Thursday, 24 March 2016

"Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!" - The Loss of HMS "Eurydice"


24 March 1878, the training ship for ordinary seamen HMS “Eurydice” foundered in a sudden squall off the Isle of Wight with almost all hands.



“And you were a liar, O blue March day.
Bright sun lanced fire in the heavenly bay;
But what black Boreas wrecked her? he
Came equipped, deadly-electric,

A beetling baldbright cloud thorough England
Riding: there did stores not mingle? and
Hailropes hustle and grind their
Heavengravel? wolfsnow, worlds of it, wind there?

Now Carisbrook keep goes under in gloom;
Now it overvaults Appledurcombe;
Now near by Ventnor town
It hurls, hurls off Boniface Down.

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.” 


(Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The Loss of the Eurydice”)




"The Loss of HMS Eurydice" as depicted in the London Illustrated News in 1878



The L-Class sub ran surfaced next Rame Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight back in 1938 when the fin watch alerted Commander Frank Lipscomb. There was a ship crossing their course. Nothing unusual in these waters in the days before radar and electronic ship reporting systems, the vessel off their bow, however, was, though: A square-rigged rag wagon of a size seldom seen off Wight since decades. Nostalgia or not, Lipscomb had to take his boat on an evasive course and all off a sudden, the windjammer just disappeared. Or so the story goes. It was one of the more spectacular sightings of a ghost ship in the Channel and the apparition was quickly traced back to the wreck of HMS “Eurydice”. The last sighting of her was seen in 1998 and she was reportedly caught on camera while an episode of "Crown and Country" was shot in Hampshire. And as if the tale of her loss wasn’t eerie enough, during lunch-time in Windsor, already a couple of hours before disaster struck, one Sir John MacNiell obviously had a fit of an da shealladh, the Second Sight of the Highlands, and cried out: "Good Heavens! Why don't they close the portholes and reef the sails?" It was quite an exact summary of what one might have cried seeing the frigate 70 miles away, about to round Dunnose Head with the monstrous black cloud drifting Channel-wards over the quarried Downs of Wight, 500’ above sea level. "Freak reflections of light on mist", visions and ghostly apparitions put aside, when “Eurydice” went down with all her passengers and crew but two, one of the worst peacetime naval disasters ever had hit the Royal Navy.




The somewhat eerie figurehead of HMS "Eurydice", now at the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard*





HMS “Eurydice”, commissioned in 1843 and 35 years later still “totally guiltless of machinery of any kind“ as the “Times” put it in 1877, was built with rakish lines and an uncommonly shallow draft, 141’ long, weighing 910 tons, a 6th rate frigate that served on various stations across the world, in fair and inclement weather, once, during the Crimean War even as far north as the White Sea. The time of sailing warships had come long since, though, but the navy still had enough vessels at sea that required the knowledge of how to hand, reef and steer like back in the days of Drake, Hawke and Nelson and since no sailor was supposed to be deployable on iron-hulled and steam-powered men-of-war only, Admiralty took good care to train crews aboard appropriate ships. The old frigate was used as a stationery vessel for such a purpose for 20 years before she was refitted and converted for seagoing service in 1877. Under the command of Captain Marcus Hare, young sailors were supposed to learn their ropes aboard her and a year later, she returned from a training cruise to the West Indies, having made the passage from Bermuda to Lizard Point in just 18 days and merrily sailed towards the Solent and Spithead. “Her royals were set, her studding sails were set; in a word, she had crammed on every stitch of canvas she had it in her power to carry”, as an eyewitness reported, and why not, since it was a bright, clear day, the wind coming from astern and her home port was within easy reach before night would fall. Captain Hare even had her gun ports opened for ventilation. When she ran parallel to the coast of the Isle of Wight, her watch might have noticed that other vessels farer out in the Channel began to shorten  sail, but “Eurydice” still made more than 9 knots when she was about to round Dunnose and then, at ten minutes to 4, the gale hit her. All of a sudden, everything went dark, snow stormed around her masts and poop, reducing visibility more or less to zero, the wind pushed her bows from her northeasterly course right away to the east and pressed her on her starboard side, water rushed in through her open gun ports and she was a goner within minutes. Many of her crew, mostly trainees barely 20 years old, were sucked down with her and the rest drowned or froze to death in the icy cold water, 317 souls all in all and the schooner “Emma” who came to her aid when she saw the frigate go down, could fish out only three alive, “Eurydice’s” first officer among them, who died before “Emma” docked in Spithead.


William Broome (1838–1892)"Wreck of HMS 'Eurydice' Being Towed into Portsmouth Harbour"


For more than six months, victims of the catastrophe were still found floating in the waters around the site of the wreck and Victorian England was shocked, from eye-witnesses, then three-years-old Winston Churchill allegedly among them, to Admiralty and the Queen herself. The customary court-martial summoned to inquire the cause of the loss of “Eurydice” was held in August and found Captain Hare, his officers and crew, by and large, blameless, even if many critical voices were raised who thought Hare had acted reckless. However, the Times found somewhat fatalistic words to sum up the disaster: “The memory of the Captain of the Eurydice must, therefore, be cleared of blame, and the officers and ship's company deserve the same acquittal. It is also to be noticed that, in the opinion of the Court-Martial, the stability of the vessel had been properly tested, and had not been affected by any of the alterations which she underwent after her conversion into a training-ship. These conclusions leave us only to acknowledge that, however seamanship may be cultivated and however able and devotee may be our seamen, there are rough blows of natural forces which no skill can parry and against which no foresight can provide.” She was lifted from her watery grave in 11 fathoms of water under immense technical and considerable financial effort and towed into Portsmouth, an ordeal that gave her tortured frames the rest. By the end of the year she had to be broken up, while various memorials were erected in her memory. It was as if her tragic fate was the prelude of the end of the Age of Sail. A year later, her sister HMS “Atalanta”, a training ship for young sailors as well, was lost with all hands in the Atlantic and the concept of using large square riggers for training purposes was seriously called into question. The old rag wagons were succeeded by far smaller, purpose-built brigs and even they were decommissioned in the early 1900s when learning to hand and reef sail on seagoing ships was no longer deemed necessary for officers and men of the Royal Navy. By then, the reports of ghostly sightings of HMS “Eurydice” were already an established part of seaman’s yarn in the Channel and elsewhere.

* The image depicted above was found on




And more about the loss of HMS “Eurydice” on:



https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Eurydice_(1843)