23rd July 1759. Victory!
‘It is upon the Navy under the good providence of God that the wealth, safety and strength of the Kingdom do chiefly depend’: Articles of War 3rd Version 1661.
Discipline for the sailors was harsh with keel-hauling, the lash for looking displeased or ‘skylarking’, and though contrary to Admiralty instructions, large numbers of women were on board to maintain the morale of key crew.
Sodomy was punishable by hanging, indeed the age of Nelson has passed into legend as an age of brutality (sodomy, rum and the lash as Churchill was later to describe the Senior Service), and press gangs, though 22% of HMS Victory’s crew were said to be volunteers.
It was against this background that Today at Chatham, Kent in 1759, the keel of HMS Victory was laid down in eight separate lengths.
She had been designed by Sir Thomas Slade, Senior Surveyor to the Navy who was to give her grace, beauty and an ability to carry a powerful armament of guns.
The oak used had its bark stripped off and then allowed to dry: every ‘ship-of-the-line’ was given two oak skims to her hull. The planks were then steamed into the necessary curved shape and then fixed to oak frames with oak nails and all reinforced with iron or copper bolts.
Joiners made the furniture; smiths the iron objects and bricklayers the fire-hearths.
To make her watertight the seams were ‘caulked’ with unravelled rope called oakum, then buckets of pitch were poured along the joints.
Many a sailor could make a bit of money on the side by selling useless old rope to dealers in the book-binding and paper trades: ‘money for old rope’.
The laborious task of pulling the tarred old ropes apart fell to the unfortunate in society, a practice known as picking oakum, by those in prisons and workhouses.
Victory was too large to be built on the usual slipway, instead she lay in a dock and when she was launched, water was slowly let into the dock. She was then ready for the rigging, ropes and sails. The raw material of sails was flax, made into canvas and stitched by sail-makers.
Hemp was twisted into yarn for ropes, in lengthy rope-walks. Standing rigging held the masts and running rigging for spars and sails.
Finally ballast gave the ship extra stability and trim- Victory needed 650 tons together with 500 tons of iron bars.
Armaments were a formidable array, Victory having 104 guns on three-gun decks. The great British weapon in the days of our wooden fleet was the Carronade, introduced in 1779, a short-barrelled cannon made at the Carron Ironworks in Scotland, which threw 32 or 64 pound shot half a mile.
HMS Victory never knew at her launch she would see her greatest day with Nelson at Trafalgar, where she lost 58 men, was punched full of holes and suffered fire damage, her masts splintered and sails holed.
She was preserved at Portsmouth, after continuing for another seven years after Trafalgar, when finally put into reserve in 1812.
She is now a national treasure.