Nelson will always be associated with HMS Victory. She was his flagship for his final battle at Trafalgar, and it was on her orlop deck that he breathed his last, just as the battle was won. This association with Britain’s great naval hero would go on to help save the Victory from the breakers yard when, in the early part of the 20th century, the government decided that they had no further use for her. Fortunately, a noisy campaign, organised by the Society for Nautical Research, succeeded in raising the funds to preserve her for the nation. The ship now rests in a drydock in Portsmouth and is open to the public. But this campaign was not the first time that the warship had to be saved from disaster. The first occasion occurred on the 7th of May 1765, the day that she was due to be launched.
Victory was one of only a handful of 100 gun first rates built for the navy in the 18th century. These were enormously complex and expensive ships. Her outline plans were based on the Royal George, which had been launched a decade earlier, and the naval architect chosen to design the ship was Sir Thomas Slade. Her keel was laid down at Chatham dockyard in 1759, the Annus Mirabilis year of British victories in the Seven Years War, and as a result, the name Victory was chosen. Six years and six thousand mature trees later, the new ship was ready to be launched.
Victory was the pride of Chatham dockyard. At the time, she was the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy. VIPs from the government and Admiralty were invited to the dockyard to witness the great ship’s launch. As was the custom of the time, they would all be on board her for the splendid ceremony. The night before, the dockyard was transformed. Spare lumber and sawdust was swept away and bunting, flags and ribbons were hung out. When all was ready, the men who had worked on her retired to their beds for a well-earned rest before the big day.
But one shipwright, named Hartly Larkin, couldn’t sleep. He was the Foreman Afloat, responsible for the launch, and something was troubling him. As he tossed and turned in his bed, well into the small hours, it suddenly came to him. He got dressed quickly, and hurried across to the deserted dockyard. With a glowing lantern in one hand and a measuring rod in the other, he climbed down into the dry dock. The huge ship loomed over him in the dark, as he carefully measured the width of the gates. Then he ran to wake up the master shipwright, John Allin, to tell him the appalling news.
The old drydock at Chatham had never built a ship as huge as the Victory before, and as the vast structure had grown in tiny increments, no one, it seemed, had bothered to check if the she would fit through the dry dock’s gates. The answer to that question, Larkin had concluded, was that she would not. The ship they had built was nine and a half inches wider than the gates. Allin was not a well man, suffering from “violent and frequent attacks of a bilious disorder in his bowels.” He panicked, concluding that the launch would have to be abandoned and asked his junior what he should do. Larkin was more resolute. He asked for every available shipwright to come to the dry dock, equipped with their adze woodcutting tools. With this army of woodworkers, he set-to on the frame holding the gates in place, removing just enough wood to allow the Victory to pass.
The consequences of the ship becoming stuck half in and half out of the dry dock was much more significant than simple embarrassment for her builders. Launched at the top of the tide into the River Medway, if she could not have been freed quickly, the falling tide would have left her high and dry, almost certainly breaking her back – an astonishingly costly mistake. Fortunately, thanks to Larkin’s intervention, that didn’t happen.
Instead, the successful launch took place on time, and if any of the guests noticed how snug the fit was as the hull squeaked through the drydock gates, or the shockingly battered state of the hacked frames, they were too polite to pass comment. Disaster was averted, and the new ship went on to serve its makers well, taking part in five fleet actions, culminating with Trafalgar. As for Hartly Larkin, he wrote to the Superintendent of Chatham, petitioning the navy for some reward for preventing the “dreadful consequence which must inevitably have happened to the ship”, and asking for some reward, “he having a large family.” The letter still exists in the archives at Chatham. Across the top corner someone as written “No notice to be taken of this application”.
With thanks to my good friend Ian Cowie for suggesting this blog to me.