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Cowper Phipps Coles : biography

1819 - 7 September 1870

Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, C.B., R.N. (1819 – 7 September 1870), the son of the Reverend John Coles and his wife Mary Ann Goodhew Rogers, was an English naval captain and inventor. Coles died when HMS Captain, an experimental warship built to his designs, sank with him on board.


In 1856, Coles married Emily Pearson, niece of Admiral Lord Lyons. Coles was himself a nephew, by marriage, of Admiral Lord Lyons, his mother being the sister of Augusta, Lyons' wife.


Name Birth Death Notes
Cowper Bickerton Cowper-Coles 1857 1920 married 1895, Maud Beatrice Cresswell
Fanny Augusta Cowper-Coles 1859 1951 married 1877, Admiral Sir Baldwin Wake-Walker, CMG, CVO, 2nd Baronet
Rogers Lyons Cowper-Coles 1860 1915 married 1884, Margaret Lucie Dawes
Alice Mary Cowper-Coles 1861 1910
Minna Spencer Cowper-Coles 1864 1948 married 1892, Walter Vernon Anson
Samuel Hood Cowper-Coles 1866 1932 married 1892, Hon. Edith Bailey, daughter of 1st Lord Glanusk
Sherard Osborn Cowper-Coles 1866 1936 married 1919, Constance Hamilton Watts
William Burgoyne Cowper-Coles 1867 1955 married 1891, Rebecca Smith
Commerell Markham Cowper-Coles 1869 c.1906

Naval career

He entered the Royal Navy at the age of eleven. On 9 January 1846, he was promoted to Lieutenant and on 5 December 1849 posted to Phaeton commanded by George Augustus Elliot. On 24 October 1853, he was posted to Agamemnon as flag lieutenant for his uncle, Rear Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons. He distinguished himself at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War against Russia. On 13 November 1854 promoted to Commander and on 2 August 1856 was commander of the paddle boat Stromboli in the Black Sea. It was at this time that he and other British naval officers and sailors constructed a raft named the Lady Nancy from twenty-nine casks lashed together with spars. The raft supported a long 32 pounder gun and because of its small draft could be moved into shallow water from where it was used to attack Russian government stores in Taganrog. Coles became a hero for this action, when the press correspondent on board Stromboli reported his daring deeds. Coles expanded the idea by drawing up plans for a better raft, mounting a gun enclosed within a hemispherical shield. Admiral Lyons was impressed with the ideas and Coles was sent to London to present his ideas to the Admiralty. Plans were prepared for rafts with a draught of which would be used to attack the Kronstadt forts. The rafts would be able to approach through shallow waters not protected by the fort guns. Unfortunately for Coles, the war ended before the raft could be built.Barnaby p.19

Turret ship designer

On 27 February 1856, Coles was made captain. He was placed on half pay after the war ended and spent his time creating designs for turret ships. Up to this time the principal armament of warships had been batteries of guns firing from fixed ports in the sides of the ship. On 10 March 1859 he filed a patent for a revolving turret, although it is not clear how he came by the idea. The American , constructed by John Ericsson in 1861, incorporated a revolving turret and Ericsson claimed the idea of a revolving protected gun was an old one. The Times suggested that Marc Brunel had given Coles the idea. Coles' design aim was to create a ship with the greatest possible all round arc of fire, as low in the water as possible to minimise the target. This proved to be a weakness in designs he created, because he was unwilling to compromise these aims for the practical necessities of sailing ships rigging, decks sufficiently high to be clear of heavy seas and other necessary superstructures which restricted the guns rotation.Barnaby p.20

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