HMS Victory, Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, is among the world’s best-known naval vessels, but an earlier Victory has been capturing headlines around the globe.
Lord Nelson’s ship, which can still be seen in Portsmouth, survived battle against the French and Spanish to become a priceless historical artefact, a tourist attraction and a symbol of Britain’s maritime power.
Her predecessor, on the other hand, sank in a terrible storm on 4 October 1744 and her whereabouts remained a mystery until she was located by Odyssey Marine Exploration, reputedly in May last year.
Any wreck called HMS Victory was likely to cause a stir, but when Odyssey’s latest find was announced last month there was a minor media frenzy because of the four tons of gold – now valued at £700 million – that the ship is supposed to have been carrying when she met her end.
As a result, for the time being at least, the first Victory’s imposing gilded stern galleries and bronze cannon are likely to be as familiar in the popular imagination as the black and yellow livery of the ‘wooden walls’ of Nelson’s great man of war. But how was the first Victory lost and why was she carrying so much gold?
Britain, then ruled by George II, whose statue still looks over our Royal Square, declared war against France in March 1744.
In July of that year a squadron of 14 ships under Admiral Sir John Balchin – sometimes rendered as Balchen – sailed for the Mediterranean, but on the way they went to the aid of Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, whose escorts and supply ships had been blockaded in the River Tagus in Portugal.
Sir John, who was 74 and had been called out of retirement to lead the mission and rewarded with his knighthood for agreeing to do so, was widely respected not only by the public but also by men he had commanded during a long career at sea.
The British squadron, supplemented by 20 Dutch ships, put the French blockaders to flight and then sailed on to Gibraltar. On the voyage, however, six heavily laden French ships sailing home from the West Indies were intercepted and captured.
These vessels no doubt furnished the riches now said to be in the wreck of the Victory. The prize ships also promised to make the fortune which, to that date, had eluded Sir John, even though he had already distinguished himself as a naval officer in three successive wars, the Nine Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession and the War of the Quadruple Alliance.
The British squadron sailed for home in the autumn, but was hit by a fierce storm which battered the returning ships not only in Biscay but also as they neared safety in the English Channel. The squadron was scattered, but most of its ships made port, though in a sorry condition.
HMS Exeter was dismasted and HMS Duke had ten feet of water below decks when she reached safety.
Although Victory was widely held to be the finest man-of-war in the British fleet, she had shortcomings.
In spite of being built on the frames of an earlier vessel, HMS Royal James, which was commissioned in 1675 and later scrapped, she was an impressive structure.
Categorised as a first-rate ship of the line with a length of slightly under 175 ft and a beam of 50 ft, she carried 110 guns and a complement of 1,150 sailors and marines. But she was criticised for her massive stern galleries, which were seen as ostentatious at the expense of seaworthiness.
No one will ever know if top-heavy superstructure contributed to the loss of Sir John’s command and the deaths of all those aboard. However, what is certain is that the vessel foundered in the great storm.
Flotsam from the wreck washed up in Alderney, Guernsey and even Jersey, and a body thought to have been that of a Victory crew member floated ashore in Cornwall weeks after the disaster, but at the time it was never established why the vessel sank or where her remains lay.
It has long been supposed that disaster overtook Victory when she was driven onto the Casquets, the dangerous reef that lies north-west of Alderney. However, when Odyssey Marine announced their discovery, their chief executive, former advertising high flyer Greg Stemm, said that the wreck was 50 miles from the area where other treasure seekers had searched, lying in 300 feet of water.
It seems unlikely that any ship that struck the Casquets in a severe storm would be damaged in a way that would allow it to make a further 50 miles’ headway before sinking.
Greg Stemm and investors in his company, which went public ten years ago, are no doubt delighted to have discovered such a famous and potentially rich wreck, but the hard part of their work may still be ahead.
If the reputed gold is there, it can be salvaged.
So, too, can the bronze cannon, said to be worth up to £30,000 each. But the wreck remains the property of the British Navy and its contents the property of the British government, so how the spoils might be divided is hard to say.
And given that Odyssey Marine has made an average loss of $20 million every year of its existence so far, the division of those spoils could be critical to its future. It has been claimed that the lighthouse keeper on the Casquets was prosecuted for not having attended to his fires during the storm which sank the Victory.
Given the apparent location of the wreck far from the reef, he might have been unjustly accused of being responsible for a disaster. It is nevertheless the case that a warning light had been set up on the rocks by the time of the 1744 storm.
In 1722 a group of shipowners asked a Thomas Le Cocq, who had some form of jurisdiction over the Casquets, to establish a lighthouse for the recompense of a halfpenny for every ton of shipping that passed by. He duly saw that three towers were erected on the highest rock of the reef and that they carried braziers sheltered behind glazed screens.
But the towers were only 30 ft high, so in a Channel storm it is probable that their lights would have been obscured by rain and spray – even if the Victory had been in the vicinity when in peril.
• Words: Rob Shipley
• Picture: Admiral Sir John Balchin, who commanded the Victory. AP Picture by Kirsty Wigglesworth