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Royal Naval Biography/Phillips, Charles


CHARLES PHILLIPS, Esq.
Fellow of the Royal Society.
[Post-Captain of 1823.]

Is the son of the late Dr. George Phillips, of Haverford-west, in Pembrokeshire, and connected with most of the principal families in that county.

This officer entered the royal navy at an early age, as midshipman on board l’Aigle frigate, Captain (now Admiral Sir Charles) Tyler, with whom he suffered shipwreck, near Tunis, in 1795. He then joined the Marlborough 74, Captain Thomas Sotheby, employed in the blockade of Cadiz; and subsequently the Warrior, of similar force, commanded by Captain Tyler, in which ship he continued during the remainder of the war.

The Warrior was with Lord Keith when that officer pursued the combined fleets of France and Spain from the Mediterranean to Brest, in Aug. 1799; from which period she was stationed off Ushant until the beginning of 1801, when we find her attached to the expedition under Sir Hyde Parker, destined to act against the Northern Confederacy. On the 2d April, 1801, Mr. Phillips was employed in her boats, rendering assistance to the Monarch 74, one of Lord Nelson’s supporters in his memorable attack upon the Danish line of defence before Copenhagen.

On her return home from the Baltic, the Warrior was ordered to join Sir James Saumarez, then commanding a squadron off Cadiz; from which station she proceeded to the West Indies, in company with some other ships, to watch the motions of a French force which had been sent against St. Domingo, immediately after the suspension of hostilities, in 1801. She was paid off at Plymouth, in the summer of 1802.

During the remainder of the peace of Amiens, Mr. Phillips, then a passed midshipman, served in the Spitfire sloop, on the Milford and Irish stations; and subsequently, in the Canopus 80, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral (afterwards Sir George) Campbell, off Toulon. On his return to England, he was appointed sub-lieutenant of the Wrangler gun-brig, in which vessel’s six-oared cutter he captured le Bien-Aimé, French transport, lying under a battery of four guns, two field-pieces, and a mortar, near Etaples. For this service he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, in l’Argus sloop, on the West India station, Sept. 17th 1806.

We next find Mr. Phillips commanding the Affiance schooner, on the coast of Demerara, from which vessel he was removed to the Phoebe 36, Captain James Oswald. After serving for sometime in that frigate, on the Plymouth and Mediterranean stations, he joined the Barfleur 98, hearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Charles Tyler, and employed in the blockade of Lisbon, from whence she escorted home the first division of the Russian squadron, surrendered by Vice-Admiral Siniavin, in the autumn of 1808.

Mr. Phillips next served under Vice-Admiral George Campbell, in the Downs; and, during the Walcheren expedition, as flag-lieutenant to Sir Richard Goodwin Keats, with whom he afterwards proceeded to the defence of Cadiz, in the Implacable 74. While employed in that arduous service, lie was successively appointed to the command of the Wizard and Tuscan, 10-gun brigs, Onyx 10, and Hound bomb; which latter appointment appears to have been confirmed by the Admiralty, but not until nearly two years after the date of his first acting order. In the course of this period, he was frequently engaged with the enemy’s batteries, particularly during the last heavy bombardment of Cadiz from the forts near Matagorda; and on one occasion he had the satisfaction of personally rescuing a Spanish vessel, which had drifted on the beach, under the fire of fort Napoleon. If we mistake not, he was also employed in co-operation with Lieutenant-General Graham (now Lord Lynedoch), when that officer marched from Tariffa, and obtained a brilliant victory over Marshal Victor, at Barrosa[1]. In the early part of 1812, he reported his having captured a row-boat privateer, and the destruction, by the boats of the Onyx and Desperate, of a merchant brig lying on the beach near Conil, where she was protected both by great guns and musketry. His promotion to the rank of commander took place Oct. 6th, 1812.

In 1817, Captain Phillips submitted to the Admiralty a plan for propelling ships by the capstan; and, in 1819, another, for increasing the power of that machine by wheel-work, which was the basis of the improved capstan now bearing his name, and for which he has a patent. The following extracts are taken from his recently printed explanation and description of this very valuable invention:–

“The experience of ten years, the period since Captain Phillips’s capstan was first introduced into His Majesty’s service, has enabled him to submit three several plans of improved capstans, founded upon his first invention, engravings of which are attached. His arrangement of wheel-work produces a greater power with the same proportioned wheels than any he has ever seen, as the power gained by the difference of diameter between the first and last wheel is always increased equal to an entire revolution of the first mover; the series of wheels may in consequence be of less diameter than in any other arrangement, and necessarily lighter. This additional power is gained by fixing the exterior wheel, and communicating the effect so produced to the capstan, by bolts fixed to, or withdrawn from, the frame that carries the centre of the intermediate pinions.

“Whenever it is necessary to use a greater power than the leverage of the bars produces in the simple capstan, a resource is found in tackles; but they are not continuous, very long in application, and very difficult to be removed, particularly when surges take place: with Captain Phillips’s capstan, on the contrary, the application of the power is immediate, it is subject to no difficulty in removal, and continues its motion as long as may be required; whereas the motion of the tackle can but continue until the two blocks come together. The power capstan is as strong as the plain capstan, therefore there can be no risk in using it; and it does not follow that the power is to be applied on all occasions, more than that recourse should be had to tackles in every trifling difficulty; but it is highly advantageous that, when great obstacles are to be overcome, such a power should be always at hand, and capable of being applied, in the darkest night, in less than a minute; and as a proof that it has been of material benefit in an extreme case of difficulty, it is but to quote the words of Captain Parry, at the court-martial held upon the officers of the Fury, for the wreck of that ship, where he distinctly stated, that, but for Phillips’s capstan, the expedition must have remained another winter in the ice.

“The advantages and peculiarities of these capstans are, that although used with different powers; both capstans traverse the same way, either as a common or increased power capstan; and that the people are never obliged to turn themselves at the bars, and to heave the other way, when a different power is applied, and in so doing to leave the capstan entirely dependent upon the pauls; but the capstan is, under all circumstances, either during the shifting the powers, or otherwise, as much supported by the strength of the people as the ordinary capstan is; thus clearly shewing that this arrangement of the wheel-work is peculiarly adapted to capstans. Nor is the situation of the works necessarily confined to one place, hut may he left entirely to the option of the constructor or employer.”

Captain Parry, in the narrative of his third voyage for the discovery of a N.W. passage, says:

“The strain we constantly had occasion to heave on the hawsers, as springs to force the ships through the ice, was such as, perhaps, no ship ever before attempted; and by means of Phillips’s invaluable capstan, we often separated floes of such magnitude as must otherwise have baffled every effort. I cannot omit this opportunity of expressing my admiration of this ingenious contrivance, in every trial to which we put it in the course of this voyage. By the perfect facility with which the machinery is made to act, or the contrary, it is easily altered and applied to any purpose, in ten or fifteen seconds; and the slowness, and consequent steadiness of the power, render it infinitely less trying to the hawsers than any purchase we were before enabled to adopt on board a ship, independent of the great personal risk consequent on the snapping of a hawser.”

The great benefit of the improved capstan to ships that may be short-handed, and also where the messenger is made equal to withstand the strain. Captains George W. C. Courtenay and Williams Sandom, have fully proved in letters to Captain Phillips; – the former officer states, that he was enabled to get a 20-gun sloop under weigh, at a time when he had only fourteen efficient men on board; and Captain Sandom says:–

“While in command of different vessels on the West India station, for nearly four years, I frequently experienced the great advantage arising from the power of your capstan, mere particularly when sickness had so reduced the crew as to render an attempt to weigh the anchor with the usual means doubtful and dangerous; and I found I could always apply the increased power with safety, by using lengths of the stream chain cable in lieu of a hempen messenger, by which means a great saving accrued, as the hempen messengers, particularly in the West Indies, were always giving way.”

Another most important advantage to be derived from the use of the patent capstan has likewise been proved by Lord Napier, who, in a letter to Captain Phillips, says:–

“Whilst running down the coast of Brazil in H.M.S. Diamond, then under my command, it was determined to come to an anchor for the night, under the Ilha Francess. The anchor not having taken the ground properly, the ship drove upon a bank at the very top of high water. As the tide ebbed, we laid out the small bower-anchor, broad on the larboard bow, brought the bower-cable direct to the capstan, and started about eighteen tons of water. When the tide had made sufficiently, we hove round to a heavy strain, and continuing to do so at intervals, the ship was literally dragged off by the great power of the capstan, and the strength of a new cable, leaving behind her on the shoal, as we found afterwards in dock, a great part of her false keel. Now, had it not been for the enormous power acquired by the application of your invention, I am of opinion that the ship would not have been got off without landing the whole of the guns and provisions; and as it came on to blow very fresh the next day, I am equally inclined to believe that the safety of the ship was due, in a great measure, to the facilities afforded thereby, and the promptitude with which they were applied.”

The continuation of peace since the first introduction of the improved capstan, has not permitted one of its greatest benefits to be shewn, – that of the facility which it gives to the sudden equipment of an armament at the breaking out of a war, when but few seamen can be immediately obtained. The want of such a purchase was strongly felt at the renewal of hostilities in 1803, when the first squadron was equipped at Plymouth, but supposing there was no want of seamen, and that the marines alone were sufficient for the heaviest work on board, such as swaying up the yards and topmasts, how many more men could be spared for dock-yard duty, and for other contingencies attendant on fitting out.

This most excellent invention led to Captain Phillips’s appointment, Sept. 6th, 1821, to the Spey of 20 guns; and it has recently been ordered, that, for the future, all the power capstans used in the royal navy shall be constructed upon his plan, “and that any ship upon being commissioned, having the plain capstan, may exchange it for one on the improved principle with any ship in ordinary having one of equal size, provided the public service is not interfered with by any delay in the exchange.”

The Spey proving defective, Captain Phillips was removed, on the 30th Oct. 1821, to the Bann sloop, of similar force, fitting out for the African station, where he rescued 813 slaves, in a cruise of four months. During his stay there, he had four severe attacks of fever: and in the beginning of May, 1823, his ship, then at Ascension, where he was obliged to invalid, had already lost her purser, gunner, and captain’s-clerk, two midshipmen, twenty sailors, five marines, and four boys, all of whom fell victims to the climate of Africa. His post commission bears date May 15th, 1823.

In 1825, Captain Phillips invented a method of suspending ships’ compasses, so as to prevent their bring affected by the firing of guns in action, or from any other concussion, and to ensure their preserving a horizontal position in all sorts of weather. The most favorable reports have been made on this instrument by Captains Henry E. P. Sturt and Frederick Marryat; the former of whom says, that the concussion from firing the guns of the Phäeton frigate, when under his command, had no apparent effect on the steadiness of the card; and the master of the Ariadne 28, lately commanded by Captain Marryat, states, that while he was employed in boats, searching for some supposed rocks off the Western Islands, notwithstanding the shock occasioned by the oars, the vibration never exceeded half a point, whereas the compass cards supplied by the dock-yard, for boats’ use, went completely round and round.

In 1827, Captain Phillips applied tbe hydrostatic principle, of water rising to its own level, to the pumpdales of ships, by which he has enabled them to be cranked under the lower-deck, so as to free it from such a serious incumbrance, and yet to allow the water to deliver itself from the same height as before. The pumpdale of the Asia 81, intended for the flag of Sir Edward Codrington, was the first placed according to this plan. In addition to these, Captain Phillips has proposed several other improvements, which are now on trial. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1829; and has recently been appointed to the command of the Ariadne.

This scientific officer married, Sept. 25th, 1823, Elizabeth, daughter of William Nicholson, of St. Margaret’s, Rochester Esq.