W L Wyllie had a special interest in The Battle of Trafalgar and, with it, the fate of its flagship HMS Victory. When Bill and his family moved to Portsmouth in 1906, he could see the ailing ship from his window and was determined to help with the preservation of the 150 year old vessel.
Victory’s past history
In December 1758, Pitt the Elder, the head of the British government, placed an order for the building of 12 ships, including a first-rate ship with 100 guns, that would become HMS Victory. At a cost of over £63,000 (around £8,000,000 in today’s money), about 6000 trees were used for her construction, 90% of them oak and more than 150 men worked on the project.
On 7th May 1765 HMS Victory was floated out of dock in Chatham’s Royal Dockyard. In the years to come, she was to lead fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. In 1805 she achieved lasting fame as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson in Britain’s greatest naval victory, the defeat of the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar.
For Victory, however, active service did not end with the loss of Nelson. In 1808 she was recommissioned to lead the fleet in the Baltic, but four years later she was no longer needed in this role, and she was relegated to harbour service. She entered her home port in Portsmouth for the last time on 4th November 1812.
The next 110 years saw a gradual deterioration of her condition and although repairs were carried out from time to time and interest in its history was occasionally heightened by visits from Queen Victoria, it wasn’t until 1910 that a real interest in its preservation got under way.
W L Wyllie gets involved
In 1910 W L Wyllie chaired a meeting which resulted in the creation of the Society of Nautical research, whose task it became to preserve the Victory. The SNR essentially had 2 functions: Firstly to raise funds for the restoration and secondly to provide expert advice on such restoration. Initially raising funds proved a real problem.
By 1921 the ship was in a very poor state, and a public Save the Victory campaign was started by the SNR, with shipping magnate Sir James Caird as a major contributor. This proved a turnaround in the funding and monies were now coming in to aid the restoration.
On 12 January 1922 at 8am, her condition was so poor that she would no longer stay afloat, and had to be moved into No. 2 dock at Portsmouth, the oldest dry dock in the world still in use.
Bill’s son Harold Wyllie, as a member of the SNR, was on the quarter deck of the ship together with the chief constructor Mr Suter. Bill with his wife and daughter Aileen, were viewing the exercise alongside on a borrowed barge from admiral Tibbits, Bill of course sketching the proceedings as the tricky exercise was taking place.
Bill, having a large family to support, was unable to provide monetary support, but still wanted to contribute to the project. Having seen a large painting of Waterloo on a visit to Belgium, he had the idea to paint a large panorama of Trafalgar to attract visitors and therefore to raise money for the ongoing maintenance of the ship.
During the next 6 years restoration took place with the aim to present the ship as she was during Trafalgar. On 17th July, 1928, King George V came to Portsmouth to unveil a tablet, inscribed just: “HMS Victory” officially declaring the restoration to be completed and opening her to the public.
Whilst in Portsmouth the King always visited the Pescot Frost museum. Taking advantage of the situation, W L Wyllie prepared a beautiful long watercolour in the museum of his proposed painting of the battle of Trafalgar on a semi circular piece of plywood, masked by a replica of the stern of the French warship Neptune and viewing the painting was possible through its portholes.
The King was very enthusiastic about the idea and offered to open the painting when it was finished.
During the painting of the Panorama, the makeshift portholes were moved to the main entrance of the building turnstiles were installed, so the local dockyard folk could watch the progress of the painting.
True to his word King George duly returned to Portsmouth to open the new annex on 29th July 1930 and whilst there remembered that it was W L Wyllie’s anniversary that very day.