History Centre Heroes: James Rich Steers

Only the fishes see a shipbuilder’s finest ideas once his vessel has slipped into the sea. It is the precise shape of the hull, the swell and curve of the timbers that give the ideal compromise between stability and speed.

The secrets of ship design were known only to their makers two centuries ago, and the mystery made the names of the fastest ships into legends and a huge source of national pride. Such a ship was the racing schooner America, first winner of the oldest trophy in international sport and the biggest prize in sailing, the America’s Cup in 1851.

Affectionately known as the ‘Auld Mug’, the America’s Cup is currently taking place in Bermuda. It’s the 35th time it’s been contested. This campaign is being sailed in high performance catamarans. Teams from Sweden, Japan, Great Britain and France have already been knocked out of the competition. The final showdown from 17-27 June will take place between defenders Oracle Team USA and challengers Emirates Team New Zealand.

But did you know that the America, the yacht that started it all, was designed by a New York company co-owned by a man from Plymouth?

Portrait_of_J._Rich_Steers 1896 New York Herald Tribune Obituary
Portrait of James Rich Steers from his 1896 obituary in the New York Herald Tribune

James Rich Steers (1808-1896), born in Devonport in 1808, was the son of a naval engineer called Henry who was employed in the construction department of the Royal Navy Dockyards. The family emigrated to the USA in 1817 where they continued to work in the shipping business.

James helped his father salvage cargo from a sunken British cruiser in New York Harbour, then worked on a steamer before becoming a shipbuilder. He and his younger brother George (1819-1856) became famous for building the fastest pilot boats: light but seaworthy craft that raced out from harbour in all weathers to reach the big ships and offer their services to bring into port safely.

James Rich Steers' younger brother and business partner George Steers
James Rich Steers’ younger brother and business partner George Steers

In 1850 they set up their own firm George and James R. Steers Inc. and had their own shipyard.

Confident their revolutionary hull design (a concave clipper-bow with the beam at midships) was second to none in the new world the Steers’ decided to try it in the old, taking the America across the Atlantic to Great Britain’s ‘World’s Fair’.

When the boat appeared in the Solent in July for the Royal Regatta it had already gained such a reputation there was some difficulty finding competitors. After an informal race when the winner was disputed, the America did not have another chance to compete until the final day when she joined the Royal Yacht Squadron’s £100 Cup for the first boat to sail round the Isle of Wight.

The famous Schooner yacht, America
The famous Schooner yacht, America

Fifteen yachts waited at the start at ten o’clock on the morning of 22 August 1851. Initially handicapped by trouble with the anchor, the America quickly reached the leading pack, making fifth place after half an hour. When the race was nearly over, her pilot decided to risk sailing landward of a lightship on some shoals named the Nab Rocks, shortening the distance and winning her first place – 18 minutes ahead of her nearest rival. When Queen Victoria asked who came second, she was told, ‘There is no second your Majesty.’

The next America’s Cup took place in 1870 and the USA retained its title. Indeed, it would continue to do so for the next 132 years, defending it twenty four times until 1983 when it was taken by Australia II. Since then the USA has won the Cup in 1987, 1988, 1992, 2010 and 2013. New Zealand won it in 1995 and 2000. Switzerland were victorious in 2003 and 2007.

Steers retired in 1857, the year after his brother George died unexpectedly just as he was about to secure a major contract to design a boat for the Tsar of Russia. He became involved in local politics and remained so until his death. He was a rich man and he passed his business to his son Henry who continued the family tradition, building a number of boats for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

by Rosemary Babichev and Jo Clarke



History Centre Heroes: Sir Francis Chichester

by Rosemary Babichev

We’ll be hearing lots about Sir Francis Chichester over the next couple of weeks. Perhaps the largest crowd ever to gather on Plymouth Hoe – a quarter of a million people – saw the 65 year-old sail home to finish the first west-east solo circumnavigation of the world fifty years ago, on 28 May 1967.

Crowds on Plymouth Hoe to watch Sir Francis Chichester's return in 1967

Hundreds of small ships scattered across the Sound let off their hooters and sirens, fireboats sprayed red, white and blue water and the navy gave a ten-gun salute in an extraordinary celebration over land and sea.

The event was shown on TV, and the heroic yachtsman with his ketch Gipsy Moth IV at once became internationally famous for his heroic feat of skill and endurance.

The accolades poured in immediately. He was knighted by the queen just two months later with the same sword Elizabeth I used to knight another Sir Francis for the first global circumnavigation by an Englishman.

Such a stack of historical parallels even drove the Royal Mail to break a tradition that had never permitted: the depiction of a living person (baring members of the royal family) on a postage stamp. That same year the new one shilling and nine pence stamp bore a picture of Chichester aboard his record-breaking vessel.

Sir Francis Chichester entering Plymouth Sound in 1967

Having won the first solo transatlantic yacht race in 1960 and beating his own record two years later, he then set the yardstick for round the world solo yacht racing. Over the following years his time of 119 days went down to 94 (Ellen MacArthur) in 2001, then 71 in 2005, resting at present at only 57 days since 2008.

Chichester came to yachting late in life. Born in 1901, he began his career as an airman. As soon as he gained his pilot’s licence he attempted to break the record for solo flight to Australia.

Too slow to succeed due to mechanical problems he nevertheless proved the utility for air travel of off course navigation, an ancient method in which you deliberately sail the wrong way in order to get to the right place faster. It gave greater accuracy as well, and allowed him make the first ever aerial landings on two tiny Pacific islands: Norfolk and Lord Howe, where the islanders helped him rebuild his damaged plane.

Too old to engage in active service during the Second World War, he joined the reserves and used his expertise to write the manual instructing pilots on solo missions over Europe.

Sir Francis Chichester 28 May 1967

It was his passion for navigation that compelled him to undertake these huge journeys rather than any enjoyment of their solitary deprivations. On returning to Plymouth in 1967, he is quoted as saying: ‘What I would like after four months of my own cooking is the best dinner from the best chef in the best surroundings and in the best company.’ Let’s hope he found it close by.

History Centre Heroes: Ellen MacArthur DBE

by Rosemary Babichev

It was ‘Swallows and Amazons’ the classic children’s story of sailing and adventure on the Norfolk Broads that led Ellen MacArthur to choose the tack that made her a record breaking yachtswoman. She first hit the headlines sailing solo round the world aged only 24, little more than a decade after saving up for her first boat, the ‘Threp’ny Bit’ with money from missing dinners at school in Derbyshire where she grew up.

Photographic portrait of female sailor Ellen MacArthur

Her connection with Plymouth came in 2000 when left the port to race to Rhode Island in the USA in just 14 days, 23 hours and 11 minutes, setting the record for a woman making a solo passage East-West across the Atlantic. She has continued to champion the city as the starting point for the Transat, the first solo yacht race in history which has started from Plymouth ever since it began in 1960.

Her most incredible feat is circumnavigating the globe entirely alone in her high-speed trimaran in 2005. She had to face heaving seas fleeing from an 80 mile-an-hour storm in the Southern Ocean, knowing she was at any time four days away from being rescued – the nearest humans were on the international space station somewhere above. She successfully took the record from Frenchman Francis Joyon, and though he took it back three years later, she is still the fastest woman to sail round the world solo to this date.

On a vessel leaping across mountainous waves, racing the clock she knew her life depended making the right decisions in her battle with the weather, but that she had total control over everything that happened on the ship. MacArthur learnt above all the importance of planning. Each last item she needed during the voyage had to be brought from the outset, if something got used up she would have do make do without.

Photography of Ellen MacArthur celebrating after breaking the round the world sailing record

After this, shocked by abandoned whaling stations on a desolate island in the South Atlantic while on a survey of Albatross she began to see her experiences on a boat at sea as a metaphor for our world in the universe. Like the food and materials she used as she sailed along, she felt the critical importance of doing something to stop coal, oil and gas being burnt up to no advantage to the planet.

Since 2008, instead of using her immense determination to plan ever faster solo crossings, MacArthur seeks out international decision makers and people of influence in universities and governments to explore ways of developing a ‘circular economy’. Waste would be eliminated altogether. Every product would be designed to have a complete ‘life cycle’ – each component when obsolete or used up could be used in other products or services and have new functions in supporting human life.

She now runs the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that funds research into plastics and textiles, beer making from waste bread, and urban biocycles. It supports an online community to ensure the ideas behind changing from a one way, linear economy to a circular one are discussed continuously.

Photograph of an Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust sailing yacht

Her lifelong love of the excitement and freedom of sailing she shares with children suffering life-threatening illness through the Ellen MacArthur cancer trust. MacArthur has now put her courage and commitment to survival in the service of other people.

History Centre Heroes: Reverend Henry Moore Dauncey

Like the explorer and mountaineer Gertrude Benham, today’s History Centre Hero didn’t come from or live in Plymouth. Like Benham though he did contribute a number of items to our collections, all of which have provided us and our visitors with a fascinating insight into a country and culture that we may otherwise not have had.

Reverend Henry (known as Harry) Moore Dauncey (1863-1931) was born in Walsall, near Birmingham and came from a middle class religious family. He decided from an early age that he wanted to be a missionary overseas. He was thrilled to be offered a posting by the London Missionary Society to Papua New Guinea in 1888, known at the time as British New Guinea.

He arrived in the capital Port Moresby at the age of 25 and eventually moved to a village called Delena. He stayed there until 1928 when he retired. He then relocated back to the UK, moving to Bournemouth.

The village of Delena in Papua New Guinea where Reverend Henry Dauncey worked.
The village of Delena where Dauncey worked, seen from the mission house.

Missionaries were often the first Europeans to settle into overseas communities for long periods of time. When Dauncey arrived in Papua New Guinea, European rule was already well established.

Dauncey, who was supported by his wife Mary and their three children, was very dedicated to his work, educating the Papua New Guinean people about the Bible and European customs. His work during the 40 years he spent there contributed to the religious transformation of Papua New Guinea which is now largely Christian.

As part of the process of converting people to Christianity, missionaries often encouraged them to give up spiritual objects – many of which are now in European museum collections.

Our biggest and most significant Papua New Guinean collection, with more than 400 objects, came from Dauncey. He sold most of them to us in 1909 and 1923 and also gave us a few objects as gifts. It’s been described as one of the best collections of New Guinea material in Britain.
Objects from Plymouth Museum's Papua New Guinea collection

We don’t exactly know why Dauncey chose Plymouth. Like many other travellers though it’s highly likely that he visited the Museum at the beginning or end of one of his voyages.

The objects include body ornaments and jewellery, weapons and tools, ceremonial and magical items, as well as objects used for music, dancing, eating and drinking. Dauncey also wrote a book about his life and work called ‘Papuan Pictures’ (1913), which is illustrated with his photographs.
Body adornments, jewellery, musical instruments and masks collected by Reverend Henry Dauncey and now in the collections at Plymouth Museum.

The book and the many objects tell us a lot about local life in Papua New Guinea at the turn of the twentieth century – as seen through a missionary’s eyes.

Dauncey also contributed material to several other museums and archives including the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London; the Royal Anthropological Institute; the Pitt Rivers Museum; the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge; the British Museum; the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen; the Harvard Peabody Museum in the USA and the Australian Museum in Sydney.

An image of Reverend Henry Moore Dauncey from one his photograph albums, showing him dressed up in a local headdress. 
Taken from one his photograph albums, this image shows Dauncey dressed up in a local headdress.

History Centre Heroes: Antony Jinman

by Rosemary Babichev

Supreme Plymouth hero Robert Falcon Scott attempted to conquer the Antarctic by being the first to set foot there, and won fame for the boldness of his efforts to obtain this accolade for the nation, although it ended in tragedy for him and his team. In contrast Antony Jinman, the twelfth Britain to ski alone to the world’s bottommost point is campaigning against a tragedy of all humankind – climate change, having seen for himself the cold that killed Scott fatally losing its power.

Jinman was born in 1981 at Wembury. He served four years in the navy as a surveyor on a vessel named after his mentor – HMS Scott, but then had to leave due to long-term ill health. Still wanting to pursue his passion for exploration, in 2010 he organised an expedition to the North Pole that allowed school children to track progress and communicate with him using a satellite link and drones to send astonishing pictures of the ice sheets he and his team had to cross.

Photograph of polar explorer Antony Jinman walking across the ice

The schools were highly enthusiastic and frequently invited him to come and speak about his experiences afterwards, so much so that he set up a company – Education through Exhibitions CIC offering Polar Fun Days, teaching resources on the Earth’s poles, as well as courses in expedition skills and leadership aimed at executives and university science departments.

In 2011 the importance of his contribution to education on climate change was recognised by the University of the West of England, which awarded him an honorary doctorate. He is also Explorer in Residence at Plymouth University. By the end of 2016 Jinman and his team had been to over 700 schools.

In 2014 just over one hundred years after Scott’s expedition, Jinman set off for the Antarctic. Using skis and the advantages of modern lightweight camping gear he was able to forgo Scott’s ill advised dog bearers and pulled everything he needed himself on a sled weighing 120 kilos, crossing the 730 miles of snow and ice alone.

Photograph of polar explorer Antony Jinman reaching the South Pole

As he slid through the perpetual sunlight of the southernmost summer in temperatures of -30˚ he maintained contact with children from 63 schools in the UK and elsewhere answering questions, discussing issues and most importantly, describing everything around him – each minute of his waking day allowing them to be with him virtually, sharing in the heroism and real-life engagement with the science of his own survival and that of the planet. For Plymouth University he tested his memory to investigate its effectiveness in extreme conditions for research into dementia.

Jinman’s next plan is to climb Mount Everest by 2018, and while he will belong to a constantly growing group of adventurers who have already done so, few if any will have achieved so much to fire the imaginations of those who will be responsible for protecting the fierce beauty of the Earth’s extremities, so they remain part of the complex system sustaining life on earth.

History Centre Heroes: Jamie Lawson

Jamie Lawson was born in St Budeaux in 1975. He went to school in Plymouth and continued to be based here for much of the time afterwards, but shot to the heights of pop celebrity in 2015 with the single ‘Wasn’t Expecting That’. This was an appropriate title given that he was already in his late thirties and though an established singer songwriter, had not necessarily seemed destined for stardom.

The song was a very much in the tradition of English folk ballads, telling of a romance ending shockingly in death by cancer, so his success can be seen as a testament to the value of genuinely meaningful content in pop music. His is a dream realised through sincerity as much as ambition, and is all the more deserving of respect for that.

By the time of his first great hit Lawson had performed at local venues for more than twenty years, including the B-Bar in the Barbican Theatre and The Hub; so close to the Pavilions, known for its gigs by nationally renowned bands. He had already completed two albums of his songs: Last Night Stars (2006) and Pull of the Moon (2010), the second achieving some success in New Zealand.

A photograph of Plymouth-born singer Jamie Lawson

His third album came out in Ireland in 2011 where his music’s simple-hearted directness met with widespread appreciation. It reached eleventh position in the Irish charts. The song that was to become so famous was its title track: its hard-hitting lyrics, starting out as a cloyingly perfect tale of romance, marriage and parenthood twisting sharply near the end when the idyll is interrupted.

Its potential mass appeal was noticed by Ed Sheeran while they were both performing on London’s folk circuit. Sheeran, a now internationally established singer in his own right, was moving into production and on the lookout for music compatible with his own work to release under his new label – The Gingerbread Man.

A photograph of Ed Sheeran and Jamie Lawson

Sheeran’s folk rock deals with the life cycle and serious social issues (for example prostitution in ‘The A Team’, 2011), and he has said Lawson’s hit inspired his song about the death of a relative (‘Affire Love’, 2014). Never was a friend so well repaid. Their success perhaps shows a growing need for authenticity in UK culture.

Lawson’s third album became The Gingerbread Man’s first release on 3 April 2015. It rose through the charts. ‘Wasn’t Expecting That’ eventually reaching sixth place in the singles charts, third in Australia and taking the album to the top of the UK charts by the end of October the same year. He is the first musician Plymouth born and bred ever to achieve this.

His name now appears alongside such international stars as Elton John – in Hyde Park, summer 2016, and at a festival also featuring Paul McCartney in the Netherlands. He is a role model for children at his former schools, Barn Barton Primary and Tamarside Community College, and for all struggling musicians, writing out their lives in music, and singing to small gatherings of faithful fans in pubs and clubs of the South West. His song has turned a neutral phrase into a cultural meme, and even spawned a game of improvised rhyming on Radio 1, just showing you never know what fortune awaits you.

Watch a clip of Jamie performing at the Museum’s 2010 ‘Gig in the Gallery’ event.

Written by Rosemary Babichev.

History Centre Heroes: Dawn French

Some of the best Christmas television in recent years has been provided by today’s History Centre Hero. Who can forget the Vicar Of Dibley Christmas specials – particularly the last one in 2006 when the character of Geraldine Granger finally fell in love and got married?

A photograph of Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in the Vicar of Dibley


Dawn French has had a long career as a nationally renowned comedian, mostly in TV but also in film and theatre, writing and performing sketch shows with Jennifer Saunders and other major comedians of the alternative comedy scene.

But her one role most likely to be discussed by future historians is that of Geraldine Granger in the BBC comedy sitcom ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ which ran from 1994-2007.  Two years after women were first allowed to become priests in the Church of England, this award winning series made her into a sort of patron saint for professional women.

It had a huge impact on getting them generally accepted in the last of the traditional professions, and if sexist attitudes at work continued, perhaps she at least made it easier for women to laugh it off; watching from the sofa Geraldine’s troubles with an array of characters in a fictional Oxfordshire village.

Dawn French was born in Holyhead in Wales in 1957.  Her parents were from Plymouth, and though they moved often as her father was in the RAF, she stayed in the city during term time at St Dunstan’s Abbey School (now merged with Plymouth College) on North Road West.

A photograph of comedienne Dawn French

When she was eighteen her talent for public speaking was spotted by local MP Michael Foot during a debating competition.  He nominated her for a scholarship to spend a year in the USA at an independent school in New York, a period she drew upon in her novel According to Yes (2015).

At the Central School of Speech and Drama in London she was training to be a drama teacher when she met Jennifer Saunders, a comedian with a similar mission to upset chauvinist stereotypes, and began to work on the double act that was so successful as ‘French and Saunders’ (1897-2007). This series of sketches and spoofs on popular culture was given one of the highest budgets in BBC history. Jennifer Saunders’ highly popular sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ was based on one of their sketches.


A photograph of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

After publishing her autobiography Dear Fatty in 2007, Dawn French’s work has concentrated more on her own life experiences.  She has written two other novels, and recently toured with her first solo show, ‘Thirty Million Minutes’, when she described how she has spent ‘her whole life vigorously attempting to be a fully functioning female human.’  She now lives in Fowey, Cornwall, and in March 2015 became the first Chancellor of Falmouth University.

Her 2011 best-selling debut novel A Tiny Bit Marvellous is currently being turned into a series for ITV.

In the meantime, you can catch her in a very different role at the end of the festive period when her new four-part drama ‘Delicious’ premieres on Sky1 on 30 December.

A photograph of Dawn French in Sky1's 'Delicious'

Written by Rosemary Babichev.