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Published: July 12, 2018

Battle-scarred iconic Trafalgar sail returns to public display

It has lain unseen for the last six years but now HMS Victory’s Trafalgar Sail, the only surviving foretopsail from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, is set to be on public display until 31 December 2018.

Measuring the equivalent of two tennis courts when fully laid out, the sail is 80 feet at its foot, 54 feet at the head and 54 feet deep, covers an area of 3,618 feet and lies in The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Storehouse 10 in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Without doubt an historic relic of great significance, it is pock-marked by some 90 shot holes, its battle scars pay tribute to the ferocity of the battle on the day – October 21st 1805 – when Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson was fatally wounded.

Matthew Sheldon, Director of Heritage, The National Museum of the Royal Navy said:

“HMS Victory, Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar are key to our history. The sail is an amazing object, scarred by battle and like HMS Victory herself, a proud survivor of an iconic battle. But it is also a vast handmade object from Georgian times that required great skill and knowledge to create it. Seeing it is a real treat and will be a highlight for the summer.”

The sail has had a chequered history, remaining onboard HMS Victory ship until it was removed and placed in the sail loft when the ship returned to Chatham for repairs in January 1806.

For the next century the history of the sail is somewhat obscure. Large painted letters stating “Victory’s Topsail” suggests it was displayed at some time and latterly returned to the ship for the centenary of Trafalgar (1905.) Following HMS Victory’s berthing in No. 2 dock in Portsmouth Naval Base in 1922, the sail was again removed and many years later rediscovered in the gymnasium in the Royal Naval Barracks – HMS Victory (HMS Nelson today.) It was then returned to the ship in 1967.

The Trafalgar Sail rediscovered
On display from 21 July, the sail is laid flat and accompanied by a short audio and lighting presentation featuring footage from the popular film Master and Commander. Hollywood star Russell Crowe visited HMS Victory to research his role in the film which was a retelling of novelist Patrick O’Brian’s series of sea novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

Diana McCormack, Senior Conservator, The National Museum of the Royal Navy said: “When the sail was first displayed during the Battle of Trafalgar centenary year in 2005 it had undergone considerable conservation by the Textile Conservation Centre at the University of Southampton.

“The conservation steps taken include placing the sail in an environmentally controlled space. A team of six textile conservators were involved in the cleaning programme. The sail itself was heavily soiled and under an electron microscope contaminants could be seen to have razor-like edges that were capable of abrading the sail fibres. The removal of the fibres was achieved by low suction vacuum cleaning and by gentle mechanical action.

“Our job now is to prevent any further deterioration because the fibres are sensitive to shrinking and warping or fading if the conditions are wrong. And to find a way to put the sail on permanent display so its story of incredible survival can be shared by visitors.”