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'Little midshipman' figure


Object connections:

Collection Sculpture, Miscellaneous Antiquities
ExhibitionsShips, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude
Gallery locationNot on display

Object details:

Object ID AAB0173
Description This figure is a trade sign of an optical instrument maker and/or seller. While of the type called a 'little midshpman' for reasons given below, it represents a Royal Naval lieutenant in the full-dress uniform of 1787-1812. The figure holds an octant or Hadley quadrant, an instrument invented in the 1730s to find latitude at sea. It greatly improved the accuracy of such navigational observations by using mirrors to bring a reflected image of the Sun or a star in line with the horizon, when viewed through the sight. Though superseded by the more sophisticated sextant developed from it in the 1760s, it remained in very common use into the 19th century. Charles Dickens refers to such wooden figures on the Georgian and Victorian street-scene in his novel 'Dombey and Son' (1846-48) as the '...little timber midshipmen in obsolete naval uniforms, eternally employed outside the doors of nautical instrument makers in taking observations of the hackney coaches'. The original illustration by 'Phiz' (Hablot Browne) for Chapter 19 of the book, entitled 'The Wooden Midshipman on the Look-out' shows such a figure outside the shop of Solomon Gills, the instrument maker and seller of the story. The specific original that Dickens had in mind was one outside Norie & Wilson's navigation warehouse at no. 157 Leadenhall Street, near East India House, to which he also refers in 'The Uncommercial Traveller' (1861 ed. Ch. 3, 'Wapping Workhouse'). Norie's moved to the Minories in 1878 (no. 156, subsequently no. 123 and as Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson Ltd from 1903) where the figure was put up daily outside until taken permanently indoors in 1917 at the start of German Zeppelin raids during World War I. In 1939 it was evacuated with the firm to St Ives, Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire) and so escaped the destruction of the Minories premises in a WWII air raid, and in 1946 was put on loan to the Dickens House Museum, Doughty Street, London, where it can still be seen. It was also engraved on Norie's early trade card at the Minories (copy in the case of octant NAV1111) and in fact appears to represent a Master in the 1787-1807 uniform rather than a midshipman. Another Phiz plate for Chapter 32 of 'Dombey', entitled 'A Visitor of Distinction' also shows the interior of the shop with instruments including quadrants, globes and telescopes, and one of these figures - or the same one brought in - on the counter: Norie's is known to have been put out and brought in daily, almost as a ritual of the firm.
Date made Late 18th or early 19th century

Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Materials wood; lead paint
Measurements Overall: 810 x 270 x 300 mm
  • 'Little midshipman' figure (AAB0173)
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