Long John Silver
King William Walk
London SE10 9HT
TfL Fare Zone 2/3
An absolute hidden gem awaits tourists visiting the Cutty Sark Sailing Clipper in Greenwich, south London. In the dry dock exhibition space beneath the ship’s hull is the superb Long John Silver Figureheads Collection.
This display of historic figureheads should not be missed. For the first time since it was donated in the 1950s, the entire collection is on view. Previously, they were hung in the Cutty Sark’s cargo hold and only a few of the figureheads could be shown at one time (see photo below).
The collection is the largest in the world and many of the figureheads are more than 200 years old. Their hard life, stuck out in front of the ships and lashed by every wave and storm, shows in rotting timbers, corroding bolts and nails holding apparently solid hunks of oak together, and layer upon layer of whatever paint was available when they urgently needed some makeup before heading into port.
Some must have been repainted at sea, many crudely, as if with a mop, and rough as a cheese-grater from embedded sand and grit. All these blemishes have been carefully conserved.
A number of the figureheads are missing arms and legs. This is because many were made with detachable limbs, which were removed while at sea to protect them and only replaced when the ship was returning to harbour. The assemblage includes a sad pile of disembodied heads, hands and feet, including one hand clutching a purse of sovereigns that came into the collection with a tattered label stating it was all that survived of a ship wrecked at Ayr in Scotland.
Most of the figures are buxom, red-cheeked blonde or brunette women, but there are also soldiers, sailors, politicians including Pitt, Gladstone and Disraeli, and a splendidly carved little dog from a ship called Sirius.
One of the most imposing is Thermopylae, a magnificently moustachioed and helmeted classical warrior. To the disappointment of the Cutty Sark crew, the carving proved to be from a late 19th century steam ship, not the clipper Thermopylae, which in 1872 raced the Cutty Sark from Shanghai to London with a cargo of tea and won by seven days after Cutty Sark lost her rudder. The Cutty Sark later beat Thermopylae on a wool race back from Australia.
The Strange Name of the Collection
‘Long John Silver’ was the name adopted by Sydney Cummers, the man who bequeathed the collection to the Cutty Sark. Sydney was a fanatical collector of merchant shipping memorabilia who had lost an eye in a childhood accident. He took to wearing an eye patch and calling himself ‘Long John Silver’ after the pirate character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island.
Sydney and his wife (‘The Maid’) lived in a house in Gravesend, Kent called ‘The Look Out’ where Sydney displayed his collection as a museum. The collection continued to grow and there is a story that his wife would groan whenever he came back from an expedition with an empty car, because she knew he had bought something so big it was following by lorry!
Sydney Cummings donated his collection in 1953, in memory of Britain's merchant seamen and the Little Ships that went to the rescue of the army at Dunkirk in the Second World War.
Follow the ‘Getting There’ directions on the ‘Greenwich’ article in this website.
Google Maps - Greenwich