Over the past year I’ve been researching HMS Victory, the 251 year old warship preserved in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The Victory is already the subject of dozens of publications, but these focus almost exclusively on the ship’s military career – so the famous battles it fought in, the famous admirals in command – and focussing especially on its role as the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
But despite all of this published work, for me, the most interesting, and largely forgotten chapter of the ship’s history is actually its preservation and restoration in the 1920s. This was when an organisation called the Society for Nautical Research, who were a motley crew of antiquarians, naval architects, artists, and retired admirals persuaded the Admiralty to let them take control of the Victory’s future. By 1921 the Victory was found to be badly decayed: the First World War had seen to it that the Admiralty’s attention and resources had been distracted elsewhere.
The Victory’s restoration was new ground for heritage conservation in Britain. Historic buildings had certainly been restored before – but never a historic ship of this scale. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the Society for Nautical Research were almost making it up as they went along. But what I’d like to argue is that the decisions the restorers made were actually very logical when considered in light of their intentions for the ship, which were not only to preserve it, but to restore it as a national, or even empire-wide memorial to British imperialism.
So my research is really about proving to people that the Victory was seen as an imperialist monument, and exploring what that actually meant to people in the 1920s. It’s also about exploring what impact this status had on how the ship was restored. Both of these things still shape how we understand the Victory today.
The Victory and Imperialism
Admiral Doveton Sturdee was head of the Society for Nautical Research and so in charge of fundraising for the restoration. According to the Portsmouth Evening News Sturdee:
‘…wanted to encourage patriotism in the children. They had to hand this Empire down to the next generation, and they wanted an emblem like that ship, which had enabled the British Empire to be formed. He felt sure that they were going to make the Victory a national memorial.’ (Portsmouth Evening News, 1/6/1923. SNR 7/2, Caird Library, Greenwich.)
Admiral Sturdee would have grown up during the rapid and brutal expansion of the British Empire in the 1880s – and he would have seen this as a good thing. His generation were very anxious about the future of the Empire. Remember this was just after the First World War, and Britain’s various colonies were starting to make a move towards independence. The Victory was a symbol of the historic role of the Royal Navy in keeping Britain’s empire secure, and this meant the ship could be used as a tool to teach young men and women about their imperial responsibilities.
Admiral Nelson and the ‘shrine of manly virtues’
In 1923, Admiral Fremantle, who was Commander in Chief of Portsmouth, described the Victory as:
‘the emblem of the sea power of Great Britain and the shrine of manly virtues so eminently displayed by the great seamen who lived and fought in her.’ (Portsmouth Evening News, 1/6/1923. SNR 7/2, Caird Library, Greenwich.)
The ‘manly virtues’ that the Victory represented belonged of course to Admiral Nelson. The restorers moved a version of The Death of Nelson by Arthur William Devis to the presumed site of Nelson’s death on the Orlop Deck of HMS Victory. As you can see from the early twentieth century postcard below, they set up a literal shrine to Nelson around this painting. This was a shrine to Nelson’s devotion to duty and personal sacrifice. After the devastating loss of life at sea during the First World War, it was these values – not heroic action, or military victory – that people believed were key to defending both nation and empire. (To know more, see Mary Conley’s From Jack Tar to Union Jack (Manchester University Press, 2009)).
Incidentally I still think that we see the Victory today as something of a ‘shrine of manly virtues’. Take a look at the reaction from the Daily Mail and colleagues when the ship was repainted last year.
Restoration and Imperialism
The fascinating thing about this is that in theory, the choice to restore the ship ‘as at Trafalgar’ should have been controversial. To give you some context, heritage conservation campaigners were a forceful presence in 1920s Britain, led by the likes of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the National Trust. They strongly objected to restoration of historic buildings on principle – too many Tudor additions to cathedrals had been stripped away by overzealous Victorian restorers, who wanted to bring these buildings completely back to their medieval roots. And yet almost no one objected to the Society for Nautical Research’s plan to restore the Victory back to how it looked in 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. And this was despite some interesting historical features of the ship – including the 1820 bow – being marked for removal by this plan.
I think the answer to this must be that people really agreed with the Society for Nautical Research’s vision for the ship. The restoration of the Victory would allow visitors to see the ship as Nelson would have seen it, and feel closer to their idol as result. Restoration made the ship a much more powerful political monument than just repairing it without changes to its appearance. It was therefore, in the eyes of the public, completely justified.
Sarah Westbury joined the University of Southampton as a Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute / Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar in autumn 2015. Her research seeks to understand the cultural, political and professional ideologies that shaped the restoration of HMS Victory in the early twentieth century. She worked in the museum and heritage sector after completing a BA in History and MA in Museum Studies at Durham University, and currently works part-time for Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sarah_westbury