Two Hundred and Fifty Years of HMS Victory
The cheers rang out as she took to the water and 250 years later the jubilation continues in 2015 as she celebrates her anniversary. She is the world’s oldest ship still in commission. She served faithfully as Nelson’s naval companion and fellow victor. She is HMS Victory — probably the most famous ship in the world.
Ordered to be built in 1758 and launched in 1765 after an especially lengthy seasoning of nearly three years as opposed to the usual three months, HMS Victory was commissioned in March 1778, some 13 years after she was launched.
Her designer was Sir Thomas Slade who was at that time Surveyor of the Navy and she was commissioned by Britain’s Prime Minister William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, better known as Pitt the Elder, along with 10 other ships.
HMS Victory was a first-rate ship meaning that she was not only of good quality but the biggest ship the naval services had to offer. This was unusual in itself as most ships built around that time for navy use were often small and agile, easy for quick manoeuvres and changes of direction.
Her general frame and design was based on HMS Royal George which was previously the largest warship in the world when it was launched in 1756. It was compulsory that HMS Victory, like all first-rate ships, be able to carry at least 100 guns.
An incredible 6,000 trees were used for her construction, 90 per cent of which were oaks and the remaining 10 per cent being a mix of elm, pine and fir. She cost £63,175, approximately £50 million in today’s money.
HMS Victory saw action later that year in July 1778 at the First Battle of Ushant when she was commanded by Admiral Augustus Keppel. Her first battle left her with little damage, though two years later modifications were
added. These improvements were not in an effort to fight the French but rather to compete against the devastating effects of shipworm, a species of saltwater clam which brought so many great ships to ruin. To better equip Victory against this parasite, 3,923 sheets of copper were fitted to her underside. She next saw action at the Second Battle of Ushant (1781, commanded by Captain Henry Cromwell bearing the flag of Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt), the Siege of Gibraltar (1782, Admiral Richard Howe) and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797, commanded by Captain Robert Calder and Captain George Grey as the flagship of Sir John Jervis).
In 1797 HMS Victory was dismissed as a warship; she was stationed at Chatham under the command of Lieutenant J. Rickman. In December of that same year, she was converted to a hospital ship for wounded French and Spanish prisoners-of-war. However, this was not to be the end of Victory’s long-serving career as two years later, in 1799, HMS Impregnable was lost off Chichester having run aground on her return journey to Portsmouth.
Now that the navy was short of a first-rate ship, HMS Victory was brought back into active service. However, her lack of use during the previous few years meant serious changes would have to be made, costing an astronomical £70,933. Additional gun ports were added to make her a 104gun warship. It was during these adjustments that she was repainted to bear what became those famous colours of black and yellow which the navy would later adopt for all their ships. After three years of this well-earned pampering, in 1803 HMS Victory was ready to go and do battle with the French.
On 18th May of that same year, Nelson flew his flag from HMS Victory’s proud mast. His place on the bridge was short-lived, however, as the ship was not quite finished and still needed the finishing touches. Nelson was thus transferred to a frigate to assume command in the Mediterranean.
When the newly completed adjustments were officially finalised, HMS Victory sailed as a flagship but her presence was not yet required so off she went to search for her captain-to-be in the Mediterranean. Eventually, several months later, Nelson did at last take full control of his ship.
Victory’s next battle was to be both the navy’s and her own most famous and proud triumph. Lord Nelson had only 27 ships under his command to contend with 33 French and Spanish wellseasoned ships, under the command of Pierre-charles Villeneuve. The battle took place on 21st October 1805 just a little west of Cape Trafalgar. Nelson bravely went against the usual British naval tactics and instead divided his forces into two separate groups to make a larger impact.
Such a nail-biting risk brilliantly paid off and the Battle of Trafalgar became the most decisive British victory that the entire war had seen, making Lord Nelson a national hero. Sadly the celebrations were short-lived. Nelson was hit by a bullet from a marksman on the enemy ship Redoutable about
‘The Battle of Trafalgar became the most decisive British victory that the entire war had seen’
15 yards away. The bullet entered his left shoulder, passing through his spine before finally nestling below his right shoulder blade. He died upon his faithful ship three hours later.
HMS Victory sustained serious damage to the point that she could not sail back home unaided to receive the cheers of the waiting crowds. The crew also suffered loss: 57 died along with their admiral and a further 102 were injured. In order to be speedily repaired, HMS Victory was towed to Gibraltar behind HMS Neptune. Lord Nelson was carried back to England and given a hero’s funeral before being finally buried in January 1806 in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Victory’s fame swiftly faded and soon, like so many warships and their heroes, she was forgotten. That was until 1833 when Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, decided to visit the battle-weary ship and thus brought it back into the public’s forgetful eye.
In 1889 Victory became a naval school. This arrangement lasted until 1904 when the school was moved temporarily and then permanently to another ship, so once more she became pushed to the back of people’s minds. Disaster struck in 1903 when HMS Neptune, the very ship that had brought her back from the Battle of Trafalgar, crashed into HMS Victory. As a result she very nearly sank and, but for the intervention of Edward VII, would have been finally scrapped.
By 1921, HMS Victory’s frail state was quickly becoming evident and a “Save the Victory” campaign was launched. The following year the ship was moved to a dry dock in Portsmouth and during the next few years underwent major repair and restoration work. She was saved for the nation.
Now, after all these years, nearly a century since she became a museum, visited by 400,000 people each year, HMS Victory has been given a new lease of life and is currently part of a £55 million restoration project that is expected to continue further into the coming years. Whatever the future may hold, HMS Victory, today the Flagship of the First Sea Lord and the oldest commissioned warship in the world, will always remain at the very heart of the Royal Navy…and a source of pride for every English man, woman and child.