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Historic Royal Navy figureheads moved for new lease of life

7 November 2017
Two iconic figures which once adorned the bows of British warships will take centre stage at Plymouth’s £37m new cultural/heritage/history centre, The Box.

‘King Billy’ – from the first-rate battleship HMS Royal William – and Topaze from the fifth rate of the same name will undergo restoration before being installed at the entrance to the new complex when it opens in 2020.

The work on the wooden pieces of art – in their day used to help identify ships in the same way pennant numbers and crests act today – will help experts in Plymouth Naval Base’s Heritage Centre care for a dozen other figureheads which are in need of attention.

“The figureheads are a popular highlight with visitors to the Heritage Centre, but their colourful exteriors are not original and the paintwork hides possible internal decay, a multitude of repairs and layers of paintwork,” explained WO1 Mark Portman.

The figureheads are a popular highlight with visitors to the Heritage Centre

Warrant Officer 1 Mark Portman, Devonport Heritage Centre

“To restore them to their original condition we need to use scientific techniques such as X-ray and sonic investigation methods. These will identity what fillers, fibreglass and paint have been used over generations of care and repair," continued WO1 Portman.

“Backed up by research this will help us to ensure we use the best and most appropriate restoration and conservation methods to preserve them for years to come.’’

Topaze was made for HMS Topaze, a 51-gun ‘screw frigate’ – a steam-driven wooden ship – which served from the 1850s into the early 1880s; in 1868 her crew ‘removed’ two statues from Easter Island and brought them to the UK for display in the British Museum.

King Billy is a standing figure of William IV – the ‘Sailor King’ who sat on the throne before Victoria – which was originally attached to the 120-gun warship HMS Royal William, for many years a guard ship at Devonport.

A glass fibre replica of King Billy stands inside the Devonport Dockyard wall at Mutton Cove, on the banks for the River Tamar – still keeping eye on Naval traffic.

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