The story of Noah’s ark is one that has long captured the imagination of adults and children alike for centuries. Stain glass windows, paintings, songs and films are just some of the ways in which the story has been communicated and expressed through the ages. And it is easy to see why the tale has been passed down with such success. It is a story containing adventure, destruction, hope and redemption – a terrifying account as to the dangers of indulging in sin:
And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. 16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.17 And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth… 21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man.
Although the story is full of warning and caution, the beautiful imagery of the animals ascending onto the ark in pairs is one that lingers in the mind. It is perhaps unsurprising that this iconic scene was made into a children’s toy, a religious plaything to pass on Christian values to the younger generation.
Exhibited in a display case on the staircase at Scotney Castle, sits such an example.
Made in the 1830s, the Hussey’s Noah’s ark is of German origin. Most Noah’s ark toys were made in the Erzgebirge region of Germany during the nineteenth century and it was largely a cottage industry run by families. Such toy arks can be traced back as early as the seventeenth century, but seem to have reached their peak in the Victorian era. This may be explained by the rapid commercialisation of the toy industry, with as many as eight hundred toymakers recorded in London by the 1850s. Indeed, it is claimed that nearly all children in the late nineteenth century had one or two toys, with children from all classes forming an intense relationship with their toys, as they do today.
However, Noah’s ark toys would have only been common in wealthy nurseries, due to the intricacies of the design. These toy arks were varied, but can generally be divided into three styles – flat bottom, rounded bottom and boat bottom. Early arks had detachable roofs, but as these were often misplaced, hinges were added to later models. The Hussey’s Noah’s ark has a boat bottom design, which was the most decorative and expensive. It is complete with a sliding side section that opens up to a big interior for the animals to squeeze into. Although the ark is of notable size, there is not enough room for all of the animals in the Hussey collection to fit in, as there are just over one hundred pairs of animals! The Hussey’s ark set is therefore a fantastic example of an extensive and varied nineteenth century collection.
At the very least ark sets contained a boat, Noah and his wife, a few pairs of animals and a dove. The dove is extremely important to the story of Noah’s ark, as it represented God’s reconciliation with mankind after the flood:
And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made…8 … he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground… 11 And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off, so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth…
On the Hussey’s ark, the dove is painted on its roof with a bright green olive branch held in its beak [see photograph]. Placed in the middle of the roof, the dove is given central importance – a constant reminder of God’s salvation to those who have faith. Clear lessons were to be learnt from toy arks and their religious symbolism meant that they were often the only toys children were allowed to play with on Sundays.
It is also interesting that there are five figures recorded in the Hussey collection – Noah, his wife, two females and a male.
Noah Noah’s Wife Misc. Man Misc. Woman Misc. Woman
More extensive sets included Noah’s children and their wives and it is possible that the miscellaneous male figure may be one of Noah’s offspring – Ham, Shem or Japheth – with the other two toy brothers lost or misplaced long ago. With this in mind, the two females could be two of the brothers’ wives – Sedeqetelebab, Ne’elatama’uk or Adataneses – although this is just speculation.
What I find particularly fascinating is the diversity and variety of the animals in the collection. To name some examples there are spiders, anteaters, guinea pigs, grasshoppers, moles, polar bears, otters, camels, hares, stags, rats, monkeys and panthers. These animals were made by families in cottage industries who had limited or no knowledge of exotic creatures. As a consequence, there are some very unusual looking animals of varying colours and sizes!
These two miscellaneous creatures are my personal favourites, as it shows the creativity and imagination of the individual who made them.
It is evident that this ark was much loved and played with during its glory days, as it was passed down from generation to generation. The ark has an unsigned and undated note:
‘Noah’s Ark pertaining to Mary (Hussey) and Winifred Herbert / And to their Mother (Sykes)’.
Christopher Hussey was the last to receive the ark and it is fantastic that the boat, and its vast collection, still resides at Scotney Castle. I like to think that the ark was of some significance to the family, a happy reminder of a childhood spent playing. The powerful connection between toy arks and children can be seen explored in popular literature of the time. Charles Dickens mentions a toy ark in his book Our Mutual Friend (1884) in which a sick child turned in a hospital bed ‘to fortify himself with a view of the ark and fell asleep’. Noah’s ark toys were evidently well received by adults and children alike, and the variety available by the end of the nineteenth century suggests a social acceptance of such playthings for children.
I think it is great that the Hussey’s ark is on display for all to see at Scotney Castle. Although it is not possible to show more of the ark’s impressive collection of animals, it’s mere presence gives the house a light-hearted atmosphere. Despite the sombre Christian message the ark symbolises, it was a child’s plaything – a toy to be loved and played with. The intricate make up of the ark and the ingenuity of the toy animals, suggests that this was an ark designed to encourage adventurous stories. It is an interesting example of Victorian eccentricity and it is wonderful to think that the Hussey family were a part of it.
Conservation Assistant, Scotney Castle
Fletcher. A, Growing Up in England: The Experience of Childhood, 1600-1914 (New Haven, 2008)
Frost. G, Victorian Childhoods (Westport, 2009)
(ed.) Johnson. R; Dickens. C, Our Mutual Friend (New York, 1884)
Genesis 7:15-22; Genesis 8:8-12, New King James Version
‘Noah’s Ark’, http://www.oldwoodtoys.com/old_ark_catalog.htm
 Genesis 7:15-22, New King James Version
 A. Fletcher, Growing Up in England: The Experience of Childhood, 1600-1914 (New Haven, 2008) p.xvii
 G. Frost, Victorian Childhoods (Westport, 2009) pp. 76-77
 Genesis 8:8-12, New King James Version
 (ed.) R. Johnson; C. Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (New York, 1884) p.135