A shop’s sign in the likeness of a naval officer plays a central role in Charles Dickens’s 1848 novel, Dombey and Son. The offices of the titular firm are located “round the corner” from East India House, whose ornate façade is “teeming with suggestions of precious stuffs and stones, tigers, elephants, howdahs, hookahs, umbrellas, palm trees, palanquins, and gorgeous princes of a brown complexion sitting on carpets, with their slippers very much turned up at the toes.” In the vicinity are “outfitting warehouses ready to pack off anybody anywhere.” Dickens identifies, “little timber midshipmen in obsolete naval uniforms, eternally employed outside the shopdoors of nautical instrument-makers in taking observations of the hackney coaches.”
One such effigy is described in detail, thrusting “out above the pavement, right leg foremost, with a suavity the least endurable, and had the shoe buckles and flapped waistcoat the least reconcilable to human reason, and bore at its right eye the most offensively disproportionate piece of machinery.” Dickens places this figure outside the shop of Solomon Gills, a ship’s instrument-maker, and it reappears throughout the novel.
The sign of the little wooden midshipman was based on a real sign. It hung outside the chart-maker’s shop, Norie’s, at 157 Leadenhall Street in London. Dickens knew it well. In his 1860 memoir, The Uncommercial Traveller, he writes, “My day’s no-business beckoning me to the east-end of London, I had turned my face to that point of the Metropolitan compass on leaving Covent Garden, and had got past my Little Wooden Midshipman, after affectionately patting him on one leg of his knee-shorts, for old acquaintance sake.”
Louisa Price, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, offers a concise history of the effigy, which was carved around the year 1800:
The first owner of the Midshipman was William Heather who, in 1793, opened a business at 157 Leadenhall Street selling charts, sailing directions and navigation textbooks.
He also ran a nautical academy from the premises. To advertise, he placed outside the shop this little wooden figure taking a nautical reading.
From 1812 the shop was named ‘Norie’s’ after its new owner, William Norie, who was an apprentice of Heather’s. The Midshipman (or ‘little man’, as he was known by the staff) stood over the door, but was later moved to street level.
Staff felt it an honour to be entrusted with the daily ritual of ‘taking out’ the little man in the morning and ‘bringing in’ when the shop closed in the evening.
At the end of the 19th century, Norie’s merged with other chart-making businesses, becoming Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson. The Little Midshipman took up residence on a pedestal outside the new shop.
In 1917, as air raids threatened, he retreated inside. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was moved to the countryside, narrowly escaping destruction as the shop he called home was bombed.
The company survives today and still operates as publishers of nautical charts and books with the Little Midshipman as their logo.
In 1946, Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson gave the sign on loan to the Charles Dickens Museum, which operates in the author’s former home at 48 Doughty Street in London. It remains in the collection to this day.
Dickens, Charles. (1848) Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. London: Bradbury & Evans.
Dickens, Charles. (1860) The Uncommercial Traveller. London: Chapman and Hall.
Price, Louisa; Miller, Ben. (December 29, 2014) “Curator’s Choice: Louisa Price on The Little Wooden Midshipman at the Charles Dickens Museum,” Culture24. http://www.culture24.org.uk/curators-choice/art511413-curator-choice-louisa-price-on-the-little-wooden-midshipman-at-the-charles-dickens-museum