RESTORATION work on HMS Victory may be the last attempt at preserving Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship as she appears today.
In the year she celebrates her 250th birthday, The News can reveal the full extent of the work needed to keep her open to the public at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Among the issues include building a new dry dock cradle and making her top deck watertight.
Andrew Baines, curator at the National Museum of the Royal Navy and project director of HMS Victory, said they face a battle to maintain the ship as she is.
He said: ‘We are probably at the last opportunity to truly save the ship and make sure that significant historic material is going to survive in her.’
Since taking ownership of Victory in 2012, the museum has taken a slow approach to the work, as fears grow this is the final chance of a project this size can be done on the timber ship.
Mr Baines and his team are looking to make the top deck waterproof.
Rainwater is currently leaking through, causing the lower decks to rot and mould, and making the wooden beams decay.
The museum said it wants to maintain the ‘historical integrity’ of the ship, rather than just replace parts of her.
It conducted a ship-wide survey – at a cost of £550,000 – to give it a better understanding of the warship’s condition.
This found that the keel of the ship has been dropping half-a-centimetre each year, causing her to bulge and putting pressure on the 90-year-old cradle she sits on.
Because of this her top masts have yet to be reinstalled, as the pressure of reintroducing these 25-ton masts could compromise the structure of the ship.
Mr Baines added: ‘The problem we had when we took over the ship was she had water pouring into her and was beginning to collapse, albeit slowly, it was still enough to raise our awareness of it.
‘We are moving as fast as we can, money isn’t an issue, it’s just the complexity of Victory and the issues that she holds. No-one has ever dealt with a conservation project this size and we don’t want to experiment with a prized museum artefact.
‘We aim to avoid putting her in a big building like the Mary Rose Museum, closing her off to the public. This is why it is essential that we take a slow approach and important to preserve her heritage.’
‘The last time a large-scale conservation project took place on Victory it took them 50 years.
‘It is a very long and expensive process, so when we started we needed to be certain that we got it 100 per cent correct.
‘We are probably at the last opportunity to truly save the ship and make sure that the historical material she holds survives.’
Since taking ownership of Victory in 2012, the museum has been working along guidelines set by National Historic Ships, to establish it is taking the correct measures in conducting a task of this magnitude.
It all started with £1m investment, caulking the decks of the ship, to make sure that the whole ship is watertight.
This was a huge problem as the ship was leaking a huge amount of rain water, leading to mold and rot.
A major part of protecting the vessel was the commissioning of a ship-wide survey costing £550,000.
The results produced 3D images of Victory and gave the conservation team pointers to significant damage that needed attention.
It showed that the keel has been dropping by half a centimetre a year due to water damage.
It also found that the current dry dock cradle was putting stress on Victory’s hull.
‘From February we have been working on a re-designed berthing cradle to better support the ship,’ added Mr Baines.
‘This will help us develop our long-term plan.
‘Once the ship is stable, we can make sure there is no more water leaking in, then move onto the big part of the project, which would be re-rigging the whole ship.
‘We don’t want to close off areas of her, paint over them and pretend like nothing has changed. We want the public to be aware of the efforts taken to preserve this historical artefact.’
Victory has been in dry dock since 1922 and has seen more than 25m people walk along her decks.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city, with the appeal of standing where Nelson died during the Battle of Trafalgar a major draw for tourists.
The museum has made it clear it wants to keep Victory open to the elements, at all costs, and is hoping to avoid closing her off to the public like the Mary Rose. Head of communications and operations at the dockyard, Jacquie Shaw said: ‘Along with the Mary Rose Museum, Victory is certainly one of the most visited attractions in Portsmouth.
‘We’ve got to continue to make her accessible to visitors so that we can carry on telling her story, but we have also got to be mindful, as we have been gifted this wonderful asset and we have to maintain her for future generations.
‘She’s had a long career and she’s had a lot of re-fits and our primary purpose it to secure her long-term security.’
Along with the protection of the ship’s structure, the museum is working on a new strategy of how to display the historical artefacts she holds.
The idea is to make this time-weary ship’s tale more accurate and presented in such a way that it engages the public.
Mr Baines and his team are currently looking through archived research and a new archaeological survey so that the full story of Victory can be told.
The curator expects this element of the project to be complete by 2016.
Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Donna Jones, says the preservation of HMS Victory is vital for the city, as it is such a prominent figure of heritage in Portsmouth.
As a regular visitor to the Historic Dockyard, Cllr Jones has witnessed first-hand the extent of the work the conservation team has to do, from fixing portholes on the north side, to reinstalling her top masts, which have been down since 2011.
Cllr Jones said: ‘It is absolutely vital that Victory stays the way she is, as the historic dockyard would not be the same.
‘HMS Victory is one of the greatest assets of heritage this city has, therefore holds special significance to the people of Portsmouth.
‘In terms of the economy, Victory is a huge part of bringing tourists into the city.
‘I have seen the work they are doing first-hand on the ship and fully support everything they are doing.’
The main aim for Mr Baines is to make sure that the ship’s structure is stable before any further work, which could potentially compromise her, is done.
This is why Victory’s top mast are yet to be reinstalled, weighing 25 tonnes per mast, which would put extra weight on the ship’s keel.
The curator has insisted that there is no rush to get her mast back up, saying even though they add to the aesthetics of the warship, it is more important to
preserve her historical integrity.
The museum has not forecast a completion date for when the project will be finished, however, it said it intend to take a slow approach, as to make the ship 100 per cent secure.
HMS Victory timeline
December 1758 - The British government decides to build 12 new ships, one of which is a yet-unnamed first-rate ship of 100 guns.
July 23, 1759 - Keel of new first rate ship is laid down at Chatham Dockyard.
October 13, 1760 - New ship is named Victory
May 7, 1765 - Floated out of dock at Chatham
April 13, 1778 - Commissioned for service in the American War of Independence under Admiral Augustus Keppel.
July 27, 1778 - Fights in the inconclusive first Battle of Ushant.
1780 - Repairs made in Portsmouth, with copper sheathing fitted for first time.
December 12, 1781 - Captures a convoy of troopships at second Battle of Ushant under Admiral Richard Kempenfelt.
1793 -1794 - Flagship of Mediterranean fleet under Admiral Lord Hood.
February 14, 1797 - Flagship at Battle of Cape St Vincent under Admiral Sir John Jervis.
1798 - 1799 - She was fitted as a hospital ship.
1800 - 1803 - Underwent extensive repair at Chatham.
1803 - 1805 - Flag ship for Admiral Lord Nelson in the Mediterranean.
October 21, 1805 - Fights in the Battle of Trafalgar.
1806 - 1808 - Further repairs done to her at Chatham.
November 7, 1812 - Enters Portsmouth harbour for a final time.
1814 - 1816 - Victory is extensively rebuilt at Portsmouth harbour.
1824 - 1830 - Flagship of the Port Admiral in Portsmouth.
1903 - Rammed and severely damaged by HMS Neptune.
1922 - Placed into dry dock for extensive repairs.
1928 - Repairs complete and she is open to the public.
March 10, 1941 - Damaged during bombing raid.
1955 - Start of the ‘great repair’.
2002 - Work of the ‘great repair’ completed.
2009 - 200th anniversary of the laying of the keel.
March 29, 2012 - Ownership transferred to the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
February 2014 - Designs of new berthing cradle underway.