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HMS Victory £45m restoration in nick of time as experts find wood ‘turned to compost’

Aerial photograph of HMS Victorys Victory Live experience Resized Credit NMRN
20 October 2023
The world’s most famous warship was in far worse condition than experts believed when they started a £45m revamp, with her timbers reduced to ‘potting compost’.

On the eve of the anniversary of her finest hour – leading the Fleet to a decisive triumph over the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 – the team heading the restoration of HMS Victory have revealed how urgent the overhaul was.

The ship is undergoing the most comprehensive maintenance project in her recent history, a 15-year project to restore her to how she looked as Nelson’s flagship.

A lot of the ship is currently hidden behind protective tarpaulin, having much of her rigging, masts and sails removed.

The conservation team began work on her hull in May 2022 when scaffolding was erected around the ship to allow her to dry out – Victory is now drier than at any time in her 250-year-plus history – and for work to be carried out in all weathers and for visitors to watch the shipwrights.

The restoration of the hull focuses on replacing decayed planks and damaged frames.

Andrew Baines, the project director, said: “Although a cursory look at Victory in early 2022 might have given the impression that the ship was in good condition, in reality a thin skin of paint and filler masked planking that was almost entirely rotten on the ship’s starboard side.

“As soon as the outer, sound, layer was removed, the team of shipwrights were confronted with material that no longer resembled timber and was much closer to potting compost.”

The decayed wood has been removed – but in doing so it’s revealed that the rotting had spread to the frames to a much greater extent than had been assumed, meaning more repair and replacement work.

Much work remains to be done, but we are on track to complete the project in a little less than ten years, at a cost of £40 -£45million

Mr Andrew Baines, Project Director

And while traditional shipbuilding methods fared Victory well for most of her career, more recent restoration work – after 1955 – perhaps caused as much harm as good. Nothing fitted or installed before the mid-50s needs replacing.

“Unfortunately, however, the materials and workmanship of the post-1955 material has helped contribute to the quantity of rot in the hull, and will largely be replaced,” Mr Baines said.

Fortunately, the National Museum of the Royal Navy – which looks after Victory on behalf of the Royal Navy – has carried out considerable research to understand the most appropriate materials to be used and how to minimise the risk of water getting into the timber, rot and insect infestation.

That cutting-edge scientific work comes alongside traditional methods used by shipwrights and riggers, conservators and archaeologists, documenting each stage of the revamp to learn as much as possible about the hull – and to assist future generations maintain and restore Victory when required.

All the degraded planks from the ship’s central section have now been removed, the frames are drying and detailed surveys of Victory as she stands now have been carried out ahead of the next stage of the renovation: replacing those frames and planks.

“Much work remains to be done, but we are on track to complete the project in a little less than ten years, at a cost of £40 -£45million,” Mr Baines said.

Despite the work ongoing on Victory, the traditional Trafalgar Day service and ceremony to honour Nelson and his men will take place on board the ship as normal tomorrow - and the legendary 'England expects...' signal hoisted.

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