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The Disastrous History of HMS Captain

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Artwork of a sailing ship in full sail on a stormy sea.

During the second half of the 19th Century, Britain's naval policy was simple – keep the Royal Navy superior to any other two navies in the world combined, especially those of France and Russia.

As the ships of the Royal Navy outnumbered those of any other fleet in the world, the Admiralty was initially content to remain conservative. Yet from the 1850s-60s, France and other nations began to experiment with new weapons, hoping to discover technology that could neutralise Britain's numerical superiority. If the Royal Navy was to maintain its position as master of the sea it would have to stay ahead of its rivals by designing innovative new ships. One vessel, Cowper Coles' HMS Captain, pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in shipbuilding, but on 6 September, 1870 it sank with the loss of almost everyone aboard.

Cowper Coles

Captain Cowper Phipps Coles was born in 1819, the son of a Hampshire parson. He joined the Royal Navy in 1830 when he was only 11, where his uncle by marriage, Edmund Lyons, was a captain. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1846 and served with his uncle1 during the Crimean War.

Crimean War

In the Crimean War (1854-56) Coles fought with distinction during an abortive and failed naval attack on Sebastopol's sea defences2, and in recognition was promoted to the rank of commander. He then designed a gun raft named Lady Nancy, which mounted a 32-pounder gun. This was highly manoeuvrable and was successfully used to bombard the Russian port of Taganog on the Sea of Azov.

Coles was highly commended for these actions and immediately developed an improved, armoured gun raft which he intended to use to attack Kronstadt3, bypassing the existing defences by navigating the shallow waters undefended by the sea forts. Work on constructing this vessel, whose gun would have been protected within a hemispherical cupola-like shield, was approved by the Admiralty, but the war ended before this vessel was finished.

Coles was rewarded for his work by being promoted to captain in February 1856. Following the Crimean War he was placed on half-pay and spent his time developing the design of a low-draught armoured vessel carrying a small number of powerful guns in a revolving turret. He patented his turret design in 1859.

His principles were simple:

  • It should be easier and quicker to turn the guns rather than the ship.
  • Guns in turrets should have an all-round arc of fire, in order to be able to attack any targets.
  • Ships should have as low a freeboard (the distance between the waterline and the upper deck) as possible.

Coles was convinced that only vessels built to his design could attack other warships, defend harbours and perform any and all other tasks required of a naval vessel. His ideas came at just the right time; in the late 1850s Britain was in the grip of a largely unfounded invasion panic.

Naval Arms Race and Invasion Scare

HMS Captain was built in a tense period following a perceived threat of invasion after more than ten years of a naval arms race between Britain and France. This began in 1852 when France launched the wooden, two-deck, 90-gun, Le Napoleon, the world's first purpose-built steam-powered battleship. Britain's first steam-powered warship, the 91-gun HMS Agamemnon, was launched soon after. France built more and more Napoleon class vessels, while Britain kept re-designing and enlarging her ships, including the 101-gun ships HMS Duncan and HMS Gibraltar in 1858, and culminating in the 120-gun HMS Victoria. This was Britain's last, and largest, wooden warship when launched in 1864. Over 100 wood-built steam-driven battleships had been built or converted by these two countries within ten years, 66 of them by Britain. Yet the introduction of iron to shipbuilding rendered them immediately obsolete4.

In 1857 France constructed a new warship, La Gloire, which had a wooden hull armoured with iron plating above the waterline. Britain's wooden navy seemed outdated, leading to the invasion scare of 1858-1859. Despite being Britain's ally during the Crimean War, France had joined with their enemy Russia, and it was feared Napoleon III might attack Britain.

Britain responded with a Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom and began a defensive fort building programme, while the Royal Navy built HMS Warrior, the world's first true iron warship. In 1858 Sir William Armstrong produced a rifled breech-loading gun that significantly increased the range and penetrative power of heavy guns. Although at the end of the decade France lost the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and then underwent a civil war in 1871, leaving the country incapable of invading Britain in any case, British public perception, magnified by the media, was of an immediate threat.

Cole took advantage of the fear of invasion by publishing pamphlets about Britain's defences and arguing that only his designs could save the country from an invading fleet. When the Defences Committee questioned Coles, he ignored all queries put to him and instead distributed copies of his pamphlets and praised his turret ship designs.

Cole was an expert at gathering friends in powerful places, one of whom was Prince Albert5. Albert was already nervous about the political situation with France, and in 1858 wrote,

When [the fortified port of] Cherbourg is completed England's position will be greatly altered and we must strengthen our forces if we are not to be entirely at [France's] mercy. By the railway an army can be brought there, and transported from that gigantic haven to our coast in four hours!

Using his position as a war hero, and with Prince Albert's influence, from 1859 onwards Coles continued to campaign for the Admiralty to adopt his turret design. Initial trials held in 1861 with a prototype turret on HMS Trusty looked promising, and in January 1862 the Admiralty finally agreed to test Coles' gun turret designs on a ship intended for coastal defence, HMS Prince Albert. Although Coles supplied the design of the hand-cranked turrets, the ship itself was to be designed by Isaac Watts who, as the Chief Constructor of the Navy, had designed HMS Warrior. HMS Prince Albert was armed with four 12-ton 9-inch RML guns, one in each of her four turrets.

While construction on HMS Prince Albert was being carried out, events across the Atlantic were taking place that would have a direct impact on Coles' career, public perception and the Admiralty's attitude.

American Civil War

From the Royal Navy's perspective, one of the most significant events of the American Civil War took place on 9 March, 1862 at Hampton Roads. This was the fight between the Confederate navy's super-weapon, the ironclad Merrimac and the turret ship USS Monitor.

'Merrimac' (CSS Virginia)

The USS Merrimac had been built by the Union, yet was unsuccessfully scuttled when the Gosport Navy Yard was abandoned in April 1861. The Confederates captured and converted her to an ironclad, re-naming her CSS Virginia, but she remained popularly known as the Merrimac.


The Monitor was designed by the Swedish engineer John Ericsson and resembled the low-draught armoured turret ship that Coles had long been proposing. Although Coles believed that Ericsson had stolen his idea, it is more likely that this was an instance of steam engine theory6 in action. Ericsson probably came to the same conclusions for an effective warship design independently.

Ericsson was a skilled designer who built the locomotive Novelty7 for the Rainhill Trials in 1829, which was beaten by Stephenson's Rocket. He later moved to the USA where he designed America's first screw-driven (propeller) steam warship, USS Princeton.

There is no doubt that the Monitor was an advanced and impressive vessel; however it was a specialist ship with very limited capabilities and seaworthiness, despite the Union Navy considering it the solution to all their problems. Subsequent warships of this design were known as 'monitors', with construction on 60 monitors begun during the American Civil War and many larger, double-turreted monitors developed. The Monitor itself, which had fought the Merrimac to a standstill, sank in December 1862 while being towed. On 7 April, 1863 the Confederate forts defending Charleston harbour repulsed an attacking Union flotilla consisting of seven monitors and two other ironclads. Although the monitor Weehawken forced the ironclad CSS Atlanta to surrender, Weehawken sank soon after during a minor gale8.

Coles used the interest in the Monitor v Merrimac battle as an opportunity to launch a publicity campaign calling for the replacement of all existing naval vessels with Monitor-like ships to his design.

Coles' Competitor: Sir Edward Reed

In 1863, 33-year-old Sir Edward Reed became Isaac Watts' successor as Chief Constructor of the Navy. This was a time when the navy's traditional wooden sailing ships were being replaced by ironclad steam-ships, and the energetic Edward Reed was the perfect person for the post. Young, visionary and with an eye to the future, much of his time was spent resisting the constant interference of the obsessed Cowper Coles.

Targeting Turrets

While HMS Prince Albert was under construction, international interest in the outcome of the Battle of Hampton Roads, and turretships in particular, kept Coles busy. Sweden, naturally, adopted Ericsson's monitors9, but other countries were quick to use Coles' designs, with most ships made in Scottish or Merseyside shipyards. These included Denmark's Rolf Krake and Peru's Huáscar. Two similar ships were ordered by the Confederacy10, but never delivered. Later, the Australian colony of Victoria ordered HMVS Cerberus.

This encouraged the Admiralty to re-prioritise their turret ship experiments. Though Coles proposed the production of a ten-turreted vessel, the Admiralty would not consider such a massive expenditure on untried technology without basic trials. HMS Prince Albert was still being built and would not be completed for some time, so for their trials the Royal Navy turned to HMS Royal Sovereign.

HMS Royal Sovereign

Construction of HMS Royal Sovereign was begun in 1849. Originally designed as a wooden first-rate ship-of-the-line11, she was intended to be one of the most advanced warships afloat, but technology was constantly overtaking her even as she was being built. While still under construction it was decided to convert her to a propeller-driven steamship, but even so, when she was eventually launched in 1857 she was already obsolete because of her wooden hull, and consequently she was placed 'in ordinary' - the Navy's reserve.

As a vessel going spare she was perfect for the Admiralty's trials, and conversion to the Royal Navy's only wooden turret ship was completed by 1864. The trials demonstrated that the turrets were robust and capable of withstanding close-range fire and heavy damage while remaining operational. Impressed, the Admiralty ordered the construction of an ocean-going turret ship.

HMS Monarch

All the turret ships built to date had been designed for use in shallow, coastal waters. The Royal Navy needed ocean-going warships in order to protect Britain's vital worldwide trade and her colonies. The technology was not yet advanced enough to allow a battleship to cross the Atlantic on steam-power alone, and any ocean-going turret ship would need to have sails and rigging. Sir Edward Reed believed that the existence of rigging would prevent turrets from operating. Coles disagreed strongly, and campaigned for permission to design both one-turret and two-turret vessels.

In 1865 a committee was set up to 'obtain the unbiased opinion of practical naval officers' on the turret ship question. It concluded that the Navy should construct a rigged two-turret ship, each of Coles' turrets armed with two 25-ton 12-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns. Reed strongly disapproved of Coles' design, feeling that the ship's freeboard was too low. Reed used his position to modify the ship in order to make it more seaworthy. These modifications greatly angered Coles, who used his contacts in the media to launch personal attacks on the Navy's Controller, Sir Spencer Robinson. Consequently, in January 1866 Coles was removed from his position as a Royal Navy consultant.

Following this humiliation, Coles began lobbying Parliament and the press, launching a full-force publicity campaign, wooing newspapers and public opinion and engaging in a battle with the Admiralty, and in particular with Chief Constructor Sir Edward Reed. Coles portrayed himself as the plucky, heroic boffin inventor with Britain's best wishes at heart, fighting the faceless bureaucracy of the conservative, elderly and out-of-touch Admiralty. Even Queen Victoria supported him, giving him her ultimate royal reward; a bust of Prince Albert. One of his chief supporters was politician Hugh Childers, who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty12 in 1868.

Facing this pressure, the Admiralty felt forced to build a turret ship built entirely to Coles' specifications. Both turret ships, one to Coles' design and the other to Reed's modified design, would be built at the Birkenhead-based Laird Brothers shipyard on the River Mersey, with whom Coles had constructed many ironclad turret ships for other navies.

In 1869, Reed's HMS Monarch13 was launched first, becoming the world's first ocean-going turret ship. The highlight of her naval career was transporting the body of George Peabody14 across the Atlantic in 1869, and bombarding the Egyptian forts surrounding Alexandria in 1882.

HMS Captain

In May 1866 Captain Cowper Coles designed his ship. Reed still had severe reservations, but he was under tremendous pressure from one of Coles' chief supporters, then First Lord of the Admiralty Sir John Pakington15, to approve the design. On seeing initial plans, he remarked the design was,

Well considered and well contrived... [provided] we take for granted that the deck is high enough.

Again, Reed feared that the design of Coles' ship meant that its top deck was perilously close to the water, a view that Spencer Robinson shared, yet they were both overruled by Pakington. In November 1866 Reed refused to approve the blueprints, but being informed he did not have the authority to refuse them, instead classed them as 'Not objected to'.

HMS Captain was 320 feet long, had a beam of 53 feet and a draught of 25 feet nine inches. So that it didn't interfere with the turrets, the ship's rigging was mounted to the hurricane deck, a smaller platform deck above the main deck, with specially designed tripod masts used to reduce the amount of rigging required. She had one funnel and three masts, with the same steam-power but far more sail than HMS Monarch.

Captain's Log: Fatal Flaws

From the outset HMS Captain suffered from a series of major flaws for which Coles, as the designer, was ultimately responsible, and which a shipbuilder as experienced as Lairds ought to have spotted, but the urge to build this ship was seemingly unstoppable. As First Lord, Hugh Childers informed them that the accountability for design was outside the Royal Navy's remit; both Lairds and Coles felt that any comments by the Royal Navy, especially from an increasingly concerned Reed, were unimportant and could be ignored.

Coles himself was ill while the ship was under construction so he was unable to closely supervise the work. Laird Brothers' shipyards therefore worked largely unmonitored at their task.

When completed the ship weighed 735 tons – about 10% – more than expected. Despite being designed to have a freeboard of 8 feet 6 inches, a major miscalculation meant that she had a freeboard of only six feet eight inches (a difference of 22 inches); a dangerously small amount for a heavy warship. In comparison, HMS Monarch's freeboard was 14 feet.

Although the original plans were for Captain to be armed with two 9-inch 12-ton guns in each turret, she was equipped with two 12-inch 25-ton guns in each turret instead. She also had the narrowest hull and most extensive sailing rig ever installed on a British ironclad.

HMS Captain was both a steam and sail ship. All steam ships, in a fight, would need a high centre of gravity to prevent gunfire forcing a roll. Conversely, a sailing ship, in strong winds, needed the stability given by a low centre of gravity. HMS Captain, with an extreme amount of sail, was dangerously top-heavy, with a high centre of gravity at 22 feet 3 inches, not 21 feet as designed.

Reed insisted that Coles had got his sums wrong and that the ship was the work of ' amateur architect and a commercial builder'. The Admiralty performed a series of trials, including inclination tests, the results of which showed that the ship's righting moment, the limit the ship can incline to and beyond which will capsize, was only 20 degrees from the vertical. In May 1870 the ship test-fired her guns during a storm in the Bay of Biscay, which was taken as proof that the vessel was sea-worthy. Despite this, Reed resigned in disgust. The Navy's Controller, Sir Spencer Robinson, described Reed's resignation as a national disaster, yet it was merely the calm before the fateful storm.

Captain Capsizes

During her first five months in service the ship seemed to be handling herself well. Admiral Symonds wrote, 'She is a most formidable vessel and could, I believe, by her superior armament, destroy all the broadside ships of the squadron in detail.' Coles was delighted and described his creation by saying, 'She walks the water like a thing of life', and travelled with her on her voyage to and from Gibraltar in September 1870. She was under the command of Captain Hugh Burgoyne, who was one of the first ever recipients of the Victoria Cross, awarded for his actions during the Crimean War.

On 6 September, the Captain was part of a convoy under the command of Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Archibald Milne. Milne had been on board the Captain that afternoon and had been invited to spend the night on the ship by Captain Coles. Milne later reported he had been put off as the sea was washing over the lee of the hurricane deck and the deck-edge was under water at 14 degrees inclination. He returned to his flagship, HMS Lord Warden, which the Captain was sailing astern of. Just before midnight a storm struck and visibility was reduced to almost nil. Two hours later the fleet noticed that the Captain was missing.

A hunt for survivors found only wreckage. Eighteen men survived out of a crew of 500.

Captain Going Down With the Ship

During the storm the Captain's tripod masts prevented her sails from blowing away as they did on other vessels in high winds, but trapped the wind and increased the ship's instability. Captain Burgoyne rushed on deck 'scantily dressed despite the rain' and ordered the topsail halyards cut, and then ordered the officer of the watch to call out the angle of heel on the ship's clinometer, as the Captain was leaning 18 degrees, but it was too late. The ship rapidly heeled over as the officer called out, '18 degrees! 23 degrees! 28 degrees!' With only six feet of freeboard the sea soon washed over the deck and the ship quickly capsized.

The two hundred men on deck instantly found themselves thrown into the sea, but they were the lucky ones. About three hundred men were below decks. The boilers' furnace doors burst open, showering the crew down below with burning coals, and the water which was now rapidly entering the vessel boiled and steamed, scalding and skinning the crew as they rushed in vain to safety. The survivors reported the agonised shouts and screams coming from the men trapped below, amplified by the ship's ventilators and hatchways.

Two of the Captain's smaller vessels survived the sinking: a badly-damaged 37-foot steam launch, and an oared pinnace16 that was floating upside down. Gunner James May reports that seven men including himself and Captain Burgoyne clung to the upturned keel of the pinnace until the steam launch came to rescue them. After May had been taken on board the launch, they held an oar out to assist Captain Burgoyne. He said 'Save your oars, boys, you'll need them' and drifted away. It is believed that he drowned, either refusing to cling onto the launch for fear he would swamp it, or wishing to go down with his ship.

About ten minutes after the Captain sank, the frigate HMS Inconstant passed within 50 yards of the disaster. The storm was still so severe that none of the Inconstant's lookouts noticed anything. The survivors in the launch made landfall at Corcubion Bay on the coast of Spain.

The Captain sank near Cape Finisterre, killing 482 men - more than the number who died at the Battle of Trafalgar. Cowper Coles died in the disaster, as did First Lord Hugh Childers' only son, Midshipman Leonard Childers, who was on board after his father had transferred him from HMS Monarch.


A court-martial was held to determine responsibility for the disaster. It concluded that the ship was too unstable, and their duty forced them to

Record the conviction they entertain that the Captain was built in deference to public opinion expressed in Parliament and other channels... in opposition to the views and opinions of the Controller of the Navy and his department.

Politician Hugh Childers was not satisfied and demanded the resignation of Spencer Robinson. He even attempted to replace him with either of the two Laird Brothers even though their miscalculations had caused the disaster in the first place. Wiser heads prevailed, fortunately, although Robinson's departure was a severe loss to the Royal Navy. Childers later became Chancellor of the Exchequer and in 1885 inadvertently caused the collapse of Gladstone's second government.


One of Reed's last, and most important acts was to design HMS Devastation. Work began in 1869, and she was launched in 1871. The world's first mastless capital ship17, the first capital ship with weapons mounted on top of rather than inside her hull, she was the ancestor of the 20th Century battleship. With a strong 14-knot speed and 5,500 nautical mile range, armed with four 12-inch 25-ton guns in two turrets, she was stable in even the heaviest seas. Nicknamed 'England's Glory', for 15 years she and her sister ship HMS Thunderer were unchallenged as the most powerful warships afloat.

Her gun turrets were built to Cowper Coles' design.

1Who by then had himself been promoted (and knighted) to become Rear Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons.2The Anglo-French naval bombardment of Sebastopol, also known as Sevastopol, had been a complete failure.3Not actually anywhere near the Crimea. Kronstadt is on an island just to the west of St Petersburg and was the base of Russia's Imperial Baltic Fleet.4Although many were clad in iron to give them some fundamental armour.5And they don't come much more powerful than the Queen's husband.6This theory, developed by Robert Thurson, suggests the same invention is frequently brought out in several countries, and by several individuals, simultaneously.7A replica which includes the wheels from the original locomotive is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.8America's Monitor-obsession was at least understandable when compared to Russia's reaction; instead of building ships with rotary turrets, Russia built two circular ships, the Vitse Admiral Popov and Novgorod, that were incapable of sailing in a straight line.9One of which, the Sölve, still exists as a museum ship today at the Maritiman maritime museum in Gothenburg.10Ordered in secrecy under the names El Tousson and El Monassir to hide their true destination, with the real names to be CSS Mississippi and CSS North Carolina. Seized by the Royal Navy to avoid a political scandal, they became HMS Wivern and HMS Scorpion.11Royal Navy ships-of-the-line (those which lined up stem-to-stern to fire a broadside at the enemy) were rated depending on how many guns and decks they had, from first- to fourth-rate.12Gilbert and Sullivan would later describe this job in HMS Pinafore with the words 'I am the Monarch of the sea, the ruler of the Queen's navy... landsmen all, whoever you may be, if you want to rise to the top of the tree... stick close to your desks and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navy.'13Not the HMS Monarch on which Admiral Byng was executed in 1757.14The banker and philanthropist, probably best known for the Peabody Trust which still provides and manages affordable housing in London.15Sir John Pakington held the political post of First Lord of the Admiralty 1858-1859, 1866-67.16A small boat used to ferry passengers, mail etc from one ship to another.17A navy's most important (usually its biggest and most powerful) ships.

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