• Memento Mori

  • MEMENTO MORI of Old England’s Glory

    By Richard Hunter

    At the turn of the twentieth century they stood like monolithic sentinels, looking out over the cold and quite often foggy streets of London, massive, immovable and impressive, the Bulwarks of the British Empire and survivors of the Royal Navy. Steadfastly protecting this island nation in times of War and Peace, they had now become little more than silent nightwatchmen impassively watching over the sad dismembered fabric of their once magnificent bodies.  Erected high above the walls and gates of The Castles Shipbreaking Yard at Baltic Wharf, Millbank, Westminster, London, the sentinels were in fact massive Naval Ships Figureheads. Carved in wood they could vary in size and form from ten, fifteen or even twenty feet tall and be of immense weight.

    Castles Yard with it’s feet in the River Thames and looking out over the Houses of Parliament just down the road in Westminster had a long and interesting history of shipbreaking. Understandably with such a wealth of historic relics its Yard and office building would over a period of time have become a mecca in that part of London for the curious and romantic.  Numerous Old Salts would be found walking around the Yard looking up at the figureheads, dreaming of past times and Glories, the very essence of the picturesque. Surprisingly for such an important and unique photogenic sight in the very heart of the nations capital, Castles Yard and it’s magnificent collection of Naval Figureheads appears in very few postcards surviving from this period.

    Fortunately for our generation at least one publisher did find room for this incredibly interesting collection in his range of postcards, published under the heading ‘MEMENTO MORI’ of old England’s Glory. The company was ‘KOSMOS’ publishers of London and the postcards were distributed from its office at 28 Ballater Road, Brixton.  Each card in the set shows individually Named Naval Figureheads from the Millbank Collection in sepia on a coloured illustrated background, common to all cards, with the wording the property of the Castles Shipbreaking Co. Limited,  Baltic Wharf, Millbank, Westminster, London, S.W.  I think it would be quite safe to equate the finding of such cards as akin to finding a £50 note in the street, the rarity is so great.

    In over 20 years of research and collecting material on the subject of Ship’s Figureheads I have been able to find just four surviving examples of these postcards. Three have been used and have full cancellations with stamps and are in my own collection. The fourth is in private hands, is mint and unused.  It is inconceivable that additional postcards showing the collection have not survived and are still to be found hidden away in some postcard dealer’s stock.

    Each card has its own individual reference number. How many constitute the full set is difficult to say, however it has been suggested that most sets published at this time would have been in the region of six or seven.  The original publishers are understandably no longer in business, so this area of research has been closed to us. Around 1900 the buildings and walls at Baltic Wharf would have been bristling with such carvings built up over several generations of the Castle family, proud to display our naval heritage and at the same time publicise the company and its products.  The publisher would have found no shortage of subjects and looking at the individual cards it is possible to make a number of suppositions with regard to the overall set and to identify the fate of all the illustrated figureheads.

    The first card in my collection is (ref 2053/2 publisher’s numbers) HMS ORION. This massive carving was taken from the vessel built in 1854 at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham in Kent. It shows a giant who hunted in the company of Artemis, who killed him with an arrow because of his importunity; for this he was placed among the stars as the constellation Orion. Armed with 91 guns this vessel took part in the Russian Wars, was sold in 1862 and broken up at the Castle Yard at Vauxhall. For many years this  impressive figurehead stood side by side with the equally impressive female figurehead from HMS PRINCESS ROYAL on the gate supports to the Castles South Yard, until he was given by the company to the Royal United Services Museum (then housed at the time in the old Banqueting House in Whitehall). Once again he stood outside a building, guarding the entrance to the museum and was believed to have been destroyed some time during the second world war.  Unfortunately the museum closed in the early 1950’s with the loss of all documentation on the fate of the old Orion.  This card has a halfpenny stamp with the head of King George V and was franked in 1912 to an address in Chudleigh, Devon.

    Card number two, again from my own collection (ref 2053/3) is of HMS COLLINGWOOD. Here we have a fine rendition of Vice-Admiral Cuthbert, Lord Collingwood, captain of the BARFLEUR at the Glorious First of June and of the EXCELLENT at St. Vincent. He was second-in-command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. HMS COLLINGWOOD was built as a Second Rate in 1841 and sold to Castles in 1867. The figurehead was removed from the vessel and placed on display in the Castles Yard. Together he with many other historic figureheads and carvings would be destroyed during the Blitz on London when the entire Baltic Wharf Yard was lost. As with the first card this also has a halfpenny stamp, only this time it is of King Edward VII.  It was posted on  21st November 1910 at 10.30 am from Newport Pagnell to an address in Paddington and knowing the postal service at the time I would not be at all surprised if it had not been delivered the same day in the afternoon  post.

    Card three (Ref 2053/4) is in a private collection and shows the figurehead of HMS FORMIDABLE, built as a second rate in 1825 and used as a training vessel; she was not broken up until 1906. This figurehead survives in the collection of the Mariners Museum at Newport News, USA and was bought together with a  number of interesting figureheads and historic items from the company’s collection in the early 1930’s. 

    Card four shows the figurehead of HMS LEANDER, the lover of Hero, who swam the Hellespont each night to visit her until he was drowned in a storm. It is impossible to work out the reference number of this card as part of the back has been written over in ink. Built as a fourth rate in 1848 she was sold out of the Royal Navy in 1867 and bought by Castles. Incredibly this figurehead did survive the devastation of the second world war, one of the very few carvings to do so and afterwards was given back to the Royal Navy.  She can now be found at the shore establishment HMS COLLINGWOOD at Fareham, Hampshire. The LEANDER card was posted on 17th September 1910 to an address in France and has a one penny stamp.

    An examination of the evidence would suggest that the above cards were available in the local area or through the company as a publicity item for a relatively long period of time between 1900 and 1915. It is interesting to think that so few have survived when one takes into consideration the vast numbers that must have been published by Kosmos. How many more cards are still to be found in the set is impossible to say.  Their survival is all the more remarkable and helps to give us a glimpse of just what has been lost.   “MEMENTO MORI”is a fitting epitaph to these guardians of our Naval Heritage.  Sadly it is not possible to turn the clock back in time, but it is possible to turn the pages of our  postcard albums and look in amazement on views of long ago.