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Henry Capper, Gunner RN

Henry Douglas Capper, Gunner RN, was appointed as Officer-In-Charge of the Naval Ordnance Depot, Spectacle Island in 1894, following on from Henry Bennett. He was to serve in the post until 1900.

Capper was one of the more interesting people to have been associated with Spectacle Island. His life is described in his obituary which appeared in The Times of the 30th of May, 1931:

"Commander Capper - Reform in the Navy

We regret to announce the death, as the result of a road accident near Faversham, of Lieut. Comdr Henry Douglas Capper, a pioneer reformer on behalf of the warrant officers and men of the Royal Navy. He was 76 years of age. It was largely due to his reasoned advocacy that promotion from the ranks and other concessions for the amelioration of the conditions of service were granted, and he was the recognized leader of the movement from 1882 until his retirement in 1910.

Later Commander Capper was a prominent official successively of Miss Agnes Weston's Sailors Rests, the British Sailor's Society, (with which he served as liaison officer from the Admiralty during the last two years of the late War) and, finally, of the sea training work connected with Dr. Barnardo's Homes. For many years he had been a prolific writer to Service and other periodicals, and his nom-de-plume, "The Man behind the Gun", was familiar to a large public.

The son of a dockyard official, Lieut. Comdr Capper was born at Portsmouth in April 1855, and several of his kinsmen were in the Navy. His first recollection of men-of-warsmen was as a child clinging in terror to his mother's skirts as a crowd of seamen, just paid off after a long foreign commission, were holding a posse of police at bay in the street in which he lived.Title page of Capper's autobiography In a book of reminiscences, published in 1927, he depicted the transformation from such scenes of rowdiness and disorder to the conditions of today, which have made of the fleetmen, a body of educated, self - respecting men of whom the nation may be justly proud. Young Capper, at the age of 10, when his father died, was taken by the Master Shipwright into his office as a messenger. He served for four years in the yard until an official from London who came across him one day ordered his discharge for being under age. In 1869 he entered the Navy as a boy in the St Vincent at Portsmouth. After serving in the Dryad in the West Indies, and other ships, he was promoted to warrant rank acting gunner in November 1879. Four years later he acquitted himself with credit when in command of the gunboat Esk at Hong Kong during a heavy typhoon. He afterwards became a gunner of the Canada, a corvette, in which King George had served as a lieutenant, and while in her he originated and for the first two years served as honorary secretary of the United Service Warrant Officer's Club at Bermuda.

It was while he was in Canada that Capper was first recommended for a commission, but nothing came of it. In the early nineties he was appointed to the Admiralty for duty in the newly formed Naval Ordnance Store Department, and about this time began the publication of a monthly magazine for naval warrant officers, entitled THE GAZETTE, afterwards renamed the NAVAL WARRANT OFFICER'S JOURNAL. For seven years he was the editor and manager of this publication and adopted for it the motto "Educate and Advance". He drew up and signed the first "Earnest Appeal for Promotion from the Ranks in the Royal Navy" and gave evidence on behalf of the warrant officers before various committees. Most of his evenings at this time were spent in "lobbying" in the House of Commons, and he obtained the confidence and support of naval officers like Admirals Richard Mayne and Edward Field, as well as civilian members like Mr Thomas Gibson Bowles and Mr. H.O. Arnold-Foster. The various concessions which resulted from this advocacy are described in his book, "Aft from the Hawsehole". He records therein that in 1895 he was seen one day by the Director of Naval Ordnance in conference with Mr. John Burns and another member of Parliament in the inner lobby. Next morning the DNO sent for him and said he objected to political wirepullers in his Department and would send him to sea. Eventually he chose the post of officer-in-charge of ordnance stores in Sydney.

It was not until 1902, when Lord Fisher, under whom Capper had served, was Second Sea Lord that a hundred commissions as lieutenant were granted to warrant officers, among whom was Capper, Capper afterwards served in HMS CLYDE drill ship at Aberdeen. On the outbreak of the late War, he returned to active service, and was appointed to organise the Anti-Aircraft Corps at Dover. His services over many years on behalf of his brother officers were appreciated very highly, and he was on more than one occasion the recipient of presentations in recognition of his great zeal and unflagging industry. He was made OBE for his services during the war.

Comdr Capper was married, and one of his sons, Sub Lieutenant S.V.P. Capper, is now at Keyham Engineering College. One of his daughters was with him at the time of the accident in which he lost his life."

Other biographical articles fill out the picture of Capper as a resolute, energetic and professional sailor and a tireless and dedicated worker for many causes. At the time of his posting to Sydney, a biographical note appeared in the Naval Warrant Officer's Journal of May 1986:

"Mr. Capper served as gunner of HMS "ESK" during the voyage of that vessel to China, and subsequently commanded the ship for two years in the Reserve at Hong Kong. during this period while a heavy and exceptionally destructive typhoon was blowing, he swam with a line to a junk in distress, she was a large vessel with numerous passengers, these the officer succeeded in passing safely to the ESK, being the last to reach the latter vessel as the junk foundered ...

Returning to England in 1888, Mr Capper was appointed to the "EXCELLENT", with the probability of a five year's tenure of the post He immediately projected this JOURNAL, and in every way threw himself into the work of the Association. Selected for one of the most responsible posts open to members of the class, he has done more than ever to advance the warrant rank and to foster a feeling of esprit de corps among its members. For service work, the revision of "Notes on Naval Guns and Torpedoes", which he accomplished single handed, may be cited as evidence ..................

Mr. Capper has the literary gift in a large degree, and as a versifier has more than once claimed the suffrages of the public, while that he is a facile and graceful writer, the pages of this JOURNAL have from time to time shown ...

His appointment to the post of Naval Ordnance Officer at Sydney, is the cause of the Association losing for a time the advantage of his active assistance...He has gone to his new post accompanied by the good wishes of all who have been associated with him, either in the work of the Association or of the Service, and whether he be in England or at the antipodes, we may be sure he may be depended on to fully uphold the credit and advance the cause of the Naval Warrant Officers..."

Even in retirement Capper's restless energies could not be contained and at the outbreak of World War 1, though over age, he volunteered for service and was sent to Dover where he raised and commanded an Anti-Aircraft Corps until the duties were taken over by the military. The Corps was the first in England to illuminate a Zeppelin with a searchlight and when the first bomb dropped on England, the Corps secured pieces of it. Capper personally presented a fragment to the King.

(Compiled from information provided by Capper's grandaughter, Mrs. C. Ratter).

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au