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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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I have just finished reading Captain Mahan’s Life of Nelson, which is available freely through Project Gutenberg. I would recommend it to anyone interesteed in British naval history and the period of the Napoleonic wars. In it he states that the figurehead of Victory originally had a marine and a sailor on either side of the arms, which were partially destroyed at Trafalgar and then replaced by cupids. As the battle was in 1805 I cannot reconcile the comment you made regarding it. I have yet to visit and see ‘The Victory’ but I have it on my list of things to do. I would love to see the American flagship ‘The Constitution’ but I think we need to remember, although at this distance there is much romance in the life at sea it was also a desperate existence for many of the sailors who lived aboard. Nelson gave the common sailor a sense of purpose and they loved him for it, but I wonder how many of us could stay at sea for over 2 years in cramped quarters on salt beef and tack for that length of time. I haven’t read any of your books yet Julian but I will seek them out and do so.
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Julian – excellent blog. I was priviledged to be a R.Marine guide on Victory for around three years.
I knew nothing about the ship or the period before joining her but, like all the other guides, once onboard you couldn’t fail but to be hugely impressed by the ship, the men and the period. My enthusiasm will never leave me – and your novels enrich it!
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Just to let you know, the “Knot Tyers” from the Solent Branch IGKT, are yet again on the Lower Gun Deck HMS Victory’every Wednesday in August’ please see http//igkt-solent.co.uk/igkt.hms-victory to see what we have been up to,with two Wednesdays left, Kydd followers can come and find me.
Ken Yalden (Knot Tyer )
Good to hear from you, Ken. Great to see you guys doing your thing aboard Victory again!
Sir, I love your writing……the Blog?????great!!!! keep it up.
From your number one fan in Las Vegas!!!! USA.
If you ever make it here I would be honored to give you a tour of Lake Mead on the HMS Hotspur.
Very kind, thank you!
Hi Big Jules,
I wrote to you sometime back saying how much I love the Kydd series and that I was employed as a Quartermaster on HMS Warrior. Well after 6 years I have now accomplished my dream and am now employed as a tour guide on your favourite ship HMS Victory. I have a truly amazing job, I have the best office in the world and all I do everyday is talk about Victory, the battles and of course the men that sailed on her. Looking forward to seeing you on her one day and of course anyone that reads this site, just ask for Chris.
Regards Chris Revell
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I was fortunate enough to be one of the 821 chosen to be aboard Victory on the 200th anniversary of the battle.
Thank you so much for your blog!
One sentence in particular caught my imagination. That Victory had been at sea for two years three months without entering port.
Was she at anchor, or is this another great story waiting to be told (hopefully).
She was under command of Nelson and sailed from Spithead on 20 May 1803 and returned on 18 August 1805, without entering port. Within a month she sailed for Trafalgar!
Hi big Jules ,
Enjoyed your blog on the Victory and decided to send this reply .
My wife and I visited Portsmouth in 1996 when we were on an overseas trip to Europe from Australia .
We were very fortunate to go on board the Victory and to also find out that she is still a commissioned ship was amazing , I am 6ft tall and walking about below decks was done slowly to avoid a head knock .
We saw where Nelson died and the plaque that showed the place , I bought a book for a memento of the visit and read it from time to time .
Stan Wright .
Stan…that’s good advice. I am 6’6″ tall and as I noted in a previous posting, my wife and I are visiting Victory in the fall on our way to Southampton for a cruise. I’ll plan to bring my knee pads so I can “duck-walk” around the lower decks.
Peachtree City GA
You Sir, are so lucky and privileged to be able walk the decks of such a great and wonderful ship. If I had the money to come to England to see one thing only…it would be Victory. She is without a doubt the most beautiful Ship in existence and I would spend days walking, exploring and taking in the History of Lord Nelson’s Flag Ship if only they would grant me the same access. I am an American, but I do have an English last name and Victory has always been a ship I have wanted to see, smell and touch. There is only one other Ship and that is The Vasa, only because she was sunk without ever really going to sea and she is so well preserved for a “Sunken” ship. But Victory is my prize and I can only dream of ever being with her…you are truly blessed Sir. You are a great and wonderful writer and I love the Kydd Series. Thank you for bringing to life a past that truly shows Mans humanity and inhumanity, his Courage, his Honor and his love of the Sea.
My wife and I are traveling to London then down to Southampton in early November for a 13 day cruise to the eastern Caribbean and up to Ft. Lauderdale. While in the UK I’d planned to go over to Portsmouth from Southampton a day or two before our cruise to see Victory. I now understand it is in the process of restoration. Is it still possible for us to visit her?
Peachtree City GA
Certainly! Enjoy your visit Dave.
Alexander Graham Bell when asked what his motto should be, answered “On His Walk He madly Puns” somewhat reminiscent of His Lordship’s!!
Thanks Julian that was very interesting. I know, or think, that the USS Constitution is a heavy frigate. Would she have dared to fight HMS Victory and if so would she now be preserved as the HMS Constitution?
I’m hoping to have a special Guest Blog on Old Ironsides from someone who should know. Watch this space…
Hi Big Jules, I have just read your post about the H.M.S. Victory. Like you I have visited the Victory many times, even more so when building a wooden model ship of it. But your post about it was very interesting and I would like to say thank you for it and the book Victory.
Keep up the good work Big Jules. Look after yourself and kind regards to your best helper Kathy.
Best Wishes, Mike.