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The Maritime Collections of King's Lynn Museums
The Maritime collections of King's Lynn Museums reflect the importance of Lynn as a port from Medieval times to the present. The collections began in the 1840s when many of the donations to the museum were curiosities from far flung regions abroad, often brought home by Lynn-based travellers and explorers.
In Medieval times Lynn was an important Hanseatic League trading partner, with merchants from all over Europe coming to Lynn to sell timber, furs, cloth, wine and luxury goods, and purchase wool and grain. The archaeology collections feature trading items associated with Lynn's medieval maritime trade, including fragments of woollen cloth and lead cloth seals. A wooden bench end circa 1410 from Lynn's St. Nicholas's Church features a fine carving of a two-masted medieval ship. However most of the maritime collections in the museum date from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Whaling was an important industry in Lynn between 1760 and 1830, with ships sailing for Greenland every March and returning with their catch in August. The venture, although dangerous, proved very profitable. The whales were cut up at sea and back in Lynn the blubber was boiled to make oil for lighting, and the whalebone used in women’s corsets and for umbrella ribs.
Examples of whaling harpoons, blubber pans and baleen, used for corset stays are in the collections, along with the accoutrements found on board ship such as a painted sea chest, ship's surgeon's tool kit with amputation saws, and ship's biscuit complete with weevil holes! Other items show how the seamen coped with long monotonous hours at sea by making scrimshaw (carved and decorated ivory) and wooden dolls.
The maritime collections also feature items associated with historical figures from West Norfolk, including Lord Horatio Nelson, Captain George Manby, and Thomas Baines. The Nelson collection includes some handwritten letters and memorabilia produced as souvenirs at the time of his funeral. Captain Manby (1765-1854) was the inventor of the 'Manby Mortar', designed to fire a line to wrecked ships off shore to allow the rescue of the crew. One of his prototype mortars in displayed in the collection, along with Manby's dress sword.
Thomas Baines (1820-1875) was an artist-explorer from Lynn who travelled extensively in southern Africa and northern Australia in the 1840s to 1860s, including an expedition up the Zambezi with David Livingstone. On his return visits to Lynn he donated to the museum many of his art works depicting these hitherto unknown regions, as well as natural history specimens and ethnographical items collected on the way.
The fine art collections reflect Lynn's position commanding the Wash and the inland navigation to the Fenland towns. The River Great Ouse and the Wash are frequent subjects in paintings by Victorian and 20th century artists such as Henry Baines (1823-1894), George Laidman (1872-1954), and Walter Dexter (1876-1958). Henry Baines, brother of Thomas, features particularly strongly in the art collections with his oil paintings showing the quayside in Lynn with its sailing ships, the fishing fleet, and storms in the Wash. Hundreds of his drawings and sketches show ships at sea as well as fishermen mending nets on the quayside.
The museum photographic archives of nearly 10,000 images also reflect the importance of Lynn's maritime history in the late Victorian and early 20th century. The quayside and docks feature heavily in the photographic collection, which is currently being digitised to allow easy on-line access.
Model of the Mortar designed by Captain Manby
Image showing the Manby Mortar firing a line out to a stranded vessel
Whaling from King's Lynn
This page is part of the Narrative Theme(s): Fishing
This page is part of the Online Exhibition(s): The Maritime Collections of King's Lynn Museums