Admiral Sir John Balchen (1670-1744) and HMS Victory 1744

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 Admiral Sir John Balchen (1670-1744) and HMS Victory 1744

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    Alan Smith

    I am in my second year MA Naval History at University of Portsmouth/National Museum of the Royal Navy and am working on this topic for my dissertation, helped by a widespread opinion survey on why Balchen and Victory (1744) seem to have disappeared from most of the latest naval history/shipwreck published literature. Any short, sharp opinions much appreciated! My question is:

    “On the night of 3rd/4th October 1744, Admiral Sir John Balchen and 1,100 souls perished in the storm that wrecked HMS Victory, the greatest warship in the world at the time. Having served in the Royal Navy for 58 years, been captured by the French twice and twice exonerated by courts martial, retired and then brought back for this final, fatal commission, Admiral Balchen has, apart from his memorial in Westminster Abbey and his portrait in the National Maritime Museum, all but disappeared from history. In the 16 or so recently published books on naval history and naval shipwrecks, neither the admiral nor the ship are even mentioned in passing. Why, in your own opinion, do you think the man and the ship are no longer of any importance or relevance to naval, or even national, history today?”

    Many thanks.

    Frank Scott

    If a ship is ‘lost with all hands’ the circumstances of that loss can only be a matter of conjecture. When it was believed that Balchen’s Victory had run up on the Casquets, it was not unreasonable to ascribe that to her relatively poor windward performance. Although her later namesake, Nelson’s Victory, sailed very well, three-deckers were optimised for firepower, and tended to be much less handy than the two-deckers that formed the bulk of any battlefleet of the period. Now that we know that she was not driven onto that notorious reef, the assumption must be that she was overwhelmed in some way by the storm. Exactly how that took place is anyone’s guess.

    There is a very good contemporary model of Balchen’s Victory. However, I have not seen any formal analysis of her design and potential performance (particularly stability) done by a naval architect. Comments such as ‘she was top heavy’ have no weight unless backed up with figures. By the way, although the concept of the metacentre was established in the 18th century, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that the inclining test was developed, and the actual range of stability (as opposed to potentially misleading initial stiffness) could be established.

    The loss of Balchen’s Victory is covered by David J. Hepper, British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail 1650-1859 (Rotherfield, 1994), albeit with the erroneous location that was accepted until the wreck was found.

    For a short discussion of the problems of sailing ship stability see Frank Scott, A Square Rig Handbook (2nd edn) (Nautical Institute, London, 2001), 97-110.

    Alan Smith

    Dear Mr Scott,

    Many thanks for this response and many apologies for not thanking you sooner….IT problems my end! Your advice and publications recommendations are much appreciated and I will certainly follow up. Thanks again, Best wishes, Alan

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