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Moorsom, Constantine Richard (1792–1861), naval officer, was born on 22 September 1792 at High Stakesby, Whitby, North Riding of Yorkshire, the eldest son of Admiral Sir Robert Moorsom [see below] and his wife, Eleanor, née Scarth (1765–1828). and Henry Robert Moorsom, who died in command of the sloop Jasper in 1826, were his brothers.

Sir Robert Moorsom (1760–1835) was born on 8 June 1760 at Whitby, the second son of Richard Moorsom (1729–1809), an influential Whitby shipowner, and his wife, Mary Ward (1729–1816), received an excellent education under the Revd Mr Holmes at Scorton grammar school, and joined the Ardent, commanded by Captain Constantine Phipps, in 1777. Having removed with Phipps to the Courageux, he took part in the battle off Ushant under Admiral Keppel, the relief of Gibraltar under Admiral Darby and Lord Howe, the action off Cape Spartel, and the capture, by Admiral Kempenfeldt, of part of Admiral Guichen's convoy to the West Indies. He passed the lieutenant's examination in 1784 and was appointed to the Sphinx and then the Thetis in the Mediterranean. After meetings with the prime minister, William Pitt, and Henry Dundas, later Viscount Melville, treasurer of the navy and member of the board for Indian affairs, he chose and commissioned in 1787 the sloop Ariel with confidential orders to examine potential harbours on the Bengal coast and report on the practicability of refitting ships there. When illness forced him to return to England in October 1790, Admiral Cornwallis, commander-in-chief East Indies, was ‘extremely sorry’ and expressed his ‘great regard’ for him (TNA: PRO, ADM 1/167/47063). Sir George Cockburn was a midshipman on the Ariel, and his biographer recorded ‘the great kindness and attention shown him by his commander who constantly afforded him the best instruction … at the taking of the different surveys and observations’ (United Service Journal, 2, 1835, 242), of great importance to his career.

Moorsom was made post captain in November 1790 and married on 14 June 1791 Eleanor (1765–1828), daughter of Thomas Scarth of Stakesby, near Whitby; they had three sons and a daughter, who married the Revd Henry Longueville Mansel. When war against France broke out in 1793 he was appointed first to the frigate Niger to ascertain the enemy force in Brest, then to the frigate Astrea, and in 1795 to the Hindoostan; but when she was converted to a troopship and her destination changed, Captain Moorsom resigned a command he felt he could not retain with honour.

Moorsom remained ashore until 1804, when Pitt returned to power and Melville became first lord of the Admiralty; he was appointed to the Majestic, and in April 1805 he commissioned the newly built Revenge, joined the Channel Fleet and then Admiral Collingwood off Cadiz. At Trafalgar he ‘bore a distinguished and active part’ (J. Ralfe, Naval Biography of Great Britain, 1828, 33). The Revenge was engaged for two hours with the Prince of Asturias and four other ships until they were driven off by British vessels. She was severely damaged and suffered twenty-eight killed and fifty-one wounded, including the captain who ‘fought his ship as coolly as if at dinner’ (Revd John Greenly, chaplain of the Revenge, to his father, 21 Oct 1805, Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, documents 1984/14 [130]). Moorsom carried the great banner at Nelson's funeral.

After resigning his command in 1806, Moorsom was in 1807 made private secretary to Lord Mulgrave, first lord of the Admiralty; in 1809 he became a lord of the Admiralty, honorary colonel of the marines, and MP for Queenborough. He was particularly well suited to his appointment in 1810 as surveyor-general of the ordnance: his introduction of the turning lathe instead of the grindstone for finishing gun barrels saved many lives. He was appointed rear-admiral (1810), vice-admiral (1814), and KCB in 1815. At his retirement from the ordnance in 1820 personal letters record the respect and affection with which he was regarded. He was commander-in-chief at Chatham (1824–7) and was promoted admiral in 1830. ‘Distinguished by his scientific and professional acquirements’ (Annual Biography and Obituary, 20/2, 1836), he retired to Cosgrove, Northamptonshire, and died at his residence, The Priory, Cosgrove, on 14 April 1835. He was buried at Cosgrove parish church on 21 April 1835.

Constantine Moorsom's name was on the muster roll of the Revenge at Trafalgar but he was actually at school at the time, and in July 1807 entered the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, newly organized by James Inman. He gained the college's first medal and three mathematical prizes, and in November 1809 was appointed to the Revenge, employed off the coast of Portugal and at the defence of Cadiz. He returned to England in May 1812 in the Warspite, passed the lieutenant's examination on 6 June, and was appointed to the St Alban's and in October 1812 to the Superb, employed in the Basque Roads, on the coast of Brazil, and on the coast of North America. He was promoted commander on 19 July 1814 of the sloop Goree in Bermuda, in June 1815 to the bomb (mortar) vessel Terror, which he took to England, and in July 1816 to the bomb vessel Fury for service in the expedition against Algiers under Lord Exmouth. In the bombardment on 27 August 1816 the Fury threw 318 shells in nine hours, nearly twice the number thrown by any other bomb vessel. An Admiralty inquiry attributed this to the fitting of the mortars on a plan devised by Moorsom himself and subsequently adopted for general service. But he did not receive the anticipated promotion until 7 December 1818, after commanding the Prometheus on the home station.

In April 1822 Moorsom was appointed to the Ariadne and carried out a series of experimental cruises, with the Racehorse and Helicon under his orders. Built as a corvette, the Ariadne was converted to a frigate by the addition of a quarterdeck and six guns. This increased her draught and seriously affected her sailing qualities, but Moorsom, by readjusting her stowage and ballast, made her as fast and seaworthy as could be expected. He took her out to the Cape of Good Hope and was senior officer at Mauritius for some time. Negotiations with King Radama of Madagascar and contact with Captain William Owen strongly influenced his support for the abolition of slavery. On the death of the commander-in-chief, Commodore Nourse, in December 1824, Moorsom took command of the Andromache and hoisted a broad pennant until relieved by Commodore Christian. From December 1825 until the summer of 1827 he was captain of the Prince Regent, bearing the flag of his father, commander-in-chief at Chatham. He had no further service at sea, but was promoted rear-admiral on 17 August 1851 and vice-admiral on 10 September 1857.

Moorsom married, on 12 March 1822, Mary (1796–1877), daughter of Jacob Maude, of Selaby Park, co. Durham. They lived with their five sons and three daughters at Highfield, Edgbaston, near Birmingham. In 1830 he was engaged by the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway Company; he was appointed joint secretary with Richard Creed in May 1833, and a director in 1839. He became a director of the London and North Western Railway Company on its formation in 1846, and chairman from January 1861 until his death. Exacting, and renowned for his ‘inflexible integrity’ (The Times, 28 May 1861, p. 9), he was intolerant of others' failings. ‘I am so angry I can hardly hold my pen’, he wrote in 1834 (TNA: PRO, rail 384/278, XC 12492). He was chairman of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway from 1841 to 1843. In 1849 he chaired a committee to determine the basis on which the gross tonnage of ships should be calculated: ‘Moorsom's rule’ is in use to this day. As executive director of the Chester and Holyhead Railway he was particularly concerned with steam navigation: he addressed two papers to the British Association and was appointed chairman of the steamship performance committee. He published The Principles of Naval Tactics privately in 1846. He considered that his naval services were not properly recognized, continuing to request appointments and (in one letter) to be nominated CB. His persistence contributed to the award of the Algiers medal, in 1849, to those officers commanding at the battle. He died suddenly on 26 May 1861 at his residence in Montague Place, Russell Square, London, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery, London, on 1 June.

Constantine Moorsom's first cousin William Moorsom (1816–1860), naval officer, was ‘Shell Moorsom’, inventor of the percussion fuse. Born on 7 February 1816 at Airy Hill, Whitby, the son of Richard Moorsom (1758–1831), shipowner and marine merchant, and his wife, Barbara, née Craig (1780–1832), he attended the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth (1829–30), gaining the first medal, and passed the lieutenant's examination in June 1835 but was not commissioned lieutenant until 1842, with the Cornwallis in the First Opium War. In 1854, in the Crimean War, he was appointed captain of the Firebrand but served ashore with the naval brigade, having a large share in its organization. Wounded and twice mentioned in dispatches, he was a CB, a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur and a knight second class of the Mejidiye. Known as Black Will when shaving was compulsory in the navy he was, on his return from the Black Sea, ‘the first captain who had the temerity to invade the sacred precincts of the Admiralty with hirsute “fixings”’, to be met with ‘the cutting remark: “Horseguards next door!”’ (Clowes, 6.211–12).

William Moorsom was described fifty years afterwards as ‘an officer of high scientific attainments’ (Garbett, 30). His ‘Moorsom percussion fuze’ of 1850, though obsolete fifteen years later, was the first satisfactory metal percussion fuse for the navy. He also invented the ‘Director’, an instrument for concentrating a ship's broadside, perfected and in use forty-five years later. He was the author of Remarks on Concentrating the Fire of Ships' Guns (1846), Suggestions for the Organisation and Manoeuvres of Steam Fleets (1854), and Remarks on the Construction of Ships of War and the Composition of War Fleets (1857). In 1857 he was appointed to the screw frigate Diadem in which, while recovering from a severe attack of smallpox, he was sent to the West Indies and to Vera Cruz, where he contracted a fever. On his return to England he was compelled to resign his command in October 1859. He died suddenly on 4 February 1860 at Vernon Terrace, Brighton, Sussex, and was buried a week later at Cosgrove, Northamptonshire, where there is a stained-glass window to his memory in the church.

Elaine Drake


E. Drake, Admiral Sir Robert Moorsom and his family [forthcoming] · priv. coll., Moorsom MSS · Annual Biography and Obituary, 20 (1836) · J. Ralfe, Naval biography of Great Britain (1828), 33 · O'Byrne, Naval biog. dict. · DNB · Memoir of Captain William Moorsom (privately printed, 1860) · W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the present, 7 vols. (1897–1903), vol. 6, pp. 211–12, 226–31, 445–7, 468 · The Times (28 May 1861) · The Times (30 May 1861) · The Times (8 Feb 1860) · GM, 3rd ser., 11 (1861) · TNA: PRO, ADM 1/167/47063 · H. Garbett, Naval gunnery, repr. (1971), 30, 274 · TNA: PRO, rail 384/278, XC 12492, London and Birmingham railway summary, 17 Feb 1834 · TNA: PRO, ADM 50/171 · R. H. Mackenzie, The Trafalgar roll (1989), 106 · R. Kemp, ed., The Oxford companion to ships and the sea (1988), 559 · Whitby parish records [Robert, Constantine, and William Moorsom] · Cosgrove parish records [Robert and William Moorsom] · E. Fox-Thomas, History of freemasonry in Whitby, 1764–1897 (1897) · N. Yorks. CRO, Parkin papers, TD19 4/11, 4/12 · letter signed Constantine Moorsom, Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, Moorsom papers, 63/1/9 · priv. coll., Moorsom/StH MSS · P. J. Long and W. V. Awdry, The Birmingham and Gloucester railway (1987), 50, 60, 74 · Mulgrave archives, Mulgrave Castle, Whitby, boxes 6 and 7 · private information (2004)


Mulgrave archives, Mulgrave Castle, Whitby, letters [Robert Moorsom] · priv. coll., MSS |  BL OIOC, Moorsom collection, letters to or concerning R. Moorsom, MS Eur. E 299 [LM36/1–2, LM.45/1–23] · priv. coll., Drake papers [Robert Moorsom] · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Robert Fitzroy, BJ7 · Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, papers, 63/1/9, 33/1


P. Jean, miniature, watercolour on ivory, c.1784 (Robert Moorsom), priv. coll. · oils, c.1805 (Robert Moorsom), Freemasons Lodge, Whitby · oils, 1838 · B. Holl, engraving, pubd 1839 (after oil painting, 1838), NMM · G. Richmond, pastel drawing, 1851, priv. coll.; photographic reproduction Bromsgrove Museum, Worcestershire · retouched photograph, c.1854 (William Moorsom), priv. coll.; photographic reproduction, NMM · group portrait, coloured print, pubd 1855 (William Moorsom: one of a series, The Naval Brigade before Sebastopol), priv. coll. · J. Lucas, group portrait, engraving, 1858 (Conference of engineers at the Menai Straits), National Railway Museum, York · oils, c.1860, priv. coll. · E. W. Wyon, stone bust, 1862, priv. coll. · B. R. Haydon, group portrait, oils (The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840), NPG · marble bust (mounted on piece of Revenge; Robert Moorsom) · watercolour, chalk, pastel, gouache over photograph (of P. Jean, miniature; Robert Moorsom), NMM

Wealth at death  

£14,000: probate, 25 June 1861, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · under £25,000—Robert Moorsom: probate, 1 June 1835 · under £30,000—William Moorsom: probate, 24 Feb 1860, CGPLA Eng. & Wales