Matchstick man's matchstick ships & boats

Words: Jeremy Miles   Pictures: Hattie Miles

Born on the Dorset coast within sight and sound of the ocean, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Phil Warren has enjoyed a life-long love of the sea. So much so that he has spent more than 60 years constructing painstakingly accurate replicas of 420 battleships - every last one of them built out of matchsticks and matchboxes. “I’m fascinated by warships,” he tells me perhaps just a little unnecessarily. “Maybe it’s because I grew up in the war.”  

Whatever the reason, Phil who has regularly shown his unique fleet at public shows all over the country, admits that to many outsiders his hobby must look just a little obsessive. Recalling his first ever model - lovingly crafted from a pile of matches and matchboxes: “because it seemed like a fun idea at the time” - he tells me:  “I probably thought that if I made just one I’d get it out of my system.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. That was back in 1948 when he was just 17-years-old. 

He’s now 79 and standing in his front room in Blandford surrounded by an extraordinary collection of British and American warships. Some even have little planes and helicopters on their decks. The wings are moveable, rotor-blades spin, guns pivot and revolve. Built on a scale of 1:300, the attention to detail is astonishing.

He even tells me that if he thinks an old  model doesn’t quite come up to scratch then he calls it in for “re-fit.”

 “I develop new techniques all the time, find ways to make the detail better   So when I notice that one of the older warships isn’t  quite up to my current standards I strip a lot of the old detail off and repaint it and so on.”

Using razor blades, modelling knives and an old bodkin heated over his gas cooker, he has fashioned absolutely accurate copies of warships dating back to the Second World War and beyond.

 *Quite unwittingly I’ve built a comprehensive history of warships from the past 60 years. I have made at least one of every class of ship in the Royal Navy and quite a few foreign ones too,” he told me. 

It’s true. Before him on two large tables sit a comprehensive selection of ships representing the history and development of naval defence since the mid 20th century. Dozens more are stored in hand-crafted and carefully catalogued containers.

 He gestures to HMS Illustrious sitting proudly on a sea-blue bed-sheet. “This is the flagship now that we’ve dumped Ark Royal,” he tells me. “The Harriers are gone. The Navy is all about combined services these days.” He shakes his head sadly at the thought of great British ships and aircraft consigned to the scrapheap. The Americans, as ever, continue to build mega-ships  “It’s amazing how big the latest super-carriers  are,” says Phil picking up a scale model of USS Nimitz. “This one weighs 80,000 tons but the latest one, the USS Ronald Reagan, is  over 100,000 tons.”

Some of the most difficult models to make, he says, are relatively simple looking. He examples the new Royal Naval stealth ships like HMS Daring. “They’re virtually invisible to radar and are built at all kinds of funny angles. That’s extremely difficult t for me to achieve.”

Incredibly he met a man who worked in the Royal Navy’s design department who sent him the original plans for the ship. “Nothing secret,: he hastily adds. “All the secrecy is in how it works, not the size and dimensions.” Now more than 200 ships from Phil’s remarkable matchstick fleet are to be included in a new exhibition called Man Made in Blandford which will feature the work of  four Blandford Men engaged in unusual arts and crafts. The show being staged by town mayor Councillor Esme Butler takes place at the Corn Exchange on May 21 and 22. Among the other exhibitors is quilter extraordinaire Roy Dickinson, a 78-year-old down-to-earth northerner who moved to Dorset 15 years ago. He took up quilt-making after being forced to give up work following a near-fatal heart attack. His success has been spectacular and he is now well known internationally producing prize-winning quilts in a  craft that for many is a quintessentially female practice.

Roy, who used to work in mechanical engineering, neither looks like a pioneering feminist nor does he adhere to the argument that the world of quilting is politically and socially women’s territory. This occasionally causes some conflict. 

“I’ll be giving a talk with my quilts on show and some batty old bird will come along and say: ‘It’s not right. This shouldn’t be done by a man’. I’ve heard all sorts of ridiculous statements.” Not that Roy seems the slightest bit  bothered. “Actually I enjoy it. I enjoy rubbing their nose in it.” he chuckles.

Talking 19 to the dozen he bounces around his tiny mews house and while his wife Anne takes the dog for a walk to give us a little more space, he shows me first a quilt inspired by the industrial might of the Bessemer Converter and then another tracing the story of Lieder and the Swan. From steel-smelting to Greek mythology in five minutes flat. I’m impressed. 

The Leder and the Swan quilt is a work in progress. He’s been working on it since last July and says it will be completed by June.

For Roy the creative process is everything. “I love the planning, the research, finding the right fabric. “It takes me months and often involves travelling hundreds of miles but I really enjoy it.” He tells me he’s recently been talking to the Natural History Museum to obtain accurate drawings of swan’s feathers. A previous quilt portraying Elizabeth I found him tracing her signature from a facsimile of Mary Queen of Scot’s death warrant. Roy clearly has a well developed competitive streak too and points out that anyone who thinks that women have the monopoly on quilting should do their homework.

He showers me with statistics telling me that many quilt designs were traditionally created by men and that America produces some of the best male quilters in the world.He concedes there aren’t many of them. But says while only one per cent of quilters in the States are men. Seven per cent of them are in the top 100 practitioners in the country. Quite where these figures come from I don’t know but I’ll take his word for it. 

Roy has certainly made an impact on the quilting world and last year his prowess earned him  the title Champion and Champions in the annual Dorset Arts and Crafts Association competition. Pitted against winners of all categories of art and craft, his quilts were deemed to be the most impressive exhibits. 

It was this success that led to him being invited by Cllr Butler to exhibit at the Corn Exchange. He even helped suggest the name of the forthcoming Blandford show, basing it on the title of a prestigious Man Made touring show that is regularly held in the USA. 

*Man Made in Blandford  is at the Corn Exchange in Blandford Forum on on the 21st & 22nd  May 2011.In addition to Philip Warren’s Matchstick ships and Roy Dickinson’s Quilts the show will feature silver & gold jewellery by David Reale made from casts of ancient coins found locally by a metal detector enthusiast and abstract paintings by Simon Sweetland. Proceeds will be shared between the Mayor's Charities and the RNLI

Lucky strike as matchboxes head for dustbin of history

The future expansion of Phil Warren’s fleet is threatened by the increasing scarcity of traditional matchboxes. When he started they were plentiful. “Everybody smoked,” he explained. They used matches to light the fire, to light the gas, all sorts of things. 

Every man in the street had a box of matches in is pocket. I had no idea that they would ever go out of fashion.”  But in the 80s old fashioned wooden matchboxes started becoming a thing of the past. Now Phil relies on donations.  Apparently people who collect matchbox labels are a particularly good source. 

 “I met a guy a couple of years ago who edits a newsletter for a society of collectors. He made an appeal for spare boxes and a couple of months ago we arranged a rendezvous and  gave me two black bin-liners absolutely stuffed with matchboxes.”

Now Phil is down to his last 20 or 30 boxes and is desperate for more. He points at one of his big American super- carriers. “There’s about 200 boxes in there. For years I was very wasteful with the material because it never occurred to me that there would ever be a shortage. Now I use every last little bit.”

So if  you have any spare matchboxes for Phil let us know and we’ll pass the message on.


© Jeremy Miles 2022