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A Ship called Victory

HMS Victory is probably the most famous warship in the world, thanks to her association with Nelson’s death at Trafalgar and because she is comfortably the oldest ship still in commission. In her long active career, she battled through countless storms, fought numerous enemies, served as the flagship in two of the age of sail’s greatest battles, and spent long years at sea defending the country that built her.


When she was ordered in 1758, the one name she was unlikely to be given was Victory. The previous Royal Navy ship of that name had been lost with all hands in a storm in 1744, and the ill-starred name had been deleted from the Admiralty list of available names. But when work began on her it 1759, the “Year of Victories” in the Seven Years War, and in consequence Prime Minister William Pitt insisted her name should reflect that.


The new ship was a first rate, which meant she was the largest type of sailing warship with three gundecks and over a hundred guns. An 18th century first rate was the technological marvel of the age. Building them required a third of a million cubic meters of timber and hundreds of highly skilled craftsmen. Their motive power came from several acres of sail, held in place by over twenty-five miles of rigging. Each one carried a greater weight of artillery than Wellington’s army at Waterloo and had a crew of almost nine hundred. First rates were virtually floating towns, carrying all the skilled tradesmen with them to maintain their fabric at sea. Despite the number of crew on board, their cavernous holds could still carry sufficient food and water to allow them to operate for months at a time away from land.    


Victory was designed by Sir Thomas Slade, one of the best shipwrights of the period. The ship he created was a blend of both firepower and sailing qualities, which made the Victory a very popular command. She was the largest warship Chatham Royal Dockyard had ever built, which almost ended her career before it began. Her completed hull turned out to be nine and a half inches wider than the gates to the drydock in which she had been built. Fortunately, the shipwright responsible for the launch, Hartly Larkin, realised in time and had the gates modified. On the 7th May 1765, the Victory first took to the water.  


The Seven Years War had ended two years previously, so once the new ship had been finished and completed her sea trials, she was taken out of commission to await a future conflict. This came in 1778, when the American War of Independence became a global conflict with first France and then other European countries siding with the rebels. Victory joined the Channel Fleet as Admiral Keppel’s flagship and fought in her first action, an inconclusive engagement off Ushant. The next four years were hard ones for the first rate, out at sea in all weathers, leading the blockade of France. She was involved in several more actions with the enemy, including a battle off Cape Spartel and the relief of Gibraltar. When the war ended in 1783, Victory was again taken out of commission and stored, this time at Portsmouth.


When the French Revolution triggered a fresh war, Victory was thirty years old, but she was so highly valued thanks to her excellent sailing qualities, that she was brought back into service in the Channel Fleet once more. Then, in 1792, she was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet where she became the flagship of Admiral Lord Hood. She took part in a variety of different actions over the next few years, including the siege of Toulon, amphibious operations against Corsica, and several naval engagements. At the end of 1795 she became Sir John Jervis’s flagship, and led the Mediterranean fleet to victory against a much bigger Spanish fleet in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. As a result, Jervis was made an earl, and the Victory became famous for the first time.


The following autumn Victory returned home for a much-needed refit. The battered veteran was now almost forty, with many storms, battles and years at sea in all weathers under her belt. When she was surveyed, she was found to be structurally unsound, and was sent back to Chatham with the recommendation that she should be converted into a prison hulk. And there the Victory’s story might have ended, like so many great ships before her.


But she was not without friends in the service to extol her virtues, particularly her sailing characteristics. In 1800 Victory underwent a major reconstruction that lasted three years, and was as expensive as building her in the 1750s. Fully restored, she was relaunched in May 1803 and given to Admiral Lord Nelson as his flagship when he took command of the Mediterranean Fleet. As a result, it was Victory that would sail into history leading Nelson’s fleet on the 21st October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar.


Nelson’s plan called for the British ships to sail in two columns directly at the enemy. Because ships at the time carried most of their guns along their sides, this meant that the lead ship of each column would have to endure the fire of the enemy, without being able to respond as they approached. To make matters worse, the wind was very light on the day of battle, slowing the speed of the Royal Navy’s ships and increasing the length of time they would be under fire. Nelson’s solution was to place the fleet’s largest ships at the head of each column because they were best able to take this punishment. Characteristically one of them was his own ship, Victory. It was a decision that would cost him his life.


Victory suffered terribly at Trafalgar. She lost her mizzen topmast and had her wheel destroyed before she even reached the enemy line. She then fought first the French flagship, the Bucentaure, and then the Redoubtable, the best commanded of the enemy ships, at extremely close range. She beat both of them into hulks, but at a terrible cost. Along with Nelson, one in five of her crew were casualties and her hull was severely damaged. Her fore topsail had over a hundred separate shot holes in it. After the battle, Victory limped into Gibraltar to be patched up and then returned home, carrying the body of Nelson preserved in a barrel of brandy.


Victory spent the next two years at Chatham once more, only returning to active service in 1808 as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez in command of the Baltic Fleet. She served there on and off until November 1812, when her active career came to an end. She was paid-off for the last time at Portsmouth, a place she would never leave. For the next century she remained at her moorings and served as the flagship of the Port Admiral. As the years went by, she became increasingly out of place, as the warships around her changed from oak to iron and then steel. During the years of austerity that followed the end of the First World War, the decision was taken to send her to the breakers yard. But not for the first time, the old warship refused to die.


News of her proposed fate caused outrage amongst the public, and the Save the Victory Campaign was launched. Led by the Society for Nautical Research, the funds were raised to have Victory moved permanently to No 2 Dock in Portsmouth. Here she was restored to her Trafalgar condition and was opened to the public, where she remains to this day.


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