HMS Victory, flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, has been one of Portsmouth’s icons for so long, it’s easy to forget what else she represents. You could almost be forgiven for thinking she’s simply a beautiful old museum ship. So, to be clear: HMS Victory was a terrifying floating fortress, a 104-gun first-rate ship of the line, whose design and construction was based on long and unparalleled experience. With a crew of 820 highly trained men, including 153 Royal Marines, Victory was just one of almost 300 other battleships and frigates, plus hundreds of other craft, which together constituted the most formidable maritime force in the world at the time, the Royal Navy. And the role of the Royal Navy was – and still is – to protect and preserve Britain’s interests on the high seas and defeat its enemies.
HMS Victory – the ship
The Admiralty ordered the ship that became HMS Victory in 1758, along with a dozen other ships. It was, coincidentally, the same year that Nelson was born and Britain was heavily engaged in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). This conflict is often seen as the first real global war, in which an alliance of Britain, Prussia, Hanover and Portugal was pitched against everyone else of any significance (France, Spain, Austria, Russia and Sweden). In 1759, the year that Victory’s keel was laid at the dockyard in Chatham, Britain won a spectacular series of victories on land and sea – the year is known as Annus Mirabilis – wonderful year – and, at the conclusion of the war, Britain was left as the dominant power in India, North America and several other places. So, no longer needed, Victory was put into reserve until being commissioned in 1778 to take part in the American War of Independence and, later, the French Revolutionary Wars. She had a distinguished career in these campaigns, serving as flagship to various admirals and participating in four major sea battles, including notable victories against the French at Ushant in 1781 and the Spanish at Cape St Vincent in 1797.
Ships like HMS Victory were the ultimate weapons, the nuclear submarines, of their day. But they were phenomenally expensive to build and maintain. Victory cost £63,176 to build – apparently about £50 million today in monetary terms (depending which source you use), but anyway equivalent to building a fairly serious modern naval vessel. However, Royal Navy ships of the 18th century consumed vast quantities of natural resources, mainly timber, which of course was subject to decay, particularly in the conditions the vessels operated in, and infestation. Approximately 6,000 trees, mainly oak, were used in the construction of HMS Victory, enough to clear 100 acres of woodland. Some of the trees had to be enormous; they came from Kent, the New Forest, Poland and East Prussia and, at the waterline, the timber is two feet thick. For the statistic-loving reader, 26 miles of rope was used for the rigging alone. In any event, it is no wonder that such ships became known as ‘the wooden walls of England’ – though, technically, that should be Britain, of course. But in 1780, to protect Victory’s vulnerable timber hull against ship worm, the entire bottom of the ship beneath the waterline was covered with 3,923 sheets of copper. By the end of the century, there was such concern about Victory’s condition that she was almost scrapped. She was reprieved, but underwent an extensive three-year refit before going on to achieve her greatest fame.
Incidentally, despite being tiny when compared with the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carriers (you can see HMS Queen Elizabeth in the background in one of the photos, above), up close HMS Victory seems huge – 227 feet (69.2 metres) long and with a main mast that (originally) stretched 205 feet (62.4 metres) above the waterline. Going inside is like being swallowed by an enormous wooden town – which in many ways is what these vessels were.
In 1803, Britain and France were once again at war. On 20 May that year, HMS Victory set sail from Portsmouth, after her re-fit, as flagship of the C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet, the Right Hon Lord Viscount Nelson. As she left harbour, her hull would have been a bit like a floating warehouse, packed with all the provisions the crew would need – water, beer, rum, salt beef, pork, cheese, peas, butter, bread, flour, cannonballs, gunpowder…you name it. Fighting ships had to be entirely self-reliant for as long as possible. It is hard to imagine what a huge logistical exercise it was to keep a fleet at sea 200 hundred years ago – and it’s only when you start to think about all of that, that you realise how efficient and well-organised the Georgian Royal Navy machine needed to be. Then there’s the business of human resources. Victory’s establishment included 11 officers, 48 non-commissioned officers and 80 petty officers. According to HMS Victory’s own website, it’s a misconception that most of her crewmen were convicted criminals, or landlubbers reluctantly press-ganged into service. I suppose, apart from a little less notice and possibly a tad more violence, there’s not much practical difference between being press-ganged or conscripted? Anyway, only 217 of Victory’s crew had been pressed into service and none had been recruited from prison – though that’s not to say that some didn’t have some experience of it, of course. Interestingly, only 87 had not been to sea before; most of Victory’s crew were experienced sailors and 289 were volunteers. Moreover, it was a young crew – 40% were under 24 – and surprisingly international in nature; 10% originated from outside the British Isles; 22 Americans fought aboard Victory at Trafalgar.
When you climb aboard Victory these days, you’re handed a little health & safety slip, warning of steep stairs, trip hazards, slippery decks, low ceilings, low light levels – and so on. Back in Nelson’s day, before hi-vis and hard hats, it must have been an indescribably dangerous place, even if you had your wits about you – especially during rough seas. This is supported by an estimate that only 10% of British fatalities during the wars of this time were due to battle; most men died through disease, shipwreck, or accident. Of course, life was harsh – as was discipline; it had to be disciplined for the ship to work. The ship was a community in which everybody had their part to play. Punishments were severe too – they were everywhere in 18th and 19th century Britain. I’m guessing it was harder to evade detection in the cramped conditions of a crowded ship, but also not in the interest of a naval commander to lose a competent seaman by incapacitation, or rendering him hostile, for a minor misdemeanour. Still, drunkenness or insolence could earn a thrashing from the cat o’ nine tails and serious offences like mutiny could result in being ‘flogged round the fleet’, perhaps receiving 300 lashes, which was often fatal. Or, a man could be hanged from the yard.
In many ways, however, sailors were better off than some of their compatriots on land. They had free board, three – albeit a little unvaried – meals a day, sometimes with meat, providing a daily calorie intake of between 4500-5000 – which they needed, because the work was so physically demanding. They ate in messes of between 4 and 8 men, next to their guns, and slung their hammocks overhead at night; there was no personal space. They also drank beer – up to 6½ pints a day – and, of course, rum. It was safer than drinking the water, which rapidly went off on long voyages, and if the men spent most of their time slightly inebriated, maybe that was good for morale as well as helping to cope with some of the situations they found themselves in. And, despite the dangers of being in action, there was always the chance of prize money to supplement their pay.
‘Not enough room to swing a cat’ refers to the cat o’ nine tails, a whip with nine, knotted, thongs.
‘A square meal’ – thought to originate from the idea of a meal eaten on a square plate with an edge round it to stop the food slopping over when the ship was in motion – though this meaning is disputed and it could simply refer to a good meal!
‘Show a leg’ – an old expression meaning, ‘time to get up’ allegedly dating from the period when women were allowed aboard Royal Navy ships in port. Showing a leg identified the hairy matelot, who had to get to work, or the visiting female, who was allowed a lie-in. Again, this meaning is disputed – but I rather like it.
Naturally, officers enjoyed rather better conditions than their men. Good officers were essential and, ideally, captains had to be exceptionally good. You realise, as the Royal Navy envelopes you – even the Royal Navy of two centuries ago – that little is, or was, left to chance. There were ways of doing things, which were based on long experience; everyone knew their station and the first-class commander was the one that thought ahead. The Navy realised, long before the phrase was employed by military trainers and then plagiarised by so-called management gurus, the value of the 6 Ps – proper planning prevents piss poor performance. Forgive the vernacular.
Like Victory, Nelson had form. He had been a sailor since the age of 12, was a captain by the age of 21, had lost the sight of his right eye attacking Calvi, in Corsica, in 1794 and had his right arm shattered during an assault on Tenerife in 1797. He had already fought, and beaten, the French, Spanish and Danish and been rewarded by the King of Naples, Tsar of Russia and Sultan of Turkey – as well as by his own countrymen. Nelson was a brilliant tactician, audacious, sometimes unconventional, brave, an excellent leader – and a national hero in his own lifetime. As he sailed out of Portsmouth that day in 1803 aboard Victory, he carried with him detailed orders from the Admiralty, including the instruction “to take, sink, burn or otherwise destroy” any French ships. To put this in context, France under its leader and later emperor, Napoleon, was perceived as a threat to British interests and the feeling was reciprocated. Napoleon was intent on invading Britain itself, which he could not do whilst his Grand Armée was in danger of being scuppered by the Royal Navy. A favoured British tactic was to blockade French ports, which was achieved to a reasonable degree.
In March 1805, Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve sailed his fleet out of Toulon, evaded the British blockade, joined up with a Spanish squadron and, on Napoleon’s orders, set sail for the West Indies in an attempt to decoy the Royal Navy away from the English Channel. Nelson set off across the Atlantic in pursuit, close behind but never catching sight of the enemy. Villeneuve then sailed all the way back again, still with Nelson chasing, intending to join with more French ships at Brest but instead ending up in Cadiz. By this time, August, Napoleon was forced to abandon his invasion plans and instead ordered Villeneuve to break into the Mediterranean. The Royal Navy deployed a fleet to keep watch outside Cadiz and Nelson, after a short break of leave, joined it in late September. Then on 19 October a British frigate spotted the combined Franco-Spanish fleet leaving port. The news was passed to Nelson’s main fleet, intentionally held out of sight, and in the morning of 21 October, the Royal Navy ships closed in on Villeneuve’s off Cape Trafalgar, about 40 miles west of Gibraltar. The British were outnumbered, 33 ships to 27, and also by men and guns; but Nelson’s deliberate intention that day was to annihilate the enemy.
The standard sea battle tactic of the time was that the two sides formed parallel opposing lines with each vessel following the stern of the one in front (hence the term ‘ship of the line’). The object, as the two lines passed each other at close quarters, was to deliver massive broadsides, raking the respective enemy’s ships with cannonballs, anti-personnel shot and missiles designed to bring down masts and rigging. However, if one side could break the enemy’s line, by a ship crossing through it, full broadsides could be brought to bear on enemy ships, which could only retaliate by minimal cannon mounted fore and aft. And that’s what Nelson planned to do. A cannon ball would go through wooden walls; depending where it hit, it would take a head or limb off, or turn a human into jelly. One ball travelling the length of a ship could easily kill or maim 40 men. The mayhem caused could be exploited by the ships breaking through, and turning on their foes.
At 1148hrs, HMS Victory hoisted Nelson’s famous signal ‘England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty’ followed by ‘Engage the enemy more closely’. Nelson had ordered the formation of two columns, one led by HMS Victory, the other by HMS Royal Sovereign with Admiral Collingwood on board. They successfully pierced the enemy line, firing into the bow and stern of enemy ships as they passed between them at more or less point blank range. As Victory closed on the enemy, her mizzen topmast was shot away, the wheel was knocked to bits, a double-headed shot killed eight marines on the poop deck and Nelson’s secretary was cut in two. The ship steered so as to pass under the stern of the French flagship, Bucentaure, and then unleashed the whole of her port broadside of 50 guns, some of it through the French ship’s windows, crippling Villeneuve’s vessel and rendering the Franco-Spanish fleet leaderless. Victory then became entangled with the French ship Redoutable, whose captain was determined that Victory would not break through.
Trafalgar was a brutally violent, chaotic and shocking battle. In terms of the number of ships, it was huge, but it was fought at such close quarters that the action took place over a relatively small area of about 1½ x ½ miles. It is said that the French Revolution depleted its navy of many of its first-rate officers. Certainly, what won it for the British in the end was the experience and training of the Royal Navy men – crucially, their gunnery, which was more accurate and faster than either of their opponents. Victory’s 32-pounder cannon had a 15-man crew per pair, each sailor with an allocated numbered position and task, and they drilled until their guns could be fired and reloaded in a matter of seconds. It is maintained that, in the heat of battle, the 12-man crew of a 24-pounder on Victory’s middle gun deck achieved a rate of fire of one round every ninety seconds.
Villeneuve surrendered in the early afternoon and, although some Spanish ships kept fighting, by 1630hrs the battle was over. Nelson died at about the same time. He had been shot by a marksman aboard Redoutable at about 1315hrs. The musket ball hit him in the shoulder, travelled down through his lung and severed his spine. He knew it was a fatal wound. He was carried to the orlop deck where the surgeon, William Beatty, was treating the wounded. “Ah, Mr Beatty!” exclaimed Nelson. “You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live: my back is shot through.” The Admiral spent the next three hours in great pain as the battle raged about him, knowing he had won a great victory.
More than 4,000 French and Spanish seamen died at Trafalgar and 19 of their ships were captured or destroyed. The Royal Navy says it took 20,000 prisoners – other accounts suggest 8,000 – but, tragically, many of those prisoners (and most of the captured ships), were lost during a violent storm that blew up the following day. The Royal Navy suffered about 450 killed during the battle and did not lose a single ship.
Nelson’s body was preserved in a barrel of brandy and taken home, where he was given a state funeral. He is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. The love of his life, his mistress Emma Hamilton, died an alcoholic in Calais in 1815.
Victory after Trafalgar
There’s a brass plaque on the deck of HMS Victory, marking the spot where Nelson fell. The local joke is the, hopefully fictitious, tourist who says, “I’m not surprised; I nearly tripped over the damn thing myself.”
The significance of Trafalgar, and the reason that HMS Victory is such an icon in Portsmouth, as well as of empire and the period, is that after 1805 no one challenged British naval supremacy for more than 100 years. No wonder Nelson was a national hero and commemorated so widely – not least at Trafalgar Square, of course. He gave his country more or less total command of the oceans, which helped it develop and maintain an empire, expand its trade and become immensely wealthy. So there you go.
After extensive repairs, HMS Victory resumed its career but, in 1812, returned to Portsmouth for the last time. In 1824, she became the flagship of the Port Admiral, in 1889 flagship of the Commander in Chief, Portsmouth and is currently flagship of the First Sea Lord. She is the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission. The second oldest is the USS Constitution, moored in Boston, launched in 1797, and which did pretty well against the Royal Navy in the war of 1812. Victory was brought into dry dock at Portsmouth in 1922 for preservation – she is a huge and ongoing conservation project.
Once upon a time, Victory was pretty much queen-bee attraction at Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, but these days there’s lots of other amazing things to see and do there too – not least the astonishing Mary Rose and HMS Warrior – which will be duly featured by A Bit About Britain in due course. Is the cheque in the post, yet, boys?