For today’s Object of the Week, we go back to the early 1800s and an instrument used to mete out ruthless discipline

THIS object is called a bosuns’ starter, or cosh, and was used by ships’ bosuns to hit (or start) slow or lazy sailors, making them work faster.

These instruments are also sometimes ironically called ‘persuaders’.

They represent the often brutal world of the Georgian Royal Navy, and similar items may have been used on board our museum’s ship, HMS Trincomalee, in the early years of the 1800s.

Ships’ bosuns supervised the crew in sailing the vessel and maintaining the ropes, rigging, boats, anchors and stores on board.

The Northern Echo: Clare Hunt, Curator at NMRN Hartlepool, with the bosuns’ starterClare Hunt, Curator at NMRN Hartlepool, with the bosuns’ starter

Clearly this was a role that required very strict discipline, hence this type of instrument commonly used to keep the crew on their toes.

Later in the19th century, brutal punishments on board Royal Navy ships began to be frowned upon by society and these types of cruel instruments, along with the notorious punishment of flogging, became less common.

Many bosuns’ starters seem to have been made with great care and skill.

Some are designed with a handle and rope with a weighted end, whilst others, like this one, are more rod-like.

It consists of a metal core with weighted ends made of lead and bound in twine knot work.

The shaft is bound with twisted baleen, a whale product best known for its use in ladies’ corsets where it is usually referred to as ‘whalebone’.

This term is not correct as the material is not bone but keratin (which fingernails and hair are made of) that baleen whales have in their mouths for sieving their diet of small crustaceans.

It was a useful material as it was flexible but went out of use as whales became scarcer.

You can see the bosuns’ starter at The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), Hartlepool in the Hindmarsh Gallery.

In the 19th century, when whaling was still widespread, whale products like baleen, bone and teeth could be easily acquired by ships’ crews, and many sailors’ crafts were produced from them.

The museum has several more examples of these crafts on display, demonstrating the surprising skill and creativity that could be employed by sailors living in an otherwise harsh and dangerous environment.

As well as amazing old seafaring objects like this, there’s lots more to see and do. Children can play in the new pirate play ship, you can explore the recreated 18th century quayside and step aboard HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship still afloat in Europe.

Experience what is was like to be a sailor onboard a ship that sailed across the world 200 years ago.

All activities are included in an admission ticket which lasts for a year from date of purchase.

For more information visit the website at

* Do you have an artefact on display in a museum, gallery or exhibition which you would like to feature in a future Object of the Week? If so, please contact Andrew White on 01325-505053 or email