Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coles, Cowper Phipps
COLES, COWPER PHIPPS (1819–1870), captain in the navy, third son of the Rev. John Coles of Ditcham Park, Hampshire, entered early into the navy, passed his examination for a commission in 1838, and in January 1846 was promoted to be a lieutenant. In October 1853 he was chosen by Sir Edmund Lyons as his flag lieutenant on board the Agamemnon in the Mediterranean, and served in that capacity in the attack by the allied fleet on the forts of Sebastopol, 17 Oct. 1854. On 13 Nov. he was made commander, and during 1855 commanded the Stromboli paddle steamer in the Black Sea. On 27 Feb. 1856 he was advanced to the rank of captain.
While in command of the Stromboli he had devised and constructed a gun-raft, which was officially examined by order of Sir Edmund Lyons, and most favourably reported on as being buoyant, easily propelled, of light draught, and capable of carrying a heavy gun protected by an iron shield four inches thick. In consequence of this report Coles was ordered home to superintend the construction of a number of similar rafts, a
work which was prevented by the conclusion of the war in May 1856. But from that time he devoted himself to the study of the question of defensive armour for ships; and at his own cost and, for most of the time, on half-pay, carried out an elaborate series of experiments on the methods of applying armour and mounting guns. The early idea of a raft and shield gradually transformed itself into that of a ship with a low freeboard and one or more turrets carrying very heavy guns. Similar ideas had been developed in the United States by Ericsson, and the claims of the two men to the original conception were for some time angrily discussed. There seems little doubt that the crude idea occurred independently to each, but it is impossible to suppose that their further progress did not react on each other. The several steps of Coles's work were described by himself at the Royal United Service Institution in 1861, 1864, and 1868, and even in an early stage it was so far accepted by the admiralty that the Royal Sovereign, cut down from a 3-decker in accordance with his designs, was actually in commission in 1864-5; and the building of a new ship, according to drawings submitted by Coles and Messrs. Laird, was definitely authorised on 23 July 1866, notwithstanding the submission of the controller of the navy, that it was doubtful whether the proposed height of freeboard, which was eight feet, would be satisfactory for a sea-going cruising ship. The ship was accordingly built, under the name of the Captain. That she should be considered to the fullest extent a sea-going cruising ship was Cole's earnest contention, and he was supported by such a weight of public opinion that the admiralty, laying the responsibility on Coles and the Lairds, sanctioned her being commissioned, with her guns and masts and rigging, although it was found that the freeboard was less, by nearly two feet, than had been designed. It does not, in fact, appear that they realised that this lowering of the freeboard was a source of great danger; and the responsibility of which they spoke referred rather to the cost of any material alterations which might be found necessary. The Captain was accordingly commissioned early in 1870; after an experimental cruise she joined the Channel fleet, accompanied it to Gibraltar, and on the way home, in a fresh gale off Cape Finisterre, turned bottom upwards and sank on 7 Sept. [see Burgoyne, Hugh Talbot]. It was the middle of the night, and, with very few exceptions, everybody on board was drowned. Coles, though in no official capacity, had accompanied Burgoyne as a guest, and went down with the ship. He left a widow and a large family of children.
[Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, iv. 280, vii. 110, xi. 434; Minute by the First Lord of the Admiralty with reference to H.M.S. Captain; information from Sir G. Phipps Hornby, Coles's brother-in-law.]