HMS Victory in the Victorian Era

HMS 'Victory' in Portsmouth Harbour with a coal ship alongside, 1828

Final Years Afloat

The Admiralty Board considered Victory too old, and in too great a disrepair, to be restored as a first-rate ship of the line. In November 1807 she was relegated to second-rate, with the removal of two 32-pounder cannons and replacement of her middle deck 24-pounders with 18-pounders obtained from other laid-up ships. She was recommissioned as a troopship between December 1810 and April 1811. In 1812 she was relocated to the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour off Gosport, for service as a floating depot and, from 1813 to 1817, as a prison ship.

Major repairs were undertaken in 1814, including the fitting of 3 ft 10 in (1.2 m) metal braces along the inside of her hull, to strengthen the timbers. This was the first use of iron in the vessel structure, other than small bolts and nails. Active service was resumed from February 1817 when she was relisted as a first-rate carrying 104 guns. However her condition remained poor, and in January 1822 she was towed into dry dock at Portsmouth for repairs to her hull. She was refloated in January 1824, and was designated as the Port admiral's flagship for Portsmouth Harbour, remaining in this role until April 1830.

Victorian Era

In 1831 the Admiralty issued orders for Victory to be broken up and her timbers reused in other vessels. A public outcry against the destruction of so famous a ship led to the order being held in abeyance and Victory was left, largely forgotten, at a Portsmouth mooring. Admiralty officially designated the ageing vessel as a ship's tender for the Port admiral's flagship HMS Wellington, and permitted civilian visitors to come aboard for tours. The ship briefly returned to the public gaze on 18 July 1833 when the queen in waiting, Princess Victoria, and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, made a visit to her quarterdeck to meet with veterans of the Trafalgar campaign. This generated a surge of interest in the vessel, and an increase in civilian visitor numbers to between 10,000 and 12,000 a year. Victoria returned for a second visit on 21 October 1844, creating a further burst of interest that lifted annual visitors to more than 22,000.

This heavy civilian presence militated against Victory's further use as a naval vessel, and she ceased her formal role as a Wellington's tender. The impact of so much human traffic also left her increasingly decrepit, particularly in the absence of Admiralty funding for repairs. Sir Edward Seymour, the future Duke of Somerset, visited the vessel in 1886 and considered that "a more rotten ship never probably flew the pennant. I could literally run my walking stick through her sides in many places.". In 1887 she sprang a catastrophic leak and it was only with some difficulty that she was prevented from sinking at her mooring. Admiralty thereafter provided a small annual subsidy for maintenance, and in 1889, Victory was restored to a military function by being fitted up as a Naval School of Telegraphy. The school remained on Victory until 1904, when training was transferred temporarily to HMS Hercules, and from 1906 to a permanent establishment at the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth.

Despite her reuse as a school, Victory continued to deteriorate at her mooring. In 1903 she was accidentally rammed by HMS Neptune, a successor to the vessel HMS Neptune, that had towed her to Gibraltar. Emergency repairs prevented her from sinking, but Admiralty again proposed that she should be scrapped and it was only the personal intervention of Edward VII that prevented this from occurring. Interest in the ship revived in 1905 when, as part of the centenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar, she was decorated with electric lights powered by a submarine moored alongside. In 1910, the Society for Nautical Research was created to try to preserve her for future generations, but Admiralty was unable to help, having become embroiled in an escalating arms race; thus by the time Frank H. Mason published The Book of British Ships in 1911, Victory's condition was described as "..nothing short of an insult". A few glimpses of the ship in 1918 are to be seen towards the end of Maurice Elvey's biopic of Nelson created in that year.