Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to some of the collection of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Mary Rose Museum and their more curious artefacts.
From the unique and unknown whatcha-ma-call-its to the sublime and ridiculous thingy-ma-bobs, these items paint an entirely different picture of history.
They show the hidden stories, the solutions to everyday problems, details about people and events and strange gifts given out of courtesy and tradition.
There’s even items that still have us guessing what their purpose is. These are the truly curious of course, and we do have a lot of fun trying to figure them out.
The best part is that each of these artefacts offer a completely different perspective on history, an insight into what life was like in these times and interesting details that might have otherwise been lost.
Here’s eight of the most curious things we could find that are currently on display. Some will make you cringe, others might make you think ‘yuck’ but, we think you’ll agree all of them are weird!
Find this in the new Diving Deep: HMS Invincible 1744 exhibition
Shipworm (Toredo Navalis) are eating the wreck of HMS Invincible. They can be found in the sea all over the world and are not actually worms, they are molluscs with a long slimy body and a tiny shell.
They use their shell a bit like we use our teeth, to grind and chew burrows deep inside the wooden decks of Invincible.
This is an x-ray that shows the shipworm burrowing away inside the wood causing huge amounts of damage. You can see the actual damage they have caused to HMS Invincible in the Diving Deep exhibition in the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
Find this in the National Museum of the Royal Navy
Why does the Navy have antlers? It’s because they had a zoo on Whale Island, Portsmouth. The antlers belonged to Robin, a fallow deer buck, who died in April 1938.
We don’t know how Robin got to Portsmouth but it is possible he was a mascot or gift to a ship.
As there wasn’t enough space to keep larger animals on board, the crew probably gave him to Whale Island naval zoo when they returned home.
Strangely animals were frequently used as gifts as you can see in another example in the picture below, and Elk presented to HMS Kent in 1984. And, that’s not the strangest there’s been reindeer, bears and all kinds of animal gifts to the Royal Navy over the years.
Find this at the Mary Rose Museum
Eighty two nit combs were found on the Mary Rose, making them the most commonly found personal objects recovered. Apart from one made from ivory, they were all fashioned from wood, mainly boxwood, with a single alder example.
Thousands of these combs were imported from the continent during Tudor times, and although most of them were made in wood occasionally an elephant ivory examples survives. As well as being used to remove nits and fleas they were also used to style the hair of the Tudor sailors, although several in the collection still have nits in them.
Find onboard HMS Victory
HMS Victory has two ‘capstans’, these are huge hand turned machines used to lift heavy weights like stores, boats and guns, as well as rigging. This one is believed to survive from the 18th century. To combat woodboring pests that have made Victory their home, in 2009 it was heated to 58°C for several days. This killed the pests to help preserve this historic part of the ship.
Find this at the Mary Rose Museum
Two metal syringes were among the artefacts recovered from the wreck.
The larger is thought to have been used to treat constipation, whilst the smaller was a urethral syringe for the treatment of diseases such as gonorrhoea or syphilis.
However the use of mercury for such treatment and the fact that mercury corrodes pewter rather rapidly suggests that this pewter syringe was more likely used to administer a non-corrosive fluid such as rosewater, or acidic ones such as wine or vinegar, which were used for flushing out wounds. They could also have been used for draining fluids and flushing stones from the bladder.
Find this under HMS Victory
In the Second World War a German bomb exploded in No. 2 Dock and Victory had a large hole torn in her hull.
German radio propaganda claimed the ship had been destroyed but Victory was hastily patched up, but the bomb Victory left a 2.5m by 4.5m hole through the hull and part of her keel blown away.
The repair to Victory’s keel can be seen when visiting beneath the ship in the dock. To boost morale during the war years, Churchill used Victory as a symbol of Britain’s heroic past.
Find this in HMS Galleries in The National Museum of the Royal Navy
In 2008, Royal Marine Sergeant Noel Connolly, serving with 42 Commando in Kandahar, Afghanistan, received a warning about a possible suicide bomber. When a motorbike later stalled near his unit, he approached the rider and saw a toggle to detonate a bomb. Sergeant Connolly rugby tackled the rider and discovered that it was packed with explosives. He received the Military Cross for his bravery.
Sergeant Connolly asked his sister not to tell his mother what he had done as he didn’t want her to worry.
Find this at the Mary Rose Museum
This ornately carved ivory earscoop, used to remove earwax from the ears of the owner, was found in a bone manicure set located, not in an officer’s chest as might be expected, but in the carpenter’s cabin.
Ear scoops – many of which were made of silver, were a popular implement in the Tudor period and the find suggests that at least one of the carpenters took care of his appearance as there was also a comb, razor, shaving brush and a little mirror associated with it.
These artefacts are just a handful of items here waiting for you to discover.
The majority are on display across the dockyard and you’ll be able to see them all with an Ultimate Explorer ticket when you next visit us.
The Ultimate Explorer ticket can be bought now, and doesn’t activate until your first visit. It will give you access to all of the museums, attractions and exhibitions at the dockyard and can be used an unlimited amount of times across the year. Plenty of time to discover the items on this list!
Please note the items listed were on display at the time of publishing unless otherwise stated. But, our collections and exhibitions often change and new items are brought out to display and others put in storage. There is always lots to discover at the museums so be sure to come and visit us on a regular basis.
Just because we’re in lockdown doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a bit of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard magic!
While you can’t tour the museums right now there are plenty of videos and virtual tours that highlight the different things to see here at the dockyard.
Plus, you have to admit, there’s a certain appeal to being able to sit on the sofa at home, with a coffee, and take a look around.
With this in mind, here’s five videos and virtual tours that you can view online. Pick one or two or watch them all and take a look at just a couple of the exciting experiences that await you here at the dockyard.
This video is a great one to start with, it’s a walk-through of the dockyard giving you an idea of how big it is and where the museums and attractions are.
With an Ultimate Explorer ticket you have access to all the museums and attractions you can see in this video.
After 437 years, Mary Rose was finally returned to the surface in a maritime salvage operation seen by over 60 million people across the world. Now you can see it online but, there's nothing quite like seeing it in real life when the doors reopen.
HMS Warrior is a beautiful ship to explore and this video takes you through the main gun deck and shows you what life was like onboard.
HMS Alliance forms the centrepiece of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum along with Holland I and X24, the museum also contains thousands of photographs, documents, ship plans and artefacts.
The museum is located in Gosport on the former site of HMS Dolphin; home to the Submarine Service for 100 years. A waterbus takes visitors across the harbour to and from the dockyard.
The Ultimate Explorer ticket also gives you access to this museum and the waterbus service.
HMS Holland is also at this museum and it’s a very unique submarine with an interesting history, watch this walk through video to take a look around.
We hope you’ve enjoyed taking these virtual tours of our attractions and museum. Of course, there’s plenty more to see when we can welcome you back. We’ve not even covered HMS Victory, HMS M.33, Boathouse 4 or the Harbour Tour!
Make sure you’ve got an Ultimate Explorer ticket which gives you access to absolutely everything at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard for an entire year. If you buy a ticket now, your year won’t start until your first visit to us.
We can’t wait to welcome you back very soon!
Shipwrecks and diving below the waves have long captured the imagination, so when the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Community Archaeologist Eileen Clegg described new exhibition Diving Deep: HMS Invincible 1744 as the closest to “diving without getting wet” we knew it would be something special.
It’s a brand-new interactive exhibition packed with objects saved from the seabed; lots of hands-on fun for the family (all with lashings of hand sanitiser) and a fascinating display that tells the story of HMS Invincible, one of the most famous warships never heard of!
Invincible was a game-changer in the way ships were built and influenced the design of one of the world’s most famous and enduring warships HMS Victory – which sits alongside the exhibition in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
She was originally built for the French navy but captured by the British in 1747. Sadly, she sank in 1758 when she hit a sandbank in the East Solent, the body of water along the Hampshire south coast. She languished there until rediscovered by a local fisherman, Arthur Mack, nearly 200 years later.
In a race against tide and times, the ship was excavated underwater by a team of divers, thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Full of stores, provisions and equipment, the team recovered significant finds such as swivel guns, a gun port lid, the main stay and even a mop head and bucket. It’s probably the most important underwater archaeological excavation of its kind in UK waters for nearly 40 years, after the raising of the Mary Rose.
One of the more intriguing finds were wig curlers, also on display, as officers onboard were very keen to maintain standards in appearance! One of the hands-on displays even challenge visitors to have-a-go at curling some hair.
The exhibition uses the latest in digital technology to bring the often unseen and mysterious world of underwater excavation to life in a really inventive way. Visitors are surrounded by a massive three screen projection that showcases new ways of filming underwater.
The exhibition is open for a year and tickets must be pre-booked at www.historidockyard.co.uk/tickets. Buy an Ultimate Explorer today, and be ready for when the doors re-open after lockdown.
Replicas of Invincible’s artefacts already grace the gun decks of Victory and ticket holders can visit both the exhibition, Victory and the neighbouring Mary Rose Museum which is home to the world-famous Tudor shipwreck raised from the seabed in 1982.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is popular as an attraction and film site with many personalities that grace the screens and airways. Over the years we’re lucky to have many friendly famous faces visit us, from Dan Snow to Harry Hill, and movies like Transformers and Les Miserables (including the famous casts!).
Recently lovers of the ancestry-tracing programme will have seen David Walliams on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Television show in October 2020.
The actor, comedian and now popular children’s author met Tony Lidington at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to learn more about his great-great grandfather, William J. Haines.
William, who described as "blind", was noted on the 1891 census as living in Portsmouth and gave his occupation as "musician". Tony ably demonstrated a Barrel Organ, similar to one that William might played around the local streets, entertaining the passers-by.
While Channel 4’s Great British Bake-Off personality, Karen Wright, visited Portsmouth Historic Dockyard during her September 2020 caravan tour and blogged about her visit. A model visitor, Karen booked online and secured a timeslot ahead of her trip.
She shares her trip around the dockyard and memories of a visit to see HMS Victory as a child in the sixties, and notes, back then, the Mary Rose was still undiscovered.
Karen writes in her blog “The Mary Rose museum is so fascinating and there are over 19,000 items that were found during excavation and recovery. All on display, including the full skeleton of the ship's dog, thought to be a whippet that was kept on board as a rat catcher.
After the museum, we took a trip on a boat around the harbour. This was great, I love boat trips. The commentary was very full and interesting. We sailed by the aircraft carriers, tugs, banana boats and the ferries, and saw the Spinnaker Tower.”
It’s always worth keeping your eye open around the dockyard as you never know who you might see!
Make sure you’ve got your Ultimate Explorer ticket so you can visit any attraction or museum you like as many times as you like in the future.
Catch up with these two famous visitors by reading the blog or watching the show…
Read more about Great British Bake Off star Karen’s visit, travels and baking exploits.
Watch David Walliams discover his ancestry on BBC show Who Do You Think You Are?