Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Preservation of HMS Victory

Recently, the extent of the restoration and repair work needed to maintain the Victory have been reported, and it seems to be extensive - which shouldn't be surprising considering it is coming up to 250 years since she was launched.  The National Museum of the Royal Navy took charge of her in 2012, so she's in safe hands, and they are taking a slow approach to make sure that the job is done right.

One of the main issues is that the ship has been leaky.  There are gaps between the planks of wood on the top deck, which of course will allow rainwater to pass down into all the beams and lower decks, and water can be very damaging to wood.  In fact, the water damage is causing a slow collapse of the ship, with the keel (the beam of wood running down the centre of the bottom of the ship which acts as a foundation) dropping by half a centimetre a year, according to a survey commissioned by the museum.  This, in turn, has meant that the ship has been putting increased pressure on the 90-year-old cradle that supports her in dry dock.  The heavy masts (weighing 25 tonnes each!) have not been put up yet, and some of the heavy iron cannons have been replaced with fibreglass ones, in order to lessen the weight of the ship and the stress on her hull.  The team of restorers are working on replacing the cradle to stabilise the ship, and then they can ensure that the ship is watertight.  They have been working on caulking the ship - this involves filling in the gaps between the planks with oakum (hemp treated with tar) and molten pitch.   Once they are sure that the structure of the ship is stable and is no longer being damaged by the elements, they can focus on re-rigging her.

'Restoring HMS Victory' by William Lionel Wyllie, 1925

In her 250 year career, Victory has undergone many repairs and refits.  The same year as receiving her first commission, in 1778, she had to be repaired after taking battle damage during the Battle of Ushant, and underwent a big repair and refit from 1787-89.  She saw a very active period of service in the Mediterranean from 1793, fighting in the Battle of Hyeres in 1795 and the Battle of Cape St Vincent (the battle where Nelson first made his name) in 1797.  Towards the end of 1797, the battered ship limped back to England and was in such a bad way that she was recommissioned as a hospital ship.  But, with the war against France intensifying, she was sent to Chatham for a complete repair and refit to return her to glory as a fighting machine.  This took two years, from 1800-03, and by the end of it she was classed as a 98-gun 2nd rate ship of the line, painted with the distinguishing black and ochre stripes.  Nelson was her first commander after this, and had his flag raised in her from 1803 until his death at Trafalgar in 1805, when Victory returned to Portsmouth.  There was another large repair in 1814-16, and in 1817 she was re-classed as a 100-gun 1st rate.  She saw no more action, however, and in 1830 was paid off into ordinary.  She remained there until 1922, when it was decided that her condition was so poor she couldn't remain afloat, and she was put into dry dock at Portsmouth (now the Historic Dockyard), where she has remained ever since.