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Portrait of Admiral Sir John Balchin, commander of HMS Victory
Three bronze cannon on the shipwreck site of HMS Victory
The dolphin handles adorning the 42-pounder bronze cannon recovered from the shipwreck site of HMS Victory
The 12-pounder and 42-pounder bronze cannon recovered from the shipwreck site of HMS Victory

HMS Victory Historical Overview

 HMS Victory was a British first-rate man-of-war constructed in Portsmouth Dockyard between 1726 and 1737, under the direction of Master Shipwright Joseph Allin. The fifth and penultimate Royal Navy ship to bear this name, the Victory was the direct predecessor and inspiration behind Admiral Lord Nelson’s iconic flagship built three decades later, bearing similar features and dimensions.

 

When launched, the Victory was considered the mightiest and most technically-advanced warship in the world, built with three elaborately decorated open galleries at the stern and armed with up to 100 bronze cannon. Historically, she was the last Royal Navy warship to be lost at sea with a complete complement of bronze guns.

 

In July of 1744, HMS Victory was dispatched under the command of one of the country’s most esteemed admirals, Sir John Balchin who had served the Royal Navy with distinction for nearly 60 years, sailing the waters of the West Indies, the Baltic, Mediterranean and English Channel on 13 different warships.

 

The recently retired Balchin was abruptly called back into active naval service to rescue a Mediterranean victualling convoy blockaded down the River Tagus at Lisbon by the notorious French Brest fleet of de Rochambeau. If these vital supplies failed to reach the Mediterranean fleet, England was at risk of losing the War of the Austrian Succession. Arriving at the Tagus River in late August, Balchin’s Victory successfully liberated the convoy, and immediately escorted it to Gibraltar. The French squadron of 12 ships retreated to Cadiz with the Victory in hot pursuit, blocking the Brest fleet in port.

 

During the course of her voyage, the Victory reportedly anchored off Lisbon, the bullion capital of Europe and the Mediterranean world, where she was loaded with a commercial cargo of gold. It is believed that here Balchin engaged in the accepted practice of carrying specie back to England. This is further confirmed by the financial newspaper Amsterdamsche Courant of November 18/19  1744, which describes Balchin’s flagship as carrying a huge sum of money when she foundered: “People will have it that on board of the Victory was a sum of 400,000 pounds (1744 face value) sterling that it had brought from Lisbon for our merchants.” Based on contemporary accounts of coinage being shipped from Lisbon at the time, this cargo most likely consisted of gold coins. If gold, this would equate to approximately 100,000, 1 oz. gold coins.

 

On her return home, as Balchin’s Victory sailed through the Western Approaches to the English Channel in early October she was caught in a violent storm and separated from the rest of the fleet. Despite damage to several other ships, all of the sails safely reached England, with the sole exception to the flagship. On October 5, 1744, HMS Victory, Britain’s premier first-rate warship—the most powerful ship in the world—was lost with all hands aboard; approximately 900 sailors, plus a complement of marines and 50 volunteers drawn from the noblest families of England, perished in the disaster, including the Admiral Sir John Balchin.

 

The loss of HMS Victory was a national calamity and speculation as to where she may have disappeared absorbed the country. Contemporary newspapers reported the subsequent discovery of wreckage on the coasts of Alderney, Guernsey and Jersey. Wreckage marked with the name Victory led to the logical presumption that she must have gone down off the Channel Isles. The prevailing belief was that she smashed into the Casquets, a group of rocky islets northwest of Alderney, protruding 10 m (approx. 30 ft.) above the water line and infamously known as the “graveyard of the English Channel.”

 

Over the course of this tragic event, the public hastened to lay blame on faulty navigation and the Alderny lighthouse keeper was even subjected to a court martial accused of failing in his duty to keep the lights on, thereby contributing to the tragedy. Soon the association between this shipwreck and the Channel Isles became institutionalized. Stamps printed in 1991 even depicted the ship sinking off Alderney, with the 18th-century lighthouse standing helplessly in the background.

 

Despite extensive physical wreckage ostensibly supporting the Victory’s loss off the Casquets, neither her hull nor any of her massive cannon were ever discovered. The Royal Navy did attempt to relocate reported wreckage from Alderney in 1744, followed by an unsuccessful mast recovery operation by the Deal in June 1745. Modern surveys have similarly failed to find a telling concentration of wreckage from the Victory on the seabed.

 

The location of the physical wreck site of Balchin’s Victory remained an enigma for nearly three centuries until its discovery by Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2008. While some of the wreckage clearly washed eastwards onto the Channel Isles, the actual wreck site—found nearly 100 km from the Casquets—finally disproves the long-standing beliefs about the Victory’s loss, and thus solves Britain’s most compelling maritime mystery. Further, Odyssey’s discovery exonerates the crew of the Victory as well as the Aldreney lighthouse keeper. Evidence instead points to the fact that HMS Victory sank as the result of a violent storm; her design and construction likely contributing to her demise.

 

 

 

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