Committee on Designs of Ship of War

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The Committee on Designs of Ships of War (1870-1872) was an outcome of the very celebrated sinking of H.M.S. Captain, subsequent court-martial and investigation between 1870 and 1872. The Committee and its report would have far-reaching effects on naval design and construction.

HMS Captain 1869

In September 1870 H.M.S. Captain, a masted turret ship launched a mere year previously, floundered in a gale off Cape Finisterre on the west coast of Spain. Prior to being launched, concerns had been raised about the design, in particular the low freeboard, the high centre of gravity, and the heaviness of the vessel. All of these would be further worsened during construction which lacked supervision due to illness of the vessel's designer, Captain Cowper Phipps Coles. In particular the Chief Constructor of the Royal Navy, Edward James Reed, raised particular concerns over the stability of the vessel but these were over-ruled during the seemingly successful sea trials in spring of 1870. On 6-7 September 1870, H.M.S. Captain was sailing off the west coast of Spain in force six winds and a storm considered “unexceptional” when, despite desperate attempts to prevent it, the vessel capsized and rapidly sank with the loss of 473 lives including that of her designer, Captain Coles, and her commander, Hugh T. Burgoyne. Only eighteen members of the crew would survive. The sinking would count as probably one of the Royal Navy’s greatest peacetime losses.[1]

Court-martial and inquiry

The Court Martial – essentially a court of enquiry or inquest – assembled on board HMS Duke of Wellington in Portsmouth three weeks after the disaster, on 27th September 1870 , and lasted for eleven days.[2] The court marital would be presided over by Sir James Hope, G.C.B., Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of HM ships and vessels employed at Portsmouth, with Captain G.F. Blake of the Royal Marines and Barrister-at-Law acting as Judge Advocate, the members of the court were headed by Vice-Admiral Sir H.R. Yelverton, K.C.B., Commander of the Channel Squadron.

Two weeks after the court-martial had been called, its findings were read out by its President, James Hope:

The court, having heard the statement of Mr James May (the most senior survivor) and taken his evidence and that of the remaining survivors and other evidence they deemed necessary, and having deliberately weighed and considered the whole of the evidence before them, do find that Her Majesty’s Ship Captain was capsized on the morning of the 7th September 1870 by pressure of sail, assisted by the 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 endued with the proper amount of stability.
The Court, before separating, find it their duty to record the conviction they entertain 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 in evidence that before the Captain was received from the contractors a gross departure from her original design had been committed, whereby her draught of water was increased about two feet and her freeboard was diminished to a corresponding extent, and that her stability proved to be dangerously small, combined with an area of sail, under those 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 that, if otherwise, the ship was allowed to be employed in the ordinary service of the Fleet before they had been ascertained by calculation and experience.

The Admiralty and others would not take kindly to the questions raised and further criticisms introduced by the court martial but were aware that important questions about the development of warships and related naval technologies needed to be answered. And so in 1871 due to these reasons and to political concerns, a Committee on Designs of Ships of War was appointed to consider these topics.

Committee on Designs of Ships of War (1871-1872)

In order to further investigate the Captain affair and to consider related, important questions raised by the rapid development in warship construction, a special board (the Committee on Designs of Ships of War) was appointed by the Admiralty in 1871 in order to consider the designs of ironclad ships of war. Members of the committee would include Alfred Phillipps Ryder.[3] The committee would gather oral evidence in 1871 before producing a report, this being published in July 1872.[4] Amongst those giving evidence was the Chief Constructor of the Royal Navy, Edward James Reed who raised serious concerns about the stability of Captain during her design and construction.

The main recommendation of the committee was the introduction of the marine compound engine in all future ships. In addition to this recommendation, the report would also contain a great deal of valuable information and certain important suggestions, which would be implemented and would have far-reaching effects on naval design and construction.[5] However some dissenting notes would be raised and, upon publication of the committee's report in July 1892, immediate criticisms would be voiced.[6] Amongst the criticisms was an author from Naval Science writing in October 1872 commenting that the committee's proposals to extensive adoption of the compound engine would be unlikely to grant any advantage.[7]



  3. Biography of Alfred Phillipps Ryder R.N.
  4. Report of the Committee appointed by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to examine the designs upon which ships of war have recently been constructed, with analysis of evidence including appendix. London: for Her Majesty's Stationery office by Harrison and Sons, 1872.
  5. Hovgaard, William. Modern History of Warships: Comprising a Discussion of Present Standpoint p. 33.
  7. Smith, Edgar C. A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering (Cambridge 1938): p. 75.

See Also