HMS Arethusa figurehead listed at Grade II

An elegant wooden figurehead from the Royal Navy ship HMS Arethusa, which went into battle in the Crimean War in 1854, has been listed at Grade II by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

In Greek mythology, Arethusa was a sea nymph who fled from her home in Arcadia beneath the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse in Sicily.  HMS Arethusa’s figurehead is depicted as a 3.5 metre high painted female bust with brown hair parted in the centre with ringlets. She is wearing a loose early Victorian period dress with a waistband and her right breast is exposed, as in the 19th century a naked woman was thought to be able to calm a storm at sea. The figurehead was carved by James Hellyer and Sons of London and Portsmouth who had a long tradition as ships’ carvers.

Commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1849, the 50 gun Fourth Rate sailing frigate was one of three training ships based in Kent from 1867. HMS Arethusa was decommissioned in 1874 and loaned by the Admiralty – a government department responsible for the command of the Royal Navy – to a charity called ‘Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa’ as a training ship and boarding school for 250 destitute young boys. The boys were taught maritime skills, preparing them for service in the Royal Navy or Merchant Navy. She was moored next to the charity’s existing training ship ‘Chichester’ at Greenhithe in Kent before moving to Lower Upnor in the River Medway.

In 1929, a survey found the ship to be rotten and leaking, and three years later HMS Arethusa was no longer viable. She was returned to the Admiralty and was sold to Castle’s ship-breakers in 1933. The figurehead was retained by the charity, which is now known as Shaftesbury Young People, and displayed at their onshore premises at Lower Upnor, Rochester. The site has since been developed into the Arethusa Venture Centre and the figurehead is sited at the front of the Centre, facing Upnor Reach, River Medway.

Michael Ellis, Heritage Minister said: “HMS Arethusa’s figurehead is a rare survivor of the Crimean War and an important symbol of Britain’s maritime heritage. By protecting it, we are ensuring that an important part of the country’s seafaring history is preserved for future generations.”

Duncan Wilson Chief Executive of Historic England said: “The survival of former bow figureheads as statues helps demonstrate the rich and colourful history of our maritime past. HMS Arethusa’s figurehead is a tangible reminder of the heyday of sailing ships in the Royal Navy. By listing the figurehead, we can now be certain that its future and the power of the story behind the carving will not be lost.”

  • HMS Arethusa went into battle in the Crimean War in 1854
  • Once decommissioned, HMS Arethusa was used as a training ship and boarding school for 250 destitute boys who were taught maritime skills
  • Figurehead is now on display in Kent
  • HMS Arethusa figurehead is one of only five listed figureheads in England that are not incorporated into listed buildings
  • See images

There are four other listed figureheads in England including: the figurehead from the 1842 wreck of the Caledonia (Listed Grade II in 1985); the figurehead from HMS Wellesey dated c.1839 (Listed Grade II in 1971); figurehead believed to be from the barque Roseau (Listed Grade II in 1971); and the figurehead from the 1860 warship Admiral Lord Howe (Listed Grade II in 1983).

 There are also five figureheads incorporated into listed buildings such as the Jolly Sailor Public House in Bursledon, Hampshire and the Old Carpenters Arms in Littlebury, Essex.

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One response to “HMS Arethusa figurehead listed at Grade II”

  1. Richard Andrews says:

    One of the relatively few things I remember my grandfather talking about was HMS Arethusa. Granddad was born very early 20th century in east London, a typically poor family yet he was one of twelve siblings. The Arethusa featured very significantly in his early life, and probably set him on a straight course. He was a youthful bandsman in the Great War, and a Quartermaster in WW2.
    I have a hat-band from Arethusa, and also a photo of him on deck.

    (If only I’d listened to granddad more intently, but I was only a young lad!)

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