Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'HMS Eurydice' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: 'HMS Eurydice'

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
Ancient and Roman | Medieval | The Hundred Years War | Mary Rose | The Spanish Armada | Treasure, and Hazardous | Sir Robert Holmes | The Frigate Assurance and HMS Invincible | Royal George | HMS Pomone and Carn Brae Castle | Clarendon | HMS Eurydice | Sirenia and Irex | SS Eider and Alcester | HMS Gladiator and the Submarine A1 | The First World War | Between the Wars | The Second World War | SS Virginia and HMS Alliance | Pacific Glory | Höegh Osaka

Why HMS Eurydice, the Island's own ghost ship, sank on 22 March, 1878, is a mystery which has not been satisfactorily explained. Of the 366 men on board under the command of an experienced crew, only two survived.

The History of HMS Eurydice

HMS Eurydice was launched in 1843 as a 921-ton 26-gun frigate. She was designed to be fast, with a sleek wooden hull and a broad expanse of sail, and was considered to be one of the finest vessels in the Royal Navy. In 1876 she underwent a routine refit at J White's shipyard1 at Cowes, and was considered to be still in top condition after her recommissioning on 7 February in Portsmouth.

Since ironships and ironclads such as HMS Warrior had made wooden warships obsolete as far as the front-line fleet was concerned, she was converted into a training vessel under the command of Captain Hare. On 13 November, 1877, she set sail for a successful three month tour of the West Indies and Bermuda, and left the West Indies on 6 March, 1878, sailing for Portsmouth.

Her Last Voyage

HMS Eurydice crossed the Atlantic in only 16 days, handling perfectly. She arrived off the Isle of Wight on 22 March at 3pm, 'moving fast under plain sail, studding sails on fore and main, bonnets and skyscrapers' (as Bonchurch Coastguard Station recorded)2. By 3.40 she was sailing beside Sandown Bay.

Only two other vessels were in the area: a fishing boat captained by a Mr Colenut returning to Shanklin, and the schooner Emma, under Captain Jenkins.

Suddenly a great squall bore down on the bay, blackened with snow and ice circulating at enormous speed. Mr Colenut put in under Culver Cliff, and Captain Jenkins reefed his sails, yet according to eye-witnesses the Eurydice continued at full sail with her gun ports open, before disappearing in the midst of the blizzard. Why she was sailing with open gun ports has not been determined.

One of the two survivors stated that Captain Hare ordered the sails to be taken in, yet it was impossible to obey the order in such a storm, when the snow was so thick that it was impossible to see. The frigate was blown to face south-east, and was toppled onto her starboard side, where the sea apparently entered through her still-open gun ports. Many of the crew were trapped when she was sucked down to the sea-bed, or were soon sucked down with the ship when she sank.

Although many of the crew were strong swimmers, the waters in the blizzard were little above freezing, with the snow still falling heavily, and most of the survivors simply froze to death before the blizzard ended and Emma was able to return to pick them up. Of the five she rescued from the waters only two - Fletcher and Cuddiford - were still alive by the time they got to Ventnor Cottage Hospital.

After the Sinking

HMS Eurydice was raised soon after the disaster, but never recommissioned. Her bell now hangs in St Paul's Church, Shanklin. Gerard Manley Hopkins composed a short poem about her:

Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!
Royal, and all her royals wore.
Sharp with her, shorten sail!
Too late; lost; gone with the gale.

The sinking of Eurydice was significant in that it caused the Royal Navy to abandon sail-training. From then on, naval officers no longer had to learn how to hand and reef sail. It was a final recognition that the days of the traditional man-o'-war were over.

The Ghost of Eurydice

The legend of the haunting of Eurydice began on the very day she sank. On the afternoon of 22 March, 1878, in Windsor, the Bishop of Ripon and Sir John MacNiell were dining with Sir John Cowell when MacNiell suddenly exclaimed, 'Good Heavens! Why don't they close the portholes and reef the sails?' When asked by Cowell what he meant, he replied that he didn't know, but had had a vision of a ship coming up the English Channel under full sail with her gun ports open while a great black squall attacked her.

Since the sinking, several people have reported sightings of a phantom three-masted ship which vanished if approached. Many of these 'sightings' have been blamed on 'freak reflections of light on mist'. Yet in the 1930s Commander Lipscomb was in command of a submarine which was forced to take evasive action to avoid striking a full-rigged ship which promptly vanished...

1Which later made aircraft in the 20th Century.2A skyscraper was a triangular sail, above the royal sail, which in turn was above the topgallant sail, immediately above the topsail. A bonnet was a strip of canvas used to supplement the area of a sail.

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