Just after the First World War the Sergison heirs who owned the Cuckfield Park estate decided to part with some unique, valuable but problematic assets. For 225 years, in a room set aside for their display, a collection of 15 ship models were gathering dust and needed a caring new home. What followed next may come as some surprise and directly led to the founding of the National Maritime Museum and also the tightening up of the export of national maritime treasures.
The ship models had a close connection with famous diarist Samuel Pepys - known best for his eye witness account of the Great Fire of London.
The models were bought by an American collector Henry Huddleston Rogers, who described them as ‘15 of the ﬁnest and most famous of the British Admiralty scale ship models.’ He bought them in December 1922, 15 years before his death - a fabulous collection that was to grow to 108 ship models.
The Sergisons will have found that the fragile wood and slowly rotting fabric needed constant maintenance which called for specialist knowledge. The collection would probably have been viewed by a relatively small number of visitors. One who did see them in 1910, a Commander Robinson, records that he had ‘found some of the models relegated to a lumber room’.
The models were most probably sold privately to ensure that the collection passed into knowledgeable and appreciative hands. Colonel Rogers was an ideal purchaser as he employed a full time professional model-maker, an Englishman - Frederick Avery - to maintain his collection. The Sergisons would have been reassured that these historic treasures would be going into ‘a cared for’ environment and could be fully restored. And, no doubt, Rogers paid handsomely for them.
At this time there was no national museum dedicated to Britain’s maritime heritage, so the models couldn’t be offered for the nation to purchase. Another ship model collection from the Mercury Nautical Training School in Hampshire also nearly left the country in 1921, and it seems Rodgers acquired other models in the UK. And so it really is the case that the founding of the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in 1934 was triggered as a direct result of the sale of the Sergison Collection.*
There were valuable documents at the Cuckfield mansion too. They became known as the ‘Sergison Papers’ - and included 76 volumes containing the Minutes of the Navy Board and much more besides. They detail the construction of warships in the naval dockyards between 1673 to 1719, there were also prototype designs of battleships of this period.
Sergison was fully entitled to possess this material - and some of it will have been extensively used during his own rigorous cross-examination into alleged corruption in navy administration at the time. Words on Sergison’s tomb in the nave of Cuckfield Church tell of his bitterness over his premature departure from the Navy and how the monarchy had supported him.
The Sergison papers were purchased in 1914 by Dr RC
Anderson, an independently-wealthy English maritime historian and collector, who in 1937 presented them to the NMM (Anderson later became Chairman of the Board of Trustees). They now form one of the major collections at the museum. Despite the loss of the Sergison Models you will be reassured to know that the NMM still has 4,500 ship models - the largest collection in the world - and this includes 54 most highly valued Navy Board models of the ‘Cuckfield model’ period (c1650 to 1775).
Some related fine books and furniture from Cuckfield Park were auctioned in 1929 and the Colonel also bought the seventeenth century glass showcases that the ships were housed in. All these sales took place well before Cuckfield Park and estate went onto the market in 1968.
But why were the models at Cuckfield Park?
Samuel Pepys was also a lover of ship models and had a collection of them at the time of his death. He mentioned being at the home of his cousin - the ﬁrst Earl of Sandwich, and seeing his first ship model in the ﬁrst year of his Diary (October 1660). An entry in 1662 goes:
‘Up early and to my office where Cooper came to see me and began his lecture upon the body of a ship which my having a model in the office is of great use to me and very pleasant and useful it is’.
Pepys was in a very powerful position running the highest spending department in the country - he was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty and sat on the Navy Board making key ship procurement decisions. He used models to make up for his lack of first-hand nautical experience, and through his introduction of them to the process they became an integral part of the Board's activities and also ship design and construction. By the end of his life, Pepys had amassed ‘an incomparable museum’ of models, books, and paintings.
In six years Samuel Pepys largely stamped out the corruption rife in military procurement, he laid down 30 new ships of the line, and restored the balance of sea power.
It’s believed that some of the Cuckfield models were part of Samuel Pepys’ own personal collection, although others post date Pepys’ connection with the Admiralty. These models were so accurate that shipwrights took their measurements directly off them - if they measured five inches they would cut a 20 foot length of timber.
Sergison becomes Clerk of the Acts
Charles Sergison (1655-1732) started as a clerk in one of the Royal dockyards in 1671, four years later he was clerk to the Clerk of the Acts. This office was, at that time, held jointly by Thomas Hayter and John Pepys, youngest brother of Samuel Pepys. In 1690 Charles was promoted to Clerk of the Acts, a post which he held until 1719. But this was a difficult tenure of office - just as it had been for Pepys - and his period in office was terminated abruptly and an internal enquiry began a microscopic examination of the procurement process. He wanted to resign but the King wouldn’t let him and promised to protect him.
Eventually he was allowed to retire from the Admiralty where he had been responsible for procuring ships for the Navy for 34 years.
The ‘Sergison Collection’ had accumulated at Cuckfield Place (now Park) and Charles Sergison was able to enjoy them for 13 years in his retirement. He died at the age of 78 in November 1732 having amassed considerable wealth over his lifetime - from what appears to have been an obscure rural start in life in Westmorland close to the sometimes bleak trans-Pennine road.
In his will, Charles Sergison stipulated that a purpose-designed building should house his models and books, ‘and especially I will and appoint that my naval collections shall be taken care of all together as they now are’.
These sentiments were echoed by Huddlestone Rodgers when he bequeathed his collection - including the ‘Sergison collection’ with strict instructions for their display and upkeep to the Museum of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where they are now among the establishment’s most treasured possessions. It is to them that we say a big thank you for their help in the preparation of this article and supplying the photographs - so we can at last tell the full story.
Who was Henry Huddleston Rogers?
In Frederick Avery’s book on the Rogers Collection we learn that Henry Huddleston Rogers (1879-1935) was a businessman and railroad executive. He was prominent in the New York National Guard from 1904, being promoted in 1913 to Colonel, First Field Artillery. He served on the Mexican Border in 1916 and then in the United States Army as Lieutenant Colonel of Artillery during World War l. He was decorated with the United States Distinguished Service Medal, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm, and Grand Croix, Légion d'Honneur.
Thanks to Henry Huddleston Rogers bequeathing the Sergison models (and other models) the United States Naval Academy Museum, at Annapolis, has the finest collection of British Navy Board models outside Britain. And the good news is that you can visit and admire them and see, as the photographs on this web page testify, how beautifully they are cared for in the museum today.
Charles II’s Royal Yacht
When Charles II was in exile (1651-60) in the Netherlands he developed a passion for yachting. Eventually he had no fewer than 17 royal yachts and having a yacht became a status symbol in the Royal Navy. The Dutch word for yacht is 'jacht' and the King coined the English word himself. A model of one of the most remarkable of these (no. 4) was built for King Charles in 1671 and was part of the Cuckfield Park collection. It has gilded and polychromed decorations, and its gun ports framed in circular wreaths, it is now one of the most admired exhibits in the Rogers Collection at Annapolis.
We feature here two of the 15 models - but they give a fair impression of just how fabulous Sergison’s collection was. Others can be viewed on YouTube at the Annapolis Museum.
St. George (Model 1)
The rigged model of the St. George, is a second rate 96-gun ship of 1701. This is an Admiralty model made of pearwood. It is considered to be one of the four most important British models in the Rogers Collection, as it represents a 3-decker ﬁrst rate ship of the line.
This model is nearly five feet (1.5 metres) long at 57in; width at main yard 25in; height 52in. Scale 1:48 ie 1/4in = 1ft. The ship dimensions: gun deck 162ft 6in; beam 45ft 6in; depth of hold 16ft.
It has carved gilded circular wreaths around the gun ports on main and half decks; two black wale strakes; outside of bulwarks painted black with low relief carvings; ﬁgurehead of St. George and the Dragon; double quarter gallery; stern decoration of elaborate gilded quarter and stern galleries; three stern lanterns. The upper deck gallery on the stern bears the royal cipher ‘RWR’ (for William III), and on each quarter gallery is the royal cipher 'AR' (Anne Regina). As the model dates from 1701, and Anne was then Princess, these initials were most likely added when she became Queen in 1702.
This model is the only one in the Rogers Collection with fully contemporary rigging. Since their sale to Rogers some of the ‘Sergison’ models have had rigging added.
Britannia (Model 6)
The second model featured is the unrigged model of the Britannia, English ﬁrst rate 100-gun ship, crew of about 780 men. Built at Chatham Dockyard, 1682-1701.
Size of model: length 50in (1.3 metres); width 13in; height 16in. Scale: 1:48 ie 1/4in = 1ft. Ship dimensions: length on gun deck: 167ft 5in; beam: 47ft 4in; depth of hold: l8ft; 1708 tons.
Admiralty models usually were not supplied with rigging - as this would be familiar to the Navy Board. The preferred look was to omit some of the hull planking to expose the interior layout, hatches, ladders, gun carriage positions, magazines and mess rooms. Even the inlay or parquetry in the cabins could be viewed. The finest artists worked on the ornate carvings and painting. The model makers from the dockyards would make the hulls.
The ﬁghting warriors depicted on the upper stern transom are on horseback. The prone ﬁgures under the horses’ feet and those under the ﬁgurehead are symbolic of Britain’s enemies being trampled on and overpowered. The royal coat of arms are those of the Stuarts.
This is the first time that this story has been fully revealed and it may be with some sadness that both Cuckfield and the country lost the models. Certainly a small village could not have been able to preserve them for posterity on its own. It's also reassuring that ever since they arrived in Annapolis they have been maintained and viewable by the public at the US Naval Academy. Also there is a strong argument for not keeping antiquities of one type in a single location and there is another that such items should be more readily viewed internationally.
There has been a recent resurgence in interest in our maritime history as was witnessed in 2005 at the Trafalgar 200 celebrations. The London events alone attracted 150,000 spectators. All this thanks to the coordinating activities of the National Maritime Museum. And the Cuckfield models were largely instrumental in the formation of the museum itself which today it is one of the finest.
We would like to thank the Museum of the United States Naval Academy at Annapalis for allowing us to use these photographs. Please do view their two minute video below - it’s well worth your time.
* from ‘Navy Ship Board Models’ by NMM curators Nick Ball and Simon Stephens.
Navy Board Ship Models
‘Navy Board Ship Models’ by Nick Ball and Simon Stephens, 2018
‘Catalogue of the Henry Huddleston Rogers Collection of Ship Models in the United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland’, 1954
‘The World of Model Ships and Boats’ by Guy R.Williams, Chartwell Books, 1971
Charles Sergison Parliamentary biography: https://tinyurl.com/y64hxzwb
Wikipedia entry for Charles Sergison: http://commons.wikimedia.org
Sussex Archeological Society XXV article on Charles Sergison, P78/9
‘The Sergison papers’, The Naval Records Society, 1950 https://tinyurl.com/yxvj445p
National Maritime Museum website, Charles Sergison: https://tinyurl.com/y3q946go
Britannica Samuel Pepys and naval administration: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Samuel-Pepys/Naval-administration
United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland - The Rogers Ship Model Collection: https://www.usna.edu/Museum/collections/rogers/index.php
National Maritime Museum https://www.rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum
A short stunning video of preparing a display of similar models in 2008 at the National Maritime Museum ‘Displaying Tudor Ship Models’ https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/we-recommend/attractions/tudor-and-stuart-seafarers
United States Naval Academy Museum, the Rogers Ship Model Collection, a brief introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkYkUWewEX4
Charles Sergison, Clerk of the Acts 1690-1719, a portrait formerly in the possession of Lady Brooke (d 1918). Prudence Ida Evelyn Sergison, was daughter and co-heiress of Charles Warden Sergison of Cuckfield Park. Reproduced in the Sergison Papers
A New Whip for the Dutch, John Seymour Lucas 1883, Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Public Domain]
Samuel Pepys in the painting by John Hayls from 1666 [Public Domain]
Contributed and researched by Malcolm Davison.