What Sank the Victory?


For 264 years Britain’s greatest flagship was thought to have sunk off Alderney, lured onto the Casket rocks by a negligent lighthouse keeper. New evidence published by the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Odyssey Marine Exploration instead reveals scandals in the royal shipyards that might have made the First Rate Victory a disaster waiting to happen.

Three papers are now available on the Victory 1744 website:

• The loss on 4 October 1744 of the battleship the Victory gave birth to one of the most enduring mysteries in British maritime history: how could the greatest warship of the Georgian age of sail, manned by up to 1,100 people and armed with 100 bronze guns, simply vanish? Reports of mass wreckage washed onto the Channel Isles, confirmed by an Admiralty search and rescue mission, inspired a belief that the Victory collided with the black rocks of the Caskets and was lost off Alderney. An enquiry held by Trinity House investigated claims that the dozy keeper of the Casket lighthouse failed to keep its lights burning and was the main cause of the flagship’s loss. This article presents the historical evidence underlying the myth of the Caskets sinking and the evidence for the alleged inattentiveness of the lighthouse keeper.

• The sinking of the Victory was widely attributed to defects in her construction. The era when she was built in Portsmouth dockyard from 1733-37 coincided with a period when the proportions of warships and the leadership of the surveyor general of the navy were severely questioned. Matters came to a head in a series of extraordinary attacks on the establishment in 1744 by Admiral Edward Vernon, ‘Old Grog’ himself. The Victory’s construction overlapped with a succession of moderate winters from 1730-39 that made the seasoning of cut timbers for shipbuilding a long, if not impossible, process. Combined with declining wood supplies in the New Forest, wood rotation mismanagement in dockyards, and criticisms of inadequate ship ventilation causing internal dry rot, this article enquires whether the sinking of the Victory was a matter of ill winds and stormy seas or was alternatively caused by human error – a disaster waiting to happen.

ROV(120120208085534)ATL-12-ROV-S-00511 copy 3• After three decades of shipwreck salvage, the pioneering veteran diver, John Lethbridge, approached the Admiralty in mid-December 1744 with a plan to seek and salvage the Victory using his proprietory diving-barrel. Lethbridge’s two letters of petition, and an accompanying note, are important documents in the history of diving and for understanding the folklore that believed the Victory sank off the Caskets. Trevor Newman’s article presents John Lethbridge’s Victory letters for the first time, reconstructs the final hours of Admiral Balchen’s fleet and offers a forensic analysis of the flagship’s sinking by catastrophically having brought by the lee after the ship was overtaken by huge waves from astern.

Or see the latest issue of Current Archaeology for a nine-page popular spread.

Also covered in The Independent.

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