Landmark figure from Topsham’s past is restored to its former glory

PUBLISHED: 08:27 17 September 2020

HMS Centurion's figurehead, mounted on the side of a riverside home in Topsham.  Photo: David and Ruth Martin

HMS Centurion's figurehead, mounted on the side of a riverside home in Topsham. Photo: David and Ruth Martin

David and Ruth Martin

A ship’s figurehead that became a Topsham landmark has found a new home

The figurehead was positioned to look over the Exe at Topsham. Photo: David and Ruth MartinThe figurehead was positioned to look over the Exe at Topsham. Photo: David and Ruth Martin

What connects Topsham with Ancient Rome, a Victorian warship and German World War Two bombing raids? The answer lies with a fascinating historical artefact.

In the early 1900s, Mr Hugh Wilson Holman, member of a prominent Topsham shipbuilding family, had the foresight to rescue the figurehead from HMS Centurion, a broken-up warship.

Carved from cedar, the fearsome Roman warrior wore a moustache and sideburns, a plumed helmet and breastplate. His lower half was decorated with scrollwork and drapery including a union flag, shield and spear. Though a three-quarter figure, he stood 2.2 metres tall and a metre wide.

Figureheads date back to the early days of seafaring, and were designed to depict the spirit of the vessel. Many sailors would not have been able to read, so the figurehead often represented the ship’s name and identity, aiming to strike fear into the heart of the enemy.

The restored figurehead.  Photo: David and Ruth MartinThe restored figurehead. Photo: David and Ruth Martin

Superstitious crew would lovingly care for the icon, believing it gave protection from stormy seas and safeguarded homeward journeys. This particular example is believed to have been carved by James Hellyer and Sons of London and Portsmouth, ships’ carvers to the Admiralty.

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HMS Centurion was built in 1844 at the Royal Naval dockyard in Pembroke, Wales. She had two decks, 80 guns and a crew of 750 men. Initially propelled by sail, she was converted to be powered by screw propellor in 1855. Following this upgrade, she joined the Mediterranean fleet. Records also show her presence in both the North Sea and Channel. She was finally broken up in 1870.

Mr Holman transported the hefty figurehead back to Topsham and mounted it on the outside corner of his home, formerly a shipbuilding and repair wharf which was the upper yard of the family business. The figure was positioned on a stone platform overlooking the River Exe, two and a half metres off the ground. Twisted iron rods secured the figure to the wall so that he leaned out towards the water.

Once installed in Topsham, the centurion acquired importance as a local landmark, linking Topsham’s proud shipbuilding past with national maritime history. During the Second World War, German pilots reputedly looked out for the protruding figurehead, using him as a guide for bombing raids on Exeter.

The house was bought and sold, each new owner becoming the custodian of the figurehead. By 2003, he was beginning to look worse for wear. Damp and weathered, with structural damage and paint loss, birds were nesting within the rotting wood. The owners at that time, David and Ruth Martin, sought specialist advice on how best to restore the artefact, one of only approximately 200 figureheads still in existence.

The ensuing report concluded that the figurehead should be removed, allowed to dry out for a couple of years before extensive work could begin on his restoration.

When the project was eventually completed, he would need a home in controlled indoor conditions.

The centurion was carefully dismounted from his platform by crane, then a fibreglass replica made by Man Friday of Crediton. Many locals remain unaware that a copy is in place, such is its accuracy.

Painstaking work on the original was finally completed last year by Richard Hunter, a specialist figurehead restorer based in Sheffield. The stunning figure is now largely white with gold detail, as he would have been when in situ.

From Pembrokeshire to the Mediterranean, from Topsham to Sheffield, the centurion has now reached a destination where he can be appreciated by the general public.

His new home is the Victory Gallery at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Although he may no longer enjoy a glorious view across the River Exe, he is at least properly preserved as an important part of our maritime history.

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