Book review Book Review: "HMS VICTORY – Her Construction, Career and Restoration" by Alan McGowen and John McKay


Staff member
Dec 25, 2017

Vienna, Austria
Book Review:
HMS VICTORY – Her Construction, Career and Restoration
by Alan McGowen (text) and John McKay (illustrations)

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  • Hardcover: 222 pages
  • Publisher: Caxton Pub Group (August 31, 2003) - first edition 1999
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1840675322
  • ISBN-13: 978-1840675320
  • Package Dimensions: 11.6 x 9.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.6 pounds


One of the world's best-known warships, HMS Victory was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Still a commissioned vessel, she lies today at Portsmouth, England, where thousands visit her each year. Many marvel at her beauty and wonderful state of preservation, the result of the extraordinary work lavished on her over the past two hundred years. A must for Nelson enthusiasts, historians, and preservationists, this book tells the story of the painstaking historical research and fine craftsmanship that restored the ship to its age-of-sail glory. The narrative of the restoration is accompanied by two hundred recently commissioned drawings that show the ship as it was in 1805 and a hundred paintings and photographs. In addition to the technical details of construction and fittings, the book describes the Victory's fabled career and what life on board was like for the officers and crew.

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About the Author and the Illustrator

Alan McGowan
worked for over twenty years at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, where he was first Head of the Department of Ships, responsible for plans and models, and later Chief Curator and Deputy Director. He is now Chairman of the Victory Advisory Technical Committee. He has written extensively for journals and also for the Navy Records Society. He edited and prefaced Steel´s Rigging and Seamanship and Naval Architecture.

John McKay is an architectural draughtsman who lives in Vancouver on the Pacific coast of Canada, and has a world-wide reputation for his drawings and plans of ships of the sailing navy. He has published works on Bounty, Padora and an earlier one on Victory herself in 1987. Research since then has allowed him in this volume to represent the very latest ideas about Victory´s configuration at the battle of Trafalgar.

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Foreword / Acknowledgements / Introduction
I) The Royal Navy in the Eighteenth Century (page 3 to 9)
II) Building HMS Victory and her maintenance, 1758 - 1805 (page 10 to 21)
III) From Trafalgar to a Permanent Dry Dock, 1805 - 1922 (page 22 to 32)
IV) Restoration and Repair, 1922 – 1964 (page 33 to 43)
V) Completing the Great Repair (page 44 to 73)
VI) The Way Ahead (page 74 to 77)
VII) Aspects of Restoration (page 78 to 124)
1 – Boats
2 – Masts and Spars
3 – Sails
4 – Rigging
5 – Anchors and Ground Tackle
6 – Materials and Techniques
7 – Rase Marks
8 – Fastenings
9 – Caulking and Drainage
10 – Survey
11 – Improved Dockyard Equipment
12 – Painting and Preservation
13 – Damage by Death-Watch Beetle
14 – Progress Report, September 1991 – February 1992
15 The Victory Advisory Technical Committee
The Drawings (page 125 to 215)
Glossary / Sources

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I am not a specialist of the Victory, so I can not say something about the correctness of the drawings, but I think that a made review by Susan Paxton in 2001 (means shortly after the first release of first edition) made a very good review an amazon

Alan McGowan, Chairman of the Victory Advisory Technical Committee, and Canadian illustrator John McKay have produced a truly wonderful book about the greatest of sailing warships, HMS Victory, which serves not only as a tribute to the ship and the men who sailed her, but also to those who saved and restored her to her present grace. Unlike USS Constitution, which truly is a corpse of a once beautiful frigate, a ghost of her lovely War of 1812 self, Victory has been returned to her precise appearance at her moment of greatest fame, October 21, 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar.

The first half of the book goes into startling, fascinating detail about the condition of Victory and the many years since her permanent drydocking in 1922 spent repairing and restoring her. The battle against dry and wet rot, death watch beetle infestations, and the odd German bomb (a bomb fell into Victory's drydock in 1941 - by some miracle she didn't catch fire, which would have destroyed her utterly) has gone on more or less continuously, and it is interesting to read how the restorers have learned from earlier mistakes (new repair work has sometimes rotted within a few years) and adopted new techniques and materials. While she appears very authentic, there have had to be compromises, cleverly disguised, and these are described by McGowan - emergency escape doors carefully camouflaged in the hull, her rigging replaced with polypropylene rope, her heavy wooden spars replaced with steel, her wrought-iron lower masts (themselves borrowed from the armored frigate HMS Shah in the 1880s) fastened through her keel into the floor of the dock to relieve the pressure on her 240 year old hull.

In the second half of the book, artist John McKay contributes a series of magnificent drawings showing Victory in her Trafalgar configuration, with details of rigging, armament, interior layouts, etc. This portfolio of illustrations will provide almost all the reference needed for anyone interested in building a model of HMS Victory in her prime.

I cannot recommend this book more highly to anyone interested in sailing warships in general and HMS Victory in particular. I don't give many books five stars, but this one deserves every one.

While some of the tables and descriptions of the ship's restoration might cause a casual Patrick O'Brian fan's eyes to glaze over, this book is invaluable for those who always wanted to know which rider knees were made of which wood and how they were fastened together in 1759--and in 1959.

Some additional information and comments:

The history of the Victory is not described very much in detail, especially the history of her construction and career before 1805 is described only very shortly.
The main part of the text is describing the works of the restoration mainly in the years 1964 to 1999 - highly informative and detailed. Here very often links are made to the book from Bugler (review will come in short time) from the 1960,

The drawings are no copies of the McKay-book of the Anatomy-of-the-ship series he published in 1987. They are new produced, therefore also showing additional information and details not shown in the older book. So f.e. you can find sail-plans. All decks are shown perspectively, you can also find drawings of hull-planking and the coppering and a huge number of details of frame construction, fittings and rigging. Also he added in this book line drawings, which were missing in the older book. Nevertheless no contemporary drawing is shown.

I think it is very good addition to the other available books, especially if you look for the 1805-configuration! - and filling some gaps of the older publications

here the link to book review of the Anatomy book written by McKay:

for the Look Inside photos of the Drawing part of the book, please check the following post .....


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