Introduction to HMS Victory  

HMS Victory Portsmouth 2019

On the 13 December 1758, the same year of Lord Nelson’s birth, the Board of Admiralty in London gave orders that twelve new line of battle ships were to be built, among them a 'first-rate' with 100 guns. The main function of those first-rate warships was being a floating gun platform to deliver shattering 'broadsides' from their powerful batteries of guns arranged in tiers on three decks. In battle the ships would line up astern of each other and sail in a line past the enemy. When the ship was abeam of their opponent they would then aim and fire their guns. The guns used in this period could not be turned and aimed at their targets like modern turret guns, so sailing in a line meant they had to bear a long onslaught for an extended period.

In 1759 it was decided that this 'first-rate'-ship would be called HMS Victory. She was designed by Thomas Slade, the Senior Surveyor of the Royal Navy and was laid down in Chatham Dockyard in Southern England. HMS Victory was launched in 1765 at a cost of £63,176 in modern-day figures - the equivalent to building an aircraft carrier. According to reports at the time it was a "bright and sunny day" when the elm keel was laid down in the old single dock at Chatham dockyard in Kent on 23 July 1759.

In March 1778 the Victory's first Captain, Sir John Lindsay took command and a month later she slipped her moorings and sailed to a point just above Sheerness. On Friday 8 May 1778, she finally set sail out to sea for the first time exactly 13 years and a day from the time of her launch.

HMS Victory first saw battle that same year under Admiral Augustus Keppel in the First Battle of Ushant, she was Howe's flagship at Cape Spartel and the ship was also called into action in the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 under Admiral Sir John Jervis.  For the next two years, she was fitted as a hospital ship. 

On the 21 October 1805, 47 years after being ordered, HMS Victory was the flagship of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. After 1824, she was relegated to the role of harbour ship. In 1903, HMS Victory was unintentionally rammed and severely damaged by HMS Neptune. In 1922, she was moved to a dry dock at Portsmouth, England, and preserved as a museum ship. Repairs to the ship were completed in 1928 and she opened to the public. However, in 1941 HMS Victory was damaged again during a bombing raid. This led to the start of the 'great repair' in 1955, which was finished in 2002.

Until 2012, the ship was the flagship of the Second Sea Lord. Ownership of the warship was transferred to the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the First Sea Lord in October 2012.  HMS Victory is the world's oldest naval ship still in commission* with 240 years of service by 2018.

*In commission means that if she was needed the Navy could sail her into battle. 


Fighting ships of the Royal Navy sailing era were divided into six 'rates', according to the number of guns they carried and the size of their crews. The first- rates were the largest and most powerful type of warship afloat at the time. They carried over a hundred guns and more than eight hundred officers and men. Her excellent sailing qualities and the extra space available for the crew made her a very popular choice for use by Admirals as their flagship. When an Admiral was on board, his presence was indicated by flying a special flag and so an Admiral's ship then became known as the ' flagship'. In Nelson's time, ships were also painted to suit the tastes of individual Admirals and Captains, the Victory was painted to suit Nelson's personal choice and was subsequently called by the Fleet ' Nelson's Chequerboard.


Trafalgar was considered to be the most decisive naval battle, both tactically and strategically in history and it was in 1899 that the custom to fly Nelson's famous 'England Expects' signal from her masts every Trafalgar Day first started. This signal is run up the mizzen mast each year on the 21st of October the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and requires 12 successive hoists for it to be complete.. The first official Admiralty signal book with its numeral code flags was only introduced in 1799 just six years before the battle, following many years of development by individual officers. The inventor of the code from which all later signal books were developed was Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham and was introduced to the fleet in 1801.  

Facts and Figures 

  • HMS Victory was built from 6,000 trees, 90 per cent of which were oak - the equivalent of 100 acres of woodlands.
  • HMS Victory has 37 sails flown from three masts and it would carry 23 spare sails during battle. The total sail area is 6,510 square yards. 
  • The top speed of the ship was 11 knots, or 12mph. General speed was 8 to 9 knots.      
  • Measures: 186 feet (gun deck) - 227 ft  (overall) - 51 ft 10 inches (beam) - 28 ft 9 inches (draft) 
  • Weight: 2,162 tons
  • Number of guns: 104
  • Number of crew: 850
  • Figurehead: The design of HMS Victory's elaborate figure-head comprises of two cupids supporting the royal coat of arms which is surmounted with the royal crown. The motto bears the Latin inscription of the Order of the Garter: Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense. Translated this means: Shame to him who evil thinks.

Milestones in the Life of HMS Victory

1759 - Keel laid 

1765 - Launched   

1778 - First commissioned 

1781 - Battle of  Ushant

1782 - Relief of Gibraltar 

1783 - End of the American Revolution 

1793 - First refit along with an increase of armament 

1794 - French Revolution 

1795 - Refits at Portsmouth and Chatham

1797 - Battle of St. Cape Vincent 

1798 - Battle of the Nile

1801 - Battle of Copenhagen

1804 - The 4th refit at Chatham  was completed

1805 - Lord Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar

1806 - Extensive repairs at Portsmouth

1808 - Re-commissioned, two Baltic campaigns

1817 - Put into reserve

1824 - Flagship for the Port Admiral

1889 - First made the Flagship for Commander-in-Chief

1903 - Accidentally rammed while under tow

1922 - Placed into No 2 dry dock for restoration which continues today