A short history of Lord Nelson’s Trafalgar Flagship


The ‘Victory’ was built to the designs of Thomas Slade, senior surveyor to the Royal Navy. The keel was laid in the old Single Dock, Chatham on 23rd July 1759, she was launched 7th May 1765 and commissioned in 1778. Victory was a First Rate ship of the line and had a complement at Trafalgar of 850 officers and men and 104 guns. As a point of comparison, the entire Allied army at Waterloo in 1815 fielded just 186 guns, the largest of which were only as big as the smaller ones carried by Victory! She was also known as ‘a three decker’ as she had guns mounted on three separate gun decks. She cost around £63,176 to build, a similar cost comparatively to building the largest aircraft carriers today. Despite this impressive set of statistics, HMS Victory was not the largest ship afloat. The Spanish had more than one 120 gun ship and even a monster, four deck, 140 gun vessel ‘Santisima Trinidad’.

In the latter half of the 18th century Chatham was Britain’s leading naval dockyard building upwards of a hundred ships. Together with repairs and maintenance of other ships the yard provided work for nearly 1,500 men. Building the Victory took 6,000 trees, mainly oak, but elm, fir and pine as well and 27 miles of rope for the rigging and four acres of canvas for her sails.

Measuring 226 ft 6 ins with a beam (or width) of 51 ft 10 ins, Victory has three masts, fore, main and mizzen, rising to 182 ft, 205 ft and 152 ft respectively, towering above her deck. She weighed 2,162 tons. Her keel, the long beam running along the entire length of the ships hull, made of oak and elm, measures 152 ft 3 ins long and 20 ins square with a false elm keel 4 ins thick. The main hull is built of English oak and with outer and inner skins is over 2 ft thick. Below the water line the hull is plated with 3,923 copper plates, each measuring 4 ft by 1 ft. This was added as protection against the teredo wood boring worm in 1780. The original figurehead is thought to have been much more ornate than the present one which dates back to the refit of 1801-3. The present figurehead is similar to, but simpler than, that of the fourth Victory.

HMS Victory is the fifth ship of the Royal Navy to bear this name. The first was launched in 1559, was of 800 tons in weight and was the flagship of Sir John Hawkins at the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The second Victory was launched in 1620, was 875 tons in weight and took part in the first and second Dutch wars of 1652-67. She was rebuilt in 1666 and took part in the third Dutch war of 1672-4. The third ship to bear this name was launched in 1675, weighed 1,486 tons and took part in the Battle of Barfleur in 1692. She was rebuilt in 1695. The fourth ‘Victory’ was launched in 1734, weighed 1,920 tons but was lost with all hands in the Channel in 1744.

The present ‘Victory’ was built as in 1758 the ministers of George II decided on an ambitious programme of building 12 ships of the line. The first was to be that which later became known as the Victory, an appropriate name because when building work started in 1759, the year had been designated the ‘Year of Victories’, being the climax of the Seven Years War.

Work on the ship was supervised by Chatham’s master shipwright, Mr Allen. It generally took five years to build a ship of this size but with wars having ended, there was no rush and it took a few months short of six years to complete. It must have been here in 1771 that Nelson first saw the Victory when he joined his first ship, HMS Raisonnable, commanded by his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling, at the age of 12. For the first 13 years of her life Victory remained at anchor in the River Medway but in 1778 as France entered the war on the side of the American colonists, Victory moved to Portsmouth. In May of that year she hoisted the flag of Admiral Keppel who was in command of the Channel Fleet, and by July saw action for the first time in an indecisive engagement off Ushant.

After service as the flagship of Admirals Hardy, Geary, Hyde, Parker and Kempenfelt, Victory became the flagship of Lord Howe and in 1782 took part in the relief of Gibraltar and the Battle of Cape Spartel. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 brought a temporary peace so Victory returned to her home port, Portsmouth and was paid off.

By 1793 Britain was once again at war with France and the Victory, now under the command of Lord Hood, set sail with 21 other ships for the Mediterranean where they captured the town of Toulon. In the following year, 1794, the Victorywas in action at Calvi on Corsica; men and guns were landed there from the Victory and placed under the command of Capt. Horatio Nelson. It was here he suffered the first of many battle wounds and lost his sight in his right eye.

After this engagement Victory returned to Portsmouth for a brief refit, but soon returned to the Mediterranean as the flagship of Admiral Man, second-in-command to Admiral Hotham. In November 1795 Victory became the flagship of Admiral Sir John Jervis, the commander of the fleet.

Victory returned to Chatham in November 1797 and was paid off. Her distinguished fighting career was temporarily over and she became a hospital ship for the prison hulks in the Medway. An extensive refit lasting two years followed in 1801; she was virtually rebuilt and her appearance was altered to that which we’d recognize today. Victory was once again commissioned in April 1803 and sailed off to the Mediterranean under the command of the by now, Lord Nelson. After 18 months of intensive fighting Victory once again returned to England and after a brief spell of shore leave for all hands, she returned to the Mediterranean for Nelson’s ‘finest hour’ at Trafalgar.

The Victory was a formidable opponent, one of the most powerful and technologically advanced weapons of her day. The basic tactic was to manoeuvre the ship alongside the enemy, preferably the unprotected and unarmed rear, and fire every gun on the side of the ship facing the target at once, a ‘broadside’. At Trafalgar HMS Victory could fire 1,148 lbs of iron shot in a single broadside. Remember, there were twenty seven similarly sized ships in the British fleet. That’s a lot of iron! British crews were also highly trained and regularly practised with actual gunpowder and shot, unlike most European navies that blanched at the expense. This meant the Victory’s crew were prepared for and used to working their guns in extreme conditions and could fire and keep up a rate of two shots per gun per minute, twice that of their French and Spanish adversaries. Victory also carried two state of the art weapons at Trafalgar, the dreaded ‘carronade’. This was the exocet missile of its day and capable of inflicting terrible damage and injury to an enemy ship and crew alike. At Trafalgar Victory devastated the French vessel ‘Bucentaure’ when, drawing up alongside the rear of the doomed French ship, Victory fired her Port side Carronade. The gun was loaded with a sixty eight lb iron ball and a barrel of five hundred musket balls, at the close ranges at this stage of the battle, a few dozen yards, the entire length of the ’Bucetaure’s’ middle gun deck was torn apart. This devastating single shot was then followed up with every gun on the Victory’s port side, reducing the French ship to little more than match wood.  

This mix of fire power and training, in the hands of Nelson’s genius, provided one of the most decisive victories in history. The combined French and Spanish fleet numbering some thirty three ships was all but destroyed or captured, just ten escaped. British naval supremacy was to last for more than a century with no small thanks to Chatham built ships like HMS Victory.

Following the battle, despite such a complete victory HMS Victory was so severely damaged she had to be towed into Gibraltar for temporary repairs before she could sail back to England. Worse still, Nelson himself had been shot by a French sniper and mortally wounded. He died on the Victory’s Orlop deck as the battle drew to a close. From Portsmouth, still carrying Nelson’s body, Victory made her way to Sheerness where he was transferred to the Commissioner’s barge to be carried up the Thames to Greenwich where Nelson lay in state prior to interment at St Paul’s cathedral. His uniform (still sporting the hole left by the fateful French bullet) and many of his personal affects can be seen at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich

Despite the serious damage she sustained at Trafalgar, Victory underwent another extensive refit at Chatham and was recommissioned in March 1808. For much of the next few years she was the flagship of Admiral Saumarez, sailing to and from the Baltic. Her last voyage in November 1812 saw Victory returning to Portsmouth where she was finally paid off and refitted. She stayed in readiness until 1824, becoming the flagship of Portsmouth Command, but with peace reigning worldwide, her days as a battleship were over. Up to 1922 she lay at anchor in Portsmouth Harbour but the condition of her timbers was fast becoming a cause for concern. She was then moved to the dry dock where she now stands and a public appeal was launched by the Society for Nautical Research to raise money to restore Victory and preserve her for future generations. Over £120,000 was raised by the appeal and HM George V came to Portsmouth to inspect the ship.