Codrington, Henry John (DNB00)
|←Codrington, Edward||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11
Codrington, Henry John
CODRINGTON, Sir HENRY JOHN (1808-1877), admiral of the fleet, third son of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington [q. v.], entered the navy in 1823 on board the Naiad frigate with Captain the Hon. Robert Cavendish Spencer, to whose early training he owed much. During 1824 the Naiad was actively employed during the little known Algerine war in blockading the coast and burning such of the corsairs as she could catch. She was afterwards for nearly two years on the
coast of Greece watching, but taking no part in the Greek war of independence, and returned to England towards the end of 1826, in time to permit young Codrington to join the Asia, carrying out Sir Edward Codrington to the Mediterranean as commander-in-chief. He continued in the Asia during the whole period of his father's command, and acted as signal midshipman at the battle of Navarino, where he was severely wounded. Partly on this account, and more, perhaps, as a compliment to his father, he was decorated by each of the monarchs of the alliance : the emperor of Russia conferred on him the cross of St. Vladimir, by the king of France he was made a knight of the Legion of Honour, and some time later he received from King Otho the order of the Redeemer of Greece. On 12 June 1829 he was made lieutenant, and, after serving through the summer of 1831 as his father's flag-lieutenant, was advanced to be commander on 20 Oct. Three years later he was appointed to command the Orestes sloop in the Mediterranean, and out of her he was posted on 20 Jan. 1836. During the following two years he was on half-pay, and devoted himself to a course of scientific study in a manner at that time very unusual in the service ; it was not till March 1838 that he was appointed to command the Talbot, one of an abominable class of ships popularly known as jackass-frigates. She was exceedingly low between decks, and Codrington's height was nearly six feet five inches. Her armament consisted of twenty 32-pounder carronades, with an extreme effective range of six hundred yards, and a few old 9-pounders bored out to carry 18 Ib. shot, for which they were altogether too light. She was also very ugly. 'I never saw such a beast,' said Sir Robert Stopford when he joined the fleet at Palermo ; 'I am astonished that the admiralty should pick out such a ship to come out to a 'fine-looking squadron like this;' and added, 'I should very much like to set fire to that ship of yours, Codrington.' And yet this little ship, with an armament of obsolete popguns, was so handled by Codrington as to be an effective addition to the Mediterranean fleet, and to take a not unimportant part in the bombardment of Acre, 4 Nov. 1840, the preliminary survey being made by Codrington himself, taking the soundings by night close in under the walls of the town. In his private letters afterwards he expressed himself strongly as to the behaviour of Commodore Napier, who disobeyed orders, and apparently wished it to be understood that he was conqueror of Acre. Between the two there does not indeed seem to have been any actual quarrel, but there was no friendship. Codrington described Napier as 'excellent at irregular shore work, and a most enterprising partisan warrior, but not what I call a good officer.' Early in 1841 Codrington was recalled to England to command the St. Vincent as flag-captain to his father, then commander-in-chief at Portsmouth. He held this appointment till the close of 1842, and four years later was appointed to the Thetis frigate, which, after some months' desultory service, went to the Mediterranean in September 1847. The following years were years of excitement, revolution, and anxiety ; and during the whole time the Thetis was employed on the coast of Italy, protecting British interests and British subjects, and incidentally also native potentates flying from revolutionary fury ; as one instance of which he wrote on 10 Feb. 1849 from San Stefano : 'Here I am in attendance on the grand duke, his duchess and family, with every prospect of being their head chamberlain this very night on board Thetis. Oh, dear me ! I'm not made for chamberlain to grand dukes and duchesses and six children and seventeen attendants ; ' and again on the 21st : ' Since I have commanded Thetis it seems to me as if I had been a sort of travelling diplomatic agent to all parts of the world, taking a passage in a frigate ; but really as captain of the ship I have not been able to attend to the details of my ship duty as I used to do in Talbot.' And yet, thanks to his care and the energy of the first lieutenant, John McNeill Boyd, the Thetis was kept at all times fully up to the mark, and was described by the commander-in-chief at Plymouth when she paid off in May 1850 as 'a specimen of the most useful man-of-war I have seen.' One feature of her discipline, which gave her at the time an extremely bad name, and which made Codrington and Boyd perhaps the most unpopular men in the service, was the strict discipline maintained over the midshipmen. It is quite possible that tact was occasionally wanting.
In October 1853, in anticipation of the war with Russia, Codrington was appointed to command the Royal George, an old three-decker to which an auxiliary screw had been fitted. When the fleet for the Baltic was ordered in the very beginning of 1854, the Royal George was one of the first ships named, and under the command of Codrington she formed part of the Baltic fleet during the two seasons of 1854 and 1855. Controversy afterwards arose as to the conduct of the fleet in 1854. Between Sir Charles Napier, the commander-in-chief, and Codrington, the senior captain in the fleet, there was little love lost. It would almost seem that in Codrington's opinion his commander-in-chief was a blustering booby, and communications between them
were limited to the bare necessities of the service, marked by rudeness on the one hand and cold incivility on the other. There were faults on both sides ; but on the part of Codrington it may be said that the provocation was very great. It was known at the time that few officers in the fleet were better versed in theoretical tactics than Codrington. It is only since a selection of his correspondence has been printed (1880) that it has been at all generally known what his theory amounted to, or how completely his and all other theory was shelved by Sir Charles Napier. In February 1856 Codrington was moved to the Algiers of 90 guns, as commodore of a flotilla of gunboats ; but the peace deprived him of any opportunity of using them, and may be said to have ended his active service.
On 19 March 1857 he became a rear-admiral, and from 1858 to 1863 was admiral superintendent at Malta. On 24 Sept. 1863 he was advanced to be vice-admiral, to be admiral 18 Oct. 1867, and to be admiral of the fleet 22 Jan. 1877. He was commander-in-chief at Plymouth 1869-72, but his flag was never hoisted on board a sea-going ship ; he never had command of a squadron at sea. He had thus no opportunity of winning distinction or even recognition as a flag officer ; but from the attention which up to the last he paid to every problem connected with the tactics as well as the organisation of fleets, there is little room to doubt that had opportunity offered he was capable of seizing it, and might in more troubled times have sent his name down to posterity among those of our most distinguished admirals. He died 4 Aug. 1877.
In recognition of his service at Acre he was made C.B. 18 Dec. 1840, and on 13 March 1867 K.C.B. His portrait by Lowes Dickinson, a good likeness, but a very inferiorpicture, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. He was twice married, and left a widow and several children.
[O'Byrne's Nav. Biog. Dict. ; Selections from the Letters (private and professional) of Sir Henry Codrington, edited by his sister, Lady Bourchier (privately printed, 1880) ; Fraser's Mag., January 1881 ; personal knowledge.]