Funding the Willington Waggonway

It is common knowledge that museums are feeling the pinch as councils tighten budgets, so you may have wondered where the funding came from for the Willington Waggonway Research Programme. The rescue, preservation and research of a section of the Willington Waggonway was only possible through the generous support of two Arts Council England funds: the PRISM Fund and the Designation Development Fund.

The Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) Fund is a rolling fund awarding grants between £500 and £20,000 for acquisition and conservation projects. Their quick response was vital in securing the future of the waggonway. The excavation took place prior to the redevelopment of the site which created a time pressure, as did the fact that as soon as the timbers were exposed to the air they began to deteriorate. We were awarded the maximum £20,000 for the recovery and stabilization of the remains of the waggonway which took place immediately. The timbers were then sent to the York Archaeological Trust for conservation treatment which will fully stabilize and conserve the waggonway for study and eventually public display.

waggonway south and conservation

Left: The Willington Waggonway from the South. Top right: The excavated timbers. Bottom right: The timbers at York Archaeological Trust

Without the Prism Fund we would have potentially lost a vital source of information on early railways that our current historic and archaeological record is lacking. The discovery of the Willington Waggonway was one of world significance, as it is the most complete and best-preserved section of early wooden railway to ever be discovered. Being standard gauge, having an association with the Killingworth line, as well as the presence of reused ships timbers and a wash hole, gives the Willington Waggonway a significance which we have not seen previously, even at the Lambton D pit excavation near Fencehouses in 1995.


Remains of the waggonway discovered during the excavation of the former Lambton D pit at Fencehouses. Image credit:

The Designation Development Fund supports projects that ensure the long-term sustainability of designated museum collections, maximizes their public value and shares best practice. They offer grants between £20,000 and £90,000 every other year with a different theme which the project aims are required to meet to secure funding. Fortunately 2016’s theme was ‘Research and Development’ making it an ideal time to pursue funding for a research project on the Willington Waggonway. We requested and were awarded £77,130 with the project beginning in December 2016.


Excavated remains of the Willington Waggonway, looking towards the River Tyne. Photography © The Archaeological Practice

The Designation Development Fund grant is allowing us to work closely with experts in early railway history, archaeology and conservation to uncover new information which will undoubtedly enhance our understanding of wooden waggonways.

Many thanks to Arts Council England for the PRISM Fund and the Designation Development Fund grants that are allowing this once in a lifetime research project to take place.

archive image

Illustration of Parkmoor Waggonway, Gateshead by Richard Turner, produced for the B.B.C Domesday Project under the direction of Les Turnbull . First published in the Gateshead Domesday Book, 1986.

We will be launching our program of events in June so keep an eye out for exciting family friendly activities, meet the archaeologist sessions, talks and waggonway walks!

The Willington Waggonway Appeal
Many of the excavated timbers still remain untreated and risk being lost forever. Without further financial support, we will be unable to fund the preservation of these important industrial artefacts. If you would like to find out more and make a donation to this appeal, please click here


The Willington Waggonway Research Programme is funded by the Designation Development Fund, Arts Council England



Danger and adventure for Tyne and Wear ships’ crews in the Spanish Civil War

bilbao ruins skipper's war picture horiz 2

This photograph of the devastation of the Basque port of Bilbao in April 1937 was taken by Captain Still of the Newcastle ship Hamsterley, on a mission to take food to the beleaguered city and rescue refugees during the Spanish Civil War (North Mail, May 11th).

I’ve told some of the story of the involvement of Newcastle ships in two previous blogs – Newcastle foodships rescue Basque refugees in the Spanish Civil War; Newcastle foodship crew witness the devastation of Guernica bombing in the Spanish Civil War. This blog widens the story, with more details about the difficult experiences of the crews.

Eighty years ago, the crews of ships from Tyne and Wear found themselves caught up in the Civil War in Spain (1936-39), dodging shells, mines and bombs. The North East of England had a strong trading relationship with the Basque region of northern Spain, exporting coal and importing iron ore. North-East sailors also worked on many other ships trading coal to Spain. Some of the captains and crew were keen to help the Basque people, others were just doing a job, and some would rather have avoided the dangers of the warzone.

Dangers to Ships and Crews

Early in the conflict, Nationalist warships began stopping British ships to check they were not carrying any materials that could help the Republican war effort. The British ships’ crews sometimes saw floating mines and experienced air raids, often quite close to their ships. The most dangerous incident was when the Newcastle ship Blackhill was shot at near Bilbao in March, prompting official British protests. Until a test case at the South Shields Court of Referees in March 1937, seamen didn’t have a choice about sailing to the warzones if they didn’t want to lose unemployment benefit.

In April 1937, the situation for ships’ crews sailing to northern Spain became more difficult as the Nationalists intensified the war effort in the Basque region.

Wear Ships Coquetdale and Brinkburn at Bilbao


In very early April 1937, the Wear ships Brinkburn and Coquedale (Consett Iron Company) arrived in Bilbao with food from Antwerp. (This photo of the Coquetdale can be viewed in higher resolution on the searlecanada website.) Speaking to the North Mail on their return (22nd April), the Sunderland skipper of the Coquetdale, Captain Charles Smith, described their voyage. The ship had already been stopped once when they witnessed a distressing event:

Apr 22 Coquetdale text 1 (3)

Coquetdale had arrived too late to see whether the ship’s crew had been taken off. Captain Smith continued:

Apr 22 adven (2)

Apr 22 adven (1)

The Couetdale and crew, and Captain Smith (right) were pictured in the North Mail (April 22nd, p7) when the ship berthed at Tyne Dock:

Apr 22 pic Coquetdale crew enhanced reduced

Cpt Smith photo N Mail Apr 22 p7 cropped.JPG (1)


The Coquetdale’s sister ship Brinkburn was also at Bilbao at this time, having brought potatoes from Antwerp.

brinkburn3Captain Collinson of the Brinkburn also described frequent air raids at Bilbao, commenting that “One bomb dropped in the water 300 yards astern of us while we were lying at the quay.” (Sunderland Echo, April 20th). The North Mail (April 21st) continued Captain Collinson’s story, describing how the population was desperately short of food:

Brinkburn scraps Apr 21 p3 (1)

Blockade of Bilbao and Santander

While Coquetdale and Brinkburn were at Bilbao, Franco imposed a blockade, intending to starve the Basque city of food and materials.

Brinkburn was the last ship into Bilbao before the blockade, said Captain Collinson (Sunderland Echo, April 21st). Having rapidly loaded her cargo, she was also the first ship out, fortunately without a problem, returning to Sunderland on April 20th:

“When we left after a stay of five days a number of insurgent warships came and had a look at us, but they did not interfere…”

Coquetdale similarly made it out of Bilbao without incident, but when the ship finally returned to the North East, several of the crew decided they wouldn’t make another trip to the warzone.

Franco’s blockade of Bilbao and Santander and other Basque ports began on April 6th. It was enforced by the warships Almirante Cervera, Espana, and Canaries, with the large armed trawler Galerna and a flotilla of smaller armed trawlers. Later, two submarines joined the blockade, and Franco could also call on a large airforce. On April 14th, the North Mail mentioned that, “Some idea of the dangers of taking legitimate cargoes to Spain can be gathered by the jump in the freight rate from the Tyne to Bilbao from about 7s. to 15s.” The seamen got a bonus of 50% of wage for 24 hours either side of being port, raised to double pay from May 17th.

British Ships Blocked

The population of the Basque capital Bilbao was swollen by refugees from surrounding towns and the land supply routes were cut off. Food was in short supply. Immediately after Franco’s announcement on April 6th, the (Wear-built) London steamer Thorpehall got through. Nevertheless, the British government advised ships to stay away, fearing that the approaches to the Basque ports were heavily mined.

However, the Newcastle ship Hamsterley was already on her way to Bilbao, having left Antwerp with a cargo of peas and beans on April 3rd (North Mail, April 12th). After receiving an Admiralty warning that protection was not guaranteed, Captain Still retreated to the French port of St Jean de Luz. Hamsterley joined several other British ships waiting in the hope of Navy assistance to get through the blockade (North Mail, April 10th):

Apr 10 Newcastle ship offer (1)The Nationalist cruiser Almirante Cervera sent out a warning that “any foreign vessel approaching the Spanish coast would be sunk or seized”. The food ships continued to wait.

Bilbao Blockade Runners Hamsterley and Stanbrook

However, after the Welsh ship Seven Seas Spray successfully made a solo dash from St Jean de Luz to Bilbao with food, arriving on April 20th, the British government authorised the Navy to give more protection to British ships breaking the blockade. Hamsterley (pictured on Wrecksite) was the next ship to run the Bilbao blockade, in a small convoy with Stanbrook, which had sailed from Blyth, and the MacGregor. They arrived at Bilbao on April 23rd

The three ships Hamsterley, Stanbrook, and MacGregor had left the French port of St. Jean de Luz the previous night. As dawn broke, they were intercepted by an armed Nationalist trawler, which fired a shell between the Hamsterley and the MacGregor. But the British flagship Hood and the destroyer Firedrake came to their aid. The blockade runners were big news in Britain, and Hamsterley had a Daily Express reporter on board. He gave a vivid description of their journey as they neared Bilbao (Daily Express, April 24th):

We were now leading the convoy, but we had gone only a few yards when the trawler, the Galerna, fired right across our bows. The shell skimmed across the deck very low and plunged into the sea a bare fifteen yards away. Captain Still cursed aloud, and banged his fist on the bridge rail. “Stop her, quartermaster!” 

Another signal fluttered from the destroyer’s mast: “Proceed, Hamsterley.” Captain Still fairly bellowed through the megaphone to the Stanbrook, just astern: “Come on, my lads! Follow me into Bilbao.” … 8 a.m. – Shell from shore battery has just fallen a bare six feet short of the Galerna. Galerna turned in her own length, and, dodging between the Hamsterley and MacGregor, scuttled off to safety…

The British ships were given a tremendous welcome when they berthed up in the town this afternoon. They arrived in the middle of an air raid, but hundreds of people came from their shelters to cheer the blockade-runners. The raiders came in batches of nine; since yesterday they have dropped 500 bombs.

captains photo r

Captain Still of Hamsterley (wearing cap) brought this photograph back from Bilbao, where he was visiting an army factory with the Basque Minister of Marine (far left), Captain Roberts of Seven Seas Spray (second left), the President of the Basque Republic (in beret) and Captain Jones of the MacGregor (far right) (North Mail, May 11th).

bilbao ruins skipper's war pic detail June 29The newspaper also later published Captain Still’s photograph of the aftermath of one of the air attacks on the city. The crew of the Hamsterley were mostly from South Shields (listed at the end of the blog). On this ship, the firemen, who had the hot and tiring job of stoking the boilers, were drawn from South Shields’ Yemeni community.

The Stanbrook, which accompanied the Hamsterley, was built by the Tyne Iron Shipbuilding Company. She had sailed from Blyth to Antwerp on about April 10th to take on her cargo of food. She had several crew members from Blyth and Tyneside, reported the North Mail (April 24th) (listed at the end of the blog).

Tyne ships to Bilbao: Stesso, Sheaf Garth, Sheaf Field, Blackhill and Consett

More ships followed including the Newcastle coal ship Stesso, manned by Tynesiders, which arrived on April 25th. The Sheaf Garth (Sheaf Steam Shipping Company, Newcastle) arrived at Bilbao on April 26th, and her sister ship Sheaf Field entered port three days later, carrying food. One of the ships waiting to run the blockade was the Newcastle ship Blackhill, said the paper (North Mail, April 24th, 26th, 27th & 30th).

The master of the Sheaf Field was Captain R. Arnott of South Shields, and there were several Tynesiders on board. The second steward, Ernest Hawkins of Hull, told the North Mail (May 12th) how the ship was rocked by explosions from bombs aimed at oil tanks on the banks of the river.

The crew helped load the cargo of iron ore themselves in an effort to get away quickly, and the ship returned to the Tyne on May 11th. Sheaf Field had spent 2 months in the Spanish war zones, and had experienced air raids in every Spanish port they’d visited – Valencia, Barcelona, Tarragona, Portugalette and Bilbao. The second steward Ernest Hawkins also told of the acute food shortage in Bilbao:

IMG_3218 May 13 p2 Sheaf Field diary 3 detailr

The Consett (Consett Iron Company) arrived in Bilbao right at the end of April. The captain had intended to dock at Santander but was confronted by the Nationalist battleship Espana, which threatened to fire on her. Consett had no radio to call for help, but fortunately the British destroyer Forrester came to her aid. A crew member later told the Sunderland Echo (May 7th) that the situation at Bilbao was serious:

The evacuation had not started and hundreds of citizens both rich and poor crowded the quayside. “We gave them everything we could and any food left lying about they stole from the ship.”

Just after the crew listened to a radio broadcast of the Cup Final football match (Sunderland won) on May 1st, there was an air raid. Many of the crew joined people sheltering in “dugouts … underneath the slag heaps at the quayside”, said the Consett sailor:

“I had a child who was weeping in my arms, and we tried to cheer him by singing sea shanties.” 

…“Eventually we sailed from Bilbao thinking our adventures had finished, but 36 miles out we were stopped by an armed merchant ship. It was a tense situation and I must confess I was scared.” The guns on board her, he continued, were all manned, and for an hour she circled round the Consett, no one knowing what was going to happen.

The steamers Blackhill, Sheaf Field and Consett all took part in the refugee evacuation of Bilbao in May together with Hamsterley and Backworth.

Backworth Relief Ship to Bilbao

Backworth 1919-6-16

In Britain, the Spanish Relief Fund (set up to provide humanitarian aid to either side) co-ordinated appeals to send food and medical supplies to Bilbao. The ship chosen was the Backworth, which loaded at Immingham near Hull (Backworth was built on the Clyde, and this photo is from the website Clyde Built Ships). Before Backworth left, the North Mail (April 24th) reported:

Backworth apprentices + party N Mail 1937 Apr24 p3 (1)

The North Mail also gave the names of other Tyneside crew members (see end of the blog), who had signed on at Newcastle. On April 28th, the ship began a nail-biting approach into Bilbao, chased by Nationalist ships, (the dramatic events are described in my previous blog – Newcastle foodships rescue Basque refugees in the Spanish Civil War). Ships’ captains worried that their ships might be trapped if the Nationalists took the port while they were anchored there.

Backworth was a key ship in the British refugee-evacuation programme in early May and afterwards. Captain Russell of the Backworth telegraphed the North Mail (May 7th) to outline his plans:

IMG_3116 May 7 backwoth chartered for 6 monts

Knitsley at Santander

knitsleyNewcastle steamer Knitsley’s encounter with Espana outside Santander was even more momentous than the confrontation Consett had. The Sunderland Echo reporter got the opportunity to talk to the crew when the ship docked at Sunderland with iron ore (Sunderland Echo, May 6th). (The ship is pictured at Tyne Dock on a separate occasion.)

On Friday, the Knitsley loaded with minerals disregarded signals to stop given by the Spanish insurgents battleship Espana and the destroyer Velasco outside Santander.

The insurgent vessel fired on the steamer, but Government planes went to her rescue and the Espana was sunk. The Knitsley entered Santander in safety… Captain Robinson was quite cheery this morning … [but] Another member of the crew said they had had a terrifying voyage.

Following this trip, 11 members of the crew refused to sail on another voyage to Spain if they didn’t get more than the agreed warzone bonus of the time. At court in Sunderland in June, they were convicted of conspiring to impede the ship’s progress and fined 40 shillings each (North Mail, June 18th). During the trial, the captain testified that the trip had been been much more dangerous than a normal commercial voyage:

knitsley saw Espana sunk June 18

Hamsterley and the last days of Republican Bilbao

Cpt Still photo Pres Basque Republic N Mail June 19 p1The Newcastle ship Hamsterley continued to sail to Bilbao to load iron ore. The ship last left the city on June 13th, 6 days before the city was occupied by the Nationalists. While in Bilbao, Captain Still took this photograph of the President of the Basque Republic reviewing his troops. It was published in the North Mail on June 19th, the day after Hamsterley docked on the Tyne, together with an interview:

June 19 p3 hamsterley air raid Bilbao

Shortly before the city fell, the Newcastle steamer Alice Marie had arrived from Blyth with a cargo of food, coal, ambulances, motor-cycles and medical equipment. The ship subsequently left port with a part-load of iron ore plus 500 refugees. The North Mail (June 21st) published an account by the second engineer F.A. Snaith, given in a letter home to his wife in South Shields:


Bilbao fell to the Nationalists on June 19th, and Santander followed in August 1937. The Civil War finally ended in 1939.

My reading of newspapers finishes in 1937, and is mainly about the steamers voyaging to northern Spain (prompted by the 2015 exhibition British Art and the Spanish Civil War at the Laing Art Gallery). The war continued in southern Spain, and North East sailors were involved in dangerous situations there. The ships included the Newcastle steamer Hebburn, which spent 4 months in Spanish ports, experiencing severe air raids at Valencia, Barcelona and Santander, before returning to the Tyne on May 14th 1937 with iron ore from Castro Urdiales, a port near Bilbao. The Tyne-built destroyer H.M.S Hunter, with a Sunderland captain, Commander Scurfield, and some Tynesiders among her crew, hit a mine off Valencia on May 13th 1937. The ship had significant damage and several men died (North Mail, May 15th and 17th). Eleven days later, the Newcastle steamer Greatend, while unloading grain, was hit by shrapnel in a Nationalist air raid at Almeria and nearly sunk (North Mail, May 25th). In addition, the Thorpehall (which had a Sunderland master, Captain Andrews) was sunk in an air raid in May 1938 near Valencia.

How Britain learnt lessons from air raids in Spain

Moor CourtOne result of the terrible air-raids in Spain was that air-raid precautions planning started in Britain in case of war with Germany. In April, when construction started on a new block of flats, Moor Court in Gosforth, it including a “bomb-proof shelter” in the basement (North Mail, April 5th). Newcastle council also set up a plan for 5,000 volunteer civilian air-raid personnel (North Mail, June 10th).


Backworth:  North Mail 24th April 1937 p3: The crew of the Backworth includes; A. Goodfellow, first mate, Tunstall Road, Sunderland; George Lilie, second mate, Broadway, Cullcoats; C. Spence, A.N., Brderick Street, South Shields; C. Piggofrd, third engineer, Elmwood Street, Sunderland; Janir Mohammed, fireman, Thrift Street, South Shields; F. Sagar, steward, Hyde Street, South Shields; E. Brockie, second engineer, Edenhouse Road, Sunderland; G. Whitelock, A.B., Cleveland Road, Sunderland; Harold Renwick Bottomley, A.B., Ashgrove Avenue, South Shields; J. Wilson, ordinary seaman, Viceroy Street, Seaham Harbour; A. Felgate, steward, Middlesborough; Frederick Walton, New Seaham, and Jack Cummett and William Clark, Whitby, apprentices [15-year-old orphan boys].

Blackhill: Sunderland Echo, May 10th 1937: The master is Capt. P.F. Ridley

Coquetdale: Sunderland Echo, April 22nd 1937: Captain C. Smith, of Hastings Street, Sunderland. Mr George Pain, of Grange Street South, Sunderland, the chief officer.

HamsterleyNorth Mail April XX, 1937:  The master of the Tyne ship Hamsterley is Captain A.H. Still, of Estoril, Oaklands, Swalwell, and the others aboard are: J.R. Matthews (1st mate), Roman Avenue, Walker; N. Johnson (2nd mate), Trevor Terrace, North Shields; W. S. Joice (wireless operator), Fitzroy Terrace, Sunderland; W.S. Jones (A.B.) Marsden Street, South Shields; M. Darmody (bosun), Wilson Street, South Shields; S. Stephens (A.B.), Orange Place, South Shields; M Lamport (A.B.), Fawcett Street, South Shields; O. White (A.B.), Fowler Street, South Shields; G. Henderson (seaman), Harper Street, South Shields; A. Hastier (first engineer), Candless Street, South Shields; W. Allam (second engineer), of Sunderland, and W. Usher (donkeyman), Broughton Road, South Shields. The following are firemen: Alidie Ali, John William Street, South Shields; Hassan Abdullah, Grace Street, South Shields; Hassan Ahmed, Commercial Road, South Shields; Ahmed Ali, Derby Street, South Shields; Hassan Yehya, Green Street, South Shields. Cook and steward: John Dryden, Woodbine Avenue, Walker; mess room boy, G. Lyth, The Laws, South Shields. [A donkeyman worked the donkey boiler – the small boiler used by the crew, especially in port.]

KnitsleySunderland Echo, April 30th 1937, p1: Knitsley … She has just recently been purchased by Consett Iron Company, and there are a number of Sunderland men aboard her, including Mr Cunliffe, a seaman, and Mr Dougherty, a messroom steward; North Mail, May 6th 1937, p1: Master: Capt. Frederick Robinson, of 14 Hawarden Crescent, [Sunderland]; 17 crew prosecuted June 17th South Shields courts for refusing to sail to Spain without additional payment: John George Wilson, Mitford Street, Fulwell, Sunderland; John Vivian Lloyd, Straker Terrace, Tyne Dock; Thomas Watson, Weir Street, Tyne Dock; and eight others from South Shields: John Robert Lawson, Quarry Lane; Jonathan Williamson, Stainton Street; Robert Duncan, Braeham Street; Thomas Watson Cunliff, Shortridge Street; John Pease, Hardwick Street; Hector McDonald Profit, Campbell Street; John Taylor, Slake Terrace, and Joseph McQuade, H.S. Edward Street.

Stanbrook: Sunderland Echo, April 23rd 1937 p1: Wearsiders in the crew are W.S. Joice (wireless operator), Fitzroy terrace; and W. Allam (seond engineer); North Mail, April 24th 1937: Stanbrook crew included several Tynesiders. Blyth men aboard are P. Halpin, T. Wilson and P. Burns, all firemen, T.B. Rowland, T. Joyce, A.B.’s and ordinary seaman E. Crutchley and M. Willis.

Two decorated swords

One of our international loans for the section of Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition at Arbeia Roman Fort is a complete sword blade with inlaid decoration. This was chosen to be a companion piece to our own (incomplete) blade, which is also decorated.


Roman decorated sword
An inlaid wreath decorating the iron blade of the sword.

The sword on loan from Carnuntum, Austria, has a wreath (symbol of victory) on one side and a palm leaf (symbol of peace) on the other. Ours has an eagle (symbol of the power of Rome) holding a palm leaf in its beak, standing between two standards (symbols of the army).

The figures were cut from a sheet of copper alloy and inlaid in the iron blade, with details picked out with lines and dots; you can see where leaves making up the wreath have fallen out of the recesses in the iron, and the use of two different coloured metals.

Decorated Roman sword

Roman sword decorated with an eagle between standards. Accession number TWCMS : T2516.

The decoration on this type of sword is always right up near to the hilt, and is positioned to be the right way up when the sword is held with the point up. The decoration is, however, quite restrained: the eagle is only 26mm high and Mars only 45mm.

Decorated Roman sword

Roman sword decorated with a figure of the god Mars. Accession number TWCMS : T2516.


Exploring Moana at the GNM: Hancock

One of my guilty pleasures in life is watching Disney films.  When the new offering Moana was released recently, I enjoyed whiling away a rainy Sunday afternoon watching the adventures of characters who lived far, far away and many centuries in the past.  The basic plot of the story involves a young Polynesian girl, Moana Waialiki, venturing out onto the ocean to restore the heart of the goddess Te Fiti in order to save her island, which is slowly dying.  This mystical heart took the form of a greenstone amulet, and it had been stolen  1000 years earlier by Maui, a demi–god.  Along with her charmingly daft chicken HeiHei, Moana sets sail to find Maui and recruit him to assist her in returning the heart.

By the end of the film, my curatorial interest was piqued.  How authentic was the story being told? Was it based on real Polynesian history?  I decided to do a little bit of research into Polynesian culture, and as the ethnographic collections at the GNM: Hancock are particularly rich in material from the Pacific Islands, I knew there would be some fascinating objects that would bring the stories and legends to life.

Map showing the vast area of Polynesia, with Hawaii in the north, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the south east, and New Zealand in the south west. Polynesia consists of over 1,000 islands.

Map showing the vast area of Polynesia, with Hawaii in the north, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in the south east, and New Zealand in the south west. Polynesia consists of over 1,000 islands.

One of the main themes of Moana is about seafaring and navigation.  In the movie, Moana’s island people never venture beyond the reef into the open ocean, and yet she discovers that at some point in time, her ancestors were great seafarers. This highlights a key period of Polynesian history.  It’s now known that western Polynesia was colonised  about 3,500 years ago, but the islands of central and eastern Polynesia were not settled until about 1,500-500 years ago.  This means that after arriving on islands such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Polynesians took a break of almost 2000 years before voyaging onwards.  This time in history is known as “The Long Pause”, and no-one is sure why this happened, or what made the Polynesians begin their seafaring expeditions again.  In Moana, The Long Pause comes to end when a fleet of canoes set forth across the ocean, the islanders having been inspired by the heroine’s journey and achievements.  The story of this oceanic navigation and migration is an amazing one and fundamental to Polynesia’s history.  This relationship with the sea and importance of sea going vessels is reflected in the many  Polynesian canoe parts and model boats in our collections at the GNM.

NEWHM : C573, model canoe with outrigger, Niue . Part of a bequest from the late Julia Boyd, a keen collector of natural history and ethnographic artefacts.

NEWHM : C573, model canoe with outrigger, Niue . Part of a bequest from the late Julia Boyd, a keen collector of natural history and ethnographic artefacts.

NEWHM_C573-c NEWHM_C573-d

NEWHM : C650, wooden model of a canoe, Hawaii.

NEWHM : C650, wooden model of a canoe, Hawaii.

NEWHM : C589, Maori canoe paddle, New Zealand. Acquired in 1769, possibly on James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe.

NEWHM : C589, Maori canoe paddle, New Zealand. Acquired in 1769, possibly on James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe.

Disney’s take on the demi-god Maui is another noteworthy aspect.  Maui is indeed a prominent character within Polynesian legends, but the portrayal of him in the film has come in for serious criticism.  Maui was traditionally a lithe teenager on the verge of manhood, but the film shows him as an enormous man.  While some critics have pointed out that this version of Maui perpetuates the image of Polynesians being overweight, his appearance is not the only thing that’s different.   In Polynesian culture, Maui was always accompanied by the goddess Hina who featured as his sister, wife or mother in various stories.   In Polynesian lore, the association of a powerful goddess with a god creates symmetry and harmony– indeed, it was Hina who enabled Maui to accomplish many of his legendary feats.  In Moana, Hina has been omitted completely.   Maui’s famous fish hook however, has been included.  This magical tool allows Maui to accomplish all kinds of amazing feats, including in one famous Polynesian legend, the creation of the Hawaiian islands.

In Moana, the heart of Te Fiti is represented as a greenstone amulet.  The use of greenstone for such an important amulet is very appropriate.  “Greenstone” is the generic name given to nephrite jade, a beautiful rocky mineral that is only found on the South island of New Zealand.  The Maori name for this material is pounamu, and it plays a very important role in Maori culture as it is considered a taonga, or treasure.  The most prized taonga are those with a history going back generations  as these are believed to have their own mana (effectiveness, prestige, power– often of a supernatural variety).  Typical pounama taonga are more likely to be tools such as adzes and knives (as opposed to hearts of goddesses) and we are lucky enough to have several greenstone objects in the GNM: Hancock collections.  One of the most striking items is an adze blade.  It’s thought that this blade may have been produced in the 18th century, and it was found when it was turned up by a plough near the site of an old Maori pah– a fortified placeQuite possibly this was  once a valued taonga.

NEWHM : C617, Nephrite adze blade, New Zealand

NEWHM : C617, Nephrite adze blade, New Zealand


Before Moana jumps into her boat to venture out in the open ocean, there’s many a scene showing island life and what can be seen repeatedly, in various forms, are displays of barkcloth.  Known as tapa, Pacific islanders have made this cloth from the bark of trees for millennia. It could be used for many different things such as room dividers and wall hangings, marking sacred spaces, and also as clothing where it was seen as a “second skin”- a wrapping that reinforced and contained the self, and bounded the flow of sacred energy.  These barkcloths are renowned for their exquisite decorations, as many show dazzling motifs, patterns and vibrant colours.  In Moana’s village, tapa can be seen many times– the credits in the film even scroll over a piece.  When Europeans first began to encounter this form of art in the 18th century, they were highly impressed by it and began to collect it in large quantities and ship it back to Europe.  These pieces of barkcloth are now in museums and private collections all over the world, including the GNM: Hancock.  We have a vast array of barkcloth samples of all sizes, and our pieces on display in the World Cultures gallery show beautiful designs and colours.

NEWHM : C603, barkcloth with floral motif, Samoa. The letters painted on the edge read “Simeauli F. i. Pago Pago” which means made by Simeauli of Samoa.

NEWHM : C603, barkcloth with floral motif, Samoa. The letters painted on the edge read “Simeauli F. i. Pago Pago” which means made by Simeauli of Samoa.


NEWHM : C702, Panel of striped barkcloth, Hawaii. This piece has been made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, broussonetia papyrifera.

NEWHM : C702, Panel of striped barkcloth, Hawaii. This piece has been made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, broussonetia papyrifera.

Lastly, a note about the “coconut people” in the film, who were called the Kakamora.  Moana came into contact with these pirates on the high seas, and they were depicted as mean little coconuts (complete with arms and legs).  These little characters were very intriguing.  Could it be possible that they were a simple, cartoonish depiction of the mighty Kiribati warrior?   The Kiribati Islands, while technically a part of Micronesia, are dispersed over 1.35 million square miles and so many of the atolls and islands of Kiribati can actually be found deep within Polynesia.  As all of our visitors to the World Cultures gallery will know, Kiribati is famous for producing amazing armour made out of coconut fibre.

NEWHM : C730-733, Coconut fibre armour, Kiribati

NEWHM : C730-733, Coconut fibre armour, Kiribati


Kiribati is mainly formed out of low lying coral atolls, meaning that few raw materials were historically available.  Coconut plants, however, were plentiful and were thought to possess special protective powers, so armour was woven together from coconut fibres.  Could the idea of Moana’s little coconut pirates have originated from these coconut clad warriors from Kiribati ? Well, that’s my theory.


On a side note, while exploring the ethnographic collections  to try and explain about Moana’s coconut people, I came across  a couple of objects that initially led me to think that they had been more of a literal depiction than I previously thought…

NEWHM : F027-28, human heads carved from coconuts, Jamaica

NEWHM : F027-28, human heads carved from coconuts, Jamaica

But alas, this jovial duo originated from Jamaica, over 5,000 miles away from Polynesia.  I’m sure they have their own story.  Maybe one day we’ll see a Disney film about it…



Women in pictures – a few photos from TWAM’s online collection, Part II

As a volunteer at Discovery Museum, I’ve been helping with some work in the TWAM online photo collection, and along the way I’ve found some great photos I’d like to share with you featuring women.  Part I of this guest blog looked at the period before the First World War.  In Part II, I’d like to show you just a few photos illustrating how women’s lives were affected by the Great War.

Jarrow Ladies Fire Brigade, 1916

Jarrow Ladies Fire Brigade, 1916

First World War Tram Conductress Mrs Poole

First World War Tram Conductress
Mrs Poole













It is well known that, during the First World War, so many working-age men were called up that women had to be recruited to fill many roles in traditionally male environments for the duration of the conflict.  Some roles were paid and others voluntary.  Women could now find themselves in action on the Home Front as a member of the local fire brigade, a postal worker or a tram conductress, as in the photos above.

For many young women in our area, war service came in the form of munitions work.

Young munitions workers of 43 Shop, Scotswood, 1917

Young munitions workers of 43 Shop, Scotswood, 1917

With a high concentration of industrial works along our rivers, the Tyne, Wear and Tees saw many young women enter the engineering firms to ‘do their bit’, like the munitions workers above.  While many young women worked on the assembly lines, one woman, Rachel Parsons (1885 – 1956), stepped into a management role in one of our most prominent firms.  Daughter of industrialist Charles Parsons and leading suffragette Katharine Parsons, Rachel Pasons grew up in a science-orientated household and was one of the first women to study Mechanical Science at Cambridge.  When her brother joined the Army in World War One, she took his place on the Board of Directors of Parsons’ Marine Steam Turbine Company Works in Heaton, taking charge of the new female workforce.  She also worked for the Ministry of Munitions in the area of training for women workers.  After the war she went on to campaign for equal access to technical schools and colleges and for equal employment rights for women.  Her life is described in more detail in David Wright’s fascinating TWAM guest blog of 2014.

1918 ladies football team

1918 ladies football team

This final photo is one of my favourite finds.  With many young women thrown together in the novel environment of the munitions and engineering firms, the First World War brought opportunities for new social experiences too.  As the existing men’s football teams disbanded with their members called up to fight, female teams began to form, mostly made up of girls now working on the engineering production lines, and women’s football matches became a popular spectator event.  In the North East, 1917-18 saw the establishment of a league known as the Munitionettes Cup which was set up as a competition between women’s teams from industrial sites from the Tyne, Wear and Tees.  As well as being for sport, the league was regarded as a contribution to the war effort and all games were charity fundraising events, often playing to big crowds.  The strongest team by far was Blyth Spartans Munition Girls, with their star striker Bella Reay, who won the Cup in 1918.

This is the only photo of a WW1 ladies team I have found in TWAM’s collections so far – dated 1918 but with no team name given, we have no idea who these women were, whether they were a workplace team or simply a group of friends.  We’d love to be able to put a name to them – can anyone help?

Janette Bell


If you’d like to see more photos from our collection, many can be viewed online using TWAM’s collections search engine.  To find more pictures of people, try typing ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ into the Theme box and see what comes up!