HistoricGosport Cunningham


Henry Duncan Preston Cunningham R.N. J.P.

HDP Cunningham aged c 55
HDP Cunningham aged c 55

He was born on the 29th June 1814, the second son of Dr John Cunningham R.N. He entered the navy in 1830 serving on the Donegal as a first class volunteer. He then served on the Pallas where he gained early distinction by undertaking single-handed the dangerous and arduous task of surveying the carefully guarded defences of the Dardenelles. He produced detailed drawings for the Government. In 1835 he moved to the civil line of the navy and qualified for the rank of Paymaster (equivalent to the rank of Captain). In September 1838 he was appointed secretary’s clerk under Sir Robert Otway, then Commander-in-Chief at the Nore. He served in the same capacity under Sir William Parker and in 1841 he went with him to China and took part in various operations in that war. In the attack on the entrenched camp at Segoan on 15th March 1842 he was ‘one of the foremost in the assault’ displaying conduct that earned him a mention in reports for ‘conspicuous gallantry’, as well as in a special letter written by Sir William Parker to the Admiralty. He was present at the attack upon Chapoo, the batteries at Weosung and the town of Chin-Kiang-Foo and the pacification of Nankin. In 1842 Mr Cunningham was the super-numerary paymaster of the Cownwallis flagship was confirmed in the rank in September 1842. In 1845 Mr Cunningham was appointed secretary to the Commander-in-Chief at the Cape, Rear Admiral Dacres, on board the President. He arrived at the Cape at the outbreak of the Caffre War. He served in the boats in an attack on a fortified position on the Angoza river, again being given a special mention in dispatches.He took a prominent part in negotiations with Queen Ranavalone of Madagascar and made himself acquainted with the language of the country for the express purpose of conducting a treaty with the Queen. His knowledge of the political affairs and history of Madagascar was brought to the attention of the Government.

In 1856 Mr Cunningham opened an Industrial Class for Nautical Instruction in connection with the Gosport Ragged School. Cunningham proposed to take twelve boys from the town school of the age of thirteen years and upwards devoting time on Thursday evenings at the school to teach them the art of knotting, splicing, seizings, hitches, bends, clinches and the use of the compass. When he had succeeded in making them thoroughly acquainted with this part of the instruction he was to transfer them on board his yacht ‘Alfred’ where they were to undergo a thorough course of training relative to the practical portion of their education; reefing, furling, steering, rowing, heaving the lead, the log. By these means ‘a boy who has undergone this course of training is qualified to enter the merchant service’. Cunningham proposed an examination of the boys and to award a certificate signed by several Captains of the Navy to those who successfully passed. This was all to be funded by Mr Cunningham himself. On Wednesday December 3rd 1856 his course of instruction was brought to a close when the boys undertook the examination and were presented with their certificates in the presence of ‘several nautical and other gentlemen’, enabling them to obtain situations in Her Majesty’s or the Merchant Service.

Cunningham was the inventor of the self-reefing topsail, which he manufactured in Gosport in the Gosport Foundry at The Green (the site is now a car park at the ferry end of Minnitt Road), he also invented eccentric paddle wheels with entire shafts, fourway port steam valves, the direct action steam engine, the reefing paddle wheels, a lifeboat, a lifeboat carriage (for which in 1849 he was awarded a medal by the Society of Arts). For the Military he designed; overhead shot railways, chain traversing gear, atmospheric gun carriages, sling shots and racks (for Naval use).

In 1861 Cunningham, as Chairman of the Gosport and Alverstoke Corps of Volunteers presented the corps with a handsome eight-day time-piece to place in the market-hall for the regulation of their drills. The corps had a practice ground adjoining Stokes Bay.

In 1861 he bought the Gosport Foundry and warehouse by auction, presumably to continue the manufacture of his inventions.

His most famous invention, the self-reefing topsail, earned him the popular title ‘patent-topsail-Cunningham’ in naval circles. This was fitted to many thousands of ships lessening the dangers to seamen in unfurling and furling topsails in bad weather. In 1862 it was fitted to the ram ship Resistance. It allowed the crew of a ship to operate the topsails from the deck of the ship, without going aloft. His ‘brace machines’ and ‘continuous braces’ also greatly reduced the labour needed in operating a ship.

In May 1862 he demonstrated, in Weevil Lake, of the Royal Clarence victualing Yard at Gosport, his system for protecting the screw of war ships from ‘fouling by the wreck of spars and rigging shot away and falling alongside in action, or from having hawsers towing overboard in the vicinity of the screw’. The demonstration was ‘most satisfactory’ and was ‘reported upon to the Lords of the Admiralty’. He demonstrated this protector by fitting it to his small schooner yacht and sailed it in the camber of Portsmouth Dockyard to illustrate the principal. Hawsers were passed under her bottom and round her stern with the screw in motion. The experiment was declared to be ‘quite successful’ and he next proposed to test it outside the harbour with floating gear to represent wreckage and rigging alongside the vessel.

In the 1862 International Exhibition Cunningham was a medalist and juror. He was a member of various scientific societies in whose journals such as the Society of Arts, Institution of Naval Architects, and Royal United Services Institute, many of his papers on maritime and engineering subjects can be found.

Cunningham devised easy methods of working heavy guns for coast defence batteries and on board naval ships. On October 17 1862 his invention of “improvements in working the guns, and in performing other necessary work on board ships, and in apparatus employed therein.” was announced in the London Gazette. His chain traversing gear was fitted to the turret guns of Royal Sovereign. In 1866 he fitted his traversing gear to a gun at Southsea Castle and demonstrated it to the military authorities. It was also adopted by the German Government for coast defence guns.

In 1867 several members of the Ordnance Select Committee watched Mr. Cunningham demonstrate his new traversing gear at Fort Gilkicker. The guns at Fort Gilkicker were crowded, with little room between them to allow safe an efficient traversing in action. Once Cunningham’s traversing gear was fitted the Committee were impressed by the speed at which the guns could be traversed. In a previous demonstration a 9-year old boy, who happened to be watching, was found to be quite capable of moving a gun over the arc of training with quite sufficient speed under the conditions. Guns could now be traversed from extreme right to extreme left by two men in 62 seconds. During the trials the Committee also tested the new ‘Shell Carrier’ proposed by a Mr. Cunningham. This consisted of a clip sling, which was readily fitted on the shell when in a horizontal position, and a small truck on a pair of wheels, having two hooks which hook into eyes on the sling. By bearing down on the handle of the truck the shell could be easily raised off the ground, and run along the floor by a single man. When it arrived near the muzzle of the gun, the sling was attached to the tackle on the traveller, the shell was then hoisted and transferred to the muzzle of the gun, into which it was entered a short distance to give it support, so that the sling could be detached and taken back for another shell. Each shell weighed 250 pounds and normally required four men to move it from the top of the lift to the gun on an ordinary shell bearer.

Cunningham attended the 1868 trials of the guns at Fort Gilkicker because in 1858 he had been informed that the Secretary of state for War had adopted his new system of traversing guns for all land service guns of 12 tons and upwards.His new traversing gear consisted of a chain upon which a toothed gear mechanism acted to winch the gun around. This new method allowed the guns to be trained to the full extreme and required only two men as opposed to ten men for the old method. Cunningham was present at Gilkicker when three training tackles of the old block and rope variety were destroyed in one morning’s exercise. His new gear with its galvanized chain was imperishable and he remarked that a gun fitted with it would be ‘serviceable for one hundred years’! The guns could be fitted with this new gear without them having to be removed from their position to a factory. He delivered a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute in January 1870 on “Working Heavy Guns and Projectiles”.

Cunningham with his traversing gear
Cunningham with his traversing gear circa 1868

In 1873 the Cunningham shot rack was fitted to H.M.S. Thunderer. It had previously been employed in Monarch, Devastation and Glatton. The previous method of manipulating projectiles required a powerful tackle and six men to lift a 700lb projectile onto the rack, the operation needing two minutes and taking out the projectile required about half that time. With the Cunningham rack two men could lift and place the same projectile in five seconds, and remove it in the same time. The Cunningham shot carriage could convey the projectile to the turret loading port in 10 seconds.

Mr. Cunningham was a Captain and then a Major in the 3rd Hants Dockyard Volunteers. The 3rd Hants (Dockyard) Artillery Volunteers was composed entirely of civil servants or ‘dockyard citizens’. They had a band which was often acclaimed in the local news.Their H.Q. and drill shed on Governors Green Portsmouth was opened on 26 August 1865.
The 6th battery of the 3rd Hants was based in Gosport and assembled regularly at Gosport under Captain H.D.P. Cunningham J.P. travelling across the water to Portsmouth for drill and parades. In 1869 this battery took second prize in a competition firing 32 pounders at Lumps Fort, Portsmouth.

On Tuesday 18 May 1870 the Gosport volunteers drilled at Portsmouth on Governor’s Green during which a serious incident occurred.
While the battalion was at halt waiting for one of the large doors at the drill shed to be thrown open to admit the column, the horse of Major Cunningham gave a sudden bound forward, and then a terrific plunge, throwing him heavily on to the ground, with some severe injuries to his head and shoulder, though fortunately, no bones broken. Directly a sergeant of the corps stepped to the front and reported that he had seen one of the men in the ranks strike the Major’s horse on the hind quarters with his carbine, whereupon Lieutenant Colonel Richards offered a reward of 10shillings to any man who would give the name of the miscreant; but strange to say, the fellow has not yet been denounced for his treacherous act. True the sergeant who gave the information collared one of the men from the part of the column whence the act had been perpetrated, but he so stoutly denied any participation in the act, or knowledge of it, that he was set free; and it being twilight at the time, the chance of fixing on the actual delinquent was rendered the more difficult. Major Cunningham had a most miraculous escape, as the horse, after the bound and plunge by which he was thrown, bolted away; but it so happened that when he fell he fell clear, and thus escaped the fatal injuries which might have followed.”

On 7th December 1870 Cunningham gained a Certificate of Efficiency at the close of the second course of instruction for Volunteer Artillerymen held at Artillery Institute at Woolwich.

On 13th December 1870 Cunningham was appointed as Major of the 1st Administrative Brigade of the Hampshire Artillery Volunteers by the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire.

Mr Cunningham lived in Bury House and from 1861 was well know in Gosport as a local Magistrate delivering justice to all manner of local miscreants as frequently reported in the local news.

The deeds of Bury House indicate that Henry Duncan Preston Cunningham purchased the property from Edward Tylee in 1861.  Henry and his family had been living in Bury Road for at least part of the previous ten years.  They were to occupy Bury House until Henry died in 1875, although his widow Frances retained ownership until 1893.

He was one of the founders of the Portsmouth Sailors’ Home and a benefactor of the Gosport Army and Navy Institute. He occupied the chair in 1870 and “if not the originator was most prominent in securing its establishment, and became responsible for £200 and two year’s rent in order that the institution might have a beginning, and whether he was looked upon as a soldier, a sailor, or a volunteer, he was certainly the best friend the Institution had.” Cunningham was also the Chair of the Gosport and Alverstoke Young Men’s Christian Association presiding over lectures and recitals of sacred music that were delivered at the ‘Star’ assembly rooms, Gosport. Cunningham was a supporter of the South Street Ragged and Free School with which was connected with an industrial home for poor boys, a seaman’s and poor peoples Bethel and a girl’s free day school.

Bury House, home of Captain Cunningham
Bury House, home of Captain Cunningham

Cunningham died suddenly on January 19th 1875 aged 60 years. The local news reported that he had suffered, at times most acutely, from heart disease and his death was attributed to this.

He was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Church Rowner on 23 January 1875. His gravestone can be found on the green at the front of the church. It is adorned with a small carving of his famous self-reefing topsail and appears to have been moved from its former location in the churchyard, minus its railings.

His grandson Rear-Admiral John Henry Dacres Cunningham was made a companion of the Bath at the 1937 Coronation. He became the Royal Navy First Sea Lord from 1946 to 1948.

Various editions of The Times and local newspapers, Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle.
United States Patent Office: Letters Patent No. 14,094: dated January 15 1856.
Journals of the Royal United Services Institute:1870 “Working Guns and Heavy Projectiles“, Cunningham.
Department of the Director of Artillery: List of Changes. H.M.S.O.

I am grateful to H.D.P. Cunningham’s great-grandson Frank Grenfell for supplying details of the family and for supplying and allowing the use of the two photographs of H.D.P. Cunningham.

Fort Gilkicker website: Cunningham and Fort Gilkicker trials