In the Long John Silver Collection of figureheads on display at Cutty Sark, there are several examples of 18th and 19th century politicians being chosen to decorate the bows of vessels, which were often then named after the politician too.
While we might expect beautiful female figures being chosen to adorn ship’s bows, these figureheads demonstrate how shipowners hoped these recognisable and respectable political figures would reflect well on their ship and company.
This figurehead is thought to come from a ship wrecked on Goodwin Sands, off Deal in Kent. The figurehead represents British Conservative politician Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) who was Prime Minister briefly in 1868 and again 1874-1880. Disraeli concentrated on social reform, and his government sought to address "the condition of the people" through major reforms in three areas: housing, savings and labour relations. He also codified the law on public health to combat filthy urban living conditions. His great political rival of the day, William Gladstone, is also depicted as a figurehead in this collection.
Nothing is known about the vessel this figurehead came from, but the character depicted is British Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). Gladstone was a dominant political figure of the Victorian era and a passionate campaigner on a huge variety of issues, including home rule for Ireland. He was elected MP for Greenwich in 1868 and became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on four separate occasions between 1868 and 1894.
This figurehead comes from a wooden brig of 172 tons built in Nassau, West Indies in 1816. The vessel was wrecked in Lee, near Ilfracombe, North Devon in 1842. It is thought to have been deliberately lured ashore so that wreckers could seize the goods on board. The figurehead depicts British politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who famously led the movement to abolish the slave trade in the early 19th century.
Nothing is known about the vessel this figurehead once adorned, but the character depicted is British politician William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). He became the youngest Prime Minister in 1783 (at the age of 24) and held this office until 1801, and again from 1804 until his death in 1806. His government worked to restore public finances, and Pitt imposed new taxes - including Britain's first income tax - and reduced both smuggling and frauds. This figurehead is rather unusual in that it has glass eyes.
This figurehead came from a 688-ton wooden barque, built in Hernosand by J. Strandberg for A. Matterquist in 1865. It is thought the ship was found wrecked off Black Gang Chine on the Isle of Wight. The character depicted is Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th President of the USA. He was elected in 1860 and led his country through the American Civil War and the end of slavery. He was assassinated on 15 April 1865, the year of the ship’s launch.