have been made, including precise laser measurements, and exactly which parts of the ship are historic wood and which parts are modern – historic being a better definition than ‘original’, due to changes during a ship’s working life. For the ships in the NMRN’s care some beautiful cutaway drawings have also been made, less scientific, but giving a vivid picture of what might happen in every part of the ship, and including every member of the crew complement.

The ship is, oddly enough, officially a ‘large archaeological object’, and so an archaeological survey of it was made, looking in particular for marks made on the ship. These are varied, because of the ship’s history – marks made by the Indian shipyard, marks made by English shipyards at a later date, marks made by the merchant marine when she was in use as a training ship at a later date – and can be very useful in figuring out her story.

Trincomalee is the only surviving ship of the period built in an Indian dockyard, and the marks left by the original builders give an insight into the methods used and how these differed from the methods of the English yards. Other marks are English, dating from her commission in the 1840s, but only one of the standard ‘raze marks’ of the naval dockyards has been found, while there are many on Victory. Broad arrows, showing naval ownership, are more common, and sometimes found on things which would otherwise have been assumed to belong to the period when she was a merchant marine training ship. Some of these are obvious – such as ‘Trincomalee’ written on the rudder post – and some are very subtle, or in places where visitors wouldn’t usually go.

Great care is taken of the ship, and she’s looked after more gently than she would have been by the sailors – mild detergent, and no brasso, which tends to take off the detail of the metal as well as the dirt. There are some modern additions, of course – heaters and humidity meters and insect traps, to control and monitor conditions.

One great problem on the ships can insect infestation, particularly death watch beetle, which eats through the wood – this is difficult to track, as the larva live for some time inside the wood before making their way out. There seem to be none in Trincomalee, however – one was discovered in a trap once, but it seems to have just been having a look around – so presumably they don’t like teak. Victory, which has far more oak, has a serious problem with the beetles, which were apparently brought in during restoration in the 1920s. There can also be woodworm, although this is usually restricted to furniture, rather than the structure of the ship.

An interesting discovery recently has been the discovery of Trincomalee’s almost-original figurehead, dating back to c. 1845 when she was first in commission. This is now being restored, using paint colours recorded in an image on an old postcard, and is also giving information on how the sailors mended and cared for the figurehead while it was on the ship.

Before coming to work with Trincomalee Clare had been involved with other ships – the first, while worked for Southend museum, was HMS London, built in 1656 and wrecked in the Thames in 1665. Some of the artefacts here have been amazingly well preserved in the river’s mud, and are an important source of information about the ships of the time – but because maybe 300 people were killed when the ship blew up, there is a real issue with body parts being recovered from the river, with the coroner having to be notified each time in case they are more recent.

A second was HMS Invincible, sunk in the Solent in 1758. Parts of the ship and artefacts from her are to go to the navy museum at Portsmouth, where the display will focus partly on the preservation of the ship, as this is something which greatly interests people – like Mary Rose, the timbers are being preserved by using polyethylene glycol to replace the water which currently saturates them.

A third, but more recent than Trincomalee in both senses, is RML 497, a WW2 rescue boat now in Hartlepool where she’s undergoing restoration – initially by having a large quantity of barnacles removed! The boat was later used as a ferry, but they have been given photographs of an identical sister boat with its original sick bay for those rescued.

One of the questions was about Victory‘s masts, which will be returned eventually, once new supports for the body of the ship have been made – although it might seem like keeping a ship in water would destroy it more quickly, ships were built to be supported by water, and dry dock causes far more problems. But we also found out that Trincomalee‘s masts are not only made of steel, not only hollow, but that they draw down air as part of a ventilation system for the ship! The NMRN wouldn’t have restored them that way now, but I don’t think they’re exactly sorry that it was done.

Sir John Moore


It was really one of the Celtic Connections days when I accidentally noticed that one of the statues in George Square, rather than being Victorian as so much of Glasgow is, was to a hero of the Peninsular Wars, Sir John Moore, but at that point he was (in Glasgow fashion) wearing somebody else’s scarf, and so I had to wait until I was back in Glasgow to take a picture.

Sir John Moore statue

I don’t know very much about him, and should probably find out more – I know very little about the war by land anyway, of course, but Wellington has also swallowed up the Peninsular Wars in the same way that Nelson has swallowed up all the naval fame. I know the name, but I think from Georgette Heyer more than from any history I’ve read.

He’s also the brother of Admiral Graham Moore, another of those names which turns up in various places.

Statue inscription

The statue itself doesn’t go into details – the inscription simply reads:

To commemorate the military services of
Lieutenant General Sir John Moore KB
Native of Glasgow
His fellow citizens have erected this monument

His career seems to have taken him almost everywhere – North America, the West Indies, Ireland, the Mediterranean, the Baltic – before he became commander of the troops in the Iberian Peninsula, dying at the Battle of Corunna in 1809.

His dying words were, apparently, ‘I hope the people of Scotland will be satisfied’ – a nice counterpart to Nelson’s ‘England expects’!

It was even more unexpected to find that as I was waiting to cross the road somewhere nearer to the river, I was standing outside a pub named after him – Wetherspoons has this trick of picking out local names, of course, but I didn’t really expect that one.

Sir John Moore pub

Wade’s Roads in Perthshire

If you had seen this road before it was made,
You would lift up your hands and bless General Wade.

I went this week to a talk about the Wade roads of Perthshire – also a good excuse for a little adventure up to Perthshire, while I still could.

I’m not really sure that the speaker knew much more about Wade’s roads than I do, except in the sense of having recently looked up all the statistics, but he did have some nice pictures of the roads, both recent and from the early days of motoring – mostly of the road from Crieff through Aberfeldy and Amulree to Dalnacardoch, which has not been built over to the same extent as the road north from Dunkeld, now under the A9.

Wade was born in 1673 in Westmeath in Ireland and joined the army in 1690, serving in Flanders under Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession, then in Portugal, Spain and Menorca. He became a Major-General in 1714, and at the time of the Jacobite rising in 1715 he returned to England to serve in Bath and London, settling in Bath, and becoming its MP in 1722.

In 1724 he was sent to inspect Scotland for the army, reporting back on the great disadvantage to the troops caused by the want of roads and bridges, as well as the ‘excessive rains which almost constantly fall in those parts’. He estimated that of 22,000 fighting men in the country 12,000 had risen for the Jacobites and would be willing to rise again, and although a disarming act had led some clans to hand over weapons others had not, while those handed in were often old and useless – there was even a suspicion that cheap weapons had been bought in from Holland purely to be handed over for the reward.

The next year he was appointed ‘Commander in Chief of His Majesty’s forces, castles, forts and barracks in North Britain’, in charge of building bridges, roads and barracks in the highlands.

The first road started was to link the forts at Inverness, Fort August and Fort William, through the Great Glen, but the three other roads he built were at least partly in Perthshire – from Dunkeld to Inverness over Drumochter, from Crieff through Aberfeldy to link with the previous road at Dalnacardoch, and from Dalwhinnie (again on the Drumochter road) over the Corrieyairack pass to Fort Augustus.

250 miles of roads were built in the end, to a standard pattern – excavated first with the earth used to build banks by the side, then filled with rocks – blasted with gunpowder if necessary – then smaller stones, and then topped with gravel. Like the Romans, the army tended to build very straight roads where possible, which meant that they went up and down instead of following the contours, and because of the banks they were hollows which filled with snow in the winter, and the first part of the next year’s work had to be replacing the surface which the snow had removed.

About 500 men worked on the roads at any given time, in a season running from April to October – bands of 100 men with their officers. They were given additional pay for the roadbuilding work, but only for the days when work was actually carried out – 6d a day for the men, and higher sums for the officers. Money was provided by the then-new Royal Bank of Scotland, and brought from Edinburgh to Fort William on horseback.

The Dunkeld to Inverness road was built between 1728 and 1730, but must have been largely finished by the end of the 1729 seasons, as there is a story that Wade left a guinea on top of the tall Wade Stone at Drumochter, which marks the point where the parties working from each end met, and found it again the next spring. The summer of 1730 was used to build the road from Crieff, and in 1731 the Corrieyairack Pass road was built – the climb to the pass itself is at the other extreme from the long straight stretches, using a series of zigzags.

In several places, particularly on the Crieff road, the line of the old road can still be seen running straighter and higher than the new, and we were shown several pictures of this, but some of the most noticeable reminders of the old road are the various bridges which remain – sometimes still carrying the road, and sometimes bypassed by it. Experts were brought in to build the bridges, but there were still problems at first as little account had been taken of the height of winter flood waters, and many had to be rebuilt.

The most famous – and spectacular – bridge is of course the one at Aberfeldy, built late in the project, in 1734, and eventually costing a total of £4095 5s 10d – the speaker was very impressed by the exactness of this figure. At the time this was the only bridge over the Tay, the earlier bridge at Perth having been destroyed and replaced by a ferry. Apparently Wade tried to invite the Duke of Atholl to discuss the building of a bridge at Dunkeld, but the Duke replied that he did not go to meet people, people came to him, and no more was done.

Not everyone was pleased by the bridges, either – there was a complaint that they would ‘render the ordinary people effeminate and less fit to pass waters in other places where there are no bridges’. On the other hand, the traveller Edmund Burt described the roads as being ‘as smooth as Constitution Hill’ in London – either an exaggeration, or an indictment of the state of the London roads.

Wade became Commander in Chief of the army in 1745, but was succeeded the next year by the Duke of Cumberland. He died in 1748, leaving a fortune of £100,000, and although he had never been married, this was mostly left to his two sons and two daughters. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, where there is a memorial to him – possibly because he also left the abbey £5000 in his will!

Wade Bridge, Aberfeldy


I’ve been meaning for quite a while now to visit General Wade’s bridge at Aberfeldy, but it’s a bit off my usual tracks, and has never quite fitted in to any plan. I finally fitted it into a Perthshire trip, but although the morning had been sunny, it had turned into a dull and snowy afternoon by the time I’d made it west.

The bridge itself is also now tucked away right on the edge of Aberfeldy, which seems to have turned its back on the river as it has grown, but it would once have been the highlight of one of Wade’s three roads north – and even of his whole road network.

It’s still pretty famous, though – it even has a picture of itself on a nearby bench.

Wade Bridge bench

The bridge was the last part of the road network to be built, and was intended to be a suitable monument to the whole project, as well as a useful and impressive object in its own right – it was the only bridge over the Tay at the time it was built, as the earlier bridge at Perth had been destroyed.

There are many bridges on the Wade roads, of course, most of them plain arches, but this was something different – designed by William Adam, one of the foremost architects in Scotland at the time, and father of the more famous Robert.

Wade bridge

I’m not actually all that keen on it as a design – I think it looks a bit like a four poster bed with no top – but it’s certainly a substantial stone structure, and I can see that it must have been impressive when the only other buildings around were rough cottages.

The fancy shape is not the only decoration – at the top of the centre arch is a crest with a crossed sword and scabbard – I think – and the monogram G II R.


There are also two panels with inscriptions, now rather weatherbeaten.

Original plaque

It’s quite a slope up onto the bridge, which is now only wide enough for one way traffic, although the two directions take it in turns – there’s not much space for pedestrians, either.


The inscriptions – one in English, one in Latin – have been copied onto new plaques on the inside of the bridge – apparently this was done in 1932, so presumably in preparation for the 200th anniversary.

New plaques

‘At the command of His Majesty King George the 2nd this bridge was erected in the year 1733: this with the roads and other military works for securing a safe and easy communication between the high lands and the trading towns of the low country was by His Majesty committed to the care of General George Wade, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Scotland who laid the first stone of this bridge on 23rd April and fmished the work in the same year.’

(‘The same year’ is a slight exaggeration – he came back the next spring to put on some of the fancy bits.)

I assumed that the Latin text was just a translation of the English, but apparently it’s not – it says something like:

Admire this military road stretching on this side and that 250 miles beyond the limits of the Roman one, mocking moors and bogs, opened up through rocks and over mountains, and, as you see, crossing the indignant Tay. This difficult work G. Wade, Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Scotland, accomplished by his own skill and ten years labour of his soldiers in the year of the Christian Era, 1733. Behold how much avail the Royal auspices of George 2nd.


(I really like ‘the indignant Tay’, although as rivers go it has always seemed to me fairly equable.)

Although the bridge as a whole is impressive, the masonry is quite different from the smooth neatness of Telford’s or Smeaton’s later bridges – the outside is neater than the inside, but it’s still a quite different style.