Alan M. Smith
On display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) in Portsmouth, UK, is a mighty 42-pounder bronze gun which was retrieved from the wreck of HMS Victory (1737) in 2008. Also recovered at the same time was a 12-pounder bronze gun which remains in the NMRN Conservation hall. These two guns form part of a full complement of 110 bronze guns which served on the flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen. Captained by Samuel Faulknor, the Victory was the finest and mightiest First-rate warship in the Royal Navy of the time—and one of the last of the large ships to sail with a full complement of bronze guns.
HMS Victory was lost with her 1,100 crew in a storm on the English Channel on the night of 3–4 October 1744. She was part of a large Anglo-Dutch fleet commanded by Balchen, returning to England having successfully relieved a vital victualling convoy which had been blockaded by a French fleet at the River Tagus, in Portugal, en route to the Mediterranean squadron. The wreck of the Victory was located in 2008 by Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, lying 75 metres below the surface, around 100 km west of the Channel Islands and approximately 80 km south-east of Plymouth.
With permission from the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), the two guns were brought up from the wreck site and handed over to the Receiver of Wreck in 2009 for the positive identification of the wreck. The NMRN then took custody of the guns and commissioned Mary Rose Archaeological Services to conserve them. The work was carried out at the Royal Armouries workshop at Fort Nelson in Fareham, Hampshire. Conservationist experts from West Dean College of Arts and Conservation, near Chichester, were called in to aid in the preparation of the guns for display after extensive chemical desalination treatment. Whilst undergoing conservation work, the excavation of the interior of the guns revealed that they were still fully loaded—complete with hemp rope wadding, gunpowder, and a cannon ball—and ready to fire. In September 2018, the 42-pounder gun went on public display in the ‘Sailing Navy’ gallery of the NMRN at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where it remains today.
Weighing over three tonnes, with a length of 3.4 m (11.5 ft) and a muzzle diameter of 178 mm (7 in), the gun is a beautiful example of period craftsmanship. It includes elegantly ornate dolphin handles and an intricately depicted Royal Crest of King George I (1714–1727). The 12-pounder gun from the ship bears the Royal Arms of King George II (1727-1760). The reigns of these monarchs allow us to date the guns, but also provide relevant contextual information as regards their acquisition for use aboard Victory. The decision to rebuild HMS Victory to the specification of a 100-gun warship—upon the frame of the old ship of the same name—was made in 1726, and her keel was laid the next year in a Portsmouth dry-dock. However, the official warrant to rebuild her was not issued until September 1733 and she was not re-launched until 1737. As such, the manufacture of the larger gun must have preceded the ship’s construction by a number of years.
Victory was the last major Royal Navy warship to carry a complete complement of guns cast in bronze, as thereafter cheaper iron gun production gradually superseded bronze manufacture. Since bronze guns from this period were typically melted down for re-use, the guns recovered from the Victory are quite rare. The 42-pounder example is extremely rare—indeed, the Victory is the only shipwreck from which a 42-pounder cannon has ever been recovered. Considered the most powerful and prestigious guns used in naval warfare, the Victory carried twenty-eight 42-pounder cannon along her lower decks. Charles Trollope notes that the Victory is “the only wreck site of a First Rate Royal Navy warship with an intact collection of cannon known in the world”. He claims it is possible that the addition of these long, heavy guns may have contributed to the ship’s sinking in rough seas.
The Victory’s guns have been described as “extremely rare examples of hybrid guns designed by Colonel John Armstrong based on the former Borgard system and a master template obtained from the French”. Albert Borgard was a Danish mercenary soldier who joined the English Army in 1692, and in 1716 oversaw the standardisation of artillery. Under his method of reform, guns were thereafter known by the weight of the shot being fired (i.e. 12-pounder, 24-pounder, 32-pounder, etc). Armstrong, as the new Surveyor General of Ordnance in 1722, then redesigned the Borgard system to incorporate further modifications.
The base ring of the 42-pounder gun displays the name of the maker, “SCHALCH”. Andrew Schalch was born in Schaffhausen, Switzerland in 1692 and was employed at the cannon foundry in Douai, in northern France, before moving to England. In 1716, he was engaged to build furnaces and other material for the new brass works being constructed at Woolwich. In May 1718, he was appointed as the first master founder to the Royal Brass Foundry in Woolwich (later Woolwich Arsenal) where he served until retiring in 1770. The name “SCHALCH”, together with the year “1723”, also appears on a 24-pounder bronze gun currently held in a museum storage facility in the Netherlands. The MoD maintain that the gun was illegally removed from the Victory wreck site by a Dutch salvage vessel using a hydraulic grab in July 2011 and taken back to Holland. Inter-governmental negotiations are currently underway to retrieve the gun.
The Victory shipwreck—described by the NMRN as “probably the best example of the early Georgian period that carried bronze cannons”—remains in situ, where it is monitored against any further excavation or interference following a 10-year legal wrangle over the future conservation of the wreck, involving the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF), Odyssey Marine Exploration, and the MOD, and subsequent Judicial Reviews sought by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee chair and MHF. According to the findings of the most recent Judicial Review in the High Court (September 2019), the wreck contains “at least 41 bronze cannons, ship-borne artefacts, iron ballast, wooden fixtures and fittings, parts of two anchors and a rudder”. Although claims had been made that some guns have been disturbed, damaged, or scattered by trawling over the years, the latest court judgement ruled that all the artefacts should remain with the ship and that the wreck was at “minimal risk” and could be “appropriately monitored”.
In addition to the 42-pounder gun on public display at the NMRN in Portsmouth, there are three other related items held in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The first is a magnificent contemporary full-hull, large scale (1:34.3) model of HMS Victory (1737) once used by the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth Dockyard to educate young men entering sea service. The second is a portrait of Admiral Sir John Balchen (circa. 1705) by Jean Baptiste de Medina. Finally, there is an oil painting (circa. 1745) entitled The loss of HMS Victory, 4 October 1744 by Peter Monamy, which depcits the ship in extreme difficulty amongst the mighty waves of the storm that took her. Also of related interest is a magnificent memorial to Sir John Balchen in Westminster Abbey, which was erected by his widow in 1746.
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