HMS Victory and her Medway story

HMS Victory: the Untold Story

HMS Victory: the Untold Story - Credit: Archant

HMS Victory will forever be linked to the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson. But what happened to her before and after that famous victory? A new exhibition at Chatham Historic Dockyard, her birthplace, reveals all

We often talk about the Victory in terms of Trafalgar, but what about the other stories, the untold stories that surround her and make her one of the greatest ships that was and is?

Built at Chatham, HMS Victory is one of the largest ships the Royal Navy has ever commissioned and Admiral, Sir Ian Garnett KCB, Chairman of the Historic Chatham Dockyard, is keen to remind people that there is far more to her story than just Trafalgar and Nelson.

Commemorating the 250th anniversary of her launch, HMS Victory: The Untold Story‑ is, according to Sir Ian, setting out to show how the ship is related to other events and other great commanders such as Saumarez, Keppel and Jarvis. As well as hopefully reminding people of the vital part that Chatham, and the Royal Navy, has played within Britain’s history.

Sir Ian tells me: “The importance of this place (Chatham) is very simple. We became a powerful country because we became rich and we became rich because we traded and it was the Royal Navy that protected the trade.

“It was the Royal Navy that was built and maintained here in Chatham and the other royal dockyards. So one can say that the people of Medway helped put the ‘great’ into Great Britain. It’s as simple as that.”

Hearing such a statement it would be easy to think that these events, although crucial, are so far in the past that they have no bearing on our present or future. But you would be wrong.

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Sir Ian goes on to explain: “As an island nation, approximately 90 per cent of our imports come by sea. So, if you went around your house and put a little red dot on everything that has travelled by sea, let alone the petrol in the tank of your car, there would be a lot of little red dots.”

That’s all because the wealth and the power that was in the City of London during the 18th century was protected by the Royal Navy. And it was ships, such as HMS Victory, that allowed it to carry out that role.

When Victory was commissioned in December 1758 Britain was at war with France, Nelson was a baby, and Chatham was the principal Royal Dockyard. However, by the time she was launched six years later, that war was over.

That didn’t stop Victory gaining attention, however, as the exhibition’s Guest Curator, the naval historian Brian Lavery, discovered during his research.

Designed by Sir Thomas Slade, the 100-gun, first-rate ship took approximately 6,000 trees to build and was the most technically advanced at her time. She was also longer than her predecessors and the night before her launch her increased hull width was keeping one man in particular awake –Hartly Larkin, who was in charge of setting up the ropes and tackle that would haul her out of dock.

Too large to launch, HMS Victory was due to be floated out of her dock on 7 May 1765, but her ‘foreman afloat’ was worried that she was too wide to fit through the dock’s gates.

Rousing his colleagues from sleep, Hartly set out to measure HMS Victory and discovered that she was indeed nine and a half inches too wide.

Alerting his superiors to the problem, he then gathered his fellow shipwrights to hack away part of the gates and, with some relief, HMS Victory floated out into the Medway the following day without incident.

It’s easy to think that, having been saved from what could have been a disastrous and somewhat embarrassing launch, HMS Victory was immediately called into the battle that made her name. But the start of her career was far more mundane and, for 20 years she sat, rotting, in the Medway.

In danger of sinking, she was twice bought into the dock for urgent repair but her useful life was just about to begin and it would be yet another 20 years before she would team up with Vice- Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1805.

Although now permanently housed in dry dock at Portsmouth, HMS Victory is still a commissioned warship. During her active career she led fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars.

Her story is long, varied and filled with tales of espionage, danger and courage. Alex Patterson, Chatham Dockyard’s Collection and Galleries Manager, is one of the people now responsible for highlighting Victory’s extraordinary career and he said that putting together the exhibition has been “great fun but a bit of a challenge, like a really good puzzle.”

It seems to have been worth it, however, as Alex goes on to add that the new exhibition looks “almost as if it has leapt off the designer’s page and into the gallery.”

Using a palette of blues and reds inspired by the stunning figurehead that once graced the now-famous ship, the exhibition showcases a unique and intriguing collection of models, paintings, manuscripts and objects to help reveal Victory’s story.

There are too many highlights to mention but two of Alex’s favourites are a stunning, jewel-encrusted presentation sword symbolising the powerful connection between HMS Victory and the City of London and a canvas painting so evocative that it’s been known to make some viewers feel seasick.

Some of the items on show are rarely seen in public and have been generously lent to the exhibition by individuals such as The Rt. Hon Lord de Saumarez and The Rt. Hon Lord Somerleyton.

Numerous others have been kindly lent by larger institutions such as The National Museum of the Royal Navy, The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, The British Library and the Trustees of the British Museum.

One very important artefact that’s bound to attract a lot of attention is the actual bullet that killed Nelson, which is on loan from Her Majesty the Queen.

Originally saved by William Beatty, the surgeon who treated Nelson during his last battle, the tiny bullet has been kept safe inside a locket which was worn by Beatty until his death in 1842 when it was presented to Queen Victoria.

When asked why people should come and see the exhibition, Alex says: “It’s an exhibition for all, not for a specialist audience. It’s for anyone who has got even a vague interest in history or who likes to look at beautiful artwork or craftsmanship and models.

“We have treated the ship as a person really, she has taken on this life force in the national consciousness and she has her own personality. You can see that in the various ways she has been painted and recorded over time.”

Alex adds: “We often talk about the Victory in terms of Trafalgar, but we want to tell the other stories, the untold stories that surround her and make her one of the greatest ships that was and is.” n

Find out more

HMS Victory: The Untold Story is at the Historic Dockyard Chatham until 31 May 2015 and more information can be found at or by calling 01634 823800.

Find out more

HMS Victory: The Untold Story is at the Historic Dockyard Chatham until 31 May 2015 and more information can be found at or by calling 01634 823800.

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