Toy Boats at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich

By Ed Sexton | 06 May 2010
a photograph of a windup toy boat

Clockwork battleship by Lefèvre frères, c.1889 © MnM

Toy Boats, National Maritime Museum, until October 31 2010

Grab your granddad and head down to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich for this fun take on Toy Boats created between 1850 and 1950.

Many of these items are incredibly rare due to the poor captaincy and judgement of their young owners leading to impromptu scuttling across lakes ponds and rivers around the UK.

In 1923 the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens was drained and the grounds keeper discovered a whopping 150 sunken vessels buried in the silt at the bottom.

One of the first exhibits in the show is the model ship Sauvorov that was recovered at this time, which once must have been a fine vessel. One can only imagine the scale of the tantrum its owner must have had when it plunged down to its watery grave – I would certainly have thrown myself in after it.

It is not just the boats that catch the visitors’ attention but also the ingenious and occasionally unsuccessful ways used to power these little vessels.

a photograph of some toy boats in a glass fronted display case

Just some of the rare wind-up toy boats on display. © NMM

From harnessing natural wind power and baking soda, to rubber bands and wind up boats to steam and electricity – toymakers experimented with a range of technology to power the boats.

In the British section there are classic toy names like Hornby and Triang and the British offerings are quite simple and plain – not lots of tiny parts that can be lost.

The French and Germans took mini boat building particularly seriously and there are vast examples from Radiguet and Bing brothers.

Two of the largest pieces on display include HMS Terrible, a giant of the toy boat world and a rare steam powered model and Salamndre – a prestige toy made in France and measuring a sizeable 1.05 metres long that included a 32 strong crew and a clockwork torpedo boat.

A packed events programme will be running alongside the exhibition with something to entertain all ages.

a photograph of a woman and child looking at toy boats in a display case

The exhibition will appeal to viewers of all ages. © of NMM

“These miniature boats are a glimpse of a bygone era when every town had a boating lake and children learnt about Britain as a maritime nation through toy boats,” said curator Kristian Martin.

“They also tell of a rapidly changing world and the developments in technology in children’s toys.”

For more information on the exhibition and the events programme go to the National Maritime Museum website.

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