Inside the Collection

Prisoner-of-war bone ship model

Bone ship model
Collection; Powerhouse Museum.

Imagine being a prisoner-of-war, locked in the hulk of an overcrowded, old ship. How would you pass your time? You could tell stories, daydream and reflect on ‘better times’ or perhaps make things out of the limited materials available to you – the clothes and jewellery on your body, left over food scraps or your own hair.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), French captives held in British prisons and ships produced ship models, typically made from the left over bone from their staple diet of mutton stew. Gradually, after each meal, the prisoner would build up a collection of bone which he would submerge for prolonged periods in wet clay to make it pliable, before working on its construction.

This particular bone ship model in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection would have been made by a skilled artisan. It is a rare example as it bears the French flag (the production of most prisoner-of-war ship models were shown with the British flag, since prisoners generally made models for sale to the local British markets).

It is a 72-gun French Frigate warship, which because of the French flag, the time it was made and the resemblance, may in fact be identified as the 74-gun French vessel, ‘Le Heros’, produced as a souvenir example for the maker. Since prisoners did not have images to copy or the aids of draughts or plans this meant they were forced to rely on both their memory and imagination, thus errors were likely.

However, to throw a spanner in the works (and this is what makes research fun!), at the time the Museum acquired this model we received the following information “…made by a French convict in a settlement off the Australian coast line”. This would, at first, seem unlikely as the model is typical of those produced by French prisoners held in England during the Napoleonic Wars – but then perhaps the statement refers to New Caledonia, which became a French penal settlement in 1862?

If the “French convict” was an ex-prisoner of the English during the Napoleonic Wars, this would mean that he was probably aged in his late seventies or early eighties when travelling to New Caledonia (not a pleasant trip for a man of that age!) – but then neither would his manual dexterity allow the creation, I believe, of such a fine model.

Maybe the model was taken to New Caledonia or another French Pacific possession by the descendants of an ex-Napoleonic Wars prisoner of the British? The model may have been made in England, but was retained by a French prisoner and presented to his family upon his release and return home to France, which would also explain the French flag.

Or, maybe there was an error in the transmission of this statement, and it was actually supposed to read British Coast line, rather than Australian!?

What do you think?

20 responses to “Prisoner-of-war bone ship model

  • Very interesting. My grandfather Dr Frank Husband-Clutton lived in the village of Crowland in Lincolnshire. He was I think one of the first to collect ships made of bone by French prisoners of war. Unfortunately he did not leave any of them to me.

    The ships in question were known locally as “Norman Cross ships” as there was a POW camp for captured French sailors at Norman Cross near Peterborough. I remember them being exactly like the one in the photo.

    There is an interesting piece about Norman Cross at

  • Just seen you question. I am afraid all I know is that they were sold at Sothebys against my juvenile protests in about 1957. Dr Husband-Clutton made model ships for the Maritime Museum at Greenwich and there is a small Husband Clutton collection. They might know where they went.

  • I have one of these (unfortunately damaged) possible of HMS Victory reputedly made be POW’s in Dartmoor prison (date unknown) and bought from the Chatham estate in N Devon in the mid 50’s (in a lot of 14 model ships)

  • Kenneth Roberts, author, (Lively Lady, 1931), used a bone model of an 1814 frigate made by Dartmoor prisoners to write sea scenes of a square rigger. Do you know who has this bone ship model? According to Roberts, he had it in 1947. But the trail goes cold.

  • Around 2010 l was onboard a private cruiser at Rivergate Marina on the Brisbane river where l saw a model of a bone ship. I was told by one of the crew that it was constructed by french prisoners. The crewman went on to say that the owner of the cruiser said that in the event of a fire or sinking they were to save the model first as he said it was worth more than the 35 metre cruiser. Sadly l didnt photograph the model or can remember the name of the cruiser.
    Regards Rob

  • For the 2nd edition of my book on Prisoner of War Bone Ship Models – Treasures from the age of the Napoleonic Wars, I plan a chapter on “Bone Ship Models made by ex-Prisoners-of-War after 1815”. When searching the web, I came across the February 15, 2010 article by Melanie Pitkin. Very interesting. However, many questions remain. I have a website on POW Bone Ship Models: There you may see under Literature the link to my book which was published in October 2015

  • I have a Napoleonic French prisoner-of-war bone model of the ship America which has been in my family for over sixty years.

  • I was given one of these boats 50+ years ago, A pub landlord gave it to me as I made a plastic kit and sprayed it gold, The pub was called the golden cross or something and had a ship on the sign outside. He said I could have it as it was a little bit damaged and filthy dirty being in the pub for years, I cleaned it up and sorted the damage and have it in a case now.
    Silly thing is I don’t like boats, I get sick.
    Shame I can’t put a picture of it for you to see.

  • I have a tiny bone model automaton of a lady working a spinning wheel reputedly in Dartmoor prison by a French prisoner. It is damaged and delicate and given to me by my grandmother about 70 years ago. I have seen two or three Chinese reproductions of the ships for sale at Beaulieu Autojumble, beautifully made.

  • Dear Sir / Madam,
    In the Napoleonic period, Englishmen on the sea in 1798-1799 arrested Dutch fishermen and held them captive in England. Do you know if the fishermen were caught in Norman Cross?

    Rens Schendelaar
    Den Helder

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