A Brief History of HMS Victory
Designed by Sir Thomas Slade in 1759, the HMS Victory carries more than a hundred guns and hundreds of years of fascinating history. Best known as the famed flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson, she was one of ten first-rate ships ordered to be constructed that year by the British government. The keel was laid down on 23 July 1759 in the Old Single Dock, (known today as Victory Dock) in Chatham dockyard under Master Shipwright John Lock. The name Victory was chosen in October of the following year, in spite of many sceptics who did not feel this name was appropriate; the previous first-rate Victory had been lost with all on board in 1744. Construction took six years to complete, at a total cost of £63,176, which would be somewhere around £11.2m today.
On 7th May in 1765, HMS Victory was launched out of the Old Single Dock in Chatham’s Royal Dockyard. As the massive ship was being floated out of the dock, shipwright Hartly Larkin realised the ship could not fit through the dockyard gates. Larkin was correct. The gates were in fact about 9 1/2 inches too narrow. With the assistance of all other shipwrights, they were able to hew down just enough wood from the gate to let the ship pass through. She was then held in reserve for the next 13 years until France joined the American War of Independence.
In 1780, the hull of HMS Victory was sheathed in copper to increase her speed. The following year, in spite of being significantly outnumbered, she captured a whole convoy of French ships while under the control of Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt. She went on to lead fleets at the Great Siege of Gibraltar and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent before being deemed unfit for service as a warship and ordered to be converted to a hospital ship to hold wounded French and Spanish prisoners of war.
A 3-year refit
However, between 1800-1803, Victory underwent a significant refit, and on the 18th of May in 1803, with Samuel Sutton as his flag captain, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson hoisted his flag in Victory. Two years later, on the 21st of October, 1805, the old ship would take part in what would become her most famous moment as well as Britain’s greatest naval victory: The Battle of Trafalgar.
The Battle of Trafalgar
By this time, Nelson was considered a hero, and the ultimate naval commander. His many successes ensured that he was the only worthy rival of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte himself was apparently in agreement on this, as he kept a bust of Horatio Nelson in his private quarters. The Victory was made for this, and Nelson had his strategy planned out. He divided his fleet into two columns, eventually breaking through the French line and ensuring that Napoleon would never invade England. Unfortunately, a sniper shot Nelson in the chest and shoulder. He was taken below deck and died just before the end of the battle.
Did you know that HMS Victory is still a fully commissioned Royal Navy ship? This does not, however, mean she is in active service. Rumour has it that this is to keep the Victory name. If she was de-commissioned then the name could be taken by another navy. This makes HMS Victory the oldest commissioned naval ship in the entire world. Let’s hope we never have to put her into active service, there may be a few problems trying to re-float her!
Today she rests at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where she welcomes millions of visitors. I urge you to visit if you haven’t been down to the dockyard, it makes for a great day out for any age. There are other ships to see besides HMS Victory. The Tudor warship Mary Rose and Queen Victoria’s favourite ship HMS Warrior. You can also visit the Royal Navy Museum, and different exhibitions relating to seafaring life. It’s an area full of naval history and of course, the Spinnaker Tower.
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