Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher wrote of HMS Warrior ‘It was not appreciated that this, our first armour-clad ship of war, would cause a fundamental change in what had been in vogue for something like a thousand years.’

Having spent a good part of my life on new product development; rather than the battle itself, it is the years leading to the Battle of Jutland which intrigue me. Fifty years of the most intensive product development, as the Royal Navy grappled with three simultaneous revolutions.

• The shift from sail to steam
• The shift from hearts of oak to iron
• The invention of the turrent gun


HMS Captain David Preston e4c2135f-ef6f-41be-9b09-76f6ed34187eA poignant memorial in the church of St Mary, Bedstone records the death of an 18 year-old Midshipman. Young Ripley has no grave, no headstone, his parents had no body. He lies with 480 shipmates in the wreck of HMS Captain in the Bay of Biscay. The loss of these men was greater than the total sacrifices at Trafalgar. There was national mourning and they are remembered both in St Paul’s and in Westminster Abbey.

Jutland was the only battle between large British and German dreadnought fleets. Between 1906 and 1914 this country built 29 dreadnought battleships and 9 dreadnought battle-cruisers. Many were engaged at Jutland. The wreck in the Bay of Biscay was part of the price paid for developing those dreadnoughts.


In Portsmouth Historic Dockyard you’ll find a perfect example of the kind of transition with which Naval designers were wrestling. This is our first iron-clad ship, but the Navy is not ready to abandon its wooden walls. What we have is a Victoria sandwich of a vessel. 4.5 inches of iron is backed by two 9-inch-thick layers of teak, at right angles to each other. All this is bolted to the iron hull.


There were several fatal flaws in the concept and execution of the next step. Perhaps the most demanding task lay in the Navy’s insistence on belt-and-braces; on both steam and sail. The engines and boilers weren’t efficient. If the vessel were to rely solely on steam, it couldn’t carry enough coal to be ocean-going. Thus it must carry a lot of sail and three masts; adversely affecting the whole centre of gravity. HMS Captain carried 6,000 sq ft more canvas than its direct contemporary, the celebrated tea clipper the Cutty Sark.


HMS Captain normal_Cowper_Coles (1)Just one more thing, as Lieutenant Colombo would have said. The designer … Captain Cowper Phipps Coles was not an easy man to work with. In March 1859 he filed a patent for a revolving gun turret. “I soon found out how hopeless it was to try and introduce into the Navy a novel invention.” Coles complained so loudly and long that in January 1866 the Admiralty terminated his contract as a consultant.

Captain Coles wasn’t a man to be thrown overboard. Claiming he had been misunderstood, he was re-employed. A ruthless manipulator of both Parliament and press, he forced the Admiralty to give him the go-ahead for a two-turret battleship.

What would become HMS Captain was a project like no other. To a degree the Navy was taking a back seat. Coles would be responsible both for the design and for choosing the yard to build the vessel. It would not be subject to the tried-and-tested system of signing-off or of approving each phase of the vessel’s construction. Rather than development, Coles would attempt a revolutionary leap into the future.


A comparable vessel – a rival, if you like, was HMS Majestic. This would be built under the Admiralty’s own construction team. This ship had a freeboard (the distance between the waterline and the main deck of a ship)of 14ft. Coles’ design for his ship specified 8ft. He was pushing things beyond what the Navy team considered safe.

Both the Controller Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Spencer Robinson and the Chief Constructor Edward James Reed raised serious concerns. Robinson noted that the low freeboard could cause flooding on the gun deck, and Reed criticised the design in 1866 both for being too heavy and for having too high a centre of gravity. As the design neared completion, the First Lord of the Admiralty wrote on 23 July 1866 approving the building of the ship, but noting that responsibility for failure would lie on Coles’ and the builders’ lap.

That was before things started to go seriously wrong. When Lairds had finished building the ship it was almost 750 tons heavier than the design weight. Thereby the freeboard dropped to just over 6ft. This would have been the time to call a halt and, if necessary, to start over again. And just one more thing … the centre of gravity also rose by about ten inches. This vessel would be susceptible to turning turtle.


HMS Captain was commissioned on 30 April 1870 under Captain Hugh Talbot Burgoyne, VC. During sea trials in the following months, the vessel seemed to fulfil Coles’ promises. In trials versus the Monarch, she performed well, travelling to Vigo, Spain and Gibraltar in separate runs.

Then she was ordered to join the Channel Squadron of 11 ships off Cape Finisterre. The Commander in Chief was on board to experience her performance for himself. “I was on board the Captain on the morning of the 6th (September); everything was in order. A sailing trial began in the afternoon. The breeze was moderate and the sips carried royals (a small sail immediately above the top gallant – found only on large ships with masts tall enough to accommodate the extra canvas). At 4 in the afternoon the breeze freshened … it was observed that the sea washed over the lee deck, her gunwhale sometime being level with the water (my emphasis).

I left the Captain at 5.30pm, when she was twenty miles off Cape Finisterre … At 11pm the wind freshened, the barometer fell, and a gale sprang up. Our sails were reefed. The Captain was close astern … I noticed at 1.15am she was kneeling over very much. Her light a few minutes later was still visible, after which a thick rain shut her out.”

The weather worsened with rain as the night progressed, and the number of sails was reduced. The wind was blowing from the port bow so that sails had to be angled to the wind, speed was much reduced, and there was considerable force pushing the ship sideways. As the wind rose to a gale, sail was reduced to only the fore staysail and fore and main topsails.

Shortly after midnight when a new watch came on duty, the ship was heeling over eighteen degrees and was felt to lurch to starboard twice. Orders were given to drop the fore topsail and release sheets (ropes) holding both topsails angled into the wind. Before the captain’s order could be carried out, the roll increased, and she capsized and sank with the loss of around 480 lives. Only 18 of the crew survived by making it to a boat which had broken free.

At dawn the ships of the squadron were seen, but the Captain was missing. The squadron scattered to search for her, when fragments of the wreck were found …


The Globe reported the disaster
“Ships have from time to time been lost in storm and battle, but they have succumbed to overwhelming odds; and so far as we can at present discern, the Captain encountered nothing which might not have been overcome or avoided.”

The paper had some sympathetic thoughts on the inventor, Captain Coles “(he) had devoted fifteen years to perfecting his invention, and had at last constructed a ship that seemed to realize to the full his original conceptions. The weary waiting in departmental ante-rooms, the ehart-breaking struggles with red-tape and routine, and the chilly indifference of officials, belonged to the past; but the inventor has lived to triumph over them only to perish in the work of his own genius.”


On Saturday, the 8th of October, the following result of the Court of Inquiry was delivered:
“The Court, … do find that her Majesty’s ship Captain was capsized on the morning of the 7th of September, 1870, by a pressure of sail, assisted by a heave of the sea, and that the sail carried at the time of her loss (regard being had to the force of the wind and the state of the sea) was insufficient to have endangered a ship endowed with a proper amount of stability.

The Court, “before separating, find it their duty to record the conviction they entertain that the Captain was built in deference to public opinion expressed in Parliament and through other channels, and in opposition to the views and opinions of the Controller and his department ; and that the evidence all tends to show that they generally disapproved of her construction.

It further appearing that before the Captain was received from the contractors a grave departure from her original design had been committed, whereby her draught of water was increased about two feet, and her free-board was diminished to a corresponding extent, and that her stability proved to be dangerously small, combined with an area of sail (under the circumstances) excessive. The Court deeply regret that if these facts were duly known and appreciated, they were not communicated to the officer in command of the ship; or, if otherwise, that she was allowed to be employed in the ordinary service of the fleet before they had been sufficiently ascertained by calculation and experiment.”


HMS Captain young ripley 1653324668Back in St Mary’s Bedstone it is easy to overlook the awful coda of young Ripley’s shipmates on the Royal Oak. After his two and a half years with them, he transferred to the ‘experimental’ battleship “four days before his death.”

Being posted to HMS Captain would have conferred immense prestige. Amongst the casualties I found Midshipman Leonard George Eardley Childers – he was 18. Securing this posting would have been simple. His father, the MP for Pontefract, the Rt Hon Hugh Childers, was First Lord of the Admiralty. The Hon William Reginald Herbert was only 16. His father had also been an MP. Three times Sydney Herbert had been in the Cabinet as Secretary at War. He sent Florence Nightingale to the Crimea. Thomas George Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook was Under-Secretary of State for War – no surprise then, that his second son, Arthur Napier Thomas Baring, was a 16-year-old midshipman on HMS Captain. Sir Henry Ripley had also served as an MP. He had entertained the Prime Minister in his own home. I fear he had used his influence to have Alfred posted to the fatal ship just four days before it foundered.

There was no end to the family agony. A few days earlier his mother had gone down to Portsmouth to greet the return of ship and her son. It is said she intended to persuade him to quit the Navy. It was there she learned of the loss of the vessel and his death.

This was part of the price we paid for those dreadnoughts at Jutland.