Sidney Alfred Parsons and his Ancestors

The HMS Eurydice disaster

The sinking of HMS Eurydice on Sunday the 24th of March 1878 was one of Britain’s worst peace-time maritime disasters. Of the 319 people on board only two survived.

The ship sank off Sandown Bay on the the Isle of Wight. Many horrified witnesses on shore saw what happened and among them was the young Winston Churchill, only three years old, who was staying with his parents in Ventnor. Many years later he described the incident in his memoirs:

One day when we were out on the cliffs near Ventnor, we saw a great splendid ship with all her sails set, passing the shore only a mile or two away. Then all of a sudden there were black clouds and wind and the first drops of a storm, and we just scrambled home without getting wet through. The next time I went out on those cliffs there was no splendid ship in full sail, but three black masts were pointed out to me, sticking up out of the water in a stark way. The divers went down to bring up the corpses. I was told and it made a scar on my mind that some of the divers had fainted with terror at seeing the fish eating the bodies.

Among those who went down with the ship was Charles Richard Dunn whose mother Eleanor was a sister-in-law of Isaac Parsons. Isaac was an uncle of Sidney Parsons who is the person at the root of the family tree documented in these web pages. Charles was an ordinary seaman, second class.

The 26 gun frigate HMS Eurydice was built in Portsmouth dockyard and launched on the 20th of May 1843. She was of unconventional design, built for speed, with a shallow draught and broad sails, and was used in the West Indies and American waters initially under the command of George Augustus Elliot, the son of the man who had designed her, Admiral Sir George Elliot. The ship’s water tanks formed an important part of her design; they were placed so as to form an essential part of her ballast but of course they became less effective as they emptied.

She gave good service for a number of years but by the end of the 1850s it had become clear that naval technology was advancing significantly and older wooden walled and sail powered warships were becoming obsolete. The French ironclad Gloire was launched in 1859 and two and a half years later the Royal Navy’s revolutionary HMS Warrior entered service. Weaponry had also improved and fully rifled guns fired exploding shells against which older ships had no protection.

The previous generation of warships could not compete, and in 1861 HMS Eurydice was taken out of active service and became a stationary training vessel moored in Portsmouth Harbour.

However the Lords of the Admiralty were becoming concerned that traditional seamanship skills were being lost. As they put it:

“The Admiralty are about to take practical measures for improving the seamanship of our young sailors. At present a boy having served a certain time on board a training ship is transferred to a flag ship, where he becomes an ordinary seaman. He is then draughted to a sea-going ship, and may, under favourable conditions, become an expert and efficient seaman, knowing the name and use of every rope on board, and capable of turning his hands to anything that may be required in the severest weather. It may happen, however, that he is sent to a ram of the Rupert type, or a mastless ship like the Devastation, where he can learn little or nothing of his profession; and as vessels of these classes are increasing, and likely to increase, it is necessary that special measures should be taken to bestow a thorough seatraining upon young seamen, so that they may find themselves at home, no matter what the character of the ships may be to which they are despatched.”

While a solution was being sought Mr. Ward Hunt, the First Lord of the Admiralty, pointed out that the hull of the old Eurydice was still in sound condition and so the Admiralty decided to refit her as an ocean going training ship. The work was not considered a priority so instead of being carried out at the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth it was give to a private contractor, Mr. John White, whose yard was on the Isle of Wight. In April 1876 the Eurydice was towed to East Cowes. Mr. White’s yard was not used to handling such large contracts and he was forced to turn away several of his regular customers while the Eurydice was there. The work proceded more slowly than expected (they blamed bad weather) and she was eventually towed back to Portsmouth for the work to be finished. She was masted, rigged, and completed for sea by dockyard staff assisted by young seaman as part of their training. On the 19th of February 1877 it was reported in the Hampshire Advertiser that HMS Eurydice had ‘received her masts’ the previous Monday.

The Eurydice’s shallow draft and the amount of sail she carried had always made her stability a matter of concern. In May 1877 the refitted ship was tested in Portsmouth Harbour by artificially rolling her and her stability was found to be satisfactory.

HMS Eurydice was 140 feet long, 78 feet wide, and was intended to accommodate 280 young seamen in addition to her commander and a staff of officers.

When she was considered ready and seaworthy it was announced that:

“Before being draughted for service in seagoing ships young ordinary seamen will undergo a six months' practical training at sea on board the Eurydice, which is totally guiltless of machinery of any kind; and it cannot be doubted that the professional schooling which they will thereby receive will go far to improve the efficiency of our seamen as sailors.”

In May 1877 the Eurydice’s itinerary was announced:

“EURYDICE, training ship for ordinary seamen, Captain M. A. S. Hare, is to leave shortly for her summer cruise, which has been arranged as follows:- Summer. — Portsmouth, Lisbon, Madeira, Queenstown,West Coast of Ireland and Scotland, visiting Lough Swilley, Stornoway, Lerwick, &c, returning along the East Coast of Scotland and England, visiting Leith, Yarmouth, The Downs, &c., finally arriving at Portsmouth about the middle of September. Winter. — Portsmouth to Lisbon, Canaries and Barbadoes; the Eurydice is to cruise among the Windward Islands visiting St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Grenada, Tobago, Trinidad, Antigua, St. Kitts, &c., finally feaving for Bermuda about the beginning of February and arriving there early in March, remain four or five days, and then proceed to Portsmouth, arriving there about 4th April. The summer cruise will last until the middle of September, and the winter from the middle of October to the end of March.”

HMS Eurydice was under the command of Captain Marcus Augustus Stanley Hare. She had a crew of 280 hands “by far the larger proportion being ordinary seamen of the second class”. For several months she cruised in British waters and the north-east Atlantic until, on the 13th of November, she departed for the West Indies accompanied by the training brig Martin. At Madeira they were joined by the Liberty from Plymouth. All three ships spent the winter in the West Indies.

In March 1878, before returning homewards, the Eurydice took on some passengers and freight which included an amount of heavy wire rigging. The passengers were time-expired men from the army and the navy, a few invalids, and also some prisoners, bringing the total number of people on board up to 319. The exact number at the time of the accident could not be determined until some time after the accident when the list of those on board arrived from Bermuda.

The Eurydice left Bermuda for England on the 6th of March 1878 carrying 117 tons of fresh water in her tanks rather than the expected 105 tons. During the crossing of the Atlantic the issue of water for washing was restricted so as to maintain the amount remaining as ballast and the crew wore blue uniforms which required less washing than their usual white tropical gear. It was a good voyage and the Eurydice arrived off the Lizard, in Cornwall, on the morning of Sunday the 24th. The Captain made his usual Sunday inspection and the ship proceeded up the English Channel in fine sunny weather with a light wind and smooth sea. The crew were making final preparations for their arrival home and, as they approached the Isle of WIght, some of the crew remarked on the beauty of the scene.

She arrived off the Isle of Wight at about three o'clock travelling at a speed of eight and a half knots. She was observed from Bonchurch to have additional sails (port stunsails) set on her foretopmast and maintopmast so was clearly in a hurry to reach her anchorage at Spithead before nightfall.

By that time the wind was strengthening. A heavy bank of clouds was coming down from the north-west, and the barometer was falling rapidly. The downs on the Isle of Wight, which rise to 500 feet, provided shelter and the Eurydice was in comparatively calm water and would remain so until reaching Dunnose Head. However a squall had been approaching from the north-west. The wind suddenly veered round from the west to the eastward, and a gale, accompanied by a blinding fall of snow, came rushing from the highlands down Luccombe Chine.

On Sundays the crew were allowed to remain below until they were needed and many of them were taking afternoon tea. The ship’s gun ports were half open, as was usual under these circumstances. The boatswain saw the squall approaching when the ship was near Dunnose Head and quickly piped ‘hands to shorten sails’  but it was too late. It struck giving the crew very little time to act. The captain was on the bridge giving orders to shorten sail which the men tried to do but were unable to because the ship was heeling over very fast on her starboard side. The crew on deck let go the topsail halyards and the main sheets but the ship heeled over to leeward and the sea washed away the boat (a cutter) which had been on deck. Someone cried “All hands for themselves”. Seeing that the ship was rapidly turning over some men grabbed life-buoys, jumped into the sea, and tried to swim clear. Others were washed overboard. The water began pouring in through the gun ports. Only three or four minutes after the order to shorten sail the ship sank. A watch worn by one of the victims, Captain Farrier of the Royal Engineers, stopped at eight minutes to four giving an accurate estimate of the time the ship went down. The squall lasted about 15 minutes and was immediately followed by another, just as violent, and then better weather quickly returned. Although the ship heeled over as she sank, she settled onto the seabed, about 60 feet below, in an upright position.

There was another ship nearby at the time the Eurydice was lost. The Schooner Emma was on a voyage from Newcastle to Padstow via Poole under the command of William Langworthy Jenken. She was also off Dunnose Point, but further from shore than the Eurydice, when the crew saw the storm approaching and lowered the sails. After the snow had cleared Captain Jenken saw something floating on the water so he sent a man into the rigging who reported that there was a man in the water. Jenken steered the Emma towards the spot and soon heard cries for help. Five men were found floating and were taken on board. All were very cold and by then unconscious. Jenken proceded to Ventnor, anchored, and hoisted a signal of distress, upon which the inspecting officer of Coastguard, Commander Roche, and the Chief Officer, came in a boat. When he learnt what had happened Roche sent for medical assistance and two doctors soon arrived but by then three of the rescued men had died. The two survivors, Benjamin Cuddiford, an able seaman from the Eurydice, and Sydney Fletcher, a seaman from HMS Rover who had been taking passage home on the Eurydice, were taken to the cottage hospital at Bonchurch near Ventnor where they soon recovered. According to evidence they gave later they had been in the sea for aboout an hour and twenty minutes. All five men who were picked up were among those who had jumped into the sea.

As soon as the news reached Portsmouth two tugs were sent to search for survivors or bodies. They arrived on the scene before midnight but found none. The Queen sent a telegram to the First Lord of the Admiralty saying “The Queen would ask Mr. Smith to make known her grief at the terrible calamity to the Eurydice, and her heartfelt sympathy with the afflicted friends and relatives.

The Emma took the two survivors to Portsmouth where they were questioned by the Commander-in-Chief. A little over a week later the Emma brought them back to the Isle of Wight to give evidence at an inquest, held at the Queen’s Hotel in Ventnor, into the deaths of the three men who had been picked up but did not survive. The captain and mate of the Emma also attended. The jury found that the captain, officers and crew of the Eurydice were not to blame for the accident. A subsequent Royal Naval inquiry chaired by Admiral Fanshawe, C.B., Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, came to the same conclusion:

“The Court held that the Eurydice foundered on the 24th of March by the pressure of wind on her sails during a sudden and exceptionally dense snowstorm, which was obscured from view by high land; that the upper half-ports being open materially conducted to the catastrophe, but they were justifiably opened. The court were of the opinion that no blame was attributable to anyone, the captain being frequently on deck; and they were further of opinion that the question of the Eurydice’s stability had been properly considered. The court acquitted the survivors of all blame.”

Not everyone agreed with the findings of the inquiry. Many experienced seamen were critical of Captain Hare’s decision not to fill the Eurydice’s tanks with sea water after they had been emptied of fresh water. They believed that had made the ship much more unstable as the water in her tanks was an essential part of her ballast. Newspapers also printed letters from people on shore who had seen the Eurydice before the squall struck and thought she was carrying rather more sail than was safe in the breezy conditions. The inquiry had, though, considered those matters in considerable depth before reaching its conclusions.

The Eurydice had sunk in relatively shallow water and the tops of her masts were above water. Attempts were made to raise her but her hull had become embedded in the mud and it was not until September that they succeeded. In the meantime the wreck became something of a macabre tourist attraction. In mid August the Sunday-school teachers and choir of the Congregational Church in Fareham were taken there by a Mr. Joseph French in his vessel the Wonder. It was reported that they enjoyed a good tea at Sea View on their way home. At the end of August the Prince of Wales accompanied by the King of Denmark, who had been staying at Osborne House on the other side of the Isle of Wight, went there in one of the Royal Yachts.

When the wreck was eventually refloated it was towed to Portsmouth Harbour where it was broken up. The ship’s bell remained on the Isle of Wight in St. Paul’s Church in Shanklin.

A relief committee was formed in Portsmouth to raise money for those who were lost. Just over £22,000 was raised most of which was distributed to the families of the Eurydice’s officers and crew. There were 35 widows and 49 children who benefited as well as 112 mothers, 42 fathers, and 13 other relatives. The small sum remaining was given to the Royal Naval Relief Fund. In addition to the relief fund, the Admiralty paid the widows of the men who were lost a sum equal to one year’s pay.

A brass plaque commemorating the men who were lost was placed in St Ann’s Church in the Portsmouth Royal Naval Dockyard. There is also a large stone memorial at the Naval Cemetery in Haslar, Gosport, where some of the bodies which were recovered were buried.

Another ship, HMS Atlanta, took over the Eurydice’s role of training young seaman in the art of handling a sailing ship. But after the sinking of the Eurydice the Admiralty decided that it was no longer necessary to provide such training for officers. It was a recognition that the future of the Royal Navy was to be based on steam power and the days of sail were passing.

Years later a legend arose that the ghost of HMS Eurydice could sometimes been seen off the south coast of the Isle of Wight. On July 22nd 1912 the newspaper The West Briton printed the following story:

“A three-master frigate is said to haunt the English Channel in the vicinity of the Ower Lightship whenever a gale or snowstorm is threatened. Hundreds of people have declared that they have seen the apparation and heard the cries of the ghostly passengers. It is sometimes said to be the phantom of the training ship Eurydice, which went down off the Isle of Wight on March 24, 1878, involving the loss of about two hundred lives.”

And in October 1990 it was reported in The Mirror that Prince Edward believed he had seen the phantom vessel while he was on the Isle of Wight filming his Crown and Country TV series. The film crew caught it on camera but in a strange twist of fate the tape jammed in the machine and was destroyed when they tried to view it.