THIS THREE-DECKER BATTLESHIP was laid down in December 1809 and launched on 4th July 1814. Nelson was the first three-decker to be launched in England after the victory at Trafalgar and for this reason was named after the naval hero. She was launched at Woolwich in the presence of the Emperor Alexander of Russia, the King of Prussia and Marshal Blucher, who was to gain renown at the Battle of Waterloo in the following year.
Nelson was one of four ships of the class, the others being Caledonia, Howe and St. Vincent
Particulars of the Nelson from contemporary sources are given below:
- Tonnage:…2617 tons burden
- Deep Displacement:…5500 tons (approx.)
- Length on Gun Deck:…205 ft. 1 in.
- Beam (extreme):… 53 ft 8 in.
- Depth of Hold:… 24 ft. 0 in.
- As completed, this comprised thirty-two 32-pounders on the lower gun deck, thirty-four 24-pounders on the middle gun deck, thirty-four 18-pounders on the main deck, six 12-pounders plus ten 23- pounder carronades on the quarter deck, and two 12-pounders plus two 32-pounder carronades on the forecastle.
- On reduction to two-decker (1859-60), forty-six guns, the largest being two 7-inch 68 pounders, and the others including twenty 64- pounder rifled muzzle-loaders.
- On reduction to single-decker (1878-81), two 7-inch 68 pounders and several 64 rifled muzzle-loaders; two 4.7-inch, two 12½ pounders, two 10 pounders, two 9 pounders and two 6 pounders, all the smaller guns being breech-loaders.
However, even before she was completed, Nelson represented a type of man-of-war whose days as fighting ships were drawing to a close with the advent of the age of iron and steam.
In 1854 Nelson was chosen among several ships of similar type for conversion to an auxiliary steam vessel. She was cut down to a two- decker, lengthened and fitted with a steam engine driving a single screw. At the same time the main armament was reduced to forty-six guns. Conversion was completed in 1859-60.
In the late 1860s the Government of Victoria submitted a request for a vessel in which to train its local naval volunteers, and the British Admiralty made Nelson available for the purpose. Accordingly the ship was fitted out at Portsmouth, the cost, £42,000, being met by the Victorian Government. Nelson was not presented as a straight-out gift, but was transferred on a ‘permanent loan’ basis, and was to be used only as a training ship within the confines of Port Phillip Bay. Ownership was reserved to the Admiralty on behalf of the Crown.
HMVS Nelson was commissioned on 22 July 1867 under Commander C. B. Payne, RN, and on 20 October, fifty-three years after her launching, she sailed for Australia. The crew consisted mostly of supernumeraries shipped for the delivery voyage to Melbourne. Sailing via the Cape, she reached Hobson’s Bay on 4 February 1868. She was employed at first as a reformatory vessel, but later became training ship for the Victorian Naval Brigade.
As the White Ensign was reserved entirely for the use of the Royal Navy, the Admiral decided to approve of a new ensign for the Victorian Navy and this was flown for the first time from Nelson on 9th March 1870. The new ensign was very similar to the present day national flag and incorporated the Union flag with five white stars on a blue field.
The first hoisting of the new ensign was an occasion of great ceremony and festivity. Nelson’s band played and the ship’s company dressed ship as the vessel left harbour. Every other ship was dressed overall with bunting, but Nelson flew only the Blue Ensign at the gaff. Between Williamstown and Port Melbourne, Nelson carried out the inaugural ceremony with the ship dressed overall with bunting. As the new Victorian ensign was broken out at the main, Nelson fired a twentyone gun salute, which was repeated by another ship. Nelson then steamed down Port Phillip and the guests enjoyed the feasting and dancing.
On 2nd March 1874 the Nelson was the first ship to enter the new Alfred Graving Dock, now incorporated in HMA Naval Dockyard, Williamstown.
Following upon a series of ‘Russian scares’ in the 1870s, Nelson presumably by permission of the Admiralty, was converted into a fighting ship for the Victorian Navy; she was cut down to a single- decker, the fore and mizzen masts were removed, and the armament modified by the landing of several of the old muzzle-loaders and the addition of a number of new breech-loading guns. This conversion was carried out in the new drydock in 1881.
In the 1880s the Colony of Victoria experienced a succession of financial crises which led to a curtailment of government expenditure. Naval activity was drastically restricted. Nelson, one of the first ships to go, paid off in 1891 and was laid up at Williamstown. Her boilers were removed in 1893, and on 28th April 1898 she was sold at auction to Mr. Bernard Einerson of Sydney for the sum of £2,400. A few weeks later she was towed to Port Jackson (minus her guns, which were not included in the sale), and moored in Kerosene Bay. The upper section was dismantled and used to build a lighter, the Oceanic. The lower portion, still called Nelson, after some ten years’ service as a coal lighter, was purchased by the Union Steamship Co. of New Zealand, and in July 1908 she was towed from Sydney to Beauty Point on the Tamar River, Tasmania, for use as a coal storage vessel.
In 1915 the old Nelson was towed to Hobart where she served a further five years as a coal hulk, after which she was sold for breaking up. In August 1920 the hulk was towed up river to Shag Bay, where it was finally dismantled, the last remains being fired to facilitate the recovery of a quantity of bronze fastenings.