“For the past two decades, no maritime or shanty festival in the U.K. has been complete without the appearance of Des Newton. Whilst the old deep sea sailors sang shanties to aid with their work and forebitters during their leisure time, they also indulged in the fascinating and delicate art of putting ships in bottles. As a modern exponent of this art, there is none to compare with Des. A Lancastrian by birth and a Scouser by adoption, he has been demonstrating this skill at the Merseyside Maritime Museum as well as representing them at festivals throughout the United Kingdom.”
The preceding information and the information that follows are from excerpts from the web site:
"HOW DID YOU COME TO BE PUTTING SHIPS INTO BOTTLES?"
I wouldn't mind a pound for every time I have been asked this question. Well, I might as well start at the beginning. I was born in a place called Barrow-in-Furness on the night of the 10th of May 1941 amid a bombing raid by some fellow with a silly moustache trying his best to do away with our famous shipyard. Luckily a large shop at the end of our street managed to shield our house from a direct hit just about the time that I had decided to make my entrance into the wide and wondrous world.
My father who at the time was dodging bombs while trying to get Mum to an Ambulance was an ex White Star Line man and my mother, a lovely lady from Liverpool he had fallen in love with on his many turn-arounds in that port. I had an Uncle Jim, my Mum's brother, who was also at sea although I can't remember which company he was with. But I remember him telling me as a boy how he watched the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo harbour. I also had a brother who was in coasters for James Fisher & Sons of Barrow, so I think we can assume that there was some sea swishing around in my blood somewhere. As a boy I grew up with ships and boats all around me. There was a boom in the shipbuilding industry and the docks were always full of ships from all over the world bringing in iron ore, jute, wood pulp and many other exotic things. When I was not at school or watching ships my father would have me with him down at the beach helping with his three small vessels that he used for sailing or fishing.
In those days pocket-money was just something I had heard posh kids talk of so a real toy boat was something I could only watch the others play with. At school kids were always swapping things and I managed to obtain broken toy boats this way, which with the help of a little imagination and a modified saw blade which substituted for a penknife, I would create my little fleet which I could tow around the boat pond with a piece of string pinched from one of my dad's fishing lines. By the time I had reached my teens I had become quite handy with my hands and shown this in my work at school in art, woodwork, practical drawing etc, and I thought then that when I left school I might be able to find something I could do at sea and thus achieve my ambition.
Alas, this was not to be and despite my father's approval for my brother to go to sea he would not sign any papers to allow me to follow in the footsteps - or should I say wellies - of either my brother or himself. The master of the house had spoken and he had decided that I was to serve my time at a trade in the shipyard. How could I make this work to my advantage, I thought. I know, I will put my name down for a trade associated with the marine engineering side of the shipbuilding yard. Then I would be going to sea with the ships on their sea trials. I had heard that the companies showed favour to men who had worked on their new engines. Then the world would be my oyster!
I filled in the necessary forms and the big day eventually arrived for my interview. Everything, I thought, was going to plan until the big man behind the big desk says: "We haven't any more vacancies for the trade you want, but as your brother (this one, my eldest who didn't want to go to sea) is one of the ace (slang for one of the best) welders we can offer you a trade in the welding department". I can remember coming out of that office as if it was yesterday, my dad feeling pleased that I was to have a trade and me with the big man's voice still in my head telling me the golden rule at Vickers Shipbuilders - "Work to the plan if you can and don't have your lunch in a bunch!!!"
Time went on and in that time I worked on all types of ships, liners, tankers, gas carriers, destroyers, frigates, aircraft-carriers and, of course atomic submarines. While working on these vessels I would from time to time pick up a nice piece of wood and shape it into a model boat giving it to one of the men to give to their children.
I forgot to mention that I was also one of those fellows who didn't sprout up till later in life, like at the end of my teens. Because of this I was usually the little urchin who was always being picked out to weld the inside of the rudders and masts and other nasty places where no other person could reach. "Newton reaches the parts that others cannot". or "Newton goes where no other man has gone before." At the time I thought it was clever to be able to do these things till one day I got stuck and smelt my own flesh burning from molten metal down my leather boot.
One of the snags of being small was that there was always a bully who wanted to pick on the small fellows and one day he picked on me in front of the work-force. He had decided to try and belittle with a challenge. "You think you can make model boats but I bet you can't get one inside this light bulb." The gauntlet had been thrown down, what was I to do? I think this guy may be right," I said to myself. I had never done this mystical act in my life and there were no books around to my knowledge to show me how. What was I to do? Just then someone feeling sorry for me and having more confidence in me than me said with a grunt; "I bet the kid can." "Stick your money where your mouth is," said the bully and with that bets were being placed. Now I couldn't get out of this. I had heard talk of masts folding and string being used to pull them back into place, so I thought: here goes then, in for a penny in for a pound.
After a couple of days the moment of truth had arrived and all were assembled in the welding store - a bit like "High Noon" I thought. With bated breath and silence all around me I placed this very crude and flimsy vessel through the neck of the bulb gently placing it into its sea of plasticene. Now, the moment of truth was truly here. Will it work or won't it? That is the question. Gently I pulled on the thread - very slowly at first - then everything started to come back together as if by magic. I'd done it! I had actually done it! The bully paid out his hard earned cash and I made quite a few new friends from the gambling fraternity that day.
I couldn't wait to tell my father of my achievement, small though it was, and he asked me to make one for him. My brother wanted one making, too. When friends were getting married and I asked them what they wanted for a wedding present, they would also say a ship in a bottle. Eventually, this ship bottling began taking up too much of my spare time so a line had to be drawn somewhere. But when one refused to make one due to commitments elsewhere some so called friends would take urnbrage. The solution arrived to make them buy raffle tickets for the lifeboat. That way no one could be offended. I would have a bit more time for myself to pursue other hobbies and the R.N.L.I. would benefit, too.
Eventually, I left Barrow-in-Furness for the bright lights of Show Business following some success in a National Talent Contest. This took me all over the country singing in clubs till one day a Liverpool agent I was working for asked me to make Liverpool my base, so I came to settle in Liverpool. My enthusiasm for ships and the sea was still in me and I enjoyed listening to the old salts telling me their yarns and, of course the inimitable Liverpool humour that went with them.
It was during this time that I took up my old hobby of building and sailing model boats and I joined the Crosby Model Club. I enjoyed being in a model club again and as I was at a loose end during the day I became the 'Pro' for the club.
In 1978, there was an appeal for anyone who could make any kind of contribution to a proposed new maritime museum at Liverpool. I volunteered to arrange model boat displays and demonstrations of model shipbuilding. This went down very well with the visitors to the then small museum and one day in the summer of 1983 I thought; What can I put on show that I have never exhibited before? The only thing that I hadn't shown was a ship in a gallon bottle. By coincidence the Curator of the Museum, Mike Stammers, happened to come down this day and on spotting the model ship in the bottle asked me whose it was. "Mine" I said. "Where did you get it?" said Mike. I made it," I replied. Mike's face beamed as he said: "I've been looking all over for someone who does this."
Mike told me of the plans for 1984 and the Tall Ships Gallery whose opening was to coincide with the visit of the Tall Ships that year. One of the exhibitions was a collection of ships in bottles loaned by 'Jo' Dashwood-Howard and Mike thought it would be a good idea to complement it by including some actual ship bottling demonstrations on the spot. I agreed to come along on Saturdays and Sundays for a couple of hours to do this.
This idea of Mike's proved to be a good one. It received much publicity and interest from the media - so much so that I was asked to join the crew on the Staff at the museum as the official "Ship in Bottle Demonstrator". Since that day I have had good fortune to make friends, appear on several television shows and to talk on numerous radio programmes and to represent the Museum at many trade shows in Britain, Paris and Brest. The ultimate test came when I as asked to make special presentation models for H.R.H. The Duke of Kent, H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and Her Majesty The Queen to mark their visits to the Museum. Each of these models was a real challenge and naturally I had to try my best.
The model selected for Prince Charles was of the first Royal Yacht "Mary" which was the ship given to Charles II by the people of Holland and from which we have artefacts on display at the Museum. The Prince seemed to have been very pleased with his unusual gift which I had the privilege of delivering personally to him at a later date.
The next Royal was H.R.H. Princess Margaret who I had to do a demonstration for. She showed so much enthusiasm at the demonstration that I had to go through every step with her. She really wanted to know all about the technique. So much so that the press called her "Fascinated Princess" because she kept repeating: "Fascinating, fascinating."
Next was the Duke of Kent. He was having a tour of the Museum and as he is the Royal Patron of the R.N.L.I. his model was of the New Brighton Lifeboat of 1897 the "Queen" a vessel named after his great-grandmother Queen Victoria. Again a great appreciation was shown and we had a good chat later on the unique history behind the model. On this occasion he insisted on taking the model away with him.
Lastly, there was the ultimate challenge when I was told that I would be expected to make a model of the Royal Yacht "Britannia" in a bottle for Her Majesty The Queen. I had only six weeks in which to make this model and it had to be ready for the day of her visit. The model was a very difficult one for the end result was a miniature model in a bottle made to plans and photographs correct in every detail down to the royal standards and glazed cockpit screens on the royal barge.
After the presentation, I was introduced to Her Majesty who was very curious to how I had achieved the getting of the model of her yacht into a bottle. I gave a demonstration of techniques I had used and again we seemed to have another satisfied Royal. It was assumed that I would again be expected to deliver the model to London but about two hours later a phone call came through from the Royal Yacht, which was at the Pier Head at the time. The voice on the phone was that of the Queen's Equerry who informed us that Her Majesty would like the model on board the yacht and asked if I would be so kind as to deliver it. The model was duly delivered to the yacht under police escort and placed into the hands of the Queen's Equerry. I am told that it has remained on display in the dining room from that day and proof of this came to me in the form of a photograph by the ship's official photographer.
Yes, when people say: "How did you come to be putting ships in bottles?" a lot of memories flood through my mind and I can remember, when my wife and I were being put up in a luxury hotel in London by a television company, thinking to myself. What would that bully think if he could see what he had caused.
Des Newton was awarded in 1989 the "Lifeboatman" statuette for his services to the R.N.L.I. Both Des and Mrs Newton were made Life Governors of the R.N.L.I. for their joint services and represented the Institution at the Queen's Garden Party.
Barney Yourell interviews Des Newton at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool about his years in the craft of putting ships in bottles. To hear this 20 minute interview, click on the following link.
Radio Interview on Folk Art Bottles