The largest single artefact left from the Battle of Trafalgar is the Fore Topsail of HMS Victory. Measuring 80 foot at its base, 54 foot at the head and 54 feet deep, the sail covers an area of 3,618 square feet. It is pock marked by some 90 shot holes and further apertures caused by 19th century souvenir hunters, the sail provides much information of sail construction and the skills of the dockyard sailmakers. It is thought that this is the only sail in existence from the battle and is therefore a unique and important artefact. The sail also has never been hoisted since the Battle of Trafalgar. Funded principally by the Society of Nautical Research the sail has been cleaned, conserved and is displayed in Storehouse 10 at Portsmouth Naval Dockyard. The sail is open from 10 o'clock each day and admission is included in your VICTORY entrance fee.
Until 1993 the sail had a very chequered history. Initially made in the Sail Loft at Chatham when HMS Victory was completing her repair in 1803, the sail remained on board the ship until it was removed to the sail loft when the ship returned to Chatham for repairs in January 1806 after the battle. Contemporary records show that during this period the sail was repaired using 20 yards of No 4 canvas (the repair was undertaken at Portsmouth on the 19th August 1805 after Nelson's Great Chase across the Atlantic and prior to the Battle of Trafalgar) this section of canvas can be identified on the sail today. For the next century the history of the sail is somewhat obscure. We do know that it was put on display hence the large painted letters on the sail stating `VICTORY's Fore Topsail'. It appears that the sail was returned to the ship: photographic evidence circa 1905 (centenary of Trafalgar) supporting this is held in the RN Museum. After Victory was berthed in NO 2 Dock in 1922 the sail was again removed from the ship possibly in 1934/5. Many years later it was discovered in the gymnasium in the Royal Naval Barracks - HMS VICTORY (HMS NELSON today). After inspection with a view to conservation in 1962, it was returned to the ship in 1967 and displayed in the Larboard Cable Tier on the Orlop Deck.
Throughout the intervening period the sail remained in a large glass case on display to the public. In order to confirm its authenticity plans were set in motion to ensure that the sail was analysed and that proper conservation work was undertaken to protect the sail from further deterioration. To effect this the sail was again removed from the ship on 22nd April 1993 and taken to a hanger in HMS DAEDALUS where it was inspected by representatives from the Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) based at Hampton Court. Measures were undertaken by the ship to raise funds for the work; this was greatly assisted by a grant of £16000 from Hampshire County Council (Defence of the Realm) and the Society of Nautical Research. The curator of the ship also took steps to fully document proceedings for historic record purposes. The sail was then moved to Albion Woods Show Tents of Chippenham to dry out and on Trafalgar Day 1995 to the Carpet Conservation Workshop (CCW) at Salisbury where space and expertise was available to carry out conservation and historical data collection. All conservation work was then primarily led by Sharon Manitta of the CCW. Here, after fixing grid lines, the entire surface of the sail was drawn, mapped, photographed and recorded on video film and documented. Severed bolt ropes that surround the sail were restored with new rope spliced by Portsmouth Naval Base rigger, John Hayes, and his assistant to maintain the shape of the sail. Care was taken to ensure that repairs were in contrast to the original materials. Afterwards, the sail was carefully washed and conserved using mild solvents to eradicate any areas of mildew. On analysis much information was discovered from the sail such as trade names of the Dundee weavers who manufactured the bolts of sail cloth for the Navy. Consultation with the Dundee Heritage Trust revealed details relating to the origins of the various trade marks found printed on the sail.