English Ship Model 1884.54.39

English Three Decker Ship Model in Bone    1884.54.39

POW Ship Model (early 19th century) from the founding collection of General Pitt Rivers

Yanyue Yuan, MSc Student in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography

Linacre College, University of Oxford

The Three Decker Ship Model made of bone lies inconspicuously at the bottom level of Case 70 which holds a variety of ivory and bone-made artefacts such as fans and accessories. This ship model was among the first batch of objects sent to the Bethnal Green Museum for display around 1874 and was probably displayed at the Bethnal Green and/or the South Kensington Museum, for it was listed in the Delivery Catalogue of objects transferred from South Kensington.

Measuring 430 mm (approximately 17 inches) in length, the model is medium-sized. Like most bone ship models, it is built of a combination of bone and wood. Bone planks are fixed onto outer layers of the hull, bulkheads and ribs made of wood are clearly visible. The ship is fixed onto a larger wooden base. The beak, the fore bulkhead and the rudder were restored in 1939. The label reads ‘an English First Rate’, which, according to the rating system of the Royal Navy, referred to ships with 100 guns. As a three-decker, it is supposed to carry guns on three fully-armed decks. Nevertheless, the object lacks any significant decorations to mark its status. Compared to ship models scattered in other museums in England, it looks extremely simple, with no mast, flag, figurehead, rigging or even guns. Barely discernible are simple carving patterns incised into the bone for decoration on the upper part of the stern. This model is much outshined by the HMS Leopard (1884.54.44), also from the founding collection, displayed in an individual case. Anchoring quietly in the sombre light, the Three Decker model is far from symbolic or representative among the museum’s navigation collection. Still, its particular historical background and revealing feature offer a series of intriguing clues about artefacts of this category.

The current database infers that the model was constructed by a French Prisoner of War in the early 19th century, though its creator and the process of acquisition by Pitt Rivers are now hard to trace. This lack of a traceable history applies to hundreds of other prisoner of war ship models. Unlike the HMS Leopard made by the well-known shipwright George Stockwell, this model does not offer us a specific story of its own, but rather urges us to probe into the history of artefacts of the wider category of ‘Napoleonic Prisoners of War’. It also arouses further inquiries into aspects of the life of French prisoners in Britain, their living conditions, their motivation for making handicrafts, and how they managed to create ship models in this setting; different types of ship models and the current situation and location of this particular type of artefacts.

French prisoners of war were a consequence of the war launched by Napoleon on England and Holland in 1793, which lasted for more than two decades until the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815 marked the end of the Napoleonic army as a European menace. In the course of twenty years or so, a vast number of prisoners were brought to England and several prison camps were established at places like Dartmoor and Norman Cross. In all, there were around fifty depots in England and Scotland. Freeston classified French prisoners into three categories: to be confined in prison ships afloat (hulks), in prison buildings ashore or released on parole (presumably, a privilege granted to officers above a certain rank). The issue of French POW was a serious political matter of the epoch that was even discussed and debated in Parliament (Hansard Report 14th June 181 vol. 20 cc 634-9). Lord Cochrane, as a Member of Parliament, travelled to investigate prisons in Exeter, Launceston and other depots and argued that the prisoners should be immediately attended to. Among those who rejected this view was Mr Whitebread, who overtly stated that the situation of prisoners was indeed quite comfortable.

Given the fact that it was the first time that England received such a large number of prisoners of war in the early 19th century, many problems would emerge, such as overcrowding and disease caused by humidity. On the whole, however, French soldiers (especially in prisons) were treated humanely and were given the freedom to pursue leisure activities. It was in these circumstances that prisoners occupied themselves with making small workboxes, ship models and other handicrafts. As men who sailed and fought before being imprisoned in a foreign country, they were motivated to make ship models to express their appreciation of ships and, one imagines, to occupy their time in captivity. The process was enjoyable and the outcome was often rewarding. The prisoners offered their ‘works of art’ to express gratitude to people who cared for them, and who sometimes even kindly supplied them with the materials they needed.  Apart from this, they also acquired permission to sell their handiwork at the markets held in the prisons, provided that all the deals were conducted under surveillance of the authorities and the prices for the goods were approved by certain agents. In Dartmoor, for example, a market occupying a hundred square feet was set up in the middle of the prison. In some cases, the models were also sold to prison officials and Naval officers who sometimes smuggled small tools and material into the prisons. In hulks, however, the conditions made it very difficult for prisoners to make objects, let alone  to find occasions to sell them. It is likely that the most exquisite ship models were produced outside prisons, by those who were on parole.

Despite the fact that England held prisoners of a variety of nationalities, including Italians, Swiss, Poles, Saxons, Spaniards, Dutchmen and Americans, French prisoners were probably the first to come up with the idea of ship models. This is not surprising, considering the large number of apprentices from every craft, as well as skilled craftsmen from West Africa, who were conscripted by Napoleon. These prisoners developed the technique and instructed seamen of other nations in the art of making ship models out of bone and other materials.  This poses an interesting contrast to English prisoners on the continent, who idled away their time playing ball games; models by English prisoners are virtually non-existent.

Knowing how such crafts were built contributes to a better appreciation of these ship models. To make a model like this one, one needs some simple tools, including a knife, drills, a ruler, a plane, chisels, a saw, a vice or clamp, files, abrasives and a hammer. Ship models made of bone (in many cases, beef bones) were more common ones because bones were easy to acquire as leftovers of meals. The wood used for the hull was also available in unlimited quantities from timber used in the construction, repair and heating of the prisons. Yet bones are not as easy to master as it seems. Though the outside of a bone is smooth and hard, below its thick surface lies an interior of a cellular construction. What’s more, bone straight from the animal has a high fat content and will soon become dirty and acquire a yellowish hue, so it was usually boiled or bleached (either under sunlight or with sulphur dioxide) before being used in craft. Most models were encased once completed, and some original cases are as appealing as the models themselves. Some ship models took a long time (up to six months) to make and were an accomplishment through collaboration.

Hundreds of ship models made by the French Prisoners are now displayed in museums and historic houses of England. A large number of them even found their way to the United States. Some are occasionally available in antique shops and auction sales. An early 19th Century French prisoner model offered by the Christie’s, for example, has an estimated price of £2,000 -£3,000.

The value of these handicrafts lies in the imagination and creativity demonstrated by the French prisoners of war. The also provide us with replicas of famous vessels in the naval history. The current model is of a comparatively average quality, for which there may be several reasons: a lack of materials or appropriate tools may have been an obstacle to perfection, or it may come from a stage when the prisoners were practising and improving their craft before learning to construct remarkable replicas. This model of an English three-decker ship in bone is of a significance typical to its category: its historical value surpasses its aesthetic merit, and it is a testament to the patience and skill applied to an elaborate artistic task.


Boyd, Norman Napier. 2000. The Model Ship: Her Role in History. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Chudley, Ron. 1983. Our Brother the Enemy. Exmouth: Hartley House.

Freeston, Ewart C., 1973. Prisoner-of-War Ship Models 1775-1825. London and Southamption: The Camelot Press Ltd.

Harvey, Wallace. 1971. Whitstable and the French Prisoners of War. Kent: Pirie and Cavender Ltd.

Parker Gallery. 1949. Description of a few old surviving shipmodels. London : The Parker Gallery.


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