Career and Conservation of HMS Victory

Prepared by Wessex Archaeology

From the replanking of HMS Victory, courtesy of T. Nielsen & Co.

The history of the HMS Victory comprises five main phases:

  • Phase 1 Construction and pre-service 1759–1777
  • Phase 2 Service Career 1778–1812;
  • Phase 3 Service Afloat 1812–1921;
  • Phase 4a Reconstruction 1922–1965; and
  • Phase 4b Reconstruction 1966–2013

The timeline incorporates three key elements relating to the major themes of Victory’s history as highlighted above. These themes include History and Use, Construction and Fabric History, and Technical Development relating specifically to Victory.

Phase 1 – Construction and Pre-service 1759–1777

HMS Victory was built as a consequence of the naval demands during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and was designed by the Surveyor to the Navy Board, Sir Thomas Slade. Victory was regarded as his ‘masterpiece’ and differed from the standard dimensions for ship components set out in the 1745 Establishment with an additional 8 feet in length and 11 inches in breadth, giving room for an additional pair of 42 pounder cannon on the lower gundeck (Winfield 2010).

While HMS Victory may not have been considered to be an iconic vessel at the time of conception, the ship did possess design characteristics introduced by Sir Thomas Slade which set it apart from contemporary vessels; primarily in the dimensions and sleeker form which were based on captured French vessels. Perhaps the only distinguishing aspect was the Victory’s exceptional sailing qualities (perhaps key to Victory’s long service) noted by many Admirals who raised their flag on Victory during the ship’s service career. Political intervention was however to play a part in sowing the seeds for greatness through the very circumstances of the naming of the ship following the ‘year of victories’ in 1759. Some secondary sources suggest that the Prime Minister at the time, William Pitt, ordered the ship to be named Victory and attended both the keel laying ceremony and the launch in 1765 (Winfield 2010).
Although the reliability of this claim cannot be substantiated with clear evidence at present it never the less alludes to the potential significance of Victory at conception.

HMS Victory was immediately placed in ordinary (or reserve) following launch, as a result of the cessation of hostilities following the end of the Seven Years’ War.

While visually, the general form of Victory is consistent with an 18th-century appearance, key fabric history relating to this phase, with the possible exception of a few elements, is not evident in the current fabric, the majority of which represents repair episodes dating from the early 19th century. A further evidential consideration is that key elements of the extant fabric are not consistent with 18th century building and repair techniques or the materials used; a direct result of the decision to restore Victory to its 1805 appearance and the deployment of techniques and materials used in the course of the ensuing repairs, particularly during Phase 4b.

Phase 2 – Service Career 1778–1812

HMS Victory enjoyed a long service career with repeated periods of deployment to several theatres during a period of almost constant conflict with France and Spain in the latter half of the 18th and early 19th centuries. During this deployment Victory was involved in a number of actions and engagements under a number of key naval figures, such as Admirals Keppel, Howe, Hood and Jervis. Consequently this phase represents a key period of the history of Victory that culminated in iconic status following the Battle of Trafalgar and the association with Admiral Lord Nelson.

Interspersed with the deployment of Victory were numerous periods in ordinary (or reserve) either on the River Medway or in Portsmouth Harbour (four in total); and several episodes of refit and repair, either through general maintenance or as a result of battle damage. In total there were 11 episodes of minor repairs or refits, two medium or middling repairs, and two large repairs – a not insignificant repair and refit record. Naturally, all these repairs and refits resulted in the continuous modification of the hull fabric, fastenings and fittings, and machinery, thus reducing the evidence for current surviving fabric in the ship from this phase. Pictorial evidence allows an insight into the nature of Victory during this phase, a result of key interest by prominent artists such as J. M. W. Turner and J. Constable, the former producing a priceless watercolour of the quarterdeck of Victory while at Chatham, probably prior to repairs carried out at the dockyard in 1806.

Significantly, the Victory’s association with Chatham (and later at Portsmouth) is an important one. Both dockyard communities built and maintained the ship at various periods of its service career; the latter association is not only evident in the current location in No. 2 dock at Portsmouth but also survives archaeologically with the suite of in situ timber marks which provide tangible links with the dockyard workforce. Victory continued sea service into the early 19th century and was re-deployed for a number of roles following Trafalgar, including service in the Baltic under Rear Admiral Saumarez. Victory’s seagoing career ended in 1812 when the ship entered Portsmouth Harbour for the last time and was paid off and placed in ordinary.

This phase represents an interesting period in relation to Victory’s fabric history as it is apparent from the paint analysis and dendrochronological study carried out in 2013 that some extant fabric still survives. While this evidence is limited in situ, there is the potential for fabric dating to this phase in the ex situ arisings taken during reconstruction and subject to archaeological investigation in 1998 (Atkinson 2007). One of the key evidential artefacts from this period is the Victory fore-topsail from Trafalgar which although not considered within this CMP still warrants a mention, particularly given the historic significance and extreme rarity of the artefact.

Key technical developments during this phase included the coppering of the fleet from the 1770s (Victory was coppered in 1779) (Bugler 1966); the introduction of the closed stern during the 1800–1803 large repair; the use of iron such as Roberts knees and use of chocks (as a result of timber shortages); and the introduction of innovations of Robert Seppings (Master Shipwright at Chatham and later Surveyor of the Navy) in the early 19th century (Goodwin 1987).

Phase 3 – Career Afloat 1812–1921

This phase introduces a marked period of change in the history of Victory’s service life. The principal change of Victory’s role was from one of sea service to harbour service and despite some ambiguity in the historical sources regarding the future of Victory, secondary sources state that Victory was to be ‘paid off’ following an Admiralty order in 1812. The decision was made to take Victory into No. 3 Dock for repairs which developed into a large repair carried out between 1814 and 1816 (Bugler 1966, 32). Following this repair Victory was ordered to be ‘housed over’ which was completed by 1820 when it was placed in ordinary. In 1823 Victory began harbour service and was fitted as a guard-ship. From this point forward, with the exception of a short time in ordinary in 1836, Victory served a number of purposes; as Port Admiral’s Flagship, residence of the Captain of the Ordinary, as flagship of the Admiral Superintendent, and as a training ship and visitor attraction (McGowan 1999).

What is clear is that Victory remained in service, quite possibly as a result of national sentimental motive, indicated in an article in the Hampshire Telegraph dated July 26 1830 which highlights the public concern over plans to reduce Victory to a Second Rate. This perhaps highlights the increasing presence of Victory in the public consciousness and begins the real shift from Victory’s status as ‘just another’ First Rate warship, to a national icon and tangible memorial to Nelson and Trafalgar. This status was further augmented through key associations with important historic figures, including royalty, in particular the visits of Queen Victoria to the ship in 1833 and 1844 (McGowan 1999).

In addition to the functional aspects of Victory during this period of service, the ship retained its continued status as a memorial to Nelson. This association was comprehensively illustrated by:

  • The plaque marking where Nelson fell on the quarterdeck;
  • The memorial in the cockpit on the orlop deck where Nelson died;
  • The famous signal to the fleet at Trafalgar, memorialised in the motif placed above the ship’s wheel on the quarterdeck; and
  • The location of Nelson’s funeral barge situated under the poopdeck.

The unfortunate accidental ramming of Victory in 1903 by HMS Neptune necessitated urgent repairs, and it was during this episode that attempts were made to reconfigure the area of the cockpit on the orlop deck (where the principal damage was sustained during the ramming) where Nelson spent his last moments. This marks the beginning of a conscious effort to symbolise this event in restoring elements of the ship fabric to the perceived configuration of that at Trafalgar.

Phase 3 represents a key phase in the history of the ship’s fabric, and most extant historic fabric from this period dates to the large repair of 1814–1816; evidence for which is seen in the numerous shipwright’s timber marks (Wessex Archaeology 2014).

Phase 3 fabric is noted particularly in the in situ deck structures and other examples of fabric investigated in the ex situ arisings recorded in 1998 (Atkinson 2007). As with Phase 2 above, there may be some potential for the survival of evidence of earlier repair episodes, but the percentage is anticipated to be very small, especially in the light of observations during the recent archaeological survey of the ship. While some fabric elements are noted within Victory that date to the latter part of this phase (for example the pillar in the bread room bearing the date 1857), on the whole the modifications to the fabric of Victory during harbour service were largely removed during the early phase of reconstruction from 1922, and this has resulted in few evidential pointers for these features within the current fabric of the ship (see Phases 4a and 4b, below).

Key technical developments during this phase include the introduction of the Sepping’s round bow (introduced during the 1814–1816 large repair) and the introduction of the raised bulwarks which altered the aesthetic appearance of the ship during this phase. It is also during this phase that it is likely that the Roberts knees combined with the use of chocks to support the deck beams were introduced as part of the 1814–1816 large repair; supported by presence of shipwright’s timber marks dating to this repair episode (Wessex Archaeology 2014).

Phase 4a – Reconstruction: 1922–1965

This phase represents the beginning of the reconstruction of Victory to its conjectured 1805 Trafalgar appearance, and highlights a fascinating episode in the development of early ship conservation. In addition to the general aim of restoring the ship to a specific key period, conservation approaches were instigated to retard the ongoing decay of timber fabric and the effects of the degradation of the timber through fungal attack and death watch beetle. These conservation approaches, which were essentially a traditional ‘shipwright’s’ approach, are aptly illustrated through a campaign in the 1930s of the careful use of treatments against fungal and beetle attack of the in situ fabric (Bugler 1966).

It is perhaps of no little significance that at this point questions were raised with regard to the scope of removal of ‘historic’ fabric from the ship, and the potential loss to future (archaeological) study (McGowan 1999). In the course of the 1922–1928 reconstruction the Victory Advisory Technical Committee was formed by the Admiralty in conjunction with the Society for Nautical Research (SNR) to offer advice and opinions on technical questions and matters of accuracy relating to the ongoing research and reconstruction of the ship. Although the Victory Technical Committee was disbanded in 1938 the Admiralty established a new Victory Technical Advisory Committee in 1955 which remained in place until the transfer of the ownership of Victory to the NMRN in 2012.

Further developments during this phase included the decision to remove the onboard Museum and key exhibits from the ship to a shore-based museum in the dockyard, the Victory Gallery, opened in 1936, to ensure that the ship’s appearance as a First Rate Warship was not compromised (Bugler 1966).

In the period between 1922 and the mid-1960s the workforce employed on Victory comprised a team of traditional shipwrights and craftsmen supplied by the Dockyard. It is also during this period that pneumatic drills and saws were introduced, but significantly, the use of traditional shipwright’s tools, such as the adze, was still prevalent, and indeed, the skills to use them. In addition, this phase also sees the transition from the use of traditional materials such as oak, and the increasing use of tropical hardwoods such as teak; a move that was necessitated through the lack of longevity noted in the oak repair fabric inserted in to the ship during the early reconstruction phase.

The early phase of the reconstruction in the 1920s involved the removal of key fabric, notably features such as the octagonal skylight on the quarterdeck, the deck house on the poopdeck, the round bow and raised bulwarks, the fire engine pump house on the forecastle (and the forecastle accommodation) and a large percentage of the internal bulkheads and partitions associated with the ship’s roles whilst in harbour service – the bulkheads in the aft hold were removed in the last few years.

The internal layout as witnessed today forms the basis of the re-instatement of the Trafalgar configuration; particularly the spaces in the stern quarters of the quarterdeck, upper gundeck and middle gundeck; and the magazines, stores and cabins on the orlop deck. Following an extensive structural survey of the condition of the ship fabric in the early 1950s (Bugler 1966), the repair of the hull began in earnest.

Phase 4b – Reconstruction: 1966–2013

As with Phase 4a, the key aspects of this final phase relates to the continued reconstruction and repair of Victory, which has resulted in the extensive introduction of new fabric into the ship. With regard to the manpower employed in the repairs, as with Phase 4a, the teams were small by comparison with the extensive labour employed during the 18th and 19th centuries. The nature of the work required that small areas of the hull were worked on at any one time, to ensure structural integrity of the ship as a whole as works progressed. This fact, and the small size of the teams, resulted in adaptations to the working practices employed in the repairs which resulted in small lengths or areas of fabric, such as the elements of hull frames or futtocks being replaced at any one time (McGowan 1999). While it was essential to maintain the integrity and form of the hull, this did have a negative effect on the authenticity of the structural components being replaced (particularly in the scantlings or dimensions of the replacement parts), as illustrative of 18th- and 19th-century shipbuilding practices; and also resulted in the widespread loss of potentially significant historic fabric, a concern alluded to in the 1920s.

It is also during this phase that we witness the introduction of adapted techniques with the fabrication of components using laminates, and the use of adhesives; including the use of iroko hardwood for the first time in the 1980s (McGowan 1999).

Since March 2012, the custodianship of HMS Victory has been transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the HMS Victory Preservation Company (HMSVPCo), a charitable trust established as part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. The ship now forms part of a dual role as a key visitor attraction within the historic dockyard, receiving in excess of 350,000 visitors per annum; and a commissioned naval warship and flagship to the First Sea Lord, providing a focus for high status ceremonial and diplomatic functions.

From the HMS Victory Conservation Management Plan, prepared by Wessex Archaeology.

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