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.

Museum On Tour, 10 May 2017: Plymouth History Festival

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

Hopefully many of you will be aware that the Plymouth History Festival began on Saturday (6 May).

This is the fifth year in a row that it’s taken place and I have been involved with helping to co-ordinate and promote it since it began.

The festival runs until 4 June. Many people might think this is the busiest time for me on the project – but the bulk of the work actually takes place between December and April.

Myself and other colleagues who are responsible for event programming usually meet in early October to decide the dates and any particular themes for the following year. We then announce these in the press and give the individuals, societies and organisations who want to be involved around 2-3 months to confirm their events with us. We also have to make sure we have our own events organised by the deadline!

Once all the information is in I have my first major task on my hands: editing everything into a consistent format, double checking dates, times, address and contact information, creating a diary of listings for each day and then using it all to build our website. I usually put this live by mid-February.

After this my next major task is to take this information, source around 40 different high resolution images to go with it, write the foreword, draft copy about the latest developments with the History Centre and then brief all of this in to a graphic designer so they can produce the festival brochure. This is a massively popular piece of print.

While the brochure is being designed I source the printer, book advertising space in as many of the local what’s on publications as the budget will allow, liaise with our distribution company and raise the relevant purchase orders. Then there’s the job of proof reading the brochure, running it past everyone involved, briefing any amends back to the graphic designer, proof reading it again, signing it off, getting the artwork to the printer, checking their proof to make sure everything is fine with the colours, pictures and fonts, and then finally approving it for print.

Once the brochures have been delivered our distribution company collects around half of them and gets to work dropping them off at a range of venues across Plymouth and the travel to work area. The other half are distributed through our own networks, at the events we attend throughout the month and by the festival event providers – all of whom have been brilliant about coming to the Museum to collect their copies this year.

By this point I will have also sent out information about the festival to local media, forwarded the artwork for any adverts we have booked to the relevant publications and planned a social media campaign. The History Festival has its own Facebook and Twitter feeds and in the run up to and during the festival I post and share regular updates. This year we have also produced a series of graphics for the Big Screen in Plymouth’s city centre – I’ve used them in this post. I’ve also been able to secure some of the large format poster sites in the city centre car parks so we have produced a series of posters for these, as well as for the library network and Tourist Information Centre.

I’ve been very proud of the History Festival since it began and as a Service we are hugely grateful to all those who take part. It is a mammoth amount of work – a fact that isn’t necessarily acknowledged the way it should be. Lots of my colleagues from the Arts and Heritage and Library Services are involved too and are running events at different times throughout the month. There is no separate team to deal with the management, coordination, promotion or facilitation of the festival – we are doing all of this on top of our ever-growing commitments to the History Centre.

This year’s festival began with a really successful Local Studies Day and there are nearly 100 different events on this year’s programme including exhibitions and displays, guided walks and tours, talks and presentations, music, film and performance, special events and family activities. There’s real variety on offer for all ages and interests and the range of subjects highlights the depth of Plymouth’s history.

Take a look at the festival website if you haven’t done so already and I hope you enjoy the events you attend. Plymouth History Festival will return in 2018 and we will announce the dates and details a little later in the year!

Museum On Tour, 4 May 2017: Ropewalks #6 – Writing Ropewalks

by Jon Nash, Scriptwriter

As a writer and theatre maker I’ve always been interested in story. The stories we hear, the stories we tell each other and ourselves. Stories help us make sense of the world around us and can bring us together to learn and think and feel.

So around a year ago I began a project of research into the history of the Barbican: its buildings and people, trades and events. As I collected the expected dates and timelines and names and records, I was looking for the smaller human stories that stood out against the backdrop of history with a capital H.

An historic photo of the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

In workshops with young people from the city I shared some of the stories I’d found and asked them which ones they felt were the most interesting to them. The ones that caught their attention had a few things in common:

  • They connected Plymouth to big important history in a way they hadn’t known or imagined
  • They showed how ordinary people lived often during extraordinary times and talked about people just like them
  • They were unexpected or surprising or funny or a bit dangerous or subversive

Over the weeks of research and development with our brilliant volunteer actors we talked and improvised a lot about these ideas and how, in something like a walk, we could bring them to life and surprise our audiences.

An historic photo of fishermen on the Barbican, Plymouth from Plymouth City Council's (Arts and Heritage) Service's collections

We began to take fragments of history, from the Bread Riots, to smuggling to Dutton’s shipwreck and looked for the human beings that could tell us those stories, what they might have to say about them that could surprise us. We’ve been pirates and fishwives and emigrants and customs officials and all sorts of characters. Which led to the questions: who is telling these tales on this walk? Why are the telling them and from whose point of view?

Among the historical quotes about Plymouth, one stood out. Count Magalotti (visiting from Italy) in the 17th century describes Plymouth as a city of ‘women and children’ as the men were often away fishing or sailing or at war. We wondered what stories the women of the Barbican might tell and how they might view the events we were interested in. We imagined them being there by the harbour side from the very beginning. They’re still there today if you look in the right places.

The initial focus of my research had been food and drink. Over time this isn’t really about menu options but something much more urgent. How do you survive? How have people who live on the Barbican survived? What would these women want us to know about how they lived their lives, even when the going got tough?

Photograph of Nancy Astor campaigning on the Barbican, Plymouth during her historic 1919 election campaign

Much of my work in writing the final show has been about finding these voices, listening to them and not minding too much when they argue or disagree or even stretch the truth a little. To create a trio of long-lived Barbican women who can bring these stories to us and make us feel as if were were really there.

I’m on to my second draft now and they still keep surprising me. I hope they’ll do the same for all those who come to see the final performances.

Buy your tickets for ‘Ropewalks’ here. Performances take place on selected dates during May, June and August.

Decant Day, 3 May 2017: News from the offsite store

by Lottie Clark, Curator of Decorative Art

Spring has finally sprung and we’ve now set up our permanent home at ‘MASS’, our offsite store!

The last few months have seen many changes at the store. We are now housing all the art collections (including fine art, decorative art, sculpture and costume), our Designated Cottonian Collection, the ethnography collection and some of our archaeology collections, plus an array of other Museum materials and equipment. We also have a dedicated team based at the store. This means we’ve been able to welcome both researchers and volunteers back to explore our collections!

We’ve had Amanda Yale, an independent Paper Conservator commissioned by the University of Plymouth, looking at our Cottonian Collection. Amanda spent a few weeks conducting a survey of all of the books within the collection as well as the archive, which has never been catalogued or put on display. Our hope is that her work will feed into a joint project with the University, one of our History Centre partners, to digitise the entire Cottonian Collection for future research and use.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve welcomed the first of our volunteers too. Jane Howlett and Celia Bean were two of the incredible team of volunteers who assisted with the decant of the Museum and Art Gallery building last year and they’ve been itching to come back and lend us a hand. Recently they’ve been re-assessing and documenting our ceramics collection in preparation for the new displays we’ll be creating for the History Centre when it opens in 2020.

Volunteer Jane Howlett lending us a hand at MASS

Madeleine Shaw, another of our volunteers, has been working with our Collections Assistants on our works on paper programme. Through this we hope to inventory and re-house all our works on paper in improved conditions in order to preserve them for even more centuries to come.

This is no mean feat: the collection encompasses prints, watercolours, drawings, sketches and even miscellany like velum manuscripts, letters and marriage certificates. It amounts to approximately 11,000 individual works which we are looking to improve both the storage and documentation information of by 2020.

Collections Assistants Jackie and Claire making progress with the works on paper programme

Luckily, one of our newest additions to MASS has more than a helping hand in this project – and many more besides. Terah Walkup joined us as our new Fine Art Curator at the beginning of April and she’s already made an incredible impact on our work with the art collections. Originally from Texas, Terah hails from Exeter and comes to us via RAMM and the Art Institute of Chicago. She’s thrown herself headfirst into the works on paper programme, has been getting up to speed with History Centre developments, given a Bite Size talk at Peninsula Arts about their ‘Thinking Tantra’ exhibition, and more. Not bad for her first month!

As well as these ongoing projects we’ve seen items from our collections go out on tour to other venues in the South West. These include ‘Green Devon’ by Robert Polhill Bevan, now on display in the Museum of Somerset’s ‘A Fragile Beauty’ exhibition. Over 100 pieces of Plymouth Porcelain to the Cookworthy Museum, Kingsbridge for their ‘William Cookworthy: Pioneer of Porcelain’ exhibition. All these loans were coordinated from MASS and there are more in the pipeline.

'Green Devon' by Robert Polhill Bevan from the collections of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
‘Green Devon’ by Robert Polhill Bevan can currently be seen on display at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton

For now the work continues exploring and improving our collections here and we look forward to keeping you updated with all our discoveries in the lead up to 2020.

If you’e interested in any volunteering opportunities, either with the team here at MASS, or the wider Arts & Heritage Service, please contact our new Volunteer and Early Career Development Officer on rebecca.wikes@plymouth.gov.uk

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.

Museum on Tour, 13 April 2017: Ropewalks #5 – Bringing heritage and performing arts together

by Victoria Lester, City Explainer

Once upon a time I was an historian, a published historian in fact who became a language assistant who then came back to the UK – back to Plymouth to become unemployed for two years!

But that was once upon a time.

I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do which was work in the performing arts. It hasn’t been easy. Starting down a new career path in my mid-twenties when my confidence was in the dustbin wasn’t something I ever thought I would have to do. Starting a career in an industry where your confidence can sometimes take a beating hasn’t necessarily made it easier – but it has made me more determined.

I enrolled in a BTEC in Performing Arts at City College to test my resolve and now here I am. It’s nearly four years since I decided to go down this route and without the help and support I’ve received from the Barbican Theatre I wouldn’t be here today.

Where’s here? I’m one of the devising actors on the ‘Ropewalks’ walking tours project, working with the Barbican Theatre and staff from the City Council’s Arts and Heritage Service/History Centre to help bring heritage and performing arts together.

A photograph of the Ropewalks team in a devising session at the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth

It’s been a fascinating experience, working with a large team of actors, directors, writers, costume designers, graphic designers, marketing officers, historical professionals and more to bring a series of theatrical walking tours that will bring the Barbican to life to the people of Plymouth.

I thought I knew the history of Plymouth. I’ve learnt that you can never really know the full history of a place or of a people. You can only know so much and there’s always something new to discover.

The 'Ropewalks' team taking part in a filming session at the Mayflower Museum, Plymouth

Over the last few months, as part of the research and development process we’ve visited the South West Film and Television Archive and the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre – a place I’d only ever heard of. Going there and hearing about the social history of Plymouth alongside the military was fascinating. We heard about:

  • the widows of the ropewalk: ladies whose husbands had been killed in the line of duty
  • The ever present rivalry between Plymouth and Portsmouth
  • the ladies who lived on board ship, and just why someone could be called ‘son of a gun’
  • how during the First World War the telegrams from sailors would often come long before official word of a battle having been fought

……….and so much more.

Back in the theatre we’ve been taking extracts from texts, history books and original sources, and considering potential scenarios, characters and pieces that scriptwriter Jon Nash has written. We adapted them and ‘threw them around’ to see what would stick. One thing we realised very early on was that an historical fact or object without a glimpse of the person behind it wasn’t engaging. Put a person behind it though and suddenly it was brought to life.

Victoria Lester in a devising session for the 'Ropewalks' project at the Barbican Theatre

Among the many things I’ll never forget us doing are:

  • six of us being on stage and throwing the history of the Barbican around the room, starting in the prehistoric we bounced the story between us all the way to the present day
  • Re-enacting aspects of the Bread Riots – a part of history I’d never heard of! Who doesn’t love a good riot?
  • Finding the often contrary voices and characters of the ladies of Plymouth and realising how you actually go about gutting a fish

It’s been a long journey with many a wander through the streets of the Barbican marvelling at the rich and colourful history of this city that deserves to be remembered.

Members of the 'Ropewalks' team in discussion at the Mayflower Museum, Plymouth

Plymouth is a city that we should be proud of and I am very proud to have been part of the team involved in a project which is combining so many strands to develop a lively new form of theatre that I firmly believe will create an immersive experience for everyone who comes to watch.

Museum on Tour, 12 April 2017: Thinking Tantra

by Rachael Aylmore, Plymouth University Fine Art student and Peninsula Arts Exhibition Intern

As part of the journey towards the History Centre, Peninsula Arts and staff from the Arts and Heritage Service are working together on a series of partnership exhibitions.

During my placement at Peninsula Arts I have been fortunate enough to support the installation of their current exhibition, ‘Thinking Tantra’ – ‘Tan’ being Sanskrit for stretch and ‘tra’ Sanskrit for beyond boundaries. These beautiful, bold and abstract Tantra pieces of art have been created as tools for meditation and rituals linked to Sanskrit texts.

The exhibition unfolds
Together with Polly Irish and Catrine Wallace (also Fine Art students and Peninsula Arts Interns), I have gained an understanding of the many different processes and tasks that are involved with setting up an exhibition – from prepping the space, collecting the work, curating and even publicity. Throughout the last two weeks in March before ‘Thinking Tantra’ opened, we watched it unfold in front of us and learnt all the important steps and skills (as well as people) it takes for an exhibition to come together smoothly and successfully.

Before we even get a glimpse of artwork, the Peninsula Arts Gallery must be prepped, walls taken down (or moved) and walls painted for each show. It’s important that that the gallery is in good condition for the artwork to be displayed. There are many helping hands involved in this process including technicians, gallery assistants and curators. Stripping the gallery back to its bones and starting from fresh allows the curator to view the space with new eyes and make the final decisions about the placement of works.

It’s like Christmas
Once the space is prepped and ready to go, the exciting process of removing the carefully packaged artwork from storage can begin – it’s like Christmas in March! We can then begin the all-important quality and condition check of every single piece of art.

Once the checks have been completed, one of the final parts of setting up an exhibition is of course installing the work. Although rather daunting and nerve racking the process is relatively straightforward and can be done fairly quickly once a system has been established. A lot of measuring, maths and wrongly drawn pencil marks later, the exhibition space finally starts to come alive!

Photograph of the Thinking Tantra exhibition install at Peninsula Arts in 2017

Thinking Tantra
With the exhibition installed and displayed in its full glory, you can really get a feel for the use of colours, shapes and rituals as well as the transcendental ideas behind the Tantra artwork.

Photograph of the Thinking Tantra exhibition at Peninsula Arts in 2017

I hope you’ll visit the exhibition while it’s here in the city. We are the only UK venue on the tour outside London and it will be on display until 27 May.


‘Thinking Tantra’ is a collaboration between Rebecca Heald, Drawing Room, London and Amrita Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai.

‘Thinking Tantra’ is a History Centre partnership exhibition.