What was the Captain?
HMS Captain was an experimental ‘sail-and-steam’ turret warship which capsized in a storm off Cape Finisterre, Spain just after midnight on 7 September 1870.
Why did the Captain sink?
Coles wanted a high-tech man-of-war which could go anywhere (including across the Atlantic) and sink anything. His ‘perfect’ iron vessel would boast the biggest guns, mounted in revolving turrets.
As with American monitor-ironclads, Coles believed a weapons platform low in the water added stealth and further maximized armour protection.
But to ensure great speed and geostrategic range in an age of empire, Coles insisted upon a large spread of sail to supplement her steam engines. With a lower freeboard than originally planned, the vessel’s high centre of gravity made her dangerously unstable.
On the night of 6 September 1870, HMS Captain was part of a combined fleet of the Channel and Mediterranean Squadrons of the Royal Navy, on manoeuvres in a diplomatic show of force, when a fierce gale of hurricane strength toppled her over before the crew could cut loose her remaining sails. Only 18 men of nearly 500 aboard survived.
Fact: When the Captain was commissioned the ensign was mistakenly hoisted union jack downwards (a signal of distress)—which sailors considered a bad omen
Where is the Captain now?
University of Wolverhampton research has analysed surviving historical evidence such as the logs of every warship in the combined fleet —carefully cross-referenced against survivors’ accounts, court-martial testimonies, newspaper accounts and other sources.
Our working scatter plot suggests the time and place of the Captain’s foundering was further out to sea than some have speculated.
This means a possible depth of 1,300 to 1,700 metres — nearly a mile down — with the wreck possibly on sloping, uneven seabed.
This also means the wreck of HMS Captain would be out of reach of most fishing trawlers and relic hunters off Spain’s ‘Costa da Morte’. There are relatively few destructive marine organisms at these depths, with no sunlight and little oxygen, so the shipwreck might be remarkably intact.
The Project Team
The University of Wolverhampton is well placed to lead this effort:
Project leader Dr. Howard Fuller is an acclaimed naval historian, and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His research monograph, Turret versus Broadside: An Anatomy of British Naval Prestige, Revolution and Disaster 1860-1870 (Helion & Company, 2020), was the first comprehensive academic study of the Captain tragedy
The University’s Centre for Historical Research (CHR) produces research that is rated 4-Star (‘Internationally Excellent) according to REF2021
One of the University of Wolverhampton’s own undergraduate students in War Studies is related to Isaac Glithero, a 27-year-old marine who also went down with the ship
For more information, see also the department’s ‘Pods of War’ video on the Find the Captain Project
The University of Wolverhampton is collaborating with a wide array of historians, archaeologists, museum authorities, MoD personnel, civil servants and international authorities. These include:
- Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO) branch, Ministry of Defence
- Naval Historical Branch (MoD)
- Dr. Dominic Tweddle, Director General, National Museum of the Royal Navy
- Dr. Robert Blyth, Senior Curator, National Maritime Museum
- Dr. James P. Delgado, (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Waves Group (UK marine survey consortium)
- Galicia-based maritime archeological authorities
- Vizuals Lab, producing a documentary for Spanish television
- Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles KCMG LVO, great grandson of Captain Coles
Progress so far
In 2022 Dr. Fuller worked closely with Vizuals Lab to secure co-sponsorship by the University’s Centre for Historical Research for an exploratory marine survey. This was to be conducted by ROVSEA and Hydromatech, using a multi-beam echosounder (MBES).
On 30 August, this joint expedition proceeded at dawn from Portonovo to the area where local Galician fishermen have long thought the ship went down. This resulted in the discovery of four unidentified shipwrecks, the last of which showed dimensions and a general configuration approximate to that of HMS Captain.
The team of researchers is now looking for additional philanthropic support to conduct a further survey employing side-scan sonar and ROVs with cameras to make a positive identification of this tantalising ‘mystery wreck’. International protection of this iconic British man-of-war can then follow.
"A few days ago we heard of the dreadful loss of the splendid Iron Clad turret ship "Captain", with all on board, excepting 1 petty officer & 17 men! The poor Captain, Capt. Burgoyne was old Sir J. Burgoyne’s only son, & he is 88!"
- Queen Victoria's Journal, 14 September 1870
Join the Search!
Funding us will provide contract charters with the world’s best marine surveyors, using state-of-the-art exploration vessels:
The University and wider research team will document the impact of the discovery and how this evolves into renewed public interest in naval history and the politics and technology of the Royal Navy at its Victorian zenith.
Tragedies and disasters capture the public imagination; the history and mythology of RMS Titanic, for example, has become a microcosm of Edwardian life.
Look for our latest academic talks and public seminars. We are also planning international conferences; a series of popular and scholarly publications; museum displays and national exhibitions; and exciting documentaries and dramas—as part of the Memorialisation process.
Fact: Despite the historical significance and sheer drama of the Captain’s story it has never been the focus of a documentary or film.
Levels of Support Packages
You can support us by donating by clicking the button links below.
"There never was a time at which we had more reason to feel the necessity of a strong fleet"
— The Times, 10 September 1870
Public and Academic Events
We will keep you updated on upcoming public talks, seminars and conference papers about the history of HMS Captain, as well as our marine archaeological survey-expeditions off Cape Finisterre, Spain, and comparable shipwreck discoveries.
22 January 2022, ‘The Loss of HMS Captain: The Civil War Origins of the Victorian's Navy's Greatest Tragedy’, American Civil War Round Table (UK) public seminar, Civil Service Club, Great Scotland Yard (London)
20 June 2022, ‘ “Find the Captain”: Hunting for the Greatest Royal Navy Shipwreck of the Nineteenth-Century’, University of Wolverhampton Annual Research Conference (Wolverhampton)
15-16 September 2022, ‘Disremembering the Past: The Forlorn Case of HMS Captain (1870)’, Memorialisation & the Sea: Centre for Port & Maritime History Annual Conference, co-sponsored with the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University (Liverpool)
22 October 2022, ‘Relenting to the Alabama: The Role of Anglo-American Geostrategy in the Success of International Arbitration, 1869-1872’; referencing the global impact of the loss of HMS Captain, Arbitration in Britain and its Empire-conference, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (London)
Podcasts & Media
May 2023, Dr. Sam Willis interview with Dr. Howard Fuller (Find the Captain Project Leader— forthcoming)
August 2022, Dr. Howard Fuller of the University of Wolverhampton (UK) outlines the search and significance of the Find the Captain Project
17 March 2023, BBC Midlands interview with Project Leader Dr. Howard Fuller and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (conducted at the University of Wolverhampton)
16 February 2023, The Times
12 May 2023, Sussex Express
Exploratory Marine Expeditions
30 August 2022: initial joint (UK-Spanish) marine survey of suspected wrecksites off Cape Finisterre, conducted by ROVSEA and Hydromatech, and co-sponsored by the University of Wolverhampton and Galician-based documentary film company Vizuals Lab.
The third wreck discovered here seems to be that of the German freighter Schwaneck (or Nautic), sunk by collision in 1965; the fourth wreck has the general configuration of HMS Captain with dimensions that match within a metre.
A follow-up expedition to positively ascertain the identity of this tantalising ‘Mystery Wreck’ is currently in planning. The Find the Captain Project Trust (hosted by the University of Wolverhampton) seeks immediate philanthropic support of £70,000 for a ROV-based survey. Please see contact details below if you’d like to help us make History!
Dr. Howard Fuller, FRHistS
University of Wolverhampton
Mary Seacole Building, MH122
Head of Alumni & Development
University of Wolverhampton
MA140 Wulfruna Building