In developing the Victory conservation project, the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) is following guidelines set out in the National Historic Ships UK (NHSUK) Publication ‘Conserving Historic Vessels’. NHSUK is clear that the first task to undertake when taking responsibility for a vessel is first aid – stop things getting worse. This we have done with Victory by projects such as caulking the upper decks and painting the hull. We have worked to stop things getting worse, but we have also spent much time working on the second of NHSUK’s priorities: improving understanding.
The right decisions for Victory’s conservation project can’t be made without a good understanding of the ship’s history. Although it may appear very strange, in 2012 we didn’t know very much about Victory’s history as an object. We knew a lot about what she had done: where she had been, the battles she had fought in, who had sailed in her and her importance to the nation; we knew the key dates – when she was built, when she was repaired, when she entered dry dock; but when asked the question ‘How much of Victory dates to her construction?’ we couldn’t give you an accurate answer, because although we knew she had been frequently repaired, we knew relatively little about what had been done in the course of those repairs, how they had been carried out and what evidence was left in the ship’s fabric. Most replies were educated guesses: ‘We think the lower gun deck dates to Trafalgar’, ‘The keel is original to when the ship was built’, ‘The rudder is very old’ and so on. In the day-to-day care of Victory, you could argue that it’s not essential to give more information than that, but it becomes very important when developing the conservation approach to the ship because understanding leads into the really key issue when making decisions: significance.
In the Victory conservation project, significance is the critically important consideration when making decisions. In fact, we don’t talk about whether or not a piece of the ship is ‘original’ because that concept doesn’t really mean anything for a very simple reason: HMS Victory is biodegradable. The ship is built from timber and oakum and canvas. When exposed to the elements these materials decay, a fact known all too well by the shipwrights who built and repaired the ship. By the time of Trafalgar, a ship like Victory was expected to last perhaps 8 or 9 years before needing very significant repair. In the period in between these 'Great' repairs, smaller programmes of repair would be undertaken, in addition to the constant maintenance undertaken when in commission by members of the ship’s crew such as the carpenter.
Victory was floated out – her construction was completed – in 1765. The Seven Years' War, the conflict that had spurred her construction, ended in 1763 and so Victory – an extremely expensive ship to operate at sea – was placed in ordinary (reserve) where she remained for almost thirteen years. Having spent £63,000 on her construction, the Royal Navy spent almost £21,000 repairing the ship in the 13 years she was afloat of Chatham in ordinary. Before the ship had been commissioned and sent to sea as an operational vessel, approximately 1/3 of her had decayed and been replaced. By the time Nelson took Victory out to the Mediterranean in 1803, the ship had been afloat 38 years and been through two ‘Great’ and many smaller repairs at a total cost of £192,000. Effectively, three times the original cost of building the ship had been spent on repairing her – taking rotten bits away and putting new bits in. This is the very nature of a wooden ship, and in many ways a good comparison is the human body. Apart from those cells in the brain, every cell in the human body is replaced at least once every twenty years (some last only weeks); Victory is just the same, the ship’s fabric has, over 250 years, worn out at differing rates and been replaced, but just as a human body, can always be described as original.
In order to decide why Victory is important, and therefore make the difficult decisions to be found in any conservation project, we assess ‘significance’. This means understanding the various ways that Victory, and parts of her, matter to people. In Victory’s case, she is significant because she is the only surviving line of battle ship from the age of sail, she is associated with many notable officers and battles, the most famous of which are Nelson and Trafalgar. She is significant also to different groups of people – if you live in Chatham, then Victory may be important to you because that is where she was built; If you serve(d) in the Navy, Victory may be important because she represents those values that the RN holds very dear. She is significant as an example of technology; because of her aesthetics and because of the information on ship construction and repair contained in her fabric. She’s significant because she can tell us some very detailed things – What colour did the Royal Navy paint its ships at the time of Trafalgar? Where did the Royal Navy get its timber from to build ships? All of these areas of signifcance, and many others, are considered as part of the process to plan how the ship’s conservation should be undertaken.
In 2013 and 2014 we undertook work to improve our understanding of the ship as an object, and therefore improve our understanding of her significance. This work was focussed on an archaeological survey of the shipwrights’ marks left on timber as part of the construction and repair process, on a study into the many different paints that can be found on the ship, and an exploration of the use of tree ring dating – dendrochronology – as a tool to help us understand the ship’s history. We’ll be writing about these, which are, believe it or not, more interesting than they might at first sound, in the future, along with explaining our approach to the ship’s conservation and some of the decisions we make, all of which will be guided not by concepts of ‘originality’ but, more importantly, ‘signifcance’.