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30th June 2020

Jocelyn, Research and Documentation Assistant, is based at the Hull Maritime Museum. Normally she would be helping to document the collection so that it is ready for our exciting Hull: Yorkshire’s Maritime City project. But instead, she's working from home!

Here's Jocelyn's latest lockdown blog.

Hello! This week I wanted to find out more about this weird object in the Maritime Museum – a purse made from the foot of a sea bird.

A webbed foot of a sea bird, used as a purse.

In our database, it is only listed as the foot of a sea bird. But it is probably the foot of an albatross – there are two in the British Museum and one in the Auckland Museum labelled as such, and it makes sense because the albatross is a huge bird, which would have huge feet! The information on the Auckland Museum website also says that “purses were made by sailors during long voyages in the South seas”.

This got me thinking all about the sailor’s lore of the albatross.

In English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the ship’s captain is plagued by bad luck after killing an albatross. (The bird’s death results in the winds calming, the vessel does not move and the crew all die of thirst – which is pretty bad luck).

“For all averred I had killed the bird

That made the breeze to blow;

Ah, well a-day! What evil looks

Had I from old and young;

Instead of the Cross, the Albatross

About my neck was hung”

In case you didn’t get that – the crew hangs the body of the albatross around the mariner’s neck as a punishment for him killing it and bringing the bad luck.

It isn’t clear where Coleridge got the idea that it is bad luck to kill an albatross. But in a lot of subsequent books about maritime superstitions, this is repeated as fact! So how did there come to be a purse made from an albatross foot in the Maritime Museum collection?

Well, although a lot of weight has been put behind the idea that Coleridge’s poem was because of a lore amongst sailors which meant that it was considered bad luck to kill them, there are plenty of sources from the mid-nineteenth century which describe the killing of albatrosses at sea and the use of their feet as purses.

In Journal of a Voyage to Australia and round the World for Magnetical Research by William Scoresby (the Younger) (1859), Scoresby writes “The shooting at albatrosses, which in great numbers follow the ship, appears to be a prevalent usage in many ships of our class voyaging to Australia and other considerable southern latitudes…”. He then continues, talking about the bird’s feet – “These webs are often used for the construction of purses, by being separated betwixt the skin or web, above and below, and leaving the claws as ornaments. They are flexible, have a fine yellow surface when dry, and are considered at once curious and ornamental.”

(N.B. William Scoresby the elder made his fortune in whaling based out of Whitby, and invented the crow’s nest.

These images from the Maritime Museum collection show Scoresby Jnr – left and middle – and Scoresby Snr on the right.)

There is also this account, written by Charles Frederick Holder. Alongside a description of the biology of the albatross, Holder describes the human uses of parts of the bird: “used for various purposes, the bones of the great albatross as pipe-stems, the skin of the feet as purses and pouches.” Elements of Zoology by Charles Frederick Holder (1885).

Albatross feet purses even feature in a Herman Melville book - “A curious pouch, or purse, formed from the skin of an Albatross’ foot, and decorated with three sharp claws, naturally pertaining to it” Herman Melville, Mardi, 1849 (his third novel, describing the curios of an antiquarian).

For some seafarers, killing an albatross was clearly far from taboo. So if sailors were so afraid to kill albatrosses, why are there so many accounts like this?

Perhaps scholars of folklore and poetry put too much stock in the power of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to change the behaviour of sailors, because of the influence the poem had in subsequent popular culture and literature.

The poem was very popular, and the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” quickly became synonymous with having a heavy burden of guilt. The phrase is still used today! The Rime also originated the phrase "Water, water, every where, / But not a drop to drink" which has been quoted in The Simpsons, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even an Ice Age film! The Rime has been quoted in Frankenstein; inspired songs by Iron Maiden and Fleetwood Mac; and inspired a Monty Python sketch.

All this to say that the poem has had a lasting impact on literature and popular culture – so perhaps people also assumed that it a) had a basis in a belief already held, and b) had an impact on the way seafarers saw albatrosses.

One thing is for sure – as pointed out by Terence Lindsey in the book Albatrosses (2008):

“Two characteristics quickly captured the public imagination: the albatross’s great size, and its ability to cover enormous distances with seeming effortlessness”.

Seafarers were definitely in awe of the size of the albatross, as this photograph in our collection shows!

Black and white photograph taken by Norman Hopper of crew on the deck of the Barque Bellands holding the wings of an albatross to demonstrate wing span. Note on the back of one reads "Albatross 12ft 6in tip to tip", 1921-22