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When is a Victory Not a Victory

This article is not about King Pyrrhus; this however may be the last mention of the 200th anniversary of Nelson's victory at The Battle of Trafalgar in this Newsletter.The HMS Victory's keel was laid in 1759, it took six years to build at a final cost of £63,176, she was launched in 1765 and commissioned in 1778, making it the world's oldest commissioned ship (and a proud memorial to Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson).In 1922 she was placed into dry-docks at Portsmouth, where we can still marvel at her beauty and wonderful state of preservation.

However, after 157 yeas in active service and 9 battles and 5 refits, how much of the original ship is left? The answer to this is not a lot, and also a great deal.Originally a "second rater" she became a "first-rate" warship on her first refit, which enabled her to carry more than the 100 guns required for that class. Ships like the Victory were made entirely from wood. These ships were built to fight the war that was on at the particular moment, and were not expected to last for centuries.All 3 masts and parts of the structure were replaced at the battle of Trafalgar. It is also safe to assume that all of the rope; all but one Fore Topsail required to rig the Victory; the iron hoops used to fit together the masts; the carefully shaped beams and sophisticated joints that warped; all exposed nails and bolts; her 6 boats and 7 anchors would have all needed replacing long ago.

A lot of the integral structure was removed during the first refit of 1793, to accommodate increased armament, and much of the ship was lost to running repairs in battle; 19th century souvenir hunters and Second World War bomb damage. Not only has the warship had to suffer many years of hostile action but also human neglect. She was used as storage and even a prison ship; in 1903 she was badly damaged by the warship HMS Neptune and almost sank.By 1920 she had become a worm damaged 'hulk'.

Many of her huge oak timbers were badly decayed due to continually getting wet then drying out and where systematically having to be replaced.Luckily, when original damaged parts were replaced, a careful record was kept, of which and when beams are altered or replaced. Without this record it would become increasingly more difficult to separate the old from the new.It is thanks to this record we know that over the years much of the hull has been rebuilt or replaced with teak and tropical hardwood like iroko through ongoing renewal of the timbers since the 1970s. Many areas within the ship itself have been reconstructed such that today only about 20% of the original vessel remains from 1765.

However the more protected lower parts of the ship's decks are progressively more original with around 90% below the water line being original, while the lower gun deck is 75% original and part of the stern and much of the keel are the same original timbers.Because whenever possible the correct methods and materials are used in returning the ship, colour and layout to how she was on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson would recognise his flagship so, new timbers, modern insecticides notwithstanding, to him the Victory would still be the Victory.It is likely that his successors as commanders on the Victory over the next 100 years would have greater difficulty, because the refitting of the ship to keep her fit for current service would have increasingly taken her away from the 1815 status.There is probably not enough left of the original timbers for the ship to float, so a purist might argue that she is only a replica, now, not the "real" Victory. As a monument to a great man and a great moment, this is irrelevant. So long as there is any part of the original ship remaining, we can touch what Nelson touched, and that is enough.


By: Michael Hart


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