A coin placed under the mast of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory and discovered in perfect condition 127 years later goes on show today as part of Trafalgar Day commemorations.
The farthing – worth ¼ pence when issued in 1894 under the reign of Queen Victoria – was uncovered in the base plate of the 32-metre, 26-tonne mast section which was temporarily removed from Victory as part of the latest phase of her restoration.
The coin goes on display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy’s newest gallery – HMS Victory: The Nation’s Flagship, which charts the history of Britain’s most famous warship and those who served in her.
The tradition of placing coins under their ship masts may date back to Roman times – although it’s not practised by today’s shipbuilders.
This particular coin was put in place when rotten Douglas fir masts on Victory installed in the 1850s were replaced by ones taken from HMS Shah in 1894.
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 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 – but the farthing has corroded over time, so this is less clear.
“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,” explained Rosemary Thornber, Principal Heritage Advisor for HMS Victory.
“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.”
The mast’s removal is part of a 20-year-long conservation project on Victory in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The ship remains open to visitors despite the ongoing work.