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HMS Victory

Interview: HMS Victory's Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr John Scivier

What's it like running the oldest Commissioned Warship in the world? ICONS visited the Victory's commanding officer in Portsmouth to find out - and asked him why he thinks the ship is an Icon of England.

Lt Cdr John Scivier
Lt Cdr John Scivier
©Cognitive Applications/Jane Utting
Can you remember the first time you saw the Victory?
I was probably about 13. I came to the city for Navy Days [the Navy still hold Navy Days, but it alternates annually between Portsmouth and Plymouth] to have a look and pick up some careers information. It was quite a few years ago but I remember coming onboard and being impressed. I've always had an interest in history.

Now you have an office on board the ship - how does that feel?
Even now, when I come into work in the mornings through the Dockyard gate and look up at her, I think "wow", even though I've been in the Navy and around Portsmouth for just under 30 years. I started this job in March 2006 and I am obviously biased, but I think it is probably one of the best jobs as a Lieutenant Commander that you can get. My office is in part of the old wardroom - an area which would have accommodated the main ship's officers. It isn't open to the public. My office would probably have been split into three officers' cabins. Midshipmen and the Warrant Officers would have slept down below, the Captain had his own cabin up on the quarterdeck and the residing Admiral would have been in the Great Cabin.

What does your job entail?
There are three roles. Firstly, I run the ship on behalf of the Second Sea Lord and Commander in Chief Naval Home Command, who is Vice Admiral Adrian Johns CBE ADC. HMS Victory is his flagship and if he has an event on here I am responsible for making sure it runs smoothly. If we have VIPs on board, then I am often asked to provide a personal tour. As an example of the diversity of guests we have onboard, last week we entertained the Admiral of the American Second Fleet and then the chief executive of the Football Association, Brian Barwick, who was onboard as part of liaison visit with the Royal Naval Football Association.

Secondly I run the ship as a tourist attraction. I have to ensure that the ship is fit enough with regards to health and safety, and I also work with the curator to make sure visitors get the most out of the ship. My staff co-ordinate all the tours, tour times and school visits.

My third role is the integration of the ship within Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The other sites and activities here include HMS Warrior 1860, the Mary Rose, the Royal Naval Museum, the Trafalgar Sail Exhibition and Action Stations [an interactive showcase of the modern Navy]

The heritage site sells a number of different types of ticket for the dockyard dependant on what the visitor wants to see. You can just visit Victory if you like or buy tickets for combinations of some or all of the attractions. In fact, if you don't come onboard, there is no charge at all. Just walk into the heritage dockyard through Victory Gate and you are free to walk around her.

Were you involved in the 2005 celebrations to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar?
Yes, I was. I'm an air traffic controller by trade and was involved in the aviation side of events, which was fantastic, although I'm sorry in a way that I wasn't onboard for it.

What is your main challenge?
Following on from Trafalgar 200, it is to find ways to promote the ship and maintain public interest. We've been on a high - 2005 was a bumper year, with 437,000 visitors, thanks to the celebrations - so now we're looking at what areas we can open up to make the ship even more interesting. At the moment probably 90% is open and the majority of that is in its 1805 configuration. The area we want to develop next is the after hold, which is the back end of the ship where the bread, spirit and fish store was. We have no idea how much it is going to cost and at the moment -  it's simply an aspiration. While the Ministry of Defence owns the ship and pays for the maintenace of the hull, any restoration of things that would have been around in Georgian times generally needs external funding. We have to be very careful what we do with HMS Victory as she is still a commissioned warship and flagship. HMS Victory has a lot of heritage and is highly revered within the Navy as our greatest and most well known Admiral died on here.

Has the Victory been heavily restored?
There is probably between 10-15% original timber on board and the rest has been replaced over the years. This is still something to be proud of - she went through many refits in her time, some major and many more minor. As an example, when she was built the whole stern end was adorned with open galleries but a couple of years before Trafalgar that was all stripped out and closed galleries were put in.

Is there a typical visitor?
Not really, although they do fall into one of three categories. They're either one-off opportunists who happen to be in Portsmouth, people who come to the city specifically to see the ship, or enthusiasts who come back every time something different is done to the ship.

We have a lot of schoolchildren who visit as part of educational programmes, not just from the UK but Europe as well, particularly France. It is very satisfying seeing the enjoyment on their faces when they leave. I quite often go down the end of the gangway and gauge people's looks and comments as they come off. The kids in particular really seem to enjoy it.

Which part of the ship is the most popular?
I'd say the spot where Nelson died is where people show the most interest although the children always seem to have a morbid fascination with the surgeons' operating instruments!

HMS Victory has been in dry dock for decades now. Would she still float?
No, she's not watertight. Hypothetically speaking if enough money was made available, then she could be made to float but we don't have any reason to do that. You would have to virtually rebuild the hull.

She survived being bombed during the second world war...
Yes, in March 1941 a bomb fell between the ship's side and the dry dock. The main damage was to some of the keel and dockside but it could have been much worse. The blast actually lifted the ship up a couple of feet off its cradle and then dumped her back down. Immediately afterwards the timbers were shored up before they had a chance to settle and started to crack which actually caused more damage. She would have been a big target because she is such a symbol of our heritage.

Why is HMS Victory an icon of England?
Because she was Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, which was a defining moment in both her - and England's - history. If it hadn't been for Nelson and the way in which he and his fleet hounded and finally destroyed the combined fleet, we would almost certainly have been invaded by the French and become an annexe of France. Victory had a long and illustrious Naval career, and was flagship to a lot of admirals, but it's her connection with Nelson and Trafalgar that gives Victory her iconic status.