Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby

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Admiral of the Fleet Sir Geoffrey T. Phipps Hornby, as an Admiral.

Admiral of the Fleet SIR Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby, G.C.B., Royal Navy (20 February, 1825 – 3 March, 1895) was an influential officer in the late-Victorian Royal Navy.

Early Life & Career

This article may temporarily contain text from an edition of the Dictionary of National Biography which is in the Public Domain.

Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby was the second son of Admiral Sir Phipps Hornby, was born at Winwick in Lancashire on 20 Feb. 1825. He entered the navy in March 1837 on board the Princess Charlotte, then fitting out as the flagship of Sir Robert Stopford in the Mediterranean. He remained in her till she was paid off in August 1841, and was thus present at all the operations in the Archipelago and on the coast of Syria in 1839 and 1840.

(Sir) Phipps Hornby was at this time superintendent of Woolwich Dockyard, and the boy remained with him till the spring of 1842, when he was appointed to the Winchester, going out to the Cape of Good Hope as flagship of Rear-Admiral Josceline Percy. From her, on 15 June, 1844, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant[1] and appointed to the Cleopatra, with Captain Christopher Wyvill (1792–1863), for two years' slaver-hunting on the east coast of Africa. In the summer of 1846 he was sent to the Cape in command of a prize, and in the following spring returned to England in the Wolverene. In August his father was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific; Hornby went with him as Flag Lieutenant, and on 12 January 1850 was promoted to be Commander[2] of the flagship Asia of 84 guns. In the summer of 1851 the Asia returned to England, and Hornby settled down at Littlegreen, near Emsworth, a place which he had inherited some fourteen years before, though family arrangements had hitherto prevented his occupying it. Hornby meantime went with his kinsman, Lord Stanley, for a tour in India; but in Ceylon his health broke down, and he was obliged to get home as soon as possible. In the following year his father was a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty in Lord Derby's administration; and on its downfall Hornby was promoted Captain, 18 December, 1852,[3] at the remarkably young age of twenty-seven.


Partly, it may be, from political or party reasons, partly because he married in 1853, and in great measure, probably—being, by the death of his elder brother, the eldest son—to manage his father's property in Sussex, Hornby remained on half-pay till August 1858, when, under Lord Derby's ministry, he was appointed to the Tribune, then in Chinese waters. He joined her at Hong Kong in the end of October, and was almost immediately sent off with a detachment of marines to Vancouver's Island, in consequence of the dispute with the United States relative to San Juan, one of a group of islands between Vancouver's and the mainland. The ownership of the island remained an open question till 1872, when it was settled in favour of the States; but in 1859 feeling on both sides ran high, and at one time war appeared to be imminent. That the difficulty was tided over was considered mainly due to the temper and tact shown by Hornby, whom the governor of Victoria wished to take forcible measures and the responsibility of them. When the dispute was temporarily compromised, the Tribune was ordered to England, arriving at the end of July 1860. In March 1861 Hornby was sent out to the Mediterranean to take command of the Neptune, an old three-decker converted into a screw two-decker, and manned by "bounty" men, whom Hornby characterised as "shameful riffraff." Here he came under the command of Sir William Fanshawe Martin, and had some experience in that admiral's attempts at the devolution of steam manœuvres. At the time he thought them needlessly complicated and likely to be dangerous; but in later life he seems to have better recognised the difficulties which Martin had to contend with, and to have acknowledged the merit of Martin's work. His comments on this are particularly interesting, as there can be little doubt that it was this practice which first led to his own profound studies of the subject and to his future excellence in the management of fleets.

In November, 1862 the Neptune returned to England, and in the following March Hornby was appointed to the Edgar as Flag Captain of Rear-Admiral Sidney Colpoys Dacres, commanding the Channel Squadron. This post he held till September, 1865, when he was appointed to the Bristol as Commodore, First Class on the West Coast of Africa Station. Here Hornby continued till the end of 1867, when the state of his health, as well as his private affairs after the death of his father, forced him to apply to be relieved, and he reached England early in 1868.

Flag Rank

On 1 January, 1869 he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral,[4] aged forty-three, and was almost immediately appointed to the command of the Flying Squadron, which he held for two years.

From 1871 to 1874 he commanded the Channel Squadron, and from 1875 to 1877 he was one of the Lords Commissioner of the Admiralty, an appointment which, to a man of very active habits, proved excessively irksome, the more so as he found himself out of agreement with the methods of conducting the business of the navy. His time, he complained, was so taken up with a hundred little details, that he was unable to give proper consideration to the really important affairs that came before him. On 13 January, 1877 he wrote: "I left the admiralty with less regret and more pleasure than any work with which I have hitherto been so long connected." It was thus that, when offered the choice of being First Naval Lord or Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, he unhesitatingly chose the latter, and he was accordingly appointed early in January, 1877. He had been promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral two years before, 1 January, 1875. Captain (later Admiral of the Fleet Lord) John Fisher later recalled of him:

That great man was the finest admiral afloat since Nelson. At the Admiralty he was a failure. So would Nelson have been! With both of them their Perfection was on the Sea, not at an office desk. Admiral Hornby I simply adored. I had known him many years; and while my cabins on board my ship were being painted, he asked me to come and live with him aboard his Flagship, which I did, and I was next ship to him always when at sea. He was astounding. He would tell you what you were going to do wrong before you did it; and you couldn't say you weren't going to do it because you had put your helm over and the ship had begun to move the wrong way. Many years afterwards, when he was the Port Admiral at Portsmouth, I was head of the Gunnery School at Portsmouth, and, some war scare arising, he was ordered to take command of the whole Fleet at home collected at Portland. He took me with him as a sort of Captain of the Fleet, and we went to Bantry Bay, where we had exercises of inestimable value. He couldn't bear a fool, so of course he had many enemies. There never lived a more noble character or a greater seaman. He was incomparable.[5]

With his flag in the Alexandra, Hornby arrived at Malta on 18 March, and took up the command, which he held during two years of great political excitement. It was the time of the Russo-Turkish war, and in February, 1878, the Russian army having advanced within what seemed striking distance of Constantinople, Hornby was ordered to take the fleet through the Dardanelles. The Turkish governor and government protested, probably as a matter of form and to avoid irritating the Russians; but they made no attempt to oppose the passage, though Hornby went through quite prepared to use force if necessary. A good deal was said at the time about the "illegality" of the proceeding, but to Hornby, as to Lord Beaconsfield, the objection was a thing of naught, and The Times, commenting on the movement, said, "The admiral was directed to proceed to Constantinople, and he has proceeded." He anchored the fleet, in the first instance, at Prince's Island, about two miles from the city, but afterwards moved to a greater distance, remaining in the Sea of Marmora.

In acknowledgment of his services at this time, and of the tact with which he had conducted them, he was nominated a K.C.B. on 12 August, 1878. On 15 June 1879 he was promoted to the rank of Admiral, and in February, 1880 he returned to England. In 1881 he was appointed President of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich from which he was removed in November, 1882, to be Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, which office he held for the customary three years. In the summer of 1885, leaving Portsmouth for a few weeks, he commanded an evolutionary squadron, the direct precursor of the "manœuvres" which have been pretty regularly carried out ever since. One interesting feature of the exercises was the defence of the fleet at anchor in Berehaven against an attack by torpedo-boats. On 19 December, 1885 he was nominated a G.C.B., with especial reference to his summer "work in command of the evolutionary squadron;" and on 18 January, 1886 was appointed First and Principal Naval Aide-de-Camp to the Queen.

Admiral of the Fleet and Retirement

He now proposed to settle down on his estate at Lordington, near Emsworth, and to be known thenceforward as "Yeoman Hornby." Fate and the service were too strong for him; and though he did continue to "farm his own land," and to take a great deal of interest in the affairs of the county, the welfare of the service had always prior claims. On 1 May, 1888 he was promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet,[6] and in 1889, and again in 1890, was appointed aide-de-camp to the German emperor during his visits to this country. In 1891 he was officially sent, on the direct invitation of the emperor, to witness the German manœuvres in Schleswig-Holstein, where his long hunting experience enabled him to astonish the young German princes. Hornby was, in fact, a horseman from his childhood, and as a cross-country rider was among the best. Although he completely recovered from a serious illness in 1888, and from a severe accident in the early spring of 1891, he was then sensibly aged. The death of his wife in January 1892 was a further shock. On 19 February, 1895 he attended a levee, the last time in his official capacity, for on 20 February, he was placed on the Retired List upon reaching the age of seventy.[7] On 3 March he died of influenza. The body was cremated at Woking, and the ashes buried at Compton on 9 March.

Hornby married in 1853 Emily Frances, daughter of the Rev. John Coles of Ditcham Park, Hampshire, by whom he had issue. One of his sons, Robert Stewart Phipps Hornby, C.M.G., became captain in the navy; an elder son, Edmund John Phipps Hornby, while major in the artillery, received in 1900 the Victoria Cross for service in South Africa. While president of the Royal Naval College, Hornby delivered there, in the spring of 1882, a short course of lectures on "Exercising Squadrons," the notes of which were printed for the use of naval officers. During his later years he wrote occasionally in The Times and the monthly magazines, always on professional subjects. For many years before his death he was universally recognised in the navy as the highest authority on naval tactics and naval strategy, although, except as a boy at Acre in 1840, he had never seen a shot fired in actual war. But almost the whole of his service was in flagships, and he had thus not only a very exceptional familiarity with fleets, but had also been the recipient of the traditions and the reflections of past generations.


  • "Death of Sir Geoffrey Hornby" (News). The Times. Monday, 4 March, 1895. Issue 34515, col C, pg. 10.
  • Allen, Matthew (July 2008). "The Deployment of Untried Technology: British Naval Tactics in the Ironclad Era". War in History 15 (3): pp. 269–293.
  • Egerton, Mrs. Fred. (1896). Admiral of the Fleet Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, G.C.B.: A Biography. London: William Blackwood and Sons.
  • Fisher of Kilverstone, Lord (1952). Marder, Arthur J.. ed. Fear God and Dread Nought: The Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone: The Making of an Admiral, 1854-1904. Volume I. London: Jonathan Cape.
  • Gordon, Andrew (2005). The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. London: John Murray (Publishers). ISBN 0719561310. (on and
  • Lambert, Andrew (2009). Admirals: The Naval Commanders who made Britain Great. London: Faber and Faber Limited. ISBN 978-0-571-23157-7.


Service Records


  1. Clowes. VII. p. 573.
  2. Clowes. VII. p. 573.
  3. Clowes. VII. p. 573.
  4. The London Gazette: no. 23456. p. 50. 5 January, 1869.
  5. Fisher. Memories. pp. 146-147.
  6. The London Gazette: no. 25816. p. 2766. 15 May, 1888.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 26601. p. 1066. 22 February, 1895.
  8. Phipps Hornby service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/36/1838.
  9. Phipps Hornby service record. The National Archives. ADM 196/36/1838.
  10. Phipps Hornby Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/36. f. 653.
  11. Clowes. The Royal Navy. Vol. VII. p. 85.
  12. ;The Navy List, Corrected to the 20th March, 1891. p. 501.