Royal yacht figurehead saved in the nick of time

The figurehead
The figurehead
A little fuzzy perhaps but here we see Portsdown Hill Road where it meets London Road. The George pub would be on the right behind the soldiers. 'Picture: Barry Cox Collection

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It’s an eye-catching sight glimpsed by thousands each year just inside the gates to the naval barracks – HMS Nelson – in Queen Street, Portsmouth.

But how many have ever stopped and wondered what it is if they can’t read the plaque from the pavement, and how it got there?

The man in the picture (right) is Frank Panter and he was responsible for saving the figurehead from the old royal yacht Victoria and Albert.

Frank, who died in 2000 aged 94, was a decorated veteran of the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939.

But it was his work in 1954 in his final naval appointment as Barrackmaster in HMS Victory (the forerunner of today’s HMS Nelson and not to be confused with the ship) that brought him into contact with the historic figurehead.

Before he died he wrote about the discovery and how he helped save it. His story, which he called Panter’s Prize – The Story of the V&A Figurehead was passed to me by Pat Panter of Wallisdean Avenue, Copnor, whose husband is Frank’s nephew.

Frank wrote: ‘In 1954 the new royal yacht, Britannia, had been commissioned and the old yacht Victoria and Albert lay derelict and rotting in Portsmouth Dockyard, stripped of all fittings and waiting to be towed to the breakers.’

He says that shortly before she was due to leave, the Commodore suggested that Frank should take some of his men to the yacht to see if anything could be salvaged.

He adds: ‘With a lorry and a few of my chippies we went aboard the old yacht and found she had been stripped inboard and out of everything moveable. We did find some maple wood panelling in one of the royal apartments which we carefully removed.

‘But as we were leaving I noticed the very dilpaidated royal crest on the ship’s bow, the old figurehead. I stopped the lorry and said ‘‘we’ll have that’’.’

Frank’s carpenters repaired some ‘slight’ damage to the crest and his painter-cum-signwriter repainted it to all its former glory including the gold leaf.

‘Eventually the figurehead was put up on the edge of the parade ground facing the main road for all the world to see,’ Frank records proudly,

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please e-mail Chris Owen at or write to him at The News, The News Centre, Hilsea, Portsmouth,PO2 9SX