The Long John Silver Collection of figureheads on display at Cutty Sark is a colourful and eclectic collection of characters, ranging from Sir Lancelot to William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale to the Greek goddess Amphitrite, General Gordon to Abraham Lincoln.
The collection is named after the donor Sydney Cumbers who, thanks to his love of all things maritime and the eye-patch he wore, assumed the pseudonym of Captain Long John Silver. Sydney Cumbers was, by all accounts, an eccentric character himself and took on the alter-ego of Long John Silver in his private museum, ‘The Look-Out’ in Gravesend, Kent. Fondly referring to his wife as ‘The Mate’, the Look-Out was home to Cumbers’ extensive collection of memorabilia and Cumbers named its rooms appropriately too; including the ‘Hurricane Deck’, the ‘Foc’s’le’ ‘Poop deck’ and the ‘Bridge’.
The ‘Look-Out’, Cumbers’ second home, displayed models and paintings as well as curios collected by seamen on their travels, but the house was undoubtedly dominated by this extensive figurehead collection – one of the largest collections in the world. Mostly dating from the 19th century, these figureheads all came from merchant vessels, many of which shared the oceans with Cutty Sark. Sydney Cumbers had watched Cutty Sark being towed up to Greenhithe in 1938 when the ship joined the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College, and when he heard in 1953 that Cutty Sark was coming to Greenwich to become a public attraction and memorial to the Merchant Navy, he offered to donate his collection.
A number of figureheads were installed in the ship’s Lower Hold as part of the 1950s restoration of the ship. Now, following the Cutty Sark Conservation Project, the figureheads are prominently displayed in the Sammy Ofer Gallery, under the bow of Cutty Sark with her figurehead, Nannie. This is the first time the collection has been displayed in its entirety since its arrival in Greenwich, to stunning effect at the end of the dock. Sydney Cumbers had dedicated his figurehead collection to the Merchant Seaman of Britain, and in this way these figureheads, from vessels now lost or broken up, support Cutty Sark’s memorial role to those in the Merchant Navy.