Nelson, HMS Victory and Abingdon Museum

One of the real curiosities in the museum collection is a small piece of wood, not shaped into anything in particular, just an irregular block. The significance lies in where the wood has come from: it is from the Victory, the famous ship which is now a major tourist attraction in Portsmouth.

There is no record how the wood came into the museum collection, but it very likely arrived in the usual way: having been in someone’s private collection for some time, the owner decided at some point that it should be in the museum, and the museum accepted it.

Why though would people keep a piece of wood from an old ship? To answer the question, one must look at the history of the ship, and the role which the vessel and its most famous commander played in the public imagination.

Work to build HMS Victory started in 1759 at Chatham Dockyard. It took 150 workmen to construct her frame, and the wood of 6,000 trees was used, most of it oak. She was launched in 1765, but not placed on active service until 1778. Admiral Augustus Keppel made her his flagship, and as that she took part in the First Battle of Ushant on 23 June 1778 against the French fleet.

In 1780 Victory was fitted with coppering, a process whereby the hull of a ship below the waterline is covered with copper sheeting, to protect it against worm damage. These marine creatures burrow into the wood, and this promotes the rotting of the timbers. The practice of covering the wood with copper gave rise to the expression ‘copper-bottomed’ which, detached from its naval context, means reliable, secure, especially in the world of finance.

Over the next decades Victory took part in several naval actions, such as the Second Battle of Ushant in 1781 and the Battle of Cape St Vincent (23 February 1796).

The Captain’s cabin on HMS Victory, photographed in 2019 by Elin Bornemann

In 1800 she underwent extensive reconstruction, with gunports added, the stern galleries remodelled and the colour scheme changed to yellow and black.

1803 was the start of the Victory’s association with the man who is probably Britain’s most famous naval commander. Vice-Admiral Nelson hoisted his flag in her in 1803. Although he temporarily shifted his flag to Amphion, he was back in Victory when he was in command during the Battle of Trafalgar. During the battle, Nelson was shot and died – you can see the alleged spot where he fell on the deck of the Victory today – and the action was brought to its conclusion by his second-in-command Lord Collingwood.

Victory was so badly damaged during the battle that she had to be towed by another ship to Gibraltar for repairs. Further repairs were necessary in the following years, and by now the ship was considered to be old and perhaps not worth keeping. In 1831 the Admiralty decided to have her broken up, but there was a public outcry, and she was left at her Portsmouth mooring. She now became a visitor attraction for the first time, and civilian visitors were given tours on board. Interest was boosted by a visit from Princess Victoria in 1833, and a second visit by Victoria, now Queen, on 21 October 1844, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. At its peak the visitor numbers were around 22,000 a year.

Restoration work on the Victory, depicted in this oil painting by William Lionel Wyllie, 1925. (public domain via Wikimedia, original painting in Royal Museums Greenwich)

In 1854, she sprang a leak and sank, but was preserved. The following 150 years are a litany of complaints about her decrepit status, her rotten hull, more leaks, emergency repairs, and attempts to preserve her for the nation. In 1920 it was decided to restore her to the configuration she would have had at Trafalgar, and a major project began. Restoration and repair work went on over a number of decades, and the project was not actually finished until 2005, in time for the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar.

Today Victory is the flagship of the First Sea Lord, making her the oldest commissioned warship. Another major restoration project started in 2011 and is still ongoing, with one of its aims to restore the upper masts. Despite being a commissioned ship, she is mainly a museum and tourist attraction, presenting to the visitor an impression of life on a man-of-war during the time of Nelson.

The upper gundeck, photographed in 2009 by Elin Bornemann. The cannons and equipment are all replicas.

There were several points in the life of the ship during which it would have been easy to take some of her timbers and break them up into souvenir-sized pieces. Any time of restoration or remodelling would have been suitable, but the most likely would have been after the battle of Trafalgar, when she was badly damaged and was repaired, but was otherwise lying in Portsmouth not doing very much. The label on the piece of wood in the museum collection is dated 1888, but this is not necessarily an indication of when the wood was taken from the ship. It is also interesting to note that the label dismissively speaks of the ‘Old Victory’, characterising the ship as a relic from a bygone age – worth being remembered for its associations but not of much value in itself. At the same time the appellation of ‘old’ Victory is somewhat misleading, as there was no ‘new’ Victory to supersede the old one.

But we still haven’t fully answered the question posed above: why would anyone think it worth having a scrap of wood from an old, admittedly famous, ship?

The answer lies in the associations already mentioned, with the Battle of Trafalgar, and Admiral Nelson.

Nelson was (and is) one of the nation’s great heroes. Even those who know nothing of Nelson’s life are probably familiar with Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square.

Horatio Nelson was born in 1758 and entered the Navy at the age of 12. His career progressed rapidly, and he was given his first command in 1778. He spent the 1780s in cruising in America and the West Indies. In 1788 his ship Boreas was paid off, and Nelson was unemployed. In 1793 he was given a new command, Agamemnon, in the Mediterranean. In 1796 he distinguished himself during the Battle of St Vincent, where he broke away from the British line, boarded one Spanish ship and forced another to surrender to him. He had disregarded his orders to achieve this, but since Jervis, the admiral in overall command, liked him, he was not punished for it. On the contrary, he was made a Knight of the Bath. The Battle of St Vincent established his reputation as a daring and dashing commander, and the British public loved him for it.

The Nelson pub on East St Helen Street in Abingdon. Admiral Nelson is depicted on the panel above the door. (Photo from the museum collection)

Nelson had now achieved the rank of rear-admiral, and continued to serve in the Mediterranean. In 1797 he led an attempt to capture Santa Cruz de Tenerife, but he was wounded during the fighting, and the action ended in failure. Nelson returned to England to recuperate and was given a hero’s welcome. In subsequent years he won more decisive victories, such as over the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. In 1803, as already mentioned, he was promoted to vice-admiral and made Victory his flagship. In 1805 he took charge of the blockade of Cadiz. On the 18th of October of that year the Franco-Spanish fleet came out of the harbour. Nelson pursued and three days later engaged them in battle. Nelson’s tactic was to divide his force into two columns, one led by himself, the other by Collingwood in Royal Sovereign. The two columns would approach the enemy line perpendicularly and cut it into two. This was very unorthodox, but it worked. The French and Spanish had more ships than the British, but they were less well prepared, even though they had orders to attack when faced by an inferior force. The battle went on for several hours. In the midst of the fighting Nelson was shot by a French musketeer and died three hours later, while the battle was still raging. The action ended with another decisive victory for the British fleet.

Such was Nelson’s standing that the whole country, including the king, mourned him. His body was brought back to England, lay in state at Greenwich for three days and was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Battle of Trafalgar has often been pinpointed as the moment at which Britain achieved unquestionable supremacy at sea, which it would retain until the Second World War. In truth the battle, while a definite victory for the British, had little influence on the course of the war being fought, but it continued to exercise the public imagination like no other naval battle has done. Nelson and Trafalgar, now inextricably linked, were celebrated and remembered over the next 200 years. A number of Nelson monuments were erected, the first one in Glasgow in 1806, followed by others in Portsmouth (1808), Edinburgh (completed 1815), Montreal in Canada (1809) and Bridgetown in Barbados (1813). Trafalgar Square in London was created in 1835, and Nelson’s column was added in 1843.

Nelson’s Monument, Montreal, Notre-Dame Street Looking West. Watercolour by Robert Auchmuty Sproule, 1830. See below for copyright notice.

Trafalgar Day, the 21st of October, was regularly celebrated – as already mentioned, this was the day on which Queen Victoria visited the Victory in 1844.

In 1905 celebrations of the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar occupied the country, with souvenir sales in aid of the Nelson Centenary Memorial Fund, a specially commissioned film and the first performance of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs (a staple of the Last Night of the Proms to this day).

The bi-centenary in 2005 was likewise marked with events around the country. As for Nelson, he is still regarded as one of the country’s greatest military heroes, and as one of the greatest Britons in general. In a 2002 BBC poll to determine the ‘greatest Britons of all time’, Nelson was in the top ten.

So these are the associations which the little piece of wood evokes. Since there doesn’t seem to have been a time when Nelson and Trafalgar were not considered worth remembering, it is easy to imagine why in 1888 someone would want to possess a piece of that famous ship. It gives a tangible connection to celebrated events. With the piece of wood from the ‘Old Victory’, you can own a piece of the action.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer

The McCord Museum allows the use of the image included above, but requires a link back to its source page, which is here: http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/imagedownload.php?accessNumber=M302&Lang=1&imageID=149385

Featured image: “Fragment of the Old Victory from Portsmouth 1888”, part of the museum collection.

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