I visited the National Maritime Museum yesterday, which has some fantastic examples of ship figureheads and ship badges from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the outset of the age of seafaring, images were used to mark out the identity of a ship and these soon developed into painted wooden statues, mounted onto the bowsprit.
Early on the images were often religious symbols to protect the ship during its voyages or animals to indicate the ship’s power and grace and to frighten enemy sailors. Serpents, swans and lions were among the most popular animals used to adorn ships in the medieval and early modern periods.
In the eighteenth century, painted human figures became more popular. These were often mythological figures and/or figures that represented the name of the ship. The popularity of these figures continued into the nineteenth century, becoming larger, heavier and more elaborate. Certain figures were very popular, for example a naked or semi-clothed woman was said to calm a stormy ocean.
With the success of steam-powered ships, figureheads went out of use and were abolished by the Royal Navy for major vessels in 1894. In 1918 the Navy adopted the use of ship’s badges displayed on the bridge to mark the identity of a ship. These were much more uniform in design but still contained symbols of the ship’s name.