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There’ve been many famous ships in Britain’s proud history – Mary Rose, Golden Hinde, Cutty Sark, Trincomalee, Great Britain, Discovery … but one ship stands head and shoulders above the rest – HMS Victory, now currently undergoing major restoration in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to ensure her preservation for future generations.
England’s – and the world’s – most iconic ship already had a quite a number of years’ service before her most famous role as Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805.
In 1797 she returned to England, 32 years old, scarred and battle-weary. Late in that year, considered unfit for service, it was ordered she be converted into a hospital ship and eventual disposal. But fate intervened – as it would several times in her career – and when the first rate Impregnable was lost in Chichester Harbour there was an urgent need for another three- decker for the Channel Fleet. Victory was to be given a new lease of life! Refitting commenced at Chatham Dockyard in late 1800.
Over the course of her active service she was flagship to many famous admirals – Keppel, Hyde Parker, Kempenfelt, Howe, Hood, Jervis, Saumarez – and Nelson.
Her keel was laid at Chatham Dockyard in 1759, the year of victories, annus mirabilis, probably the most significant year in British history since 1066. Admiral Boscawen defeated the French off the southern coast of Portugal; on the other side of the globe Wolfe took Quebec – and Hawke saw a magnificent victory at Quiberon Bay. And in that year a young Horatio Nelson celebrated his first birthday.
The ship was officially christened Victory on 30 October 1760 in recognition of the victories of the previous year, although some had misgivings as the previous ship of that name had been wrecked with the loss of all hands!
A ship of the line like Victory required a great deal of timber for her construction; around 6000 trees were felled for the cause, mainly oak from the Wealden forests of Kent and Sussex. Her statistics are impressive: the vast amount of canvas that could be set meant a maximum sail area a third larger than a football pitch; if laid end for end, cordage used for her rigging would stretch 26 miles.
Despite her age, she once stayed at sea for two years and three months without once entering port.
Victory’s magnificent figurehead is two cupids supporting the royal coat of arms surmounted with the royal crown. The arms bear the inscription of the Order of the Garter: ‘Shame to him who evil thinks.’ The current figurehead is a replica of the original one carved in 1801 at a cost of £50, which was damaged during the Battle of Trafalgar.
When I began writing my Thomas Kydd series I came across some incredible statistics. In the bitter French wars at the end of the 18th century, there were, out of the six hundred thousand or so seamen in the Navy over that time, only about 120, who, by their own courage, resolution and brute tenacity, made the awe inspiring journey from the fo’c’sle as common seaman to King’s officer on the quarterdeck. This meant they changed from common folk; they became gentlemen. And that was no mean feat in the eighteenth century. Of those 120, just over 20 became captains of their own ship – and a miraculous 3 became admirals! After Nelson and Hardy, the two most important men aboard Victory at Trafalgar were cut from this cloth, both originally common seamen – John Quilliam, first lieutenant and John Pascoe, the signal lieutenant.
Nelson was fatally shot at 1.15 pm October 21, 1805 by a French sharpshooter in the mizzen mast of Redoubtable. Victory suffered the highest casualties of the British ships. Including Nelson, 57 were killed and 102 wounded.
The day after Trafalgar, Collingwood summoned Lieutenant Lapenotiere in command of the schooner Pickle, the fastest vessel then at his disposal, and ordered him to sail to Plymouth with dispatches and then with all haste proceed to the Admiralty. Lapenotiere was forced by weather conditions to land at the Cornish port of Falmouth. From there, his journey to London, 425 km, took 21 changes of horses and carriages and his expenses amounted to £46 19s 1d – nearly half his annual salary.
Finally, the coach clattered into the Admiralty courtyard at 1 am in the morning of 6 November, 1805. Most of the officials had retired for the night but William Marsden, secretary to the Navy board, was on his way to his private apartments, having just finished work in the board room. Lapenotiere handed over the dispatches with the simple words, ‘Sir, we have gained a great victory. But we have lost Lord Nelson.’
Victory took Nelson’s body back to England for a state funeral. Myth persists that after he died he was preserved in a cask of rum and that on the way home some of the sailors drilled a small hole in the cask and drank the rum, hoping to imbibe some of his strength and courage. To this day, Royal Navy rum is known as ‘Nelsons blood’.
Nelson had made it clear that he did not wish his body to be committed to the deep. Surgeon Beatty was faced with the task of preserving the body. There wasn’t sufficient lead on board to make an airtight coffin and he had neither the knowledge or equipment for embalming. After cutting a lock of his hair for Lady Hamilton, Beatty placed Nelson’s shirt-clad body in a water leaguer, the largest barrel aboard. He then filled this with brandy, probably taken from a French prize, and lashed the barrel to the mainmast in the middle of the deck, guarded 24/7 by an armed marine.
En route to Gibraltar a sentry got the fright of his life when the lid of the barrel began to rise, no doubt as result of release of internal gases. At Gibraltar Beatty found that the body had absorbed a quantity of the brandy, which was replaced by spirits of wine, a better preservative. The journey, owing to bad weather, took more than four weeks and over the course of it the cask was renewed twice with two parts brandy to one part spirit of wine.
Back in England, Nelson’s body was placed in the L’Orient coffin, then sealed into an ornate outer coffin to lie in state. The L’Orient coffin is one of the most unusual battle trophies of all time. Captain Hallowell of HMS Swiftsure made it from wreckage of L’Orient, the French flagship that blew up at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. He presented it to Nelson with a covering letter: ‘My Lord, herewith I send you a coffin made of part of the L’Orient’s mainmast that when you are tired of this life you may be buried in one of your own trophies – may that period be far distant is the sincere wish of your obedient servant.’
Although his officers were shocked, Nelson was amused and for some time had the coffin standing upright against the bulkhead of his cabin. Subsequently it was stored with his agent. During a brief period of leave just before Trafalgar Nelson instructed that a certificate of authenticity be engraved on the lid adding, ‘I think it is highly probable that I may want it on my return.’ Was this a presentiment of his early death?
Although she was now well over 40 years old, considerably past the normal life span of a ship-of-the-line, Victory went on to further service in the Baltic and other areas. Her career as a fighting ship effectively ended in 1812. Ironically, she was 47 years old, the same age as Nelson had been when he died.
In 1831 Victory was listed for disposal but when the First Sea Lord Thomas Hardy told his wife that he had just signed an order for this, Lady Hardy is said to have burst into tears and sent him straight back to the Admiralty to rescind the order. Curiously, the page of the duty log containing the orders for that day is missing.
Victory was permanently saved for posterity in the 1920s by a national appeal led by the Society of National Research.
To this day Victory is manned by officers and ratings of the Royal Navy and now proudly fulfils a dual role as flagship of the First Sea Lord and a living museum of the Georgian navy.
It was my great privilege to have been given virtually unlimited access to the ship when I wrote my book VICTORY. Of course this was by no means my first visit, I must have toured over her a dozen times before!
[ Visit HMS Victory ]
Nelson portrait: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons; Emma Hamilton portrait: George Romney [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Nelson’s column: By Eluveitie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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