Museum of London Docklands to display whale’s tooth that revealed seaman’s rags to riches story
- Credit: Archant
A Victorian engraved, silver-mounted whale’s tooth which revealed a rags to riches story of naval seaman will go on display at the Museum of London Docklands.
Inscriptions and details engraved on the scrimshaw allowed curators at museum to research the details of Alexander Munro who gave the expensive tooth to Sophia Knight in 1837.
Records reveal that, at the age of 21, Alexander was resident in the workhouse of St. George’s-in-the-East in Wapping, in 1817 where he was admitted to the ‘Lock’ ward.
This was common practice for paupers suffering from sexually transmitted diseases where they would be locked up while they received treatment.
Later that year he was given the opportunity of a new life as records show him registering as an apprentice aboard HMS Foxhound.
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This was a decommissioned naval ship which had been converted into a whaler, to suit the booming demand for the ivory and oil that whales provided for the increasingly prosperous British Empire.
Since the 15th century the capital had been one of the world’s major whaling centres, and the wealth of this industry gave former naval seamen a chance to use their skills and experience to earn riches.
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Within 20 years, Alexander had made enough money to buy the ornate scrimshaw – which had been mounted in solid silver by Benjamin Smith III, one of London’s most exclusive silversmiths – to Sophia.
While a record of their marriage has not yet been found, it is highly probably that Alexander and Sophia were romantically linked.
Danielle Thom, curator of making at the Museum of London, said: “As well as being an extraordinary object in its own right, this scrimshaw is a time capsule that tells us a compelling tale of a Londoner who lived almost 200 years ago, during a period of dramatic economic change for the capital.
“Thanks to Alexander’s inscription on the scrimshaw, we have been able to research his life, and that of the ship he sailed with, through archives and historical records.”
The tooth will go on display next month a the museum in West India Quay which is free and open daily from 10am – 6pm.
For more information visit museumoflondon.org.uk.