HMS Captain (1869)

HMS Captain (1869)

HMS "Captain" was a unique ship commissioned by the Royal Navy. She was a revolutionary masted turret ship of some originality, launched in 1869 and capsized the following year with the loss of nearly 500 lives because of design flaws that led to inadequate stability.


The history of the "Captain" can be traced back to the Crimean War and the experiences of British captain Cowper Phipps Coles in 1855. Coles and a group of British sailors constructed a raft with guns protected by a turret and used the small boat, named the "Lady Nancy", to shell the Russian town of Taganrog in the Black Sea. The ship "proved a great success"cite book | last = Preston | first = Antony | title = The World's Worst Warships | origyear = 2002 | publisher = Conway Maritime Press | id = ISBN 0-85177-754-6 ] and Coles patented his rotating turret after the war. Following Coles patenting, the British Admiralty ordered a prototype of Coles' design, and the turret was built into a floating battery vessel, "Trusty" in 1861.

The trials of the "Trusty" impressed the Admiralty, and it ordered a coastal defense vessel, "Prince Albert", to be built with four of Coles' turrets and a wooden 121 gun first rate ship-of-the-line under construction, HMS "Royal Sovereign" to be converted to a turret ship. "Prince Albert" was completed with four turrets mounting single 12-ton 9 inch guns and 4.5 inch thick armour plate on the hull. "Royal Sovereign" had five 10.5 inch, 12.5 ton guns in one twin and three single turrets.cite book | last = Brown | first = David | title = Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship development 1860 to 1905 | origyear = 1997 | publisher = Chatham Publishing | id = ISBN 1-84067-529-2 ]

Both ships were flush deck with only a jury rig, and could only operate as coastal service vessels. [This kind of vessel is often referred to as a "coast defence ship", but there was nothing defensive about the role intended for "Royal Sovereign", she was intended for attack for enemy ports such as Cherbourg.] However, the Admiralty, although impressed with Coles' rotating turret, required oceangoing vessels to protect its world-wide empire. Unfortunately for Coles, engine technology had not yet caught up with his designs and consequently oceangoing ships required sails. Combining rigging, masts and turrets proved complicated if rigging was not to impede the turrets' arc of fire.

In early 1863 the Admiralty gave Coles permission to work with Nathaniel Barnaby, head of staff of the Department of Naval Construction, on the design of a rigged vessel with two turrets and three tripod masts. However, in June 1863 the Admiralty suspended progress on the vessel until "Royal Sovereign" finished her trials.

In 1864, he was allowed to start a second project: a rigged vessel with only one turret and based on the design of HMS "Pallas", and was lent the services of Joseph Scullard, Chief Draughtsman of Portsmouth Dockyard.cite book | last = Brown | first = David | title = Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship development 1860 to 1905 | origyear = 1997 | publisher = Chatham Publishing | id = ISBN 1-84067-529-2 ]

The next year, 1865, a committee established by the Admiralty to study the new design concluded that while the turret should be adopted, Coles' one-turret warship design had inadequate fire arcs.cite book | last = Preston | first = Antony | title = The World's Worst Warships | origyear = 2002 | publisher = Conway Maritime Press | id = ISBN 0-85177-754-6 ] The committee proposed a two-turret fully rigged vessel with either two 9" "(12 ton)" guns per turret, or one 12" "(22 ton)" gun per turret. The committee's proposal was accepted by the Admiralty, and construction was started on "HMS Monarch". "Monarch's" two turrets were each equipped with two 12" "(25-ton)" guns.

Stunned by the committee's decision to cancel his single-turret ship and his proposal for a two-turret vessel, and objecting to the "Monarch's" design, Coles launched a strong campaign against the project, attacking Robert Spencer Robinson, Controller of the Navy, and various other members of the committee and the Admiralty. So vociferously did Coles complain that in January 1866 his contract as a consultant to the Admiralty was terminated. At the end of January, his protestations that he had been misunderstood led to his being re-employed from 1 March 1866.cite book | last = Brown | first = David | title = Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship development 1860 to 1905 | origyear = 1997 | publisher = Chatham Publishing | id = ISBN 1-84067-529-2 ] Further, Coles lobbied the press and Parliament and was eventually able to force the Admiralty to allow him to build his own two-turret design.

Design and Construction

In May 1866, Coles informed the Admiralty of his selection of Laird Brothers' Merseyside yard, for the builder of the warship. The Merseyside yard had already built several successful ironclads and readily accepted the challenge of building a vessel to Coles' specificationscite book | last = Preston | first = Antony | title = The World's Worst Warships | origyear = 2002 | publisher = Conway Maritime Press | id = ISBN 0-85177-754-6 ] . To prevent the rigging from being damaged when the guns fired through it, it was attached to a platform mounted above the gun turrets known as the hurricane deck instead of brought down to the main deck. Tripod masts were also used to minimise standing rigging.

The design called for the ship to have a low freeboard, and Coles' figures estimated it at 8 feet. Both the Controller Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Spencer Robinson and the Chief Constructor Edward James Reed raised serious concerns. Robinson noted the low freeboard could cause flooding issues on the gun deck, and Reed criticised the design in 1866 for being both too heavy and having too high a centre of gravity. On the latter, Reed noted that it would cause issues "especially as it is proposed to spread a large surface of canvas upon the "Captain"." [ The building of HMS "Captain"] ,] As the design neared completion, the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Packington, wrote on 23 July 1866 to Coles approving the building of the ship, but noting that responsibility for failure would lie on Coles' and the builders' lap.Brown, David [1997] . "Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship development 1860 to 1905". Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-84067-529-2.]

In November 1866, the contract for the HMS "Captain" was approved and the design was finished. She was laid down 30 January 1867 at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, England, launched 27 March 1869 and completed in March 1870.Insufficient supervision of weights during the building-partly dueFact|date=September 2008 to Coles' protracted illness meant that she was 735 tons (747t) heavier than planned. The designed freeboard was just 8 feet (2.4m) and the additional weight brought it down to just 6 ft 6 in (2.0m), and forced her to float 22 inches deeper then expected. The center of gravity of the vessel also rose by about ten inches during construction. Reed raised havoc over the problems with the freeboard and the center of gravity, going so far as to call the ship "unsafe" [ The building of HMS "Captain"] ,] but his objections were overruled during the "Captain's" trials.

She was commissioned on 30 April 1870 under Captain Hugh Talbot Burgoyne, VC. During trials in the following months, the "Captain" seemed to be everything that Coles promised and won over many followers. In trials versus the "Monarch", she performed well and returned to sea in July and August, traveling to Vigo, Spain and Gibraltar in separate runs.


Shortly after midnight on 7 September 1870 whilst cruising off Cape Finisterre as part of a squadron of 11 ships, she heeled over under the force of the wind on her 50,000 square feet (4,600m²) of sail. Before the captain's order to cut away the topsail could be carried out, the roll increased and she capsized and sank with the loss of around 480 lives, including Coles himself. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Childers, and Under-Secretary of State for War, Thomas Baring, both lost sons in the disaster. Only 18 of the crew survived by making it to a boat which had broken free.

The subsequent investigation, under Sir James Hope, took place on board HMS "Duke of Wellington", in Portsmouth Harbour. It was somewhat of a departure for the Admiralty to seek scientific advice but eminent engineers William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and William John Macquorn Rankine were appointed to the enquiry. It concluded that the ship was insufficiently stable: at 14 degrees heel (when the edge of the deck touched the sea) the torque due to the buoyancy pushing the ship upright again was just 410 foot-tons (1.2MNm). HMS "Monarch", the masted turret ship proposed by the 1865 committee and designed by Reed, and which was also at sea at the time of the sinking, had a righting torque of 6,500 foot-tons (20MNm) at the same angle. The inquiry concluded that "the "Captain" was built in deference to public opinion expressed in Parliament and through other channels, and in opposition to views and opinions of the Controller and his Department". [ The story of HMS "Captain"] ,]


There are memorials to the crew in St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, London, and St. Anne's church in Portsmouth.


* Ballard, Admiral G.A. "The Black Battlefleet", published Nautical Publications Co. and Society for Nautical Research, 1980. ISBN 0 245 53030 4
* Archibald, E.H.H.; Ray Woodward (ill.) (1971). The Metal Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy 1860-1970. New York: Arco Publishing Co.. ISBN 0-6680-2509-3.

External links

* [ HMS Captain, 1870]
* [ HMS Captain page at Warships on the Web]

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