Through the Ages – The HMS Victory
There have been many famous sailing ships throughout history and one of the most famous can still be visited today. It is an amazing feeling to be able to stand on a ship that has been around for so long and you can almost feel the spirits of the sailors that once lived and worked on this grand old vessel.
The HMS Victory was launched in 1765 and cost (in today’s terms) the equivalent of what it would cost to build a modern aircraft carrier.
The ship was captained by various men and saw many battles. It was even used at one time as a hospital ship. But perhaps the most famous of all its captains was Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
Nelson took charge of the Victory in May 1803 and took part in Mediterranean service until April 1805 at which time the ship was put in dry dock for general maintenance.
On October 21st 1805 Nelson once again took charge of the ship and used her in the famous Battle of Trafalgar.
Life on the ship
Many of the men on board would not have been actual sailors. It was common at that time to ‘press gang’ people on land. This meant that groups of sailors would go out at night and basically kidnap young men and take them on board a ship to use as crew.
This was a legal right given to the Navy – to gain a crew to man a ship in times of war through force or otherwise.
Some of these men would have had skills such as carpentry or sailmaking. These men would be given duties that would best utilise their skills.
Other men would have no skill at all and would be classed as either ‘waisters, idlers or landsmen’ and would be given menial chores such as general domestic duties.
The day was split into groups of hours called watches and it was up to the experienced and skilled seamen to maintain each watch.
The duties of the watch included not only looking out for potential hazards in the water but to set the sails and steer and navigate the ship through the waters.
|Afternoon Watch||– 1200-1600|
|First Dog Watch||– 1600 – 1800|
|Last Dog Watch||– 1800-2000|
|First Watch||– 2000-2359|
|Middle Watch||– 2359-0400|
|Morning Watch||– 0400 – 0800|
|Forenoon Watch||– 0800 – 1200A|
Day At Sea
The day for the cook and his team would start at 0500 when they would prepare the food for the day ahead and make sure that the oven or range was fired up.
The domestic crew would be up next at 0530 and would have to scrub the deck on their hands and knees with sand and blocks of sandstone called holystone (they were the size of bibles). All the brass fittings would also need to be polished.
The crew slept belowdecks in hammocks strung from the rafters and they would be awoken by the whistles and shouts of the boatswains calling, “All hands ahoy”. The men would have to leap out of their hammocks, tie them up and get dressed.
0800 was breakfast and this generally consisted of a porridge that was sweetened with molasses and called burgoo.
The sailors would then go about their watches and those not on watch would see to the general maintenance of the ship. Meanwhile the ‘idlers’ would pump the bilge’s and carry out other such domestic chores – washing the beams with vinegar was another chore and this was to keep woodworms at bay.
1100 and it was time for the daily punishments to be carried out by the Captain. He would lash the offender with the cat-o-nine-tails and the whole ships’ company would be forced to watch by way of warning to other likely offenders.
12 noon was the time for the Captain and his Masters to set the ships speed for the day, use their sextants to gage the sun and put the clocks forward or back depending on where the ship was sailing.
Lunchtime was the highlight of the day for the ships crew were given a hot meal of meat and vegetables or porridge. Fresh meat was sometimes kept on board in the form of chickens but if no fresh meat was available, salted pork or fish was served and the men called this ‘junk’. An alcoholic drink was issued to the men and this was usually some beer or rum mixed with lemon to aid scurvy.
After lunch the crew would start their training on the guns or other parts of the ships equipment. Men not required for the training would take part in their watches or go belowdecks to mend clothing or have a nap.
1600 was suppertime but that was not very exciting. The second part of the day’s alcohol ration would be handed out along with some ships biscuits and maybe a piece of cheese.
The ‘beat to quarters’ would be sounded by the Royal Marine drummer after supper and this told the crew to go to their allocated positions to ensure that each man knew exactly where he should be in the case of a battle.
The ‘down hammocks’ would then be piped and the men would have to go and unfold and hang their hammocks in a short space of time. Imagine having to sort out your hammock in a confined space with 800 other men!
2000 was the start of the First Watch and the time for the rest of the crew to sleep. At 2100 the Master at Arms would go around the ship with his team and make sure that everyone was behaving themselves and that nobody was drunk.
Every day was much the same on board ship but at times the Captain would make sure that other tasks were completed such as scrubbing the hammocks, washing the clothes and washing themselves!
The sign language sign for biscuit is a rap of the elbow and this harks back to ships biscuits. These biscuits were often full of maggots or weevils and the sailors used to tap the biscuit on their elbow to try to knock out the wrigglies!
This is an ailment caused by a lack of vitamin C and ascorbic acid and was rife among sailors. Symptoms include anaemia and sore joints that develops into intense pain and causes the legs to form a frog like position.
Tiredness and irritability are also part of scurvy but it is the pain of the joints and the purple swellings and bleeding of the gums that makes scurvy hard to bear.
The poor sailors must have felt at death’s door swinging in their hammocks and the pain of scurvy driving them mad.
|The Men on the Victory|
|Non-commissioned and warrant officers||16|
|Petty officers 61||61|
|Supply, supernumeraries & admiral’s retinue||43|
|Boys (1st, 2nd, & 3rd class)||31|
There were 821 men on board the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar (including Nelson himself) and 57 men died whilst 102 were wounded.
According to the ships records, the youngest person on board was 12 years old (Thomas Twitchet) and the oldest was 67 years old (Walter Burke).
It was common for young boys like Thomas to be sent to sea. Some were sold to the Navy by their parents, others were homeless and thought a life at sea was at least a life. Magistrates sent some boys to sea and some were sent by the Marine Society.
These Marine Society boys were taught the basics of life at sea as well as how to read and write and would often climb up the ranks, as they grew older.
Boys would start on a salary of £7 a year and they would do general ships duties such as cleaning the toilets and they were treated very poorly indeed.
The French, under Napoleon Bonaparte had threatened to invade Europe with his Grand Armeé for the past 2 years and the HMS Victory was just one of the many Royal Navy ships that were sent to stop him in his tracks at what has been known since as the Battle of Trafalgar.
Admiral Lord Nelson was already a revered sailor who commanded respect from his crew and the strategy that he used in the Battle of Trafalgar was one that was named the ‘Nelson Touch’ and changed the course of naval warfare.
Although not one of the British fleets 27 ships had been sunk and the Battle of Trafalgar was won by the British, 449 men had been killed by French fire, including Nelson himself.
The Battle of Trafalgar and the life of Admiral Lord Nelson and the love of his life, Lady Emma Hamilton has gone down in history and the HMS Victory can still be seen today in Plymouth, England.
Although it saw many more battles after Trafalgar, it was for this battle that it is best known and after her career ended in November 1812 she was put in dock at Portsmouth after which time she started to fall into disrepair.
She was moved to Plymouth in 1922 and along with help from the Society for Nautical Research, the Government and the Royal Navy, she was refitted and is open to the public as a reminder of the life of Admiral Lord Nelson and the British supremacy of the seas.
You can visit HMS Victory at the Portsmouth Naval Base in Portsmouth, England.