The Royal Navy for centuries was the most powerful force in the world. It allowed the British Empire to extend around the globe so that the sun never set on it. In a time when wooden ships reigned supreme one wooden vessel stood above them, HMS Victory.
War with France was a constant for England and in the 1750s that held true. With only the English Channel separating the two invasion was a constant worry and the Royal Navy needed to make its presence felt there. In 1758 the Admiralty ordered a 100-gun ship-of-the-line to be constructed along with 11 other ships at Chatham Dockyards. The keel was laid down in July 1759 but it took another year to choose the name. Some say it was to commemorate a series of battlefield victories over France like on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. Some say it was simply picked off of a list of names. Either way the ship was named Victory.
Around 6,000 trees were used to construct the ship. 100 acres of oak trees were cleared using simple hand tools in Kent and Sussex. Around 90% of the wood used was oak, some of it two feet thick. Huge oak trees were used so that as much of the ship was one piece to increase strength. Monstrous elm trunks were used for the keel with fir and spruce used for the decks, masts and yardarms. Each mast required seven trees! When the frame was constructed it was covered up and left to season for about three years since the war with France was coming to an end and it is believed that this seasoning helped the ship stay as well preserved as it has. Work resumed in 1763 and Victory was launched in May 1765. 88 guns were placed on three gun decks with another 12 on her quarterdeck and forecastle. When fully crewed Victory could hold 875 sailors. She was an imposing ship but there was just one problem during the launch, the ship was too big to fit through the drydock gates. Craftsmen worked all through the night to widen the gates so she could be launched on time as the Royal family would be attendance for the event. All told Victory cost about £63,000, or about £50 million ($62.5 million) today.
While she was built for a war with France there was peace when she was launched. She was formidable but was not needed. Victory remained moored in the River Medway until the American Revolution when she joined the war to do what she was designed to do: fight the French. She saw her first action at Ushant in 1778 in an indecisive battle.
Following its participation in the British evacuation of Elba and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent against a combined French, Spanish and Dutch fleet in 1797 she was sent to Chatham, deemed unfit for service and used to house Spanish and French POWs. 4,000 copper plates had been installed to combat shipworm but nature was prevailing and doing what the French could not do. Victory was reconstructed from 1800 to 1803 and returned to service, this time under the most famous sailor of the time, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. She was part of a force that was sent to intercept the Spanish and French navies to prevent them from being used by Napoleon Bonaparte to invade England. On October 21, 1805 Nelson’s fleet met the enemy at the Battle of Trafalgar and a fierce battle ensued. Victory lost 57 men killed and 102 wounded and Nelson himself was killed but the Royal Navy emerged victorious. The French Navy would never pose a serious threat again under Napoleon.
Victory, heavily damaged and barely able to move, was towed to Gibraltar for repairs. When completed she carried Nelson’s body back to England. While active for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars she was never seriously engaged in combat again owing to the Royal Navy’s mastery of the seas. She was docked in Portsmouth and used as a depot ship. In 1831 the First Sea Lord Thomas Hardy, Victory’s captain at Trafalgar, ordered the ship to be broken up but the story goes that his wife was so distraught over the order that she burst into tears and he rescinded the order. While it is not known if that is the reason that page out of his order book is missing.
Over the years Victory was used as a barracks and a school for the navy but she was slowly rotting away. She again was nearly scrapped when another Royal Navy vessel broke her moorings and punched a hole below Victory’s waterline. Emergency repairs kept her from sinking and only the personal intervention of King Edward VII saved Victory from the scrap yard. No money was available to preserve the vessel as an arms race was heating up with Germany despite many describing the ship’s condition as an insult to national pride.
After World War I a campaign was started to preserve the ship and enough funds were raised to restore her. Victory was moved into drydock at Portsmouth and work began. It was slow work as much of the ship had deteriorated and World War 2 did not help either when a Luftwaffe bomb scored a direct hit on her destroying her foremast. Work resumed after the war and was finally completed in 2005, just in time for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. She was opened to the public as part of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.
The ship is part of the National Historic Fleet and operates as a museum ship so it is still considered an active part of the Royal Navy. HMS Victory is the oldest active naval vessel still in service in the world. Nearly 350,000 visitors come aboard her along with the other vessels of the museum’s collection, the HMS Warrior, Great Britain’s first iron hulled warship, and the HMS Mary Rose, the flagship of King Henry VIII that was raised from the seabed of the nearby Solent in 1982.