A memorial for one of the Navy’s worst peacetime disasters

This attractive memorial plaque had been in store for many years. In 2011 we took the decision to put it on display in our ‘No Place Like Pompey’ exhibition, which is on the first floor at Portsmouth Museum & Art Gallery. We wanted to use it to show the impact of the Navy on local people’s lives, including loss and disaster.

The inscription reads “SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF SERGEANT JOHN FRANCIS AND GUNNER JOHN HAMMOND OF THE ROYAL MARINE ARTILLERY MEMBERS OF THIS CONGREGATION WHO WERE DROWNED WITH FIVE HUNDRED AND FOUR BRITISH SEAMAN AND MARINES IN H.M. SHIP ‘CAPTAIN’ WHICH FOUNDERED OFF CAPE FINISTERRE ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 7TH 1870. ‘BE YE ALSO READY'” and is from the Eastney Methodist Central Hall, Eastney, Portsmouth.

We had to conduct some further investigation, which led us to the story of one of the worst naval peacetime disasters ever.

HMS Captain was designed and built by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles with revolutionary turret guns and a deliberately low freeboard. She also had tripod masts to reduce the amount of rigging that might have got in the way of the turret guns. Her design caused much controversy and argument at the Admiralty, and the ship was only built after her designer campaigned for it.

The Captain was laid down at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead in 1867 and launched in 1869. She was commissioned in April 1870, and commanded by Captain Hugh Talbot Burgoyne. Insufficient supervision of weights during the building meant that the Captain was much heavier than planned, reducing even further her inadequate freeboard. The centre of gravity of the vessel also rose by about ten inches during construction, rendering the vessel unsafe and liable to capsize. Concerns expressed over her instability were overruled during her trials.

She rolled over in a gale and capsized during trials in the Bay of Biscay on 7 September 1870. The capsizing occurred during a storm, described by those on traditional ships in the same fleet as unexceptional. In one of the British Royal Navy’s greatest peacetime losses, there were only 18 survivors out of a crew of over 500.

This tragedy created a public outcry and nationwide sympathy for the bereaved. The most tangible memorial to the disaster consists of two large bronze plaques in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, one giving the official account of the disaster, with a list of the ship’s officers, and the other listing the seamen, Royal Marines and boys who died.

As our plaque proves, there were also more local memorials to individuals associated with particular towns and churches. There is another in Portsmouth at St Anne’s Church inside the naval base.