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Ship shape and Bristol fashion!

Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the UK Coastguard and to celebrate, NESM is working on a new exhibition due to open in January 2022. Right now we are in the early stages of planning and selecting display items, hunting down those that will best tell the story of this heroic service. Luckily for us, NESM has tucked away in its archives a large collection of Victorian coastguard equipment and the collections team have spent the last two weeks unpacking this treasure trove to see exactly what we’ve got. Some items we recognise (and we’ll certainly be putting them in next year’s exhibition), other items will require a bit of research. For this week’s blog, we thought we’d give you a behind the scenes look at just what we’ve discovered in this fascinating collection…


The first thing you might think when you see this object is that someone tried to mate a duck with a bellows and that this is their poor offspring. Happily, you would be wrong. This delightfully whimsy object is a foghorn. Foghorns were a very important piece of kit at sea and on the coast. They were used to warn other ships that you were close by when there was limited visibility. They were also used at lighthouses when the light was not enough of a warning. This handy device would have been easy to use and to store on a ship where safety was paramount.


When this dapper boater came out of its box I was consumed with jealousy that I didn’t have a hat just like it to wear on a sunny day. The hat is made from sennit straw, which is braided straw coiled and steamed into shape. The name might suggest that this is a hat to be worn onboard a boat, but they were normally worn on land. The only time it might have been worn at sea is if it was very sunny. The boater was also used by the royal navy during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. It had gone out of fashion by 1921, but I think I will be keeping my eyes peeled for one when I next go shopping.


If like me you know nothing about sailing and boats, these two tally boards might be gibberish. I mean, what is a 'hawser' and why is there a whip? Well after a bit of research I worked out that a hawser is a strong rope. The whip, however, still eluded me until I finally had a eureka moment. I found that these boards were used on shore-to-boat rocket lifesaving apparatus. You would send one of these boards over to the vessel so that they would know how to set up their part of the apparatus. A whip block would be attached to the board and the whip would go in the block. So what is a whip? Well, it’s another rope but this one had a pulley called the 'whip block'. This allowed whatever was attached to the whip to be hauled back and forth. Here are instructions on how the rocket line was to be set up and worked.


“The rocket carrying the line is fired over the vessel. The crew of the vessel by means of this line haul out the endless whip and secure the block to a mast or other suitable fixture on the vessel. This enables those on shore to heave out the hawser to the vessel, where it is secured above the whip block. The hawser is then set taut through the block on the triangle by means of the luff tackle. The breeches buoy and endless whip are then secured to a traveller block on the hawser and those onshore haul the buoy to and from the vessel as often as may be necessary.”


Now as I have already said, I know very little about boats and sailing, so if you have better knowledge of any of these items and how they work, then please do get in touch with us.


This is a rather unique musical instrument, unknown outside the Victorian sailing community! Only joking, it's another foghorn. This foghorn works more like a pump; you lift and push down the T-handle. Foghorns work by using compressed air. Before they were invented there were a few other ways to warn ships that were stuck in fog. One way was by firing a cannon but this method could be dangerous. The explosion could cause damage to objects close to it. It also meant that the lighthouse keeper might be rearming a cannon regularly for what could be days at a time. Another method was the bell. Less dangerous than the cannon, it still needed constant manual ringing. Eventually, foghorns became automated and are now obsolete as we use GPS and lasers today.



Breeches is a great word and should still be in fashion, and not only for the sole use of footmen in grand country houses. Now obviously the object in this picture isn't a pair of breeches that you can wear out on the town. (I will continue my argument to return them to fashion with my friends.) The object in the picture is called a breeches buoy. If you lifted the ring you would see hanging down what looks like a very big pair of knickers! The breeches are part of the kit that would be used in the rocket lifesaving apparatus with those tally boards from before. This is one of the breeches buoys mentioned in the quote, which would be pulled back and forth between the shore and the vessel to evacuate people. Dangling in this while being pulled towards the shore - with what could be a raging and choppy sea below - and being buffeted by winds, must have been terrifying but also a godsend. Before shore-to-sea lifesaving apparatus, people as little as 50 metres away from the coast could drown; a distance that many people could swim during calm seas.


That’s just a taste of what we’ve unpacked so far and there’s a lot more left to do. When it comes to planning our exhibits, the difficulty will be choosing just what to leave out!


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