Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burgoyne, Hugh Talbot

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BURGOYNE, HUGH TALBOT (1833–1870), captain in the royal navy, only son of Sir John Fox Burgoyne [q. v.], entered the navy in 1847. On the completion of his time as midshipman, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 11 Jan. 1854; and shortly afterwards (20 March) appointed to the Boscawen, in which he served for a few months in the Baltic. When the Boscawen, with the other sailing ships, returned to England, he was appointed on 16 Sept. to the Swallow, in which he went out to the Mediterranean. The Swallow was attached to the fleet before Sebastopol, and on 29 May 1855, after Genitchi had been shelled, Burgoyne volunteered to land, in company with Lieutenant Buckley and Mr. Roberts, and set fire to a quantity of Russian stores. It was a dangerous piece of service gallantly performed, and was rewarded with the Victoria cross when that order was instituted in the following year [see Buckley, Cecil William]. Burgoyne's want of seniority prevented his being promoted at once, but he was appointed to the command of the Wrangler, despatch gunboat, in which he continued actively employed during the rest of the war. He was made commander on 10 May 1856, and on 16 July 1857 was appointed to the Ganges, bearing the flag of Rear-admiral Baynes in the Pacific. He continued in her during the whole commission, and when she paid off was advanced to be captain on 15 May 1861. In 1863 he accompanied Captain Osborn to China, as second in command of the Anglo-Chinese flotilla, and when Osbom threw up the appointment [see Osborn Sherard] on a disagreement with the Chinese government, they immediately oflered the vacant appointment to Burgoyne, with an unusually liberal pay. Burgoyne, however, declined it, being no more disposed than Osborn had been to submit himself to the local authorities. The junior officers followed his example, and the flotilla was broken up. Shortly after his return to England, Burgoyne was appointed, on 27 Sept. 1865, to command the Wivern, a small turretship, in which he continued for the next two years, when he was appointed, 22 Oct. 1867, to the Constance frigate, on the North American station. Towards the close of the following year the Constance was paid off, and Burgoyne was appointed to superintend the building and fitting out of the Captain, an experiment of a full-rigged ship, with turrets and a low freeboard, which the admiralty had decided to try on a very large scale [see Coles, Cowper Phipps]. The Captain was put in commission on 30 April 1870, and in a first cruise in the Channel, and as far as Vigo, during the month of July, appeared to those on board to be a remarkably easy and comfortable sea-boat, and was currently epoken of as being the steadiest platform for guns that had ever been afloat. It was not then understood that this unusual steadiness was really a sign of the most serious danger; and Burgoyne reported officially that the ship had 'proved herself a most efficient vessel both under sail and steam, as well as easy and comfortable.' In August she accompanied the Channel fleet as far as Gibraltar. On 6 Sept. the fleet, on its return voyage, was broad off Cape Finisterre; Sir Alexander Milne, the commander-in-chief, visited the ship, and was much struck by her extreme lowness in the water, so that with a pleasant royal breeze ' the water was washing over the lee side of the deck fore and aft, and striking the after turretto a depth of about 18 inches to 3 feet.' He said to Captain Coles, who, as the designer of the ship, had come in her in a private capacity, 'I cannot reconcile myself to this state of things so very unusual in all my experience.' Still there was no thought of danger, and Sir Alexander went back to his ship puzzled rather than alarmed at the novel appearances on board the Captain. During the evening the weather changed for the worse; it came on thick with a drizzling rain, and the wind got up. The ships were screened from each other's sight, but there had been plenty of warning, and the gale was of no alarming strength. It was about twenty minutes after midnight on the morning of the 7th that a fresh squall struck the ships. Under any other circumstances it would have passed with a bare notice, but it proved fatal to the Captain. As the squall struck her she heeled over, had no power of recovery, turned completely over bottom upwards, and sank. The greater number of her officers and men were below, and went down with her; but of those who were on deck only eighteen managed to scramble into the launch, which had been thrown out when the ship was on her beam ends, and were saved. Burgoyne, with some few men, had got on to the bottom of the pinnace; and as the launch drifted near, the men jumped and were picked up. Whether from exhaustion, or from a determination not to survive the loss of the ship, Burgoyne refused to jump, and he was never seen again.

Two brass mural tablets, commemorating by name the officers and ship's company of the ill-fated Captain, have been placed in St. Paul's Cathedral.

[Wrottesley's Life of Sir John Fox Burgoyne, ii. 445; O'Byrne's Victoria Cross, 45; Minutes of the Proceedings of the Court-martial on the loss of H.M.S. Captain, published by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.]

J. K. L.