Library Assistant Jon Earle delves into the tragedy of the sinking of the HMS Eurydice, through Sir Edmund Verney's work. The specific focus is on those 281 men who lost their lives.
The item of the month for May is The Last four days of the “Eurydice” by Captain E. H. Verney (Caird Library ID: PBB4812). This short book, a copy of which was presented to Queen Victoria by the author, gives an account of the events leading up to and during the sinking of HMS Eurydice. One of the Britain’s worst peace-time naval disasters, much has been written about the events of 24 March 1878. However, what makes this work particularly notable is its focus. Whilst the disaster is described, it serves as a backdrop to the true motivation for the book; the great human loss. It is clear that for Verney, who was himself a decorated naval officer, this was a very personal tragedy, and in his writing he pays tribute to the memory of those who lost their lives.
HMS Eurydice was designed by Admiral Sir George Elliot in 1843 as a very quick 26-gun frigate, and was considered to be one of the Royal Navy’s finest vessels. She would first see service under Elliot’s son George Augustus on the North American and West Indies station, and then in 1846 when she was moved to the Cape of Good Hope station in South Africa. She would be sent briefly to the White Sea during the Crimean War, to assist in a blockade of Russian ports, and whilst there assisted in the capture of several Russian vessels. Twenty years would pass before she saw active service again, as in 1861 she was converted into a stationary training ship. Finally in 1877 she was refitted as a seagoing training ship, and under her new Captain, Marcus Augustus Stanley Hare, sailed from Portsmouth on a three-month voyage of the West Indies and Bermuda. On 6 March she set off home in what would be her and her crew’s final journey.
Using the testimony of the only two survivors and his knowledge of daily life on board a man-of-war, Edmund Verney paints a vivid picture of how each of the last four days of this journey unfolded, intertwining the more routine tasks with personal details from the crew.
The Four Days Before
'When that Sunday morning dawned, the ship passing Portland with a fine bracing north-westerly breeze, smooth water, and joyful life in every white-crusted wave; with a fair wind there was every prospect of anchoring that night in Spithead.’
Throughout the four days the main routines and processes of the ship are outlined: Thursday was a day of light work, where seamen would practice various crafts. Friday was marked with many safety procedures and drills, all integral to the Eurydice’s primary purpose of teaching new seamen these skills. Saturday was a day of vigorous cleaning, and on Sunday, the crew gathered for the Captain’s inspection, and prepared for their imminent arrival home.
Throughout this outline of procedures are more intimate stories from the crew. The rather poignant descriptions of their joy and hope are consistently tinged with sadness over their imminent fate. Small details such as the noise of the anchors lifted upon deck are used to reflect this idea:
‘If that noise awoke anyone at four o’clock that morning, he turned over and went to sleep again with pleasant dreams, for it was a sound that told him home was not very far off.'
Further descriptions of the crew studying photographs of loved ones and thanking God for their safe journey add to this foreboding atmosphere. Perhaps most striking is Verney’s description of day of the disaster. He recounts how, as the vessel neared the Isle of Wight basking in the March sun, the crew were struck by the beauty of the scene. This is an unnervingly haunting description of the place which would soon be the final resting place of all but two of the 283 strong crew. Finally, the juxtaposition of the men penning letters bearing news of their safe return, with the build-up of strong winds around the ship, is Verney’s final tragic depiction before the squall began.
'She … sinks to the bottom, barely five minutes from the time the squall struck her.’
The squall hit the ship before the crew could act, and within moments one huge blast threw her on her beam-ends. Sea rushed through the hatchways; men were carried overboard, whilst those in the lower deck cried out in confusion. As the vessel filled, she slowly righted herself, only to jolt forward and sink completely into the sea. A nearby schooner rushed to assist the stranded crew, hoisting five men onto his boats, of which only two survived: Benjamin Cuddiford and Sydney Fletcher.
The Caird Library has an extensive library collection relating to shipwrecks in the British Isles which often provide detailed histories of the ships, who the Captain was, and the circumstances surrounding the loss. More unusual is this type of personal story about those who lost their lives. Throughout the narrative constructed, Verney fills in many of the gaps left by accounts which concentrate only on the final moments, with a consistent consideration for how the crew would have felt. Their optimism and hope is a theme throughout and one which makes the final chapter far more powerful and emotive.
If you wish to find out more about the aftermath and reactions to the disaster, you can consult the manuscript volume REC/55 in our Archive, which contains extensive contemporary newspaper articles, poems and pictures about the Eurydice.