Ship's Figurehead from the Arethusa


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Grounds of the Arethusa Venture Centre, 14 Upnor Road, Rochester, ME2 4XB


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Statutory Address:
Grounds of the Arethusa Venture Centre, 14 Upnor Road, Rochester, ME2 4XB

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Medway (Unitary Authority)
Frindsbury Extra
National Grid Reference:


Wooden figurehead from the former HMS Arethusa launched from the former Pembroke Dockyard, Wales, in 1849. The Arethusa became a Training Ship in 1874 but was broken-up in 1934. The figurehead was retained for permanent display in Lower Upnor, River Medway.

Reasons for Designation

The figurehead of the former HMS Arethusa is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:

* an elegant wooden figurehead of a female depicted in period costume of the 1840s; * by noted ship’s carvers James Hellyer and Sons of London and Portsmouth.

Historic interest:

* as a tangible reminder of HMS Arethusa, the last major ship of the Royal Navy to enter an engagement under sail power alone, and; * providing a strong and direct link to the Arethusa Venture Centre’s past as a former Training Ship.


HMS Arethusa was a 50-gun Fourth Rate sailing frigate of the Royal Navy launched in the former Pembroke Dockyard, Wales, in 1849. The Arethusa served in the Crimean War and fought at Odessa and Sevastopol and was the last ship of the Royal Navy to go in to action under sail power alone. In 1860 the ship was lengthened and converted to screw propulsion at Chatham but never again went to sea. Following decommissioning in 1874, the ship was loaned by the Admiralty to a charity as a Training Ship to provide a refuge and teach maritime skills to destitute young boys. It was moored next to the charity’s existing training ship Chichester at Greenhithe, Kent, and provided accommodation for some 250 boys together with staff and their wives.

In 1929, a survey found the ship to be rotten and leaking and three years later the wooden frigate was no longer viable. It was replaced by the steel-hulled ship Peking, which was moored at Lower Upnor on the Medway, and renamed Arethusa. The original Arethusa returned to the Admiralty and was sold to Castle's ship-breakers on 2 August 1933. It was demolished in London the following year. The figurehead was retained by the charity (now Shaftesbury Young People) and displayed at their onshore premises at Lower Upnor, where it remains (2019). The figurehead provides a strong and tangible link to the charity’s past as a former Training Ship.

Rot to the central core of the figurehead, coupled with damage from wood wasps, threatened to destroy the outer carving. Following fundraising in 2010 by the Arethusa Old Boys Association – who trained on the second Arethusa – a specialist wood carver was employed to undertake renovation. The upper part of the figurehead was noted to be in a very poor condition and had to be to split into two pieces. The core had to be cut away with the remainder being treated and a new timber core added. Renovation of the figurehead was completed in 2013.

In Greek mythology, Arethusa was a sea nymph who fled from her home in Arcadia beneath the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily. This character contrasts with HMS Arethusa’s figurehead which depicts a polychrome painted female bust with brown hair parted in the centre with ringlets at the side of the head and wearing a loose early Victorian period dress with a waist-band. In the C19, female figureheads gained in popularity and although women on board ships were thought unlucky, a naked woman was supposed to be able to calm a storm at sea; the right breast of the Arethusa’s figurehead is exposed.

The figurehead was carved by James Hellyer and Sons of London and Portsmouth who were ship's carver for the Admiralty. The family concern was run by James Edward Hellyer Snr (1787-1872) and among the known members of the business were his sons, Frederick (1822-1906) and James (1828-1881), and his grandson, James Edward Hellyer Jnr (1846-1914). The company had a long tradition as ship’s carvers having carved the figurehead for the famous screw-frigate Shannon in 1855, and the first naval iron-clad Warrior in 1860 and 1872 (on display in Portsmouth Dockyard). The company also bid £65 to replace the figurehead of HMS Victory. James Hellyer Snr is also known to have carved a statue of George III originally sited in Jubilee Terrace, Portsmouth, about1827. In 1871, Hellyer and Son exhibited a group of seventeen carved figures on a pedestal at the Great exhibition; the firm was described as 'designers' in the exhibition catalogue.


Carved wooden figurehead, 1859, by James Hellyer and Sons for the Royal Navy

MATERIALS: the wooden figurehead is attached to the original decorated stemhead and flanked by two short lengths of the Arethusa’s hand rails. It is sited on a two-stepped square concrete plinth underneath a protective wooden canopy. Two small muzzle-loading cannon (given to the Arethusa in 1934) sit either side of the structure which is surrounded by a steel fence. The canopy, cannons and fence are excluded from the listing.

DESCRIPTION: a polychrome painted female bust with brown hair parted in the centre with ringlets at the side of the head and wearing a loose early Victorian period dress with a waist-band.


Figurehead of the war ship Arethusa in Lower Upnor has been restored after a wasp attack, accessed 08/10/2018 from
Figurehead Restoration - Arethusa, accessed 08/10/2018 from
HMS Arethusa 1849, accessed 09/10/2018 from
Our Future Jack Tars, accessed 09/10/2018 from


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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