History of HMS Victory

History of HMS Victory




NMRN Victory History

On 7th May 1765 HMS Victory was floated out of the Old Single Dock in Chatham's Royal Dockyard. In the years to come, over an unusually long service, she would gain renown leading fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. In 1805 she achieved lasting fame as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson in Britain's greatest naval victory, the defeat of the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar.

For Victory, however, active service did not end with the loss of Nelson. In 1808 she was recommissioned to lead the fleet in the Baltic, but four years later she was no longer needed in this role, and she was relegated to harbour service - serving as  a residence, flagship and tender providing accommodation.

In 1922 she was saved for the nation and placed permanently into dry dock where she remains today, visited by 25 million visitors as a museum of the sailing navy and the oldest commissioned warship in the world.


NMRN HMS Victory Battles

Over a period of 34 years, between 1778 and 1812, HMS Victory took part in five naval battles. Trafalgar is not only the most famous of these but also the last. Commissioned for service in the American War of Independence, Victory fought in the First and Second Battles of Ushant and the Battle of Cape Spartel, whilst during the French revolutionary War she was Admiral Jervis’ flagship at the Battle of Cape St Vincent.

First Battle of Ushant

On 27th July 1778, Victory served as flagship to Admiral Augustus Keppel when his fleet of 24 ships of the line engaged a French force of 32 ships commanded by the Comte d’Orvilliers. The battle was indecisive, and led to political dispute in both Britain and France.

Second Battle of Ushant

Vice Admiral Richard Kempenfelt flew his flag in HMS Victory at the Second Battle of Ushant. A relatively small British Fleet of 12 ships of the line intercepted a French convoy in poor weather and succeeded in capturing 15 transport ships, 1000 soldiers and 550 seamen.

Battle of Cape Spartel

Victory’s final engagement of the American War of Independence came in 1782 whilst she was serving as flagship to Admiral Richard Howe. The British fleet of 35 ships of the line had succeeded in resupplying Gibraltar for the third time in the course of the three-year-long Great Siege when it met with the combined fleets of France and Spain, consisting of 46 ships of the line. The following battle again proved indecisive.

Battle of Cape St Vincent

Victory was Admiral Sir John Jervis’ flagship at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, fought against the Spanish in February 1797. The smaller British fleet of 15 ships of the line engaged an enemy numbering 27 ships of the line and succeeded in capturing 4 ships and 3000 Spanish seamen.

Battle of Trafalgar

Undoubtedly Victory’s most famous battle saw her as Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, fought against a combined French and Spanish fleet. The allies were soundly defeated, total losses reaching 22 ships without the Royal Navy losing one. Nelson was shot at the height of the battle and died on Victory’s orlop deck after receiving news of victory.



HMS Victory - History - Diet

It was important that Victory’s provisions remained edible through many months at sea. Therefore the crew’s diet was limited and repetitive, made up of staples which would last well, such as salted beef and pork, biscuit, peas and oatmeal, butter and cheese. These were stored in casks or bread bags in the Hold, but inevitably some went bad as barrels leaked, were infested by maggots or eaten by rats.

In harbour the diet was better and more varied, with soft bread and fresh meat. By the time of Trafalgar the disease of scurvy – which we now know is caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet – had largely been overcome by efforts to provide regular fresh vegetables and add lemon juice to the rum ration. Overall the diet was generous and provided approximately 5,000 calories per day, vital to sustain the crew in their hard, physical work.

The men’s daily ration included 8 pints of beer, though if they were serving away from home waters this might be replaced by a pint of wine, or a half-pint of rum. This was a practical solution to the problem of thirst since stored water was very bulky and rapidly became unfit for drinking.

Men ate as part of a ‘mess’ which they chose themselves. This usually contained between 4 and 8 men, one of whom was appointed mess cook for a week and took on the work of receiving, preparing and collecting their provisions. There was usually only one hot meal a day so breakfast might be a dish like ‘burgoo’, an oatmeal porridge sweetened with molasses. Any actual cooking was done under the supervision of the ship’s cook on Victory’s single iron stove, which included coppers for boiling, roasting spits and an oven.


NMRN Victory Crew

At the time of Trafalgar, Victory had a crew of 821 men. It would have been possible to sail and manoeuvre the ship with far fewer, but large numbers were needed to man her guns and fight in battle. From the Admiral like Nelson, down to the 31 boys on board, each person had a distinct role to play.

The ship’s Captain and nine commissioned officers were in overall charge of the ship and the crew, whilst warrant officers like the Boatswain, Gunner, Carpenter, Surgeon and Purser were specialists responsible for a single aspect. The Master, for example, looked after navigation and the ship’s log. The Royal Marines provided the ship’s fighting force and numbered 11 officers and 135 privates.

The great majority of the crew – over 500 – were the seamen who sailed or fought on the ship. These men were rated (and paid) according to their skill and experience; from the 70 skilled petty officers, through the 212 experienced able seamen and the 193 useful ordinary seamen right down to the 87 landsmen – who were without previous experience of the sea.

For these men, living and working at sea was dangerous; it is estimated that 90% of the 92,000 British fatalities during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France were caused by disease, accident and shipwreck. However, many of the aspects of life at sea which appear to us harsh, such as child labour and corporal punishment, were also a part of life ashore. Navy service was attractive in many ways. Although basic pay was relatively low (23s. 6d. a month for an ordinary seaman in 1805) compared to that of merchant seamen, the crew were guaranteed regular food and drink and a chance of prize money. Experienced sailors would have been aware that, with many more men aboard, their duties were actually lighter than on merchant ships. The old belief that Victory’s sailors were forced to serve by the Press Gang, or were convicted criminals who chose to serve in the Navy rather than sit in gaol, is too simplistic. Among the crew at Trafalgar were 289 volunteers, as against 217 who had been pressed into service and no one at all who had been recruited from prison.

Seamen learned their trade early and Victory’s crew were overwhelmingly young. Approximately 40% were under the age of 24 and the youngest boy on board was 12 (though for good measure the Purser, who was the oldest crew member, was 67). This was also a multi-national crew of seafarers, with one in ten coming from outside the British Isles.


NMRN Victory Discipline

The constant discipline required to organise the crew on a ship as complex as Victory and run her in a safe, efficient way should not be confused with the occasional punishment metred out to the few.

The crew were disciplined and organised in a number of ways. They were placed in one of the two watches and this determined when they had to work and be ‘on watch’. For the more complex activities on board, such as mooring, raising anchor or tacking ship, each man was given a station – a specific place to work. He was also allocated a quarter for fighting the ship, which might be in a gun crew or in one of the magazines or involve working aloft. The ship’s 10 commissioned officers and 21 midshipmen were responsible for a small ‘division’ of men and supervised their health and welfare.

Overall the crew were relatively lightly disciplined in military terms. Although they dressed in standard loose trousers and short blue jackets they did not have an official uniform. With so few commissioned officers on board their life on the mess deck was lightly policed.

When things went wrong the Captain had a range of punishments at his disposal. Most commonly he awarded anything from 12 to 36 lashes for offences like drunkenness, insolence or neglect of duty. This excruciatingly painful punishment was carried out by the Boatswain’s Mates, offenders being brought to the Quarter Deck in front of the ship’s company, stripped to the waist and tied to a wooden grating. A seaman caught thieving was made to run the gauntlet past fellow crewmen who beat him with knotted rope ends. Others would be locked in leg irons on the gun deck, eating only bread and water. Midshipmen, the Navy’s young, trainee officers, were caned rather than flogged if punished, or could be ‘mast headed’ – sent aloft to sit at the head of the mast in the wind and cold.

The most severe punishments for offences like mutiny or desertion were awarded by courts martial. Men ‘flogged around the fleet’ could receive up to 300 lashes, which were often fatal; others were hanged from the yard.



NMRN Victory Timeline

Key dates in HMS Victory's naval career

1759 - Keel laid down in old single dock, Chatham 23 July.

1765 - Launched 7 May. Dimensions: 186’ x 52’. Laid up in ordinary at Chatham.

1778 – First Commission. Flagship of Admiral Keppel in action with d’Orvilliers off Ushant.

1779 - Flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Charles Hardy.

1780 – Hull sheathed in copper. Flagship of Admiral Geary and then Admiral Drake

1781 - Flagship of Vice Admiral Hyde Parker and Rear Admiral Kempenfelt. Capture of French convoy off Ushant.

1782 - Flagship of Lord Howe. Present at sinking of the Royal George at Spithead; boats from Victory used to save survivors. Relief of Gibraltar.

1783 - Paid off at Portsmouth.

1790 - Flagship of Lord Howe and Lord Hood

1793 - Present at the reduction of Toulon.

1794 - Present at sieges of Calvi and Bastia.

1795 - Flagship of Rear Admiral Man, Vice Admiral Linzee and Admiral Sir John Jervis.

1797 - Battle of Cape St Vincent, nearly wrecked in Lagos Bay. Blockade of Cadiz. Paid off and struck from Navy List.

1798-99 - Hospital ship for prisoners of war.

1800-1803 - Underwent large refit at Chatham totalling £23,500.

1803-05 - Flagship of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson. Blockades of Toulon and Cadiz. Battle of Trafalgar.

1808 - Flag of Admiral Saumarez. Operations in Baltic.

1809 - Brought home part of Sir John Moore’s army from Corunna.

1811 - Flag of Rear Admiral Sir Joseph Yorke.

1812 - Paid off in December.

1813-16 - Rebuilt. Brass tablet “Here Nelson Fell” added to quarterdeck.

1816-24 - In ordinary at Portsmouth.

1823 – Guardship at Portsmouth.

1824-69 - Flagship of Port Admiral, Portsmouth.

1869-88 - Tender to HMS Duke of Wellington.

1888 - Refit.

1889 - Present day – Flagship of Commander in Chief, Portsmouth (now 2nd Sea Lord)

1903 - Rammed by HMS Neptune and docked to prevent sinking. After repair, returned to harbour mooring.

1905 - Saluting ship “In Company” with St Vincent as boys training ship.

1922 - Berthed in No 2 Dock. “Save the Victory” launched for her restoration and preservation to her Trafalgar condition.

1928 - Restoration completed. Inspection by HM King George V.

1941 - Damaged by German bomb.

1945 - Floodlit for VJ day.

1946 - Personal standard of HRH Princess Elizabeth broken at the main.




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