The enormous rock topped by an anchor is the largest memorial in the cemetery. It ought to be, for the event it commemorates marks one of the blackest days in the Royal Navy’s history.
For this giant piece of stone at Haslar naval cemetery, Gosport, remembers the 364 men of HMS Eurydice, which sank in a freak snowstorm off the Isle of Wight in 1878. The men might be long gone, but to some their ship lives on in the shape of a ghostly apparition which has appeared regularly to sailors in the 140 years since she sank. The 26-gun frigate under full sail puts in fleeting appearances off Dunnose Point north-east of Ventnor – the spot where she foundered on Sunday, March 24, just a few nautical miles short of her destination in Portsmouth Harbour.
The sinking was watched by three-year-old Winston Churchill who was visiting the island with his nurse.
Those who claim to have seen the ghost ship include Prince Edward who glimpsed her while making a TV programme in the 1990s. The 908-ton Eurydice was built in Portsmouth in 1843. She left the city for her last fateful voyage on November 13, 1877 under Captain Marcus Hare. It included a three-month tour of the West Indies and Bermuda.
On March 6, 1878, she left the West Indies for Portsmouth and crossed the Atlantic in 16 days arriving in Sandown Bay on March 24. According to a report in The Times shortly after the tragedy: ‘Suddenly a great squall bore down on the bay, blackened with snow and ice circulating at enormous speed. According to eyewitnesses, Eurydice continued at full sail with her gun ports open before disappearing in the blizzard. Why she was sailing with open gunports has not been resolved.’
There were just two survivors and one of them said Captain Hare ordered the sails to be taken in – an order that proved impossible to obey because the snow was so thick it was impossible to see. The frigate was blown around and toppled on to her starboard side and the freezing sea rushed in through the open gun ports. Most of the crew were trapped as she was sucked to the seabed. Those who managed to get into the water were pulled down with her when she sank.
Since she sank, several people claim to have witnessed sightings of a phantom three-masted ship which vanishes if approached. Many of these have been blamed on ‘freak reflections of light on mist’.
Yet in the 1930s the commander of a Gosport-based submarine was forced to take evasive action to avoid striking a full-rigged ship which promptly disappeared.
Prince Edward said he saw the ship in 1997 while filming his Crown and Country TV series on the Isle of Wight.
At the time he said: ‘We were talking about a ghost ship on the Isle of Wight and how we could illustrate this three-masted schooner that just disappears.
‘Suddenly someone said: ‘‘Look, there’s one now’’, and sure enough out to sea there was a three-masted schooner. It was not arranged by us. It simply appeared.
‘Someone else said: ‘‘We’ll wait until it gets a little closer to the shoreline’’ and then come the moment, someone else said: ‘‘Where’s it gone?’’ We looked and it had disappeared.’ The prince added: ‘I am quite convinced as far as ghosts are concerned. There is something definitely out there, but what it is I don’t know.’
At the time this happened none of the sail training organisations based in the Portsmouth area had any of their ships at sea.