Social & Maritime History

Social & Maritime History

The social and maritime history collections contain approximately 5,000 objects dating from around 1600 to the present day.

The collections have a strong connection to Plymouth and the South West and predominantly reflect urban life with a few items that represent rural life.

Plymouth’s history is steeped in its relationship with the sea and fittingly, our maritime collections are broad and cover a wide expanse of history.

Highlights from the collections include:

Fielden Collection

A collection of domestic equipment given by Mrs Eckett Fielden in 1959. It includes twelve skillets, one of the largest collections outside London. One unique example was identified in an early 1990s survey.

Elliott Collection

More than 700 pieces from the grocer’s shop and domestic accommodation occupied by the Elliott family in Saltash from 1903-1995. It contains furniture, domestic items, toilet articles, magazines and brochures, receipts and invoices, personal correspondence, advertising and other ephemera.

Bush (later, Toshiba)

As a local manufacturer, Bush is deliberately represented within the collection. There are three television sets and several radios and record players which were made by the company at their Plymouth factory during the post war-period until its closure. These are on view in the Media Lab.

The Harmsworth Collection

Donated in 1946 this collection includes ship models, as well as eight exceptional Napoleonic French prisoner of war bone models and six straw-work boxes. A selection of which are displayed in Port of Plymouth.

Napoleonic Guillotine Bone Model from The Box


There are a few notable objects associated with Robert Falcon Scott ('Scott of the Antarctic') and Sir Francis Drake, including Scott’s silver-gilt Christening Cup and the skis from his 1902 Antarctic expedition, and the legendary Drake’s Drum dating from the late 1500s-early 1600s. Our collections also include an important group of documents, printed books and pamphlets associated with Sir Francis Drake and his descendants. These key items are all on display in 100 Journeys.

Eddystone Lighthouses and Plymouth Breakwater

The Box has a small but important collection of material relating to the building of the Eddystone Lighthouses and the Breakwater which includes a number of paintings and prints. They're on display in Port of Plymouth.

Coins, Tokens and Medals

There are around 4,500 coins, tokens and medals in our collections. About 1,000 coins form a very nearly complete series (with obverse and reverse both represented) of British copper coins.

We also have a comprehensive collection Devon tokens from the 1600s and 1700s including the Hooper Collection, which consists of 335 halfpennies and farthings; and around 400 medals and medallions including non-local and representative military, sporting and educational awards to local individuals.

There are several outstanding individual medals in the collections, including a 1777 gold medal of the Royal Society, an 1815 award from Pope Pius VII and the first ever Albert Medal, awarded to Samuel Popplestone for a sea rescue at Start Point, Devon.

We also hold a rare example of Smeaton’s ‘Press Gang’ Medal (1756-59). It's uniquely stamped on obverse and engraved on reverse. It is on display in Port of Plymouth.

Image credits:
Top image - Detail of a 1698 piece of silverware celebrating the Winstanley lighthouse
Middle image - Napoleonic prisoner of war bone model