HMS Victory – figureheads

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    Malcolm Lewis

    I came across a website for Franklyn Cards which refers to cigarette cards relating to Nelson’s Victory. It states that Victory had four figureheads in her history. These included a figurehead with crown, shield and the figures of a marine to port and a sailor to starboard “as at the Battle of Trafalgar” (sic).
    I am familiar with the figurehead as depicted today of crown, shield and two cherubs as well as the first figurehead incorporating the four continents which is modeled in the RN Museum. No details of the fourth figurehead are given. Can anyone say whether there actually were four please?


    Perhaps not relevant to Malcolm’s question, but there is a sketch of the figurehead of Balchen’s Victory on page 74 of L G Carr Laughton’s Old Ship Figureheads and Sterns [London and New York, 1925, republished in facsimile New York 2001]. Fig 17 features photos of Victory‘s figureheads in 1765 and 1815. The Dover reprint of this book is available at very reasonable price.


    The following is posted to the Forum on behalf of David Pulvertaft, who usefully extends our knowledge about this topic.


    Much has been written over the years on the various figureheads of the 1765 HMS Victory and, having myself made a study of British Warship Figureheads over the last fifteen or so years, my file on that particular ship quite a fat one!
    I would question whether Victory had carried four different figureheads when the cigarette card to which Malcolm Lewis refers was printed, as this was in 1912 (John Player & Sons, No 17 of 25.) My understanding of her figureheads is:
    1. 1765: Her original figurehead, carved by Richard Crichley and William Savage. This was a complicated carving including a bust of George III, supported by Britannia and Victory with figures of Peace and Fame and others representing the continents. The carvers’ model is in the National Maritime Museum and a half-size model is at the entrance to the Victory Gallery at the Royal Naval Museum. A detailed specification was printed in Appendix II to HMS Victory – Building, Restoration and Repair by Arthur Bugler, HMSO 1966 [and a photograph of the half-size model was printed on the dust-jacket of the 2005 Anniversary issue of Mariner’s Mirror, May 2005. Ed.]
    2. 1802: Chatham Yard submitted three alternative designs for a replacement by George Williams, No 2 being approved for a fee of £50 (National Archives ADM 106/1819 & 1820). Unfortunately the design drawings have not survived and it is this figurehead that has been the subject of so much discussion, it having seen the action at Trafalgar in 1805 (see below).
    3. 1815: Portsmouth Yard submitted a design by Edward Hellyer & Son for another replacement with an estimate for £65 (National Archives ADM 106/1888).
    4. 1980s: The present figurehead was carved in the Portsmouth Dockyard workshops as part of the ship’s restoration.
    The debate on the 1802 figurehead centres on whether the supporters beside the royal arms were two cupids or a sailor and a Royal Marine. Key elements of the discussion can be found in:
    The Mariner’s Mirror Vol X (1924). This contains LG Carr Laughton’s report to the Victory Technical Committee on a search amongst the Admiralty Records. The conclusion of this long and detailed report is that “the preponderance of evidence is in favour of the cupids having been given to the ship in 1803”.
    The Mariner’s Mirror Vol 55 (1969). Captain AJ Pack, director of the Museum, provides further evidence from papers that had been lent to him and he supports Carr Laughton’s conclusion.

    Where the John Player & Sons’ artist for the cigarette card obtained his information remains a mystery, particularly as almost all the other cards in the series depict figureheads that in 1912 were still available to be used as artist’s models. Any new information on this would be welcome.

    David Pulvertaft

    Malcolm Lewis

    I am grateful to David Pulvertaft for his most detailed response to my query. Although four figureheads have been fitted, it does appear then that there have only been two designs of figurehead for HMS Victory.

    First the elaborate 1765 version incorporating the four continents, and second the George III shield and two cupids. The latter was fitted in 1802 as an economy measure and had to be repaired after the damage sustained at Trafalgar. In 1815 Victory was modified with the Seppings’ round bow. I think here the third figurehead, still along the lines of the second, was
    adapted to suit the new bow shape. This would have been visible during the days the ship was moored in Portsmouth harbour and up until she was
    dry-docked in 1922.
    Then the debate would have taken place about the replacement for the 1805 restoration where apparently no drawing existed. From what we read of this debate it was decided that the 1805 version with two cupids was the correct
    one. In 1980 this was again replaced with one of similar design.
    It is interesting to note that there has been much discussion about the second design put in place in 1815. I have always assumed that the design which we see today originated at that date and was in place when Victory was eventually drydocked in 1922. Wyllie’s paintings and others of the time show representations of the design with two cupids rather than a sailor and marine.
    Bugler is not specific about the wood used for carving figureheads except that it was not oak. Is there a record of the type of wood used over the centuries?

    Malcolm Lewis

    We may be getting closer to the explanation of the sailor and the marine. In Peter Goodwin’s Nelson’s Victory: 101 Questions & Answers about HMS Victory [London 2006], he states (page 56): “We know from Midshipman River’s account of the battle of Trafalgar that the starboard figure had its leg shot away, and the larboard its arm” (Royal Naval Museum, MSS1986-11).
    My contact at the Royal Naval Museum wrote in response to my query: ‘The fact that the figurehead had a marine and a sailor as supporters is erroneous, misconceived by a misunderstanding derived from a letter written by a midshipman in Victory at Trafalgar, who described the damage to the figurehead. He said that one of the cherubs had “lost a leg like a sailor” and the other cherub had “lost an arm like a Marine”. Why he used this description is not known but as a 17 year old who had just been through an horrific but exciting experience maybe a little romantic exageration was allowable.’
    Somehow Rivers’ description must have been recorded in the details of the battle and became an historical myth about the ship’s figureheads handed down in time.

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