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Find the Captain research project gets boost with painting commission

A pencil drawing of the Captain ship

A research campaign to find the most infamous naval shipwreck of the Victorian age has been given a funding boost with the commission of a painting of the doomed warship by a celebrated marine artist. 

A University of Wolverhampton researcher, in consultation with the British Ministry of Defence, is leading an international, multi-institutional effort to find the wreck of HMS Captain that has great historical significance.  

Dr Howard Fuller, a Reader in War Studies in the University’s Department of History, Politics and War Studies at its Wolverhampton City Campus, is on the hunt for the Captain—the most powerful ironclad-battleship in the world at the height of the ‘Pax Britannica’—which sank off Cape Finisterre, Spain, in 1870. 

It is hoped that the commission will shine dramatic new light on the Captain’s story and help bolster ongoing fundraising efforts to survey the site where the ship sank. 

Chairing the University’s charitable Find the Captain Trust is Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, great-grandson of Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, who nominally designed the Captain and then went down on his own ship.  The Cowper-Coles family have pledged £5,000 for celebrated marine artist Geoff Hunt to paint the moment that the Captain fatally tipped past her self-righting stability and began to capsize. 

Sir Cowper-Coles said: “We’re absolutely delighted that Geoff has agreed to do the work for £5,000, a fraction of the £17,000+ his original artwork normally commands. 

“The importance of Geoff Hunt’s artwork to naval history cannot be understated, and he is the ideal individual to undertake such an historic depiction. His interest in the project, and the attention that his name attached to it will bring, is a significant benefit to our efforts.” 

A former President of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, Geoff Hunt made his international reputation with a series of cover paintings for Patrick O’Brian’s famous Nelson-era adventure novels (later combined in the 2003 Hollywood blockbuster Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).  

He is a meticulous researcher as well as master painter and Find the Captain Project Manager Dr Howard Fuller has provided him with documentary information about the Captain on her final cruise; the state of the sea, the weather, what the crew and officers were wearing, what the survivors reported of the sinking of the ship, even the phase of the moon. Geoff will paint a large oil painting measuring 56 x 76 cm. 

The Captain’s loss was one of the most infamous disasters in naval history.    

An acclaimed naval historian and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Dr Fuller’s 2020 book, Turret versus Broadside: An Anatomy of British Naval Prestige, Revolution and Disaster 1860-1870 - was the first comprehensive academic study of the Captain tragedy.  

Over the past year, he has gathered a specialist team of naval historians, marine archaeologists, museum authorities, MOD personnel, civil servants and international authorities from the U.S. and Spain.    

With their help, Dr Fuller’s research has identified likely wreck-site locations outside Spanish territorial waters.    

At the same time, he has worked closely with a Galician-based documentary production company also intent on finding the wreck of HMS Captain off Spain’s ‘Costa da Morte’; to secure co-sponsorship by the University of Wolverhampton for an exploratory marine survey using a multi-beam echosounder.  

In August 2022, a joint expedition took place from Portonovo, Spain, 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 the ‘mystery wreck’.  International protection of this iconic British man-of-war can then follow.  

In addition to dozens of private pledges from around the world including YouTube channels, popular online videogame franchise World of Warships has also donated £25,000 to the Find the Captain Trust. 

Dr Fuller said: “HMS Captain was an experimental, ‘sail-and-turret’ warship which capsized in a storm off Cape Finisterre, Spain on 7 September 1870. Nearly the entire crew—some 500 men—went down with the ship, including her celebrated designer, Captain Cowper Phipps Coles.  

“This was worse than Britain suffered at the Battle of Trafalgar, in1805, or at sea during the entire Crimean War (1853-55).  

“As a state-of-the-art capital ship, the Captain was considered ‘the Pride of the Victorian Navy’ and was a highly sought-after posting.  This meant that when she sank, many distinguished British naval officers also perished, including sons of several prominent Cabinet Ministers such as the First Lord of the Admiralty.   

“The loss of the Captain was an appalling national catastrophe, touching Queen Victoria personally, and memorialised ever since in large brass panels in St Paul’s Cathedral, a stained-glass window in Westminster Abbey, and gravestones up and down the country.  

“Even one of our own recent War Studies graduates can trace his lineage to a young marine also lost aboard the Captain, Private Isaac Glithero.” 

Once the shipwreck is located, the University and wider research team will document the impact of the discovery, and work to help renew public interest in maritime history including the fateful interplay of radical technology and geopolitics which characterised British naval power at its Victorian zenith.   

Professor Keith Gildart, Head of the University’s Centre for Historical Research (CHR), said: “Whether it’s a ship at the bottom of the ocean or an obscure document in a dusty archive, our staff are busy charting new frontiers in historical research, which underpins our teaching. We hope to inspire our students to one day develop their own projects that will make a significant contribution to study of the past.”  

The Department of History, Politics and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton has the longest running Undergraduate War Studies programme in the world and its fully online Master’s Degree course in Military History is the first of its kind in the UK.  

The University’s Centre for Historical Research produces research that is rated 4-Star (‘Internationally Excellent’) according to REF2021’s Project Leader.   

Find out more about the search for the Captain on the new Find the Captain-website as well as this University podcast. 

For more information about studying degree courses in the Faculty of Business, Arts and Social Sciences check out the website or book a place on one of our Open Days.  




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