Preserving the history of HMS Victory through the archives

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Friday, April 26, 2019

The public has been able to visit HMS Victory and learn about its illustrious history first hand since the 19th century.  In the 1920s, in order to best preserve her, she was put in a dry dock and restored to her appearance at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. She was unveiled to the public in all her glory by King George V on 17 July 1928.  She retains her status as a fully commissioned ship in the Royal Navy and serves as the flagship of the Naval Home Command, but to her visitors she remains a precious museum and testament to Britain’s naval past.

HMS’s forecastle deck during repair looking over the timber heads to port bow, South Office Block can be seen in the background
HMS’s forecastle deck during repair looking over the timber heads to port bow, South Office Block can be seen in the background.

As such, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which looks after HMS Victory, has become a repository for precious documentation regarding the ship and relics, all of which can help tell her story. These documents and artefacts relate to HMS Victory’s survival as the oldest commissioned ship in the world. They also pertain to those that served on the ship and their achievements in the navy. The considerable collection has been preserved by the museum, acquired or been kindly donated by our benefactors.  

For example, we recently unveiled a box of correspondence relating to Thomas Kains, who was purser on HMS Victory during the mid 19th century.  He had also been on board ship during the American War of Independence. During that time, he had taken possession of a medical box which originally belonged in the White House. This medical box was later returned to the US President by one of Mr Kains’ descendants and the box of correspondence contained a delightful thank you letter from Franklin D Roosevelt, dated 26 April 1939, signed in his own hand, thanking the family for the return.

Letter dated 26 April 1939 signed by FD Roosevelt to Archibald Kains thanking him for the return of the medicine chest taken by Thomas Kains in 1812

The collection contains many such treasures and surprises. In order to best preserve them, the Historic Ships Conservation team, together with a small fleet of volunteers, are going through the archives methodically and cataloguing them on a comprehensive collections management system. This will  include all the documentation collected in relation to HMS Victory, her restoration and conservation , letters, photos, plans and technical reports.The catalogue will also include a record of all the artefacts that the museum has collected or had donated, enabling the conservation team to fully realise and understand their resourceful collection. 

As more information is added to the catalogue it will be an invaluable tool for research for  the museum, its partners and the public. The aim is to record this information to reveal  the story of HMS Victory’s survival, life on board ship and life in the dockyards.  

Part of HMS Victory Orlop Deck restoration to 1805 condition, probably made around 1925