Behind every ship sent exploring to the Pacific were all the wives and sweethearts left ashore.
How did Elizabeth Cook, Elizabeth Bligh (‘my darling Betsy’) and the wives of other officers and seamen cope with the long absence of their husbands or promised sweethearts?
What were sailors favourite love tokens? How did women with children manage on their own?
An exhibition at Whitby’s Captain Cook Museum explores these questions with some rarely seen relics of Elizabeth Cook and other women.
They shine a light on the varied lives and loves of voyagers’ wives, their pastimes and networks, as well as some of their personal tragedies.
And then there were some whose ‘Returning Hopes’ of their promised sweethearts were dashed by broken promises, one example being Sir Joseph Banks. And there were always a few of the crew who hoped to stay in the South Seas and live a life with their Polynesian sweethearts!
The exhibition features the sailors farewell print and love tokens including a ‘sailor’s valentine’.
Made from shells and other small items, these were intricately crafted items from the South Seas made (or bought) by sailors for their sweethearts and given as gifts on their return.
If your far-away lover gave you something to remember him by, keeping it in your underwear might seem like a good idea. In fact, that’s how scrimshaw art got into whalebone corsets.
If a woman is going to be wearing stays made of baleen or whalebone anyway, a gift inscribed with love from a sailor made him feel closer to her heart – and other body parts.
“The whole concept was to give your loved one a memento, some tangible thing that she could wear or use,” said Nancy Rosin, the president of the National Valentine Collectors Association, who has 38 scrimshaw busks in her own collection.
“A woman would use something like a pie crimper often, and every time she used it, she would remember her sailor. Busks were huge tokens of love.
“She could wear it in her corset, where it would be a constant reminder of his love – probably because it was uncomfortable.”
Scrimshaw busks would be engraved with all sorts of symbolic images.
A palm frond might indicate a place the whaleman had sailed to, while a North Star would assure the woman that her man would be guided home. Wheat stalks stood for abundance, houses meant security and comfort, and a church indicated plans for marriage.
All of these hopes and dreams would be pressing into her torso throughout the day.
These busks were cherished in a bittersweet manner because a woman did not know if her sailor would ever come back. And if he didn’t, then his work would be a memorial.
Also featured in the exhibition is Elizabeth Bligh.
Information about the lives of the women and families left behind in the 18th century is brought up to the 20th century with a selection of love letters from a Naval officer to his wife in the 1940s.
To complement the exhibition, a workshop takes place on on Sunday February 14.
Visit The Captain Cook Memorial Museum this Valentine’s Day, choose from an assortment of pearls, miniature ships, paper forget-me-not flowers, shells, beads and charms, and make a unique valentine (similar to those brought back by Sailors from their voyages on the South Seas) for that special someone in your life.
For that extra personal touch, you could bring along your own sentimental trinkets and photos to set inside your ‘Sailor’s Valentine’ box!
It is hosted by local artist Rachael Boddington of Glittermoth Factory.
The workshop is suitable for children and adults
Drop-in between 11am and 3pm. Free with museum entry (or £1 on the door).
Below, is an example of love token y ou could make at the workshop.