Century-old coin sensationally uncovered under HMS Victory mast is put on display in Trafalgar Day tribute
- Rare discovery from nation’s flagship put on show from Trafalgar Day as tribute to naval landmark battle
- Historic ship team’s wish to discover hidden coin fulfilled
- 127-year-old coin found nestled beneath huge mast which has been temporarily removed
A 127-year-old coin placed under the mast of the nation’s historic flagship, HMS Victory as part of a centuries-old sea-faring tradition has been sensationally uncovered and put on display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to mark this year’s Trafalgar Day commemorations on Thursday 21 October.
The coin, identified as a farthing, was uncovered in the base plate of the 32-metre, 26-tonnes mast section which was temporarily removed from Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship during a highly complex three-day engineering challenge, earlier this year.
It will be put on display from Trafalgar Day in the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s newest gallery, HMS Victory: The Nation’s Flagship, which charts the extraordinary story of the remarkable survivor considered by many to be the world’s most famous ship.
The coin is a farthing from 1894, with a face value at the time of ¼ pence, which would be worth about 0.1p today. If in perfect condition it would feature Queen Victoria’s head on one side, with her hairstyle documented to 1874-94 and Britannia on the other with a lighthouse in the background, however this coin is impacted by corrosion, so this is less clear.
The tradition of placing coins under their ship masts may date back to Roman times and remains a naval tradition. The date of 1894 ties in with when these particular masts were inserted into the ship, when their ship, HMS Shah, had been decommissioned. The masts replaced Douglas Fir ones inserted in the 1850s that had since become rotten.
The Head of Conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Diana Davis, found it when she was examining the base plate, once the mast had been lifted out in May 2021. The historic ships team had known about a metal wedge that had been placed between the mast and the base plate, to allow the mast to sit at the desired angle. As the team was inspecting the remains of the wedge, the coin was found.
Rosemary Thornber, Principal Heritage Advisor for HMS Victory said:
“We had wondered if there would be a coin under the mast, to follow with naval tradition, and imagine our excitement when the coin was found and news rapidly spread through the team who were sworn to secrecy whilst we conserved it and made plans to put it on display.
“It’s been a real privilege to research it and to see the damage that had been caused by the pressure from the mast sitting on it. Whilst on paper it’s not particularly rare, the fact that it occupied such an intriguing place for so many decades and now its imprint is part of Victory’s fabric, makes it invaluable to us and our visitors will love to see it.”
Head of Conservation Diana Davis, who uncovered the coin described the process undertaken since to stabilise it for display.
“I excavated it from the shim on the mast base-plate with a leaf trowel and scalpel, after recording and drawing it in situ. Then in the laboratory I removed as much of the corrosion as possible without damaging the patinated copper alloy surface. There has been a little bit of loss to the coin surface from the impact of the mast with upwards of 21 tonnes resting on it but I was able to clean enough of the sound surface to uncover the lighthouse to the lower left side of Britannia, allowing us to date it as an 1894 farthing. It’s been one of the more unusual projects I’ve worked on – being the first person to see the coin in over 120 years!”
The mast’s removal is part of a 20-year-long conservation project on the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission, which has already seen a state-of-the-art support structure for the flagship unveiled. The mast needs to be analysed and conserved to ensure that it is structurally secure and materially stable enough to be fully rigged.
Visitors can still go onboard and experience the extraordinary story of Victory including the newly-opened dry dock walkway and the lower mizzen and foremasts remain in place. A new exhibition, HMS Victory: The Nation’s Flagship, located just opposite the ship, tells the intriguing 256-year history of this remarkable survivor, from acorn to icon.