Aside from HMS Victory herself, the fore topsail is recognised by experts and historians worldwide as the largest single original artefact from the Battle of Trafalgar.
Covering an area of 3,618 ft, it was the second largest sail on board HMS Victory and would have been one of the main targets for French and Spanish guns as HMS Victory approached the enemy line. It is battle-scarred and pock-marked by some 90 shot holes, although a few squares were cut out by 19th century souvenir hunters.
It also has huge historical importance as a hand-manufactured object from the time. Measuring 80ft at its base, 54ft at its head and 54ft deep and weighing an estimated 370kg, it would have taken around 1,200 man hours for experienced sailmakers to stitch.
The sail was manufactured in the sail loft at Chatham in 1803. It remained on HMS Victory until the ship returned for repairs after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1806, then was taken to the sail loft in Chatham. For the next 85 years, the history of the sail is somewhat obscure. It was displayed at an exhibition in 1891 and then on board HMS Victory for the centenary of Trafalgar in 1905. It was later discovered in a sail loft at Victory barracks, now HMS Nelson, in 1960, covered by gym mats. It was returned to the ship for display in a glass cabinet on the Orlop in 1962, then left the ship for good in 1993, when it was found that the sail was deteriorating rapidly and needed urgent conservation work.
Now housed in environmentally-controlled conditions in Storehouse 10 the sail has undergone an enormous amount of work which has ensured its long-term survival. The sail was initially mapped and photographed and initial conservation was carried out at the Carpet Conservation Workshop in Salisbury before it was displayed to the public at the International Festival of the Sea in 1998. Following the success of the trial display, Mary Rose Archaeological Services Ltd were contracted to carry out research into the condition of the sail and to recommend a cleaning process. The once heavily-soiled sail has since undergone unique and extensive ‘dry’ cleaning carried out by the Winchester-based Textile Conservation Centre, part of Southampton University.