HMS Victory’s battle-scarred sail goes on display

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A battle-scarred sail used aboard Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar has gone on display to coincide with the admiral’s 260th birthday.

The only surviving fore-topsail from the famous battle of 1805 is pock-marked with 90 shot holes suffered during the confrontation in which Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson – whose birthday is on Saturday – was fatally wounded.

It has gone on display at Storehouse 10 of the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, close to the dry-dock home of HMS Victory.

Matthew Sheldon, NMRN director of heritage, said: “HMS Victory, Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar are key to our history.

“The sail is an amazing object, scarred by battle and like HMS Victory herself, a proud survivor of an iconic battle.

“But it is also a vast handmade object from Georgian times that required great skill and knowledge to create.”

The sail laid out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy
The sail laid out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (Andrew Matthews/PA)

An NMRN spokeswoman said: “The sail has had a chequered history, remaining onboard HMS Victory until it was removed and placed in the sail loft when the ship returned to Chatham for repairs in January 1806.

“For the next century the history of the sail is somewhat obscure. Large painted letters stating ‘Victory’s Topsail’ suggests it was displayed at some time and latterly returned to the ship for the centenary of Trafalgar (1905).

“Following HMS Victory’s berthing in number two dock in Portsmouth Naval Base in 1922, the sail was again removed and many years later rediscovered in the gymnasium in the Royal Naval Barracks. It was then returned to the ship in 1967.”

The sail is laid flat for the display and accompanied by a short audio and lighting presentation featuring footage from the popular film Master And Commander.

Hollywood star Russell Crowe visited HMS Victory to research his role in the film which was a version of novelist Patrick O’Brian’s series of sea novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Diana McCormack, NMRN senior conservator, said the sail underwent considerable conservation in the bicentenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar.

She said: “The sail itself was heavily soiled and under an electron microscope contaminants could be seen to have razor-like edges that were capable of abrading the sail fibres.

“The removal of the fibres was achieved by low-suction vacuum cleaning and by gentle mechanical action.

“Our job now is to prevent any further deterioration, because the fibres are sensitive to shrinking and warping or fading if the conditions are wrong, and to find a way to put the sail on permanent display so its story of incredible survival can be shared by visitors.”

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