Waiting for our ship to come in….

Join us for a journey of discover as Bill Longshaw our Social History Collections Assistant puts the wind back in the sails of this beautiful model ship.

When we suddenly went into lockdown in March, I spent a frantic couple of hours selecting things from the Gallery Oldham stores that would make good home-based projects. This model galleon had always intrigued me. When I found it, tucked away on a shelf, it was in a dilapidated state, with its masts and rigging hanging off, almost as if this was the only way of fitting it into its anonymous box. It immediately made me think… if only I had the time, then perhaps I could find something out about it, or even restore it to something like its former glory.

The Galleon as I found it

One of my jobs at Gallery Oldham is to assess our social history collection, looking particularly at things that, in many ways, exist on its margins. These are objects we might want to retain, but really need more of a steer on, in order to make an informed decision on their future.

They are generally things that, on first appearance at least, have no connection with Oldham; often because they appear to have none of the paperwork designed to record who owned an object, where it was made, what it was used for and who donated it.

The key to my work is finding ways to add value to these ‘waifs and strays’ and this has made me into something of a detective. When I first saw the galleon, it did ‘ring a bell’. I recalled seeing a picture of a model ship somewhere and was relieved to find that I wasn’t going mad when I rediscovered a photograph of the old Children’s Library at Oldham in the 1970s.  Lo and behold, there on top of bookshelves in the background, fuzzy but still discernible, was a model galleon.

The Children’s Library was part of Oldham’s original 1883 Central Library and Museum, a building currently being redeveloped as a new Arts and Heritage Centre. Other photographs revealed a model fire engine, a lifeboat and a totem pole, all displayed in a way that reminded me of the shelves of the Blue Peter studio. An important part of my own 1970s childhood.

Hobbies Weekly

The galleon was, almost certainly made using a plan supplied by Hobbies Magazine in the 1920s or ‘30s. The ‘Hobbies’ company began trading in the 1890s and has continued to supply generations of modellers with tools, equipment and projects ever since. The craze for hobbies took off in middle-class homes after the First World War and Hobbies Weekly, “A Weekly Journal for Amateurs of Both Sexes” became a leader in what, even today, remains a male-dominated field.

More leisure time and disposable income gradually became available; allowing those inclined to take up a fret saw, build a crystal radio set, pipe-rack, or perhaps even a scale model of a galleon. A quick look on the internet indicated that the model was probably the Santa Maria, flagship of Christopher Columbus who sailed to America in 1492.

The Brighton Toy Museum even had a copy of a 1937 Hobbies Weekly that advertised a design, although sadly when I contacted them, it turned out that the pull-out plan itself had long since disappeared. Fortunately, I am quite handy and as the father of a five-year old, have had a lot of practice at piecing together tiny fragments of broken toys. So, in April, using images from the internet and the time on my hands I never expected to have, I was finally able to make the Santa Maria ship-shape again.

The restored model

Sadly, we still don’t know how Oldham Museum and Art Gallery came by the model ship, or who made it. However, it does now have a value and the newfound power to unlock several stories. It reminds us of the children’s library and its Blue Peter-like displays in a building we hope to resurrect and celebrate in the near future. It also says something about the rise of the hobby craze in the 1920s and, just as importantly, how people adapted to life in lockdown one hundred years later by doing lots of things they thought they’d never have the time for. It’s a story that all museums are anxious to tell.

Find out more about our social history collection.