The Tragedy of HMS Captain | History Hit

The Tragedy of HMS Captain

Dan Snow

15 Feb 2023
Painting of the British warship HMS Captain, completed in April 1870 and capsized in September 1870 with the loss of nearly 500 lives because of design and construction errors.
Image Credit: William Frederick Mitchell; orginally published in the Royal Navy in a series of illustrations (Public Domain)

On the morning of 10 September 1870 The Times broke some shocking news to its readers. Reports of a “dreadful calamity reached London yesterday evening”. The brand new battleship, HMS Captain, pride of the Royal Navy, the world’s most powerful fleet, “has foundered off Cape Finisterre. Nothing has been found but her boats and spars… In a dark and stormy night, without a moments warning, the waves of the Atlantic must have engulfed one of the noblest prizes they have ever yet snatched from human skill and courage.”

The fact that a few days later a desperate band of 18 survivors made it to the Spanish coast in one of the surviving open boats did little to detract from the sense of catastrophe. In a flash around 470 men had died, more than had perished in the great sea battle against Napoleon’s fleet off Trafalgar. Just as tragic was the fact that, as The Times lamented, “this wreck is that of one of the finest ships in the world.”

It was supposed to embody the giant technological lead enjoyed by Victorian Britain. It was a moment of drama and hubris. HMS Captain was built to extend the Royal Navy’s long era of hegemony into a new industrial era of iron built ships and gigantic guns. It had been the subject of debates in Parliament and column inches in newspapers. The navy had agreed to the building of Captain after a genuinely popular campaign. Now only months after it was commissioned, Captain was gone. 

As a crew of over 500 boarded HMS Captain, none of them knew their fate was sealed.
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Conditions in the Bay of Biscay

Four days before this news spoiled the breakfast of readers across the country, the British combined Mediterranean and Channel Squadrons had been cruising off Cape Finisterre – pretty much the north-west tip of Spain. A part of the ocean infamous for the autumn gales that scream in off the Atlantic, driving mountainous seas whipped to a particular frenzy by the rapid shallowing of the seabed as it soars from the deep Atlantic to the shallower coastal plain of Biscay.

Over thousands of years the Bay of Biscay has ruined ships, and the ambitions of men. Many Armadas and fleets that had left port with certain prospects of victory have been smashed to matchwood in Biscay. 

The wind increased throughout 6 September. None of the hybrid ships, some of iron, others of wood, with an assortment of weapon systems, had powerful enough steam engines to drive them through rough ocean weather and they relied on sails, flying from towering masts. HMS Captain, the newest addition, launched in 1869 but only fully commissioned in spring of 1870, was no exception. As the wind increased her crew scurried aloft to reef and furl sail. The heavier the weather, the less canvas is needed to harness the wind. 

HMS Captain at Chatham 1869

Design decisions

The squadron’s commander in chief was aboard Captain to see how his new ship performed. He summoned his barge and rejoined his flagship, his decision perhaps influenced by the Captain’s wild heeling from side to side and the white water that crashed across its deck.

HMS Captain was built unlike any of his other ships. She was low in the water, sleek, with huge guns mounted – not all along the edge of the ship in checkered gun-ports – but in armoured turrets that could swivel around. Her designer, and the chief lobbyist for her construction was Captain Cowper Coles. He believed, rightly, that the future of naval gunnery was in these big turret-mounted monsters, but he was wrong to think that future had arrived. The ship still needed masts and miles of rope rigging to hold the structure aloft and work the sails.

To operate the guns without shredding the rigging, he took the hugely controversial decision to mount these turrets below the level of the main deck. The Admiralty had objected. Cowper Coles had launched a national campaign to get them to change their minds. The public, journalists and MPs were thrilled at the prospect at a miraculous new super ship, and the Admiralty was forced to allow Cowper Coles to build it in a private yard on the Mersey. But, they said, on his head be it. 

HMS Captain, 1869, on deck

A violent squall

In the first minutes of 7 September, Captain Cowper Coles was worried for his head. He was aboard his precious Captain and she was heeling violently from side to side. Other ships in the squadron recorded that a particularly violent squall blasted the fleet just after midnight. Wind speeds reached over 60 knots, as mountainous 50 foot waves lifted and rolled her iron hull. The ship’s captain, Hugh Talbot Burgoyne had won a Victoria Cross for valour as a young man, and he needed all his courage in the face of an enemy more terrifying than any human foe.

The squall caught the few scraps of canvas his ship still had up and heeled her over. He roared at his men to let go the sheets of the topsails and let them flap but it was too late. The ship passed the point of no return. It kept heeling over until the black water surged across the starboard guardrail, swamping the deck. Men in the rigging were plunged into the water, instantly entangled in a spiderweb of rope. She kept rolling, down plunged the masts into the darkness. 

A handful of lucky men ran up her upturned hull as she turned the other way and clung to the keel. She had spun 180 degrees. For a few moments air pockets inside kept her afloat. Their crewmates trapped a few inches below them in a world of darkness, turned upside down. For up to 10 minutes Captain bobbed inverted, an instant between life and death, before she sank to the seabed. 

Only a few pieces of rigging and the ships boats, small tenders torn from their deck mountings, remained on the surface. 18 men clambered into one and survived a further ordeal before they reached safety. 

The sinking of HMS Captain as featured in The Illustrated London News, volume LVII, 24 September 1870

Image Credit: Edwin Weedon in The Illustrated London News, volume LVII, 24 September 1870 / Public Domain

Naval inquiry

Among the dead were sons of the First Sea Lord and a senior government minister, a reflection of the prestige that serving aboard the ship commanded. Alongside them The Times reported a further high profile victim. “The loss of Captain Cowper Coles in the ship which was the final result of his genius is at once the most melancholy and the most disastrous element in this calamity. Captain Coles was, practically, the inventor of the greatest naval improvement of modern times.”

This last sentence must have caused some of their Lordships at the Admiralty to choke on their morning kipper. Many professional naval officers and architects had been deeply suspicious of this ship, indeed they tried to stop it being built at all.

The naval inquiry issued an unprecedented and stinging rebuke to… the British public. The ship, they found, had not been stable, it had been a death trap. The navy had been forced to acquiesce to its build “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.” An era of technological transformation had got everyone carried away. In future, shipbuilding should be left to the professionals. 

150 years later, a team is now looking for the Captain. Dr Howard Fuller, guest on a recent episode of Dan Snow’s History Hit, is leading a team from the University of Wolverhampton. They have identified a possible wreck and are raising money to send an underwater vehicle down to check it out. If you want to learn more, or support the work of Dr Fuller’s team, please head to 

Dan Snow