On December 13th, 1758, the Board of the Admiralty ordered the construction of a new 100 gun first rate ship of the line. Her designer was Thomas Slade, Surveyor of the Navy. The keel was laid on July 23rd, 1759 at Chatham Dockyard's No 2 Dockyard, supervised by Master Shipwright, Edward Allen. She was christened Victory and she was the largest Royal Naval vessel ever commissioned. More than 2000 oak trees - 60 acres of forest - were needed for her hull and three masts, With her 27 miles of rigging and four acres of canvas sails, she was a floating gun platform with 104 guns to fire broadsides from her three decks. She took six years to build and had a crew of more than 800 officers and men. She was very maneuverable for her size because of the innovative shape of her lower hull and in certain weather she was as fast as some of the smaller ships. She was launched on May 7th, 1765 but placed in reserve for 13 years.
Victory and her 11 sister ships were essential to Britain's continued superiority on the seas during the Napoleonic Wars. She first saw action in the American War of Independence. On her maiden voyage, Victory led the Grand Fleet as it engaged 32 French ships following France's recognition of the American colonies. It was an indifferent mission, and her masts and rigging were slightly damaged. She went to Plymouth for repair and returned to sea three weeks later. When relations with Spain deteriorated in 1789, Victory flew the flags of Admirals Lord Howe and Lord Hood. The completion of another first rater, the Queen Charlotte, meant she lost the flag of the main fleet's admiral.
Following another short refit, Lord Hood, Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, sailed her at the head of the fleet to Toulon at the start of the Napoleonic Wars in 1793. Carrying her sick admiral home in 1794, Victory underwent more repairs and resumed her Mediterranean duties, the following year seeing action against the French at Hyeres. There, her mast, yards, rigging and sails were seriously damaged. Admiral Sir John Jervis took command of the Mediterranean fleet in 1795. Victory and the fleet remained at sea to blockade the French. Later, they withdrew and headed for Gibraltar. Victory was at Cape St Vincent, where a Captain Nelson was making his name. At the end of 1797, the flag was taken from Victory by the Ville-De-Paris. She became a private ship, used as a prison of war hospital ship, moored in the Medway.
An early demise seemed inevitable, but in 1800 the Navy decided to refit her at Chatham. This lasted three years, and was almost a full reconstruction. It transformed her into a floating fortress and she became Nelson's flagship. Her galleries were removed, the stern enclosed and the figurehead changed into the elegant royal coat of arms that led her at Trafalgar. A sick bay was fitted under the forecastle for crew member suffering illness and injuries. The magazines were lined with copper to stop rats getting in and carrying gunpowder in their fur all over the ship.
Nelson asked for the quarter deck gratings to be decked in to improve space for operating 12 pounder guns. She was possibly the first first-rater to have a main armament of thirty 32 pounder flintlock guns. Among those observing and sketching her as she left Chatham in her new black and yellow livery was the artist John Constable.
She flew Nelson's flag for the first time when war was declared on May 18th, 1803. It was a tough 18 months which followed; comprising blockades in the Mediterranean, the West Indies, Egypt and France. Victory had another refit, and armed with 68 pounder carronades on her forecastle, she left England on September 14th 1805. Trafalgar was just over a month later, during which Nelson was killed and she was seriously damaged. After the battle, just nine feet of mizzen mast remained; the sails were in tatters and her hull peppered with shot, causing severe internal damage to the beams, knees and riders. She was towed to Gibraltar for temporary repairs, then began her long limp back to Portsmouth. She arrived there on December 4th with Nelson's body on board. Her ship's company paid off, Victory went back to Chatham on March 6th 1806 for a survey, repair and refit, all carried out in the dock where she was first floated 41 years beforehand.
At the end of her refit, she was "demoted" to a second rater to save her hull from the strain of the armaments usually carried by first raters. A shadow of her former self, in April 1808 Victory resumed duties. For the next four years she was flagship to Admiral Saumarez, a Channel Islander, who sailed her to Gothenburg in Sweden. After the Baltic Campaigns, she returned to the Iberian coast to help evacuate Sir John Moore's army from the Peninsular War.
Victory's remarkable career ended in December 1812. She had a final refit as the Port Admiral's flagship in 1823. She stayed by the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour for a century. The custom of holding Trafalgar Anniversary Dinners on board her began in 1824 along with those of toasting The Immortal Memory, flying the signal "England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty" on Trafalgar Day, and laying wreaths at the places where Nelson fell and later died. Over the years, Victory?s condition deteriorated with only minimal repairs carried out to her. The Society for Nautical Research mounted a rescue, achieving funds through a national appeal. She again took pride of place in Portsmouth Dockyard No 2 dock in 1922.
Refits over the years meant she looked little like the ship at Trafalgar, so a major research and restoration operation began which continues to this day. On July 17th, 1928, King George V declared her open to the public. Since then, millions of visitors from across the world have seen her, making her one of Britain's top tourist attractions. Her passage through time has not been easy. She was damaged during the Second World War and then attacked by death watch beetle during the 1950s. It was even suggested she should be taken out of service in the 1970s and given another refit.
Slowly but surely, all the pieces in the puzzle are coming together, so that by the year 2005, Victory will be ready for the Battle of Trafalgar's bicentennial.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild