Historic ship's figurehead returns to South Shields Museum for new exhibition

A historic ship’s figurehead created by South Tyneside master carvers is returning to the borough.

The figurehead, featuring the Roman Goddess Ceres, will return to South Shields Museum for permanent display, alongside the institution’s ‘Pushing the Boat Out: Shipbuilding and Ship Repair in South Tyneside’ exhibition.

The figurehead, created by South Tyneside’s master wood carvers, was previously displayed at the museum, from 1994 to 2007 as part of the museum’s ‘Land, River and Sea’ gallery.

The piece was first donated to Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums in December 1977 by the South Shields branch of the Royal British Legion.

The figurehead is returning after 15 years.

Prior to this, the provenance of the Ceres figurehead was a mystery until the renowned figurehead expert, Andy Peters of Maritima Wood Carving, assisted the museum team in their quest to uncover the figurehead’s elusive past.

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In ancient Roman religion, Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships – a subject appropriate to South Shields with its Roman roots.

Andy Peters tracked down a historic photo, taken by renowned photographer Amy Flagg in South Shields in 1939, which shows the Ceres figurehead mounted on the outside a building in Burrow Street, South Shields.

The historic ship’s figurehead of the Roman Goddess Ceres was once displayed on a building.

This was the workshop of Hellyer Bros – master wood carvers, who also had a showroom next to the Stags Head pub in Fowler Street, South Shields.

The family originated from Portsmouth, where James Edward Hellyer was master carver at the Portsmouth naval dockyard from 1815. His sons set up workshops in Southampton and London.

By the 1860s work for the naval yards started to decline, and the building of merchant shipping was then centred in the North of England and Scotland. As a result, two of James Edward’s grandsons, Arthur and James Edward jnr. moved to South Shields and set up a workshop at 23 Burrow Street and Fowler Street - which, as the call for figureheads on ships also declined, became more of a showroom.

Geoff Woodward, Museum Manager said: “We’re very excited to welcome back the Ceres figurehead into our museum, she's the perfect accompaniment to our special exhibition, ‘Pushing the Boat Out: Shipbuilding and Ship Repair in South Tyneside’ and we’re extremely proud to have her on display again.”

The historic figurehead.
The historic figurehead.