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.

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